Twenty-five-year old Asiya is a village level worker and panchayat secretary in the rural development department in the Valley’s border district of Kupwara. Her 16-year-old sister Ishrat is pursuing Islamic studies after memorising all 30 chapters of Quran at Madrasatul Banaat, while her younger brother Abrar is currently preparing at a coaching centre to pursue bachelors in engineering.
Having grown up in a family and later married to one steeped in politics, Asiya prefers the government job to support her family financially. Her grandfather, Haji Abdul Khaliq Mir of Mughalpora, has served as the block president of National Conference (NC) and twice as a sarpanch.
He is currently NC’s vice president in Kupwara district. Asiya’s father, Mohammad Amin Mir, is a forest guard in the forest department. Her mother, Haseena is currently contesting elections for chairperson of Block Development Council (BDC) in block Kupwara, reserved for women.
On the other side, Asiya’s mother-in-law, Naseema, an elected Sarpanch in Hatmulla village, is also a contesting candidate for the position of chairperson of BDC in block Kupwara.
A contractor by profession, Asiya’s husband Imtiyaz Mir, too, belongs to a prominent political family. His grandfather Haji Mohammad Sultan Mir has been NC’s district president in Kupwara and a member of legislative council. Haji’s son and Imtiyaz’s father Mohammad Afzal Mir has also served as sarpanch.
Dogfight of Women in 1990’s ‘Gateway of Azadi’
Both Haseena of Mughalpora and Naseema of Hatmulla are assiduously campaigning separately across block Kupwara to ensure maximum possible votes from 161 panches and sarpanches.
It appears to be a neck-and-neck fight between them and three more candidates – Shakeela of Hatmulla, Nusrat of Helmatpora and Gulshan of Haihama Sahipora.
BJP activist Gulshan alone has a declared party affiliation and election symbol. Rest four call themselves “independent candidates” in the electoral arena in Kupwara – the 1990’s “Gateway of Azadi”.
None of the leading political parties – NC, PDP, Congress or even Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (PC), which had rejected the three mainstream majors’ boycott and participated in the last year’s panchayat and urban local bodies elections – are contesting in the current BDC elections.
In terms of enthusiasm and participation, Kupwara figures on the top among all 22 districts in Jammu and Kashmir.
As many as 102 candidates – 97 independent and seven from BJP – are contesting the BDC elections in the district’s 24 blocks. Baramulla (94 candidates), Jammu (82) and Rajouri (76) follow at numbers two, three and four.
‘Proxy War’ of Democracy to Fail BJP’s Gameplan?
Residents, including local journalists like Fayaz Hameed, insist that all the main parties like NC, PDP and PC have fielded their “proxies”. Even in Panchayat elections, they insist, all the parties – including NC and PDP who boycotted and BJP and PC who contested – got their “proxies” elected from several places. They are now part of the electorate for BDC elections.
“Being under detention and in jail, their leaders want to stick to the moral high ground. They say how they would contest the elections while being in jail for over two months. But their field workers are keen to retain supremacy in the BDCs and they do not want to give it to BJP on a platter.”Journalist Fayaz Hameed
Now, 7,029 panches and sarpanches are eligible to vote and elect chairpersons of 113 blocks in the Valley. Out of 19,582 wards in Kashmir, Panchayat elections in 2018 had been held in only 7,528 wards as there were no contestants in 12,054 wards.
Subsequently, 500 more wards fell vacant due to resignation of the panches who had been returned from more than one ward. Eleven more died.
In-house Drama Ridicules ‘Lockdown’ in Rest of Valley
“People are caught between the devil and the deep sea but Asiya is caught between her mother and mother-in-law,” Asiya’s father Mohammad Amin Mir told The Quint.
“Our families are in a bitter political war but we have not snapped relations or stopped visiting each other. My daughter stands completely neutral in the battle between her mother and mother-in-law,” Mohammad Amin added.
He revealed that initially both, Haseena and Naseema, had filed nomination forms with the understanding that one of them would withdraw after the scrutiny. But, towards the end, neither of them agreed to withdraw.
‘Independently Yours’, Sarpanches Nurture New Ambitions
Mohammad Amin corroborated with journalist Fayaz Hameed that NC, PDP and PC were supporting “proxies”. He claimed that Riyaz Ahmad Mir, chairman of municipal committee of Kupwara and brother of PDP’s Rajya Sabha Member Mir Mohammad Fayaz, was “openly supporting” several independent candidates including Nusrat in block Kupwara.
However, PDP’s MP Mir Mohammad Fayaz, as well as NC’s senior most leader from Kupwara and former Cabinet Minister Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan, claimed that their parties had not fielded any “proxies” in the current elections.
Choudhary, nevertheless, claimed that PC had fielded a number of its workers as independent candidates. MP’s brother, Riyaz Mir, who was in the process of joining Sajad Lone’s PC when the Kashmiri politicians were placed under detention in August, claimed that even PC was “in no way” participating in the BDC elections.
“There’s no question of me supporting any candidate. I was with my brother in Delhi for over two months. When the phones were restored and I returned, the process of filing nomination papers had ended. As I reached back Kupwara after 10 weeks, the District SSP asked me to return. He said that he had orders to put me in jail. Thereafter I returned. How could have we fielded candidates or supported any one of them?” Riyaz Mir said.
The MP said that different candidates – while campaigning – were reportedly claiming support of different parties. “How can we stop them?” he said. He said that in block Meelyal, there were a total of 10 sarpanches, all from PC, and seven of them were currently contesting on the same seat.
“Now all panches and sarpanches feel independent and more empowered. Recently, I saw one of them asking on TV as to why he should not become the chief minister,” the MP said satirically.
‘Leaders in Jail Have No Liaison With Cadres’
Schoolteacher Bashir Ahmad Lone of Drugmulla while referring to two contestants, namely Habibullah Sheikh and Altaf Teeli said, “They are both from PC and both are contesting from block Handwara. Who would you call a proxy? Sajad Lone is in jail and he has no knowledge of his workers participating in the BDC elections independently.”
Some others pointed out that the detained leader Engineer Rashid’s brother and other “proxies” were contesting in all three blocks of Qalamabad, Langet and Qaziabad in block Langet.
According to them, PC’s Javed Ahmad war and PDP’s Nazir Ahmad Bhat were contesting as independent candidates in Block Qadirabad. PC’s Block President Mohammad Yasin and a block secretary were contesting in block Vilgam and Tarathpora respectively.
In block Rajwar, PC’s Block President Hamid Khan had fielded his wife. Besides, NC leaders too had fielded a number of “proxies” as independent candidates in Handwara and other blocks.
“All four of my rivals are claiming to be independent candidates. But everybody here knows their party affiliation. NC, PDP, PC all have their proxies in the fray,” BJP’s candidate in block Kupwara told The Quint.
Family members have no clue of the contestants’ locations as phones of most of them have not yet been restored. Haseena, who does not return home before 10 pm, has left her phone with her husband.
As the polling date of 24 October is drawing closer, the campaigning is getting high octane in entire Kupwara district which has rejected the separatists’ boycott calls and recorded the highest turnout in all elections held after 1990.
In contrast, there’s little enthusiasm in nine other districts in the Valley where most of the wards are vacant and the people at large are dismissing the BDC polls as part of the BJP’s ‘political operation’ to occupy the Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies for the next five years with the ‘advantage’ of NC’s and PDP’s boycott and detention of the two parties’ top leaders.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz.)