Ruby Jan is a member of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) from south Kashmir’s Kulgam district and she recently won an election for which she is thankful to Allah.
Jan, a councillor in Kulgam’s District Development Council (DDC) from the Behibag constituency, is an unusual comrade who frequently invokes god.
She said that she “always had a passion to join the party”, the CPI-M, that has “done so much for Kulgam” — an idea reinforced by her CPI-M supporting family.
Since 2018, she has been associated with the Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) chapter of the Democratic Youth Federation, the CPI-M’s youth wing. It wasn’t until the DDC polls were announced in J-K that Jan got the chance to step up the political ladder.
Jan thanked Allah for giving her “this opportunity.” Her election campaign was led by her father and uncle, both long-time CPI-M workers, who largely banked on the goodwill already built by the party’s J-K head, Yusuf Tarigami.
A twelfth standard graduate, Jan is the youngest member of the DDC from the CPI-M. Her priority in the coming days is “to deliver on the people’s demands” and speed up development works. “If I can do it,” she said of making it to the council, “I want to say that other women, too, can do things in their lives.”
Comrades, by the grace of God
The CPI-M is perhaps the most intriguing political party in J-K, one that has always faced great odds in its heartland Kulgam — where the larger political, and religious, sentiment is antithesis to its fundamental beliefs. But despite the odds, the red party has increased its political clout in a volatile militant hotspot and also the Jamaat-e-Islami’s stronghold.
The party contested five council seats from the Kulgam district and won all five of them, a feat more pronounced than the resource-rich Bharatiya Janata Party’s three seats in all of Kashmir. The DDC elections were also the first after the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy amid heightened tensions in the Kashmir Valley.
The CPI-M had contested as part of the regional anti-BJP, People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration.
The CPI-M won the Behibagh, Kulgam-A, Kulgam-B, Pombay, and Qaimoh-B seats of the Kulgam District Development Council. The Behibagh constituency comprises Kulgam’s “neutral villages” as described by CPI-M functionaries, neither opposed to electoral politics nor entirely in favour of it.
In the Kulgam-A constituency, where poll boycott is the dominant sentiment, the CPI-M fielded Akhter, the only other woman candidate and councilor from the party.
The councillor from Kulgam-B is one of the party’s oldest members and senior leader, Ghulam Mohiudin, a resident of Bugam. He is the son-in-law of the CPI-M stalwart and two-time legislator Abdul Kabir Wani, who was succeeded by Tarigami.
A former teacher in the government’s service, Mohiudin has also paid a price for his politics: he was kidnapped six times by militants; his house in Bugam village was bombed in the 1990s; he was shot at by militants in 1995 but “god saved my life”.
That the CPI-M stayed active despite the threats from militants had enabled “us to get acquainted with people”, something that helped the party consolidate its base, said Mohiudin. He lives in a government quarter in the Kulgam town.
“Since 1994 I have been away from my home,” he said, without any regret. “Even today, I haven’t been able to go home without security even though Bugam is just four to five kilometers away.”
After the attacks on him and his family continued, he first camped in Jammu city, more than three hundred kilometers away, and then in Srinagar city and Kulgam town. His win in the DDC elections, Mohiudin said, was the fruit of a “consistent struggle for five decades”.
“There was a campaign by separatists and other elements who continuously persuaded people that India is to go and we have to boycott elections,” he said. “I convinced people that this is a futile exercise. You will get nothing by this nefarious practice and come to the fold and fight together. It [participating in elections] was a protest against guns on both sides.”
The party’s winning candidate from Qaimoh-B is Tarigami’s nephew Abbas Tarigami, who has also been affiliated with the CPI-M since decades. The constituency also covers Tarigam, their village from which they have fashioned their new surname, and given the party the biggest lead.
The councillor from Pombay, Mohammad Afzal Parray, is also a long-time comrade and is currently presiding as the head of the fourteen-member Kulgam District Development Council. Like Mohiduin, Parray who said that he is “part of the CPIM by birth” has also been under attack several times in the past decades.
Parray said that the party had to initially curtail its activities for a while due to the political situation and then the lockdown owing to COVID-19. But once it resumed, “we camped day and night to address people’s grievances… Our doors were open to the public,” he said. “This is why the people accepted us. We could have won ten seats had we contested… The alliance fielded [proxy candidates] and yet we won.”
The CPI-M agenda, said Parray, is to “address people’s issues”.
Kulgam as base
Even as the CPI-M is a national party with its headquarters in New Delhi, in J-K it hasn’t been able to spread outside of the Kulgam district. “Many of our comrades have given sacrifices here, many were martyred, there is a collective passion and base here,” he said. “About 23 comrades have been killed since the 1990s and many tortured [by militants].”
For the CPI-M, it wasn’t just the baggage of espousing pro-India politics but also the baggage of the communist ideology, often seen as apostasy in Muslim societies. “There were insinuations that we don’t believe in God, then there was the narrative that we are Indians,” he said. “We are a small party [compared to the National Conference, the erstwhile state’s oldest and largest cadre based party] and so a lot of damage was inflicted upon us.”
Parray said that he was once attacked in Qazigund in south Kashmir, kidnapped another time, his brother was also kidnapped while another brother was beaten up at gunpoint by the militants. “But we still didn’t bow before them,” he said.
But when the CPI-M again came to power – in the 1996 state assembly elections, the first after the eruption of the insurgency – Parray said the party didn’t differentiate between families of militants and the general public. “We even helped their families,” he said. “A militant is a militant and his widow is a widow, his children are orphans.”
Since 1996, Yusuf Tarigami has contested all assembly elections from the Kulgam constituency — and won them despite the opposition by local religious and political groups. “Under his leadership, what has been done no one has been able to replicate so far,” said Parray. “We proved through our actions that if there is a party that respects women, it is us. We respect all faiths as well. There is no masjid, shrine, or temple where we didn’t build a washroom.”