Abdul Hamid Sheikh Gojar curses the day when he decided to contest the DDC elections that concluded recently in Jammu and Kashmir. Since the election results were declared on 22 December, he has been detained at a government lodge in Shopian.
“I feel like a prisoner,” he told The Quint over phone. “The only difference is that I don’t know my crime.”
Hamid is one of the 14 candidates, including five women, who were elected to the Shopian District Development Council. Each of the 20 districts in J&K will send 14 members to their respective DDCs, the last leg in the process of setting up Panchayat Raj Institutions.
However, the bizarre situation that candidates like Hamid find themselves in belies this claim. Hamid’s detention has entered second week now and the administration ‘tried many methods’ to ‘break my resolve’.
These elections have been touted by the Narendra Modi government as a game-changer for ending the ‘corrupt’ and ‘dynastic’ rule of mainstream parties such as the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party.
“They are pressuring me to join a political party. But if I do, I would be betraying the trust of my people. Had I seen the coming of this agony, I would never have contested this election,” added Hamid, a former Sarpanch who successfully contested the DDC election from Shopian district.
In recent years, Shopian district emerged as a hotbed of militant activities and separatist sentiment in Kashmir. With the DDC polls, says National Conference leader Imran Nabi Dar, it has also turned into a ‘laboratory’ for ‘brazen attempts to undermine democratic institutions’ of the country.
The Peoples Democratic Party had won four seats in Shopian followed by three of National Conference, two of Apni Party and one of Congress.
Four independents were also elected to the DDC from this south Kashmir district.
Apni Party is widely believed to enjoy the tacit backing of the BJP.
With the alleged backing of the UT administration, the Apni Party is going for the jugular to defeat the Gupkar Alliance, a loose coalition of seven political parties headed by former J&K chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah.
Days after the election results were announced, Yasmeena Jan, who won on a National Conference ticket from Imamsahib-1 of Shopian, defected to the recently floated Apni Party, headed by the businessman-turned-politician, Altaf Bukhari.
The defection of NC’s Yasmeena was followed by three more – one each from PDP and Congress, and an independent, to the Altaf Bukhari camp, leaving the Apni Party short of just two seats to clinch the DDC chair.
Amid allegations that the Apni Party, at the behest of the BJP, was resorting to ‘horse trading’ and ‘arm twisting’ of the candidates, the fight for the chair of the Shopian DDC is resembling a no-holds-barred mafia thriller.
Bukhari however rejects the charges: “National Conference was the first party that was joined by an independent candidate. Why is it that if a DDC member joins them, it is politics and when they join us, it is dubbed horse-trading?”
When asked whether it was the art of political negotiation at work that helped him clinch the support of opposition DDC members or the muscle of the administration, Bukhari said:
“No, it is the honest politics of Apni Party which attracts them. They have realised that other parties are selling dreams but our politics is based on truth, which is bitter, but ultimately the one where you don’t lose face.”
PAGD in Trouble
On the other hand, after suffering defections, the wobbly Gupkar Alliance will need the support of three more councillors to head the Shopian DDC.
“Our leaders have been under detention. Our candidates are abducted by the administration with the help of the police and forced to change sides. We are being threatened with police cases. The will of the people is being undermined. This is not an election. This is broad daylight robbery,” said a PDP leader, wishing to remain anonymous.
Hamid is one such DDC member candidate who has become a reluctant actor in the crumbling castle of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. Last week, he was taken for a ‘consultative meeting’ to Srinagar under full police protection.
J&K DGP Dilbagh Singh and IG Kashmir Vijay Kumar could not be reached for comments.
“They want me to change my mind and join a political party,” said the independent candidate from Shopian who was elected as Sarpanch in 2011. He won the DDC election on Shopian-I seat, which comprises Panchayat Halqas of Devpora, Zawoora, Hirpora, Chotipora, Gundi Hadoo, Gnowpora and Arshipora villages of Shopian.
Of them, Devpora Panchayat Halqa, one of the most backward areas of Kashmir, is inhabited by Gujjars, a tribal community that happens to be the poorest of the poor in Jammu and Kashmir, and to which Hamid belongs.
“I told them that I can’t betray the trust of my people,” he said. “I have been associated with the National Conference. I want to join the party formally but they are not allowing me to go to Srinagar.”
The Gujjar community was recently targeted by the UT administration in a demolition drive in which many Gujjar dwellings, allegedly built illegally on forest land, were torn down and even their orchards, a source of livelihood for them, were damaged.
In the past two weeks since he emerged victorious, authorities have barred Hamid – who is the father to a boy and five girls – from coming out of the lodge.
He says he is not allowed by policemen, who are deployed at the lodge, to meet his constituents. He met his family once for ‘just 20 minutes’. Hamid tried speaking with the police authorities but to no avail.
“Even though most of the (DDC) candidates are in their homes with their families, they (police) told me that I am facing militant threat. I contested elections to resolve daily problems of my people. How can they pose a threat to my life,” he said.
BJP Making Inroads
Of the 280 seats in J&K, Dr Farooq-led Gupkar Alliance won over 110 seats, followed by the BJP with 75 seats, including its maiden wins in Kashmir Valley. In a first, the saffron party has emerged to be the single largest party.
The party also has tacit support of independent candidates in Kashmir, including among others, Bilal Deva, for instance, who won from Vessu in Anantnag and Avtar Singh, a senior BJP face who was elected as an independent from Tral where he defeated the BJP’s Kashmir face Altaf Thakur.
“We have the support of many candidates in Kashmir. It is only a matter of time before they join us,” BJP spokesperson Arun Gupta said.
The Gupkar Alliance has got a majority in six out of the ten districts of the Kashmir Valley including Kupwara, Budgam, Pulwama, Kulgam, Anantnag and Ganderbal.
However, the alliance is now sailing in uncertain waters in Baramulla, Shopian, Bandipora and Srinagar districts, where the Apni Party is hoping to clinch the DDC chairs.
“The administration has put six leaders of the NC and PDP, mostly from north Kashmir, in preventive detention so that the BJP and its proxies can facilitate defections to their camp,” a leader of Gupkar alliance said.
Around 277 of 280 District Development Council representatives were administered oath in their respective districts on December 28. Of these, 137 took oath in the Kashmir Valley and 140 in the Jammu division.
However, the date for the election of chairperson and vice-chairperson of the DDC has not been notified yet. As per rules shared by Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Pandurang K Pole with The Quint, the election should ideally take place within 20 days after the oath-taking ceremony, which was held on December 28.
The rules however also empower the government to extend the deadline of electing DDC chairpersons and vice-chairpersons through a ‘general or special order’.
The rules note that the councils should be formed ‘as soon as possible’ after the culmination of the DDC elections and the delay is seen as part of the ploy by the BJP to facilitate switchovers and defections, using the ‘muscle of police and administration’.
“We are still waiting for the government to issue the notification. The administration needs to act fast to stop horse trading,” Imran Dar, the National Conference spokesperson, said.