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Er Rashid's Victory | BJP Wanted Soft Separatism in J&K to End. It Has Deepened

Voters are ditching the traditional politicians and rallying behind faces that symbolise dissent.

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“Kashmiris have always looked for an anti-India hero,” said a journalist from Kupwara town in North Kashmir, describing the popular frenzy that the independent candidate Abdul Rashid Sheikh, also known as Engineer Rashid, whipped up in his constituency of Baramulla, which has now culminated in an emphatic victory for the jailed politician. "Today, when the street protests were banned, they latched on to Engineer Rashid.”

Confirmed on 4 June, Rashid’s triumph in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections has come at a huge cost to his high-profile rival, the former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who has been defeated by an astronomical margin of 2,04,000 votes. 

A construction engineer-turned-politician, Rashid champions maximum autonomy for Kashmir as well as the preservation of the region's Muslim identity.

With the voters ditching the traditional politicians and rallying behind faces that symbolise dissent, the BJP has now laid down a scenario in Kashmir that it was desperate to avoid. 
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The Lok Sabha elections of 2024 were the first major electoral exercise in the erstwhile state since it was downgraded to a Union Territory and its special status revoked in 2019. Over the last five years, the BJP has relied on lieutenant governors to administer J&K via executive fiats, exercising far more control over the region than any Indian government has in the past. 

This has meant the BJP could recast the region to its own liking, defining new terms of engagement for the regional players while also enforcing various structural changes, many of which have made J&K more open to outsiders, especially when it comes to buying land, opening a business, or obtaining residency permits. 

Anger Over Mass Silencing

Much of the opposition to these steps was brought to heel as the investigative agencies stepped up a campaign of crackdown, arresting hundreds of people under anti-terrorism laws, raiding the homes of individuals for allegedly supporting militancy, and dismissing government employees for endorsing separatism. 

People in Kashmir already understood that words were going to have consequences for them. This was seen recently when many journalists complained about disruptions at the hands of police in the Lal Chowk area for talking to people who were being critical of the government. For all the talk of its turmoil-ridden past, Kashmir was now being defined entirely by how swiftly a wave of silence had engulfed the region. 

Last year, when the installation of metres incited protests in the poorer areas of Srinagar, where residents couldn’t afford to pay exorbitant power bills, a woman exhorted people to oppose the decision more forcefully, demanding to know, “What concoction has Modi poured down your throats that you have lost your voice?”

All these years, people in Kashmir have endured these developments stoically. But the parliamentary polls were one occasion when people could articulate their misgivings about the present dispensation. 

The BJP-led central government was doing all it could to make sure the result turned in its favour. Older constituencies were being redrawn and resized to undermine the pro-autonomy and anti-BJP leaders. New parties were coming into being, and popular politicians in tacit alliance with the BJP, like Altaf Bukhari and Sajad Lone, were making impressive reassertions. 

The Limitations of the BJP's Alleged Proxies

Instead of tapping into wider anger against the BJP's scorched earth policy in Kashmir, much of their political messaging appeared to have hinged more on the alleged perfidy of the big parties like the National Conference (NC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP). This piqued the voters’ suspicions. The verdict of 4 June made it clear that all the parties that attracted allegations of being surrogates for the BJP have faced a major drubbing. 

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an umbrella group that was supposed to engineer political unity among the regional parties so that it could effectively put a stop to the BJP's hegemonic ambitions, was riven with dissensions ahead of the polls.

With the top leaders preoccupied with their own party interests, an exchange of accusations and recriminations followed between the alliance members. Ultimately, the political collective, forged in response to the annulment of Article 370, took a back seat.

This was electorally conducive for the BJP, as it had banked on the arithmetic that deep cleavages within the regional political space would allow its allies in Kashmir to make room for themselves.

Two Ex-Chief Ministers Humbled

Tuesday’s verdict shows that even when denied the opportunity to corral themselves into one voice, voters in Kashmir still found ways to arrive at political unity. This sentiment helped drive up votes for the NC, which is the oldest political party in the region and the architect of the narrative of political autonomy. It naturally benefited from the unspoken quest for a common platform. 

This explains why Mian Altaf, a spiritual leader of the Gujjar community, could win with the highest number of votes as a candidate fielded on NC’s behalf from South Kashmir (even though he hails from the Central Kashmir district of Ganderbal), or why Ruhullah Mehdi, a preeminent religious figure among Shia Muslims in Budgam district, could win in Srinagar on an NC ticket.

Altaf has racked up the highest number of votes for a single candidate (more than 5,21,000). He defeated former J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti by a margin of more than 2,81,000 votes. 

Yet voters have also humbled the NC, exemplified by the loss of Omar Abdullah in the North Kashmir seat.

The fact that both former CMs lost their accounts indicates that people in Kashmir still retain anger and disillusionment over the way these leaders presided over the crackdown during the 2010 and 2016 civil unrest, resulting in a large number of deaths. 
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The Resurgence of PDP

While NC can exult in the fact that it has bagged the largest share of seats (if we were to include Ladakh, where its proxy candidate has won), the big takeaway for PDP is that they have re-energised the party and defied the analysts who wrote them off after 2019. His defeat notwithstanding, the strong showing of their candidate Waheed Para in Srinagar (which is not even his party's bastion) indicates that the PDP is likely to emerge stronger during the Assembly polls scheduled for September. 

As Para told this reporter, “We were fighting, not just our political competitors but also the government, the police, as well as the investigative agencies. Yet, our biggest campaign was against the fear and silence that have taken hold of this place,” he said.

“Losing to NC is not an issue as much as pulling Kashmiris out of the state of silence into which they have been forced. On that count, we have won.”

 A Maverick Politician

What appears to have enthused voters across Kashmir is the participation of Engineer Rashid, who has been serving incarceration under UAPA since 2019. Rashid is unlike a conventional politician in J&K. His eccentric style of politics made him very popular. As an opposition leader, he would unceremoniously recline on the roads as a form of protest against government decisions. 

Back in 2016, he even took out a first-of-its-kind livestock protest in which he paraded goats, sheep, donkeys, and roosters with banners hung around their necks. On another occasion, he held a ‘beef party’ that featured dishes made from beef. The aim of both of these protests was to mock the BJP, then a coalition partner with the PDP, for its insistence on banning cow slaughter. 

But the present wave has, in large part, something to do with Rashid’s continued incarceration. His victory is symbolic in the sense that voters wanted to articulate their pent-up fury over the saga of detentions and arrests without trial, which is a common occurrence across Kashmir. 

When this reporter travelled to South Kashmir recently to cover the polls, people were asking if they could cast a vote for Rashid, even though he wasn’t even contesting from there. Such is the scale of popularity he has amassed on account of his imprisonment. 

It is clear that Kashmir has voted overwhelmingly against the BJP in these elections. As for Jammu, considered a stronghold of the ruling party, the victory margins (10 to 11 percent) of its candidates have precipitously diminished from those of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (30 to 32 percent).

It also indicates that victory over Jammu seats for the BJP in the forthcoming Assembly elections is also far from assured. 

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan Magazine, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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