Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a national leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was campaigning in Kashmir Valley for the District Development Council (DDC) election when he claimed that “a very transparent independent democracy should have been in J-K for a long time now, but the dynasty rulers have always opposed this”.
The BJP has said that the DDC polls would complete the process of “normalisation” of the region, whose semi-autonomy was forcibly revoked by New Delhi on 5 August 2019.
On 20 November 2020, Waheed Parra, who heads the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) youth wing, filed his nomination for the DDC election, from his home constituency in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The next day, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned him and barely a week later, a designated NIA court in Jammu remanded Parra to 15-day custody for alleged “close links” with the militant outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen.
The party’s president and former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti said that the move was “to blackmail and intimidate PDP [People’s Democratic Party] and other mainstream political parties in J-K”. On 27 November, a day before the first phase of polling, Mufti was also disallowed to leave her residence. She had called a press briefing but the media was barred from reaching her residence.
“It’s evident that the administration here is using fear and intimidation in tandem to muffle any form of opposition,” Mufti had said after Para’s arrest. The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), at one point or another, has alleged that the BJP is attempting to scuttle their participation in the elections.
Kashmir is heading towards the election after a political winter of two years, however, not much has changed with the star-campaigners on the ground with rhetoric, candidates alleging administration’s bias, and fear of not only the militants but also the authorities itself.
Similarly, on 26 November, senior Congress leader, Taj Mohiuddin, who also filed nominations for the DDC, was booked by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in connection with the infamous Roshni Land Scam — an allegation the former minister denied. Moreover, the J-K administration has also named former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah in a list of alleged encroachers, claiming that their residence in Jammu is built over encroached government land — an allegation denied by their party, the National Conference (NC).
“Not allowed to canvas”
The Parra episode has frightened many ahead of the DDC polls. A senior leader of the PDP said: “People are afraid, all of us are very scared after Waheed’s arrest. Leaders are not allowed to leave … this seems like it is not an isolated incident.”
“There is a lot of pressure on us,” he added, “maybe because we talk aloud.”
Rayees Mattoo of the NC is shocked after Parra’s arrest. His family has been associated with the NC since its inception. “It is clear that they [Government of India] are targeting people [Kashmiri unionists],” he told The Kashmir Walla. “No one is allowed to speak, whosoever it is. Deep down, personally, I feel Waheed has been targeted.”
There is more to Mattoo’s dissatisfaction with the conduct of the election this time than the arrest of Parra or any other leader. He has alleged that “on the pretext of security” he was disallowed campaigning for multiple days. “The security cover they claimed to have given the candidates never arrived on time,” he said. Not only that, the candidate who couldn’t manage a vehicle was “adjusted” with the rivals to be sent in the same constituency for the campaign.
On 23 November, K. K. Sharma, the State Election Commissioner (SEC) in J-K, said that the preparations are in advance-stage for smooth and hassle-free conduct of eight phased DDC elections. “All resources have been deployed to ensure safe and secure elections are held in all 10 districts of Kashmir,” he had claimed.
The administration, said Mattoo, “boasted about proper security arrangements before the elections, now are they delaying our campaign willfully? Either they were lying earlier or now.”
Nonetheless, the candidates associated with the Alliance claimed that their rivals, mainly the BJP and Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, were favored. Senior leader of Awami National Conference, who is also a part of the Alliance, Muzaffar Ahmad Shah claimed that at least “forty candidates of our alliance have been locked up in a room in Kulgam and they are not being allowed to move freely”.
The president of the Alliance, Farooq Abdullah, wrote to Sharma, the SEC, stating that their candidates were “not allowed to canvas, they are completely out of touch with those from whom they are supposed to seek votes”. Many other senior leaders shared the resentment.
On 26 November, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha directed the administration to take all the requisite measures to maintain neutrality and ensure a free and fair election.
However, amid all of this, Mattoo lost crucial days of campaigning in his constituency that goes to poll in the second phase on 1 December. “I had to cover forty-two villages in my constituency and I’m yet to cover half of them,” Mattoo said in a phone interview on 27 November. “I have seen elections since 1996, but never I have ever seen that candidates have been accommodated outside their constituencies and on the pretext of security they were not given time to campaign. I don’t understand this.”
Now, Mattoo leaves from a hotel in Srinagar early morning and that the “security is cooperating very much”.
“Death of dynastic politics”?
In his address in Kashmir, the BJP’s Naqvi also claimed that the Alliance “is the death of destructive dynastic politics … its formation was the conspiracy of political parties against the people”. But this Alliance has infused confidence in 47-year-old Irfan Panditpori.
Panditpori was eyed by the People’s Conference for fighting for the Assembly from Langate in north Kashmir. Now, contesting in DDC, where a district has been divided into twelve constituencies, isn’t demeaning to him but a chance to “safeguard our political base”.
He has gotten a chance, under the umbrella of the Alliance, “to carry ahead my father’s legacy” — who was elected in the Assembly earlier. He isn’t alone as many other leaders of the top tier are fighting the election too: apart from the PDP’s Para, Congress’s Mohiuddin, who served as minister in PDP-Congress and NC Congress government between 2002 to 2014, is contesting from Uri; former MLA Sangrama, Shoiab Nabi Lone, is fighting in Baramulla; former minister of BJP Shakti Raj Parihar and MLA Bharat Bushan are contesting polls respectively from Doda and Jammu; in Rajouri district, former minister Shabir Khan and ex-MLA Choudhary Muhammad Akram are contesting polls on ticket of Congress; former NC MLC, Shenaz Ganie is also contesting election as an independent candidate from Poonch; former ministers, Abdul Gani Malik, Ejaz Khan, and ex-MLA Mumtaz Khan are fighting polls from different seats in Reasi district of Jammu.
“There is a huge gap between the administration and the people,” said Panditpori. “This election needs to fill that gap.”
The BJP has pulled in its national leaders, including ministers, for a campaign in J-K, too. The hyped DDC polls — irrespective of the official stand of the parties — have been taken seriously; even referred to as a “referendum of Kashmir”.
However, many candidates, who don’t come from a political family, see the election as their opportunity to leave a mark and make a difference. One such candidate is Kaiser Ganaie, who is contesting from Harwan on the NC’s ticket.
Ganaie joined the NC a decade ago and has been since working at the grassroots. Unlike the unionist rhetoric — for instance, the Alliance’s claim of bringing back the scrapped limited autonomy of J-K or the new dawn of democracy by the BJP — Ganaie sticks to basics. For him, the truth is important, he said. “There is no work on the ground — let it be roads, water, or electricity,” he said. “The governor administration has not worked for development.”
“The old politics is gone … people are aware of what has happened [to the article 370],” he said. “If I win DDC polls, do you think I can bring back article 370? Then why would I talk about it? I talk about development issues that people face.”
His party’s spokesperson, Imran Nabi, told The Kashmir Walla that by voting, people will give “a bigger message to the Government of India, a response that people have not accepted the August 2019 decision”.
“We cannot leave this space open for the BJP,” Nabi said. “The results will speak for themselves.”
However, undeniably, the political air in Kashmir feels uncertain. As Mattoo goes to polling, he is reminded of Para’s arrest. “Today [the arrest of] Waheed is being used to create fear, tomorrow it could be by anyone else,” he said. “They want fear to keep people away from the democratic process.”
The cover story was originally published in our 30 November – 6 December 2020 print edition.