Kashmir's political theatre of the absurd
Militants invoke the Quran while exhorting Kashmiris to stay away from polling booths, while a candidate prays to the saints for success, and a former chief minister sings bhajans. It's silly season in the Valley.
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As Kashmir voted under the shadow of the gun on Thursday, it found mention in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah’s combative poll speech in Chhattisgarh, about 1,500 km away.
“Election is underway in Jammu and Kashmir and an ally of Congress, leader of National Conference Omar Abdullah, had advocated for a prime minister in Kashmir. Do you think it's possible that a country can have two PMs? I have been asking Rahul baba to clarify his stand on the (Abdullah's) statement, but he is silent,” Shah said, slamming Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. “Rahul baba listen carefully...Presently there is a government headed by Modi ji and it will be re-elected. But even if we are not in power, nobody can separate Kashmir from India till a single BJP worker is alive. Kashmir is an integral part of India and if anyone says that it will be isolated from the country, then people of the country will not tolerate it.”
It’s safe to say that around the Lok Sabha polls, Kashmir’s otherwise macabre political theatre has donned the cloak of absurdity.
A week before the general elections began in the country, the BJP candidate for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, Khalid Jehangir, posted on Twitter a video of him wearing a white turban and standing with folded hands as a priest invoked blessings of the saint Sheikh Nooruddin Wali at the holy shrine in central Kashmir’s Budgam district on April 4. The priest sought the saint’s intervention for Jehangir's victory.
The same day, the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah also took to the microblogging site, noting the colour scheme in Jehangir’s campaign advertisement that forsook the BJP’s trademark saffron for the more locally acceptable green. Shortly after Abdullah’s post, Jehangir tweeted: “I love Green Tea!! My favourite!!”
Two days before polling for the Srinagar seat was conducted on Thursday, April 18, Jehangir visited Srinagar’s commercial centre along with a handful of workers half-heartedly shouting slogans in his favour near the city’s clock tower. As the press followed Jehangir to a roadside vendor selling meatballs, a passer-by asked the candidate why he was having beef if his party was opposed to its sale and consumption. Jehangir walked away saying it was mutton. Also, just last month, BJP workers at a party convention were spotted hiding their faces as journalists arrived to cover the event as, some observers say, supporting the saffron party is still a taboo in the Valley.
But it wasn’t just Jehangir’s election antics that were being talked about. The sassy patron of the NC and its candidate for the Srinagar seat, Farooq Abdullah, also raised eyebrows in the Valley where videos of him singing bhajans or dancing are often circulated. This time, a recording showed the old patriarch giving a word of advice at a political gathering: offer the namaz, and read and understand the Quran.
On April 7, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s cavalcade hit the road to defy the governor-led administration’s diktat restricting civilian use of the national highway. A photo shoot of a few of her party officials hanging from the sides of an SUV concluded the defiance. The next day, the People’s Conference’s Sajad Lone addressed a vibrant crowd chanting “aya aya sher aya” in north Kashmir’s Langate.
The unionist politics that was pushed back to the party headquarters in Srinagar post the 2016 unrest and increasing anger against the PDP-BJP coalition government has once again come out in the open after a long and consistent counterinsurgency campaign across the Valley. With the governor’s administration in place – whose actions are being perceived as anti-people and projected as New Delhi’s direct attempts to choke Kashmiris – it has given unionists a fresh plank for campaigning in Kashmir where anti-India sentiments run deep.
Still, as the February suicide bombing by the Jaish-e-Mohammed indicates, the armed jihadists are down but not out. In an audio statement released a week before the first day of polling, the Valley's largest jihadist outfit, the Hizbul Mujahideen, chided Kashmiris, with a special emphasis on those from north Kashmir, for attending both funerals of jihadists as well as rallies of unionist politicians.
In the statement, Riyaz Naikoo, the chief of the Hizb on the ground in Kashmir, took digs at prominent unionists including the maverick former legislator Abdul Rashid, and the bureaucrat Shah Faesal who pitched his plunge into politics as a sacrifice for the greater good. Instead, Naikoo tells listeners, it was because Faesal no longer wanted to earn lakhs, but now crores every month. “This is no sacrifice,” he declares. “They speak India’s language while in government and outside of the government, they speak of Kashmir’s language. Will Farooq Abdullah solve the dispute, who said Kashmir ko goli maro in Delhi or Mehbooba who, to please the BJP, retorted if your children were seeking milk and toffees after killing them. Or that Sajad’s words, who lied as he kept his hand on the Quran.”
Naikoo finally tells these unionists: “Do you not see that none of you have any value? India is using and discarding all of you like tissue papers.”
At the outset of the statement, Naikoo recited a verse from the Quran to implore listeners to not strengthen those “oppressing” Kashmiris and instead support those “innocent people who sacrifice their youth for your freedom” and for the supremacy of Islam. He warned people against participating in the upcoming election, calling every voter a “traitor”. “Those who take part in elections in any way, we have been at war with them and will be, we will do with them what we have been doing so far.”
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