“He has done nothing for us but if my vote can get him out,” a frail Ghulam Ahmad Khan, who claims to be 105-years-old, said of the jailed former legislator Abdul Rashid as he sat outside the polling booth in Lach village in north Kashmir’s Handwara, “I will cast it even after my death.”
Even as the ongoing District Development Council elections are about local development, Khan believes his vote on 7 December would secure the release of Rashid — the two-time legislator representing Langate, better known as “Engineer” Rashid — who is in jail, in a militancy funding case, since 10 August 2019.
The fourth phase of the DDC elections was held across Jammu and Kashmir on 7 December, in 34 constituencies — 17 each in the Kashmir and Jammu divisions. The next phase of the elections is scheduled to be held on 13 December with 31 constituencies going to the polls.
Who is ‘Engineer’ Rashid?
Rashid contested the elections as an independent candidate in 2008 after resigning from his post as senior manager in the government-run Jammu And Kashmir Projects Construction Corporation. He won the Langate seat, defeating the candidates of prominent unionist parties, much to the surprise of observers.
He became a popular figure owing to his firebrand, and theatrical, style of politics. Rashid often made the news every once in a while—dragged by police personnel, having black ink thrown at him at a function in New Delhi, or throwing a “beef party” in protest against imposing food choices.
Rashid’s theatrics grabbed the attention of all. His statements on the resolution of the Kashmir Dispute and the human rights violations of Kashmiris drew ire from right-wing groups within and outside J-K.
Rashid formed his own party, the Awami Ittehad Party, but it failed, so far, to become larger than Rashid himself. In the last parliamentary elections, in 2019, Rashid contested the north Kashmir seat, bagging an unexpected 1,02,168 votes — putting up a tough fight against his more experienced rival from the National Conference, Akbar Lone, who won the seat with 1,33,426 votes.
Having been arrested just five days after the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy and statehood, Rahid’s views on it are not yet known—nor is his party’s, for that matter. Even as Rashid is incarcerated, his party has decided to go ahead and contest the DDC elections.
However, after the Gupkar Alliance was made, AIP decided to contest the elections saying the alliance neither took them on board nor talked about their incarcerated Chief, his party leaders had earlier claimed.
In the hearts, of some
About twelve kilometers from Lach, in Wahipora village, many voters that The Kashmir Walla spoke to said that they voted for “pannun cylinder” (our own cylinder), the AIP’s electoral symbol. Outside the polling booth was 52-year-old Farooq Ahmad Lone, Rashid’s political worker since 2008, who was guiding voters.
Lone said that it was the “ideology of Rashid” — his stand on the Kashmir issue and the expectations from the government in this regard — that influenced him to support the AIP. The party has fielded Khurshid Dar in the Qalamabad constituency and Farooq Ahmad Qazi from Qaziabad in Langate constituency.
Election campaigns had gone on in the absence of Rashid. But, said Lone, Rashid had trained all workers like him, instructed them to go to the public “and tell them his [Rashid’s] name.” “That’s what we did and you can see what resulted in that,” Lone said, pointing to the long queue of voters.
A middle-aged woman in the queue, when asked who would she vote for, responded with tears in her eyes: “My son.” Haseena Bano, from Rahipora in Langate, said that she voted with the hope that the AIP win, Rashid would be released.
“Look at the condition of a man who would talk about the whole Kashmir, no one is talking about him now,” Bano said of Rashid.
For 23-year-old Firdousa Jan, holding an infant, Rashid is their ‘gaamuk izzat’, the village’s honour. “Even though he is in jail,” she said, adding that she voted despite being ill, “we will never let his name die because he is one among us and is one of our own.”
At the close of polling at 2 pm on 7 December, of the 32,112 votes in Qalamabad, 17667 votes — about 55 percent — were polled whereas 13,336 of the 31,668, or 42.11 percent, votes were polled in Qaziabad constituency.
The party gave candidature to Khurshid Ahmad Dar for Qalamabad constituency and. Khurshid has been associated with the party since 2008. He believes that people remember the fieldwork done by his party chief. “We underestimate people sometimes. They know who they are voting for and why”, he said.
Talking about his incarcerated leader, he said that he decided to elect because the Gupkar alliance did not approach them. “I Know people remember Engineer Sahab and the work he has done for them,” he said, adding that he wants to walk on a similar path as that of his leader and serve the local people.
Times have changed
However, the opposition party workers are hell-bent that this time it is going to be a downfall for Rashid’s party. They said that his tenure is over and the people have accepted this truth. “ “The DDC election is not about dharnas and hartals, it’s about development and Rashid Sahab knows nothing about it,” said an angry Congress supporter, Mohammad Waseem.
30-year-old Waseem, who was a staunch supporter of AIP, stopped supporting it when he did not see any basic facility in his native village Bongam, Langate. “I have myself seen a village with no electricity even today,” he said, it would be unfair to vote for his party again, he added. He said that his party workers have done nothing on the ground, they are enjoying his name and fame, he added.
Mohammad Hakeem supported Waseem’s claims and said that the party workers have degraded its image. “Rashid Sahab is a good leader otherwise but his party workers are not committed,” he said. Hakeem is a resident of Puhroo village and is planning to vote for AIP’s candidate because of its leader. He said that even though he is away, they will always choose him.
As the DDC elections have become hotly contested — with regional unionists uniting against the BJP and its allies — audio of a purported conversation between Rashid and an unidentified person circulated in the Valley. In the audio, Rashid has not only criticised the People’s Alliance but also spoken against militancy.
“Our boys should be in schools and colleges and I will pick up their issues for redressal,” he is heard saying. He also questioned the silence of the People’s Alliance over his prolonged detention and urged the Kashmiri youth to not pick up guns and instead raise their issues democratically. “From time to time I have urged the youth of the Valley that your place is in educational institutions and holding stones or the gun is no solution.”
In his native village, it’s not only the old people who have supported Rashid through thick and thin. The youth are seemingly equally inspired.22-year-old Fiza Hussein Dar had what the DDC elections are but seemed excited. She came out of the polling station with her mother. “I would always see my parents talking about him. I have very high regard for him,” she said. “Even though he is not here, I want to cast my vote for his candidate to prove my allegiance.”