On the morning of 5 August, Dr. Ali Mohammad Mir, 48, realized that his decades-old dream had come true. When he saw Union Home Minister Amit Shah on television, he convinced himself that the moment of the “New Kashmir”, which he had waited since the day he joined Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March 1995, was right in front of him.

In Delhi, Mr. Shah had proposed the reorganization of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in the parliament; stripping off decades-old special status of the region, which majorly prevented non-locals, alias non-state-subjects, to enjoy government services, including jobs, and buy land. It also aimed at taking away the things that separated J-K from the rest of the country – a separate flag and constitution.

The proposal also demanded bifurcation of the state into two federally governed territories – J-K (with legislature) and Ladakh (without legislature).

“We didn’t lie, or betray people,” said the vice-president of J-K BJP, Dr. Mir. “It was our party’s manifesto and constitution – ek vidhaan, ek pradhaan, ek nishaan.” (one constitution, one prime minister, one national emblem)

On the night prior to the decision, Kashmir Valley was put under strict lockdown – barring civilian movement, and cutting off all lines of communication. As the days followed, the faces of democratic politics – leaders as well as workers – in Kashmir found themselves detained by the government among other several hundreds of detainees.

The list included names of three former chief ministers and premiers of two major regional parties – Mehbooba Mufti of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and Omar Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah of National Conference (NC). Premier of newly formed Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, Shah Faesal, as well as Sajjad Lone of People’s Conference, found themselves locked up too.

On 5 November, Ravinder Raina, the state president of J-K BJP, alongside a pool of state party leaders in the Tagore Hall, Srinagar, said on the top of his voice, wherein the speaker cracks, that all the “cheaters (political leaders) of Kashmir” have been shown their place by the BJP.

The function was to facilitate the new Block Development Chairmen, 18 of his party and 50 other independent candidates, from across the Valley.

“We have wiped off all earlier rulers,” he said. “Tomorrow, a young Kashmiri brother or sister of ours will sit on the chair and Farooq Sahab would kneel down… it is time for the new leadership in Kashmir.”

Today, after seven decades, the BJP claims that Kashmir is in its ideal state; which leaves no space for dissent – equivalent to “going against the nation” for the BJP.

The Kashmir Walla talked to multiple workers and political leaders of the BJP in J-K, to understand where they stand, and what does Kashmir holds for their electoral ambitions.

Top J-K BJP leaders greeting party workers at Tagore Hall, Srinagar. Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo for The Kashmir Walla

It’s an old fight

One of the BJP’s much-celebrated political icon, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was part of the Jawahar Lal Nehru’s Cabinet in October 1949, when the constituent assembly had adopted the resolution to provide the special status to J-K.

Mr. Mookerjee had acquiesced to the formulation. Though, within a year, the manifesto of his party, Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which came in existence to give fulfill political aspirations of Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh [RSS]), called out to “end uncertainty about Kashmir’s future… it should be integrated with Bharat with no special position.”

In May 1953, the Bengali right-wing ideologue tried to get into the Valley to protest against its constitutional special status – despite a ban on his entry. The then Prime Minister (PM) of J-K, Sheikh Abdullah, arrested him.

Following medical complications, Mr. Mookerjee died in Mr. Abdullah’s custody in June 1953 –the right-wing camp saw a conspiracy in it and peddled the same for the years to come.

The eventual birth of BJP, finding its roots in Mr. Mookerjee’s Jana Sangh, adopted its founder’s famous slogan in its manifesto:

“Ek desh mein do vidhan

Ek desh mein do nishan

Ek desh mein do pradhan

Nahin chalenge, nahin challenge.” (A single country can’t have two constitutions, two national emblems, and two prime ministers).

When Dr. Mir joined the BJP in 1995, he had been through the journey of “betrayal and truth.” He comes from a middle-class family of a central Kashmir’s Kulbug village in Budgam district-based farmer, Ghulam Mohammad Mir.

Sitting inside the BJP office in Jawahar Nagar area of Srinagar, wearing a tricolor badge on his chest, he recalled how his family has always walked behind the caravans of the Abdullahs.

“After the rise in militancy when the NC-Congress rigged the 1987 elections, I realized that these politicians aren’t with people,” said Dr. Mir. “They cared only about their chairs and power.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Mir came in touch with Jagmohan Malhotra, the then governor of J-K, via a mutual friend; soon, after exploring a bit, he fell for the BJP’s idea of Kashmir.

In 1992, when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then just another pracharak, had visited the Valley with another right-wing ideologue, the then president of BJP, Murli Manohar Joshi, to unfurl the tricolor in Lal Chowk on the occasion of 26 January – Dr. Mir accompanied him.

In the following years, Dr. Mir would encounter Sikander Bhagat, the then national Vice-President of BJP, in Delhi. This brief meeting had enamoured Dr. Mir. “I had never seen such a polite and to-the-ground leader,” he recalled about Mr. Bhagat. “I made my mind that I want to be a part of this party.”

On 1 March 1995, Dr. Mir was registered as the 373rd member of BJP in J-K, with “only a handful of people in the Valley.”

The 1996 elections changed things for him; he was thrown out of his home along with his wife and a-year-old son, citing his open support for the BJP, and anti-NC thoughts.

“It was the time when saying India from your mouth was a sin,” Dr. Mir recalled. “Support from the officials, especially Pandit bureaucrats, was really important for me.”

In the coming years, gradually, Dr. Mir gained weight inside the party and went on to become Budgam District General Secretary, District President, Kashmir Division General Secretary, and now Jammu and Kashmir vice-president.

Though, the BJP couldn’t grow any solid roots in Kashmir and performed very poorly in the elections.

Despite a supporter base in the Hindu-majority Jammu region, the party saw a dip of 10 per cent in J-K, from 28.6 per cent voting share in 1998 parliamentary elections to 18.6 per cent in 2009 parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, in assembly elections, they remained stagnant at a low of 12 per cent from 1996 to 2008.

The J-K BJP insiders, including Dr. Mir, refuse that the anti-BJP sentiment – which the poll percentage tells – is due to its “pro-Hindu stand.” They perceive the negligible voting share as a result of “NC and Congress’s continuous lies about the BJP’s policies.”

“People don’t understand the issues of Babri Mosque demolition, which happened during the Congress rule at the centre, or for that matter, even the 2002 Godra riots – they don’t know the truth,” said Dr. Mir. “People think of us as a pro-Hindu party, hence low voting.”

However, the 2014 elections, in India, and in J-K, changed the face of Indian politics; in centre, the BJP earned single-handed majority after 30 years and came to power in J-K for the first time. It won 25 seats in the state and formed a coalition government with PDP, who had won 28 seats in the Valley. Mufti Mohammad Syed, who became the Chief Minister, termed it as “coming together of the north pole and south pole.”

With Narendra Modi at the centre, the BJP also spread its wings in the erstwhile state in terms of vote share. It was a jump of 11 per cent in 2014 assembly elections, as compared to the last elections, and gained 23.2 per cent.

Though, Jammu’s voters played an important role in the impressive rise; in the Valley, the BJP’s ballot box kept looking for supporters. In north Kashmir, it only managed to get 1.01 per cent in 2002 to 0.7 per cent in 2014; in south Kashmir, 3.15 per cent in 2002 to 3.8 per cent in 2014; in central Kashmir, 2.32 per cent in 2002 to 4.4 per cent in 2014.

Though, following the death of Mr. Mufti in January 2016, his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, took the chair, but the ideological complications between the different poles never faded. In June 2018, BJP pulled out the support, and the state government fell.

In the following months, the regional parties tried approaching the then governor, Satya Pal Malik, to form the government multiple times, but none of the attempts worked out.

After 14 months of federal governance, on 5 August, the BJP reorganised J-K through the parliamentary proceedings in Delhi.

If one thinks that a politician sitting on a chair is a dumb chicken, then Dr. Mir isn’t one of them. The actions of the BJP aren’t undemocratic, Dr. Mir believes, but very much democratic.

“Three months prior to the decision, we took a survey asking people what they want,” he said. Though he called this survey confidential, he added, “Our workers and people from Delhi and Jammu helped in this survey. We only followed what people wanted.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an author who has been covering the RSS and right-wing politics from the 1980s, wrote in his book, The RSS: Icons of Indian Right, 2019: “There is no doubt that Syama Prasad Mookerjee is a martyr for the BJP and its affiliates… for Modi, justice for Mookerjee will be done only when Kashmir’s ‘complete integration’ is achieved with India. Implausible as it may sound, this is what the BJP’s intends as its final salute to one of its icons.”

“Jaha hue balidaan Mookerjee, woh Kashmir humara hai – aar ya paar humara hai, sara ka sara humara hai, (Where Mookerjee was martyred, that Kashmir is ours – this side as well as that side, in totality)Dr. Mir reverberated on the top of his voice in his cabin.

An alternative?

The sun was at its zenith on 5 November in Srinagar; inside the Tagore hall, which was inaugurated by J-K’s last PM Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, the facilitation program of the new elected BDC chairmen was going on with fervor.

A young lady, wearing a shining BJP’s scarf around her neck, walked back from the stage inside the Hall, with a zeal in eyes, her mother sitting in one of the back-rows, watched her in awe.

When asked for an interview, her mother managed her flicks; she smiled at her, expressing, “it is your moment”.

Sumaira Akhtar, 25, who won the Dalgate ward in Urban Local Body elections 2018 as an independent candidate, was attending the function to officially join hands with the BJP. She is among 50 other independent BDC chairmen who recently won in the elections.

Ms. Akhtar, who quit a job in an international airline’s cabin crew two years back stepped on the political background of his father, Zahoor Ahmad Shah, an ex-member of the PDP, to gather support in the municipal polls.

She looks at the current political detentions in the Valley as an opportunity for the young political aspirants like her. “The BJP ended the dynastic politics. Now, there is a chance for me as well,” she said.

“The idea of strong will and walk-the-talk attitude of the BJP” attracted me,” she said. “I want to focus on my political career and the BJP’s support in current the condition will help me nourish that.”

Sumaira Akhtar sitting amid party workers in Tagore Hall, Srinagar. Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo for The Kashmir Walla

However, she is “very much aware of the existing anti-BJP sentiment” in Kashmir. “People of Kashmir are stubborn and ignorant,” she said. “They don’t want to accept change, but I’m hopeful that will change.”

While the opportunism drives Ms. Akhtar, many others derive the conviction and energy from the speeches of the regional leaders such as Ashok Koul and Ravinder Raina – which mainly consists of slamming the detained leaders.

Standing on toes, in the 13th row from the stage, a young man is moved by the words of Mr. Raina. He keeps his hands ready to applaud, waiting for him to punctuate the sentence. “Seems like you have been hired to clap,” an old woman, sitting among the crowd mocked him.

“He (Mr. Raina) is speaking from the heart,” he replied.

Mehrajuddin Rather, 36, is an elected panch from Sopore, north Kashmir, who had joined the party six months ago. “Everyone among them (Kashmiri politicians) is fraud,” he said. “The Muftis and Abdullahs ruined everything here; their roots should be cut from here. That’s what we want.”

To fulfill similar aspirations, many young people like Ms. Akhtar and Mr. Rather finds themselves at the doors of the BJP. On 5 November, 50 independents BDC chairmen and 40 panchs and sarpanches joined BJP.

An indicator of the political status of the political parties can be gauged from their offices; Unlike NC and PDP’s deserted offices, the BJP office is abuzz with dozens of workers visiting daily – with its leaders including Arif Raja, Srinagar President, Altaf Thakur, spokesperson, spending hours daily dealing with the affairs of workers.

Ashok Koul, the state general secretary of BJP, is confident of the BJP’s place in the current scenario. “BJP’s accessibility has increased in recent years – and in the coming times, we will make our government,” he said.

As per the BJP’s membership records, it has about 3.75 lakh registered members in the Valley – wherein south Kashmir has the highest number of members, i.e. 1.30 lakh.

While all other mainstream political parties boycotted the BDC elections, the BJP is filling the political space in the current on-going absence of these parties – giving a platform to the new faces.

BJP isn’t being BJP?

The political authors, over a period of time, have noticed the success of the BJP and RSS functioning in “coming over the individualism and keeping the organization ahead of them.”

Mr. Koul said in his speech that the BJP’s success relies on the worker’s selfless attitude. On these lines, Dr. Mir said, “One who has individualism doesn’t belong to the BJP’s cadre. If we have these people, then the party won’t be able to function in an ideal way.”

In the current status, as to how the BJP is trying to gain ground – after years of failure in electoral numbers – isn’t the BJP way. Many of the workers, and the new joiners, whom The Kashmir Walla approached for an interview, aren’t willing to talk out of fear as well.

“It is the stigma around association with the BJP,” observed Mr. Koul. “A sect of the society humiliates and puts them in fear because they have joined the BJP.”

Dr. Siddiq Wahid, who has a P.hd. from Harvard University in central Asia’s history, notices that the success of BJP-RSS depends on how their workers buy their ideology and philosophy.

“In Kashmir, a contradiction may arise, especially among Muslim pracharaks (foot soldiers),” said Dr. Wahid. “[To appease the Muslim population] the BJP needs to shift its tone and language.”

It is also something that the BJP has done in the past. In 2018, a senior BJP leader, Sunil Deodar – contradicting their pan-India idea of banning beef – ruled out beef-ban in north-east India, saying that it is a regular diet of the majority of the population. After the election season, today, the BJP rules six out of the seven states.

“BJP relies on parallel politics – telling the majority population that they are in danger from mushrooming minorities,” said Dr. Wahid. “In Kashmir, they don’t have that parallel. So, the analogy doesn’t hold.”

Future of BJP

J-K Reorganisation Act 2019 asks for the delimitation of the constituencies for the assembly elections. While many fear that the new divide in the number of seats might favor the BJP’s politics in the region, the party claims that soon they will have their first CM.

Though the past numbers don’t back them for an immediate victory in the Valley, long term returns are expected from the investment in the new faces on the three-tier Panchayati raj political system.

Superficially, they eye towards appeasing people in the name of development – peddled to masses from the mouths of these new faces.

“People don’t understand democracy or other ideas – people want work,” said Ms. Akhtar. “Today, I’m a councilor and tomorrow when I will fight for MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] people will vote me on the basis of my work.”

The BJP also plans for awareness programs pan-Valley “to educate people about the benefits of the removal of article 370 and article 35-A.” It has been running front-page advertisements about the same in the regional dailies.

Starting from the home, Ms. Akhtar wants to uproot the anti-BJP sentiment from her ward. “I would hear their problems and solve them,” she said. “That’s how we would cultivate support for the BJP.”

Though, Dr. Wahid refuses to give in to this idea. “For Kashmiris, the idea of being a Kashmiri is important,” he said. “And the removal of article 370 is an attack on that idea.”

Mr. Koul, who is seen as the one managing governments’ political affairs in the inside circles, said, “People might be angry with the BJP, but we have been here for merely a few days. The BJP has nothing in Kashmir, we are just starting off.”

The first significant mark of the BJP’s politics in the Valley is the removal of the region’s special status. The lockdown which followed didn’t help in earning the trust of Kashmiris. After lifting the lockdown, the shutdown led to a point of frustration where the government had to issue another advertisement asking: “Closed shops, no public transport… Who benefits?

From a point, where seemingly the BJP has not much to lose, how valuable will their plans turn out remains to be seen – but starting off with a high anti-BJP sentiment on the streets isn’t a good thing for the immediate electoral game.

This story originally appeared in the 11 – 17 November 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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