RAJOURI, Jammu and Kashmir — “Take a good photo of him. He is our English Gujjar. He wears a hat,” said Vibodh Gupta, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajouri, a Muslim-majority district located in the Hindu-majority Jammu Divison of Jammu and Kashmir.
The motley gathering of party workers—both Hindus and Muslims—laughed, but no one harder than Darbaar Chaudhary, the “English Gujjar” in question.
For the next 10 minutes, Chaudhary, a large man who towered over everyone else, posed for photos while twirling his hat.
“The future of Muslim Gujjars is with the BJP, “ said Chaudhary, a village chief and BJP office-bearer who is contesting the Block Development Council (BDC) election on 24 October on a BJP ticket from Rajouri.
“We have found the party of the future,” he said.
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Ever since the Narendra Modi government revoked J&K’s special constitutional status on 5 August, the BJP has stepped up its efforts to woo Muslim Gujjars, a marginalised community of wandering shepherds who traverse the mountains in the Pir Panchal region of J&K.
The government, which demoted J&K to a Union Territory which will retain its legislature, had announced that nine seats in the Assembly will be reserved for Muslim Gujjars in J&K.
Of the 19 blocks, which fall in Rajouri district, eight—including the Rajouri block from which Chaudhary is contesting—have been reserved for Muslim Gujjars.
In addition to the eight reserved seats, the BJP has fielded Muslim Gujjar candidates in two more blocks — Thana Mandi and Plangarh — including one woman.
The rest of the blocks are divided between the Hindu and Muslim pahadis who live in Rajouri, alongside the Muslim Gujjars. The population of Rajouri is around 6.5 lakh, and includes 35% Gujjars. Like the rest of India, voting here also revolves around caste and religious lines.
The BDC election is the first electoral exercise in J&K after the abrogation of Article 370 and its demotion to a UT. The village chiefs (sarpanches and panches), who were elected in the panchayat election in 2018, will vote to elect a Block Development Chairman.
In Jammu Division, like in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, mobile phone services and mobile internet were severed, but restored by the end of August. While broadband internet in Jammu Division was not hit, there is still no internet on mobile phones.
In Kashmir, call services on postpaid mobile were restored on 14 August, but people still cannot use the internet or send texts on their mobile phones.
Unlike the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, where people routinely boycott elections to defy the Indian state, the BDC election in the Jammu Division is bitterly contested.
The two regional parties—the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC)—as well as the Congress claim to have boycotted the BDC election in the aftermath of Article 370, but the BJP says they are fielding independent candidates as “proxies.”
Aijaz Mirza, PDP’s district president in Rajouri, as well as some Congress block presidents, BJP workers say, are running as independent candidates in the BDC elections.
Chaudhary, who is competing with four other Gujjar candidates is confident that he will win over 150 of the 213 votes, including the votes of 126 Muslim Gujjar village chiefs, which will be cast in the Rajouri block.
“Just wait till 3 pm on 24th October and you will have your answer,” he said.
BJP claims inroads in Muslim community
While BJP officials claim their party is sweeping the BDC election in the Jammu Division, its opponents say the Hindu nationalist party will find it hard to get “more than two or three votes,” especially in Muslim-majority blocks, as people are still seething over the Modi government’s abrupt withdrawal of Article 370 and the demotion of J&K to a UT.
While the Modi government claims that Article 370 will pave a new path to development in J&K, people in the Jammu Division, like in the Kashmir Valley, fear “outsiders” coming in and taking over land and increased competition for jobs.
Gupta, the senior BJP leader, who was an MLC in the J&K Assembly before 5 August, claimed that the BJP is poised to win at least 12 of the 19 blocks in Rajouri.
“This is the first time that we have candidates in all the blocks of a Muslim-dominated district. This is also the first time that we had 304 candidates from the Muslim blocks and we had to select one for each block,” Gupta said.
“Earlier, we had to go looking for Muslim candidates and we could not find any. This time, there was a rush,” he said.
Unlike in Kashmir, where BJP’s candidates are winning because a large number of seats are going uncontested, there is aggressive campaigning in Rajouri.
As Chaudhary spoke of the “25 crore” strong Hindu Gujjar community living in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi, and the Muslim Gujjars in Jammu, he said, “We are nationalists.”
BJP claims that it has made inroads in the Muslim community in Rajouri, which for a long time has been the bastion of the PDP and the Congress.
In the 2014 Assembly election, the PDP candidate won by a slim margin of less than 2,490 votes, with the BJP placing second.
Gupta, the senior BJP leader, estimated that BJP managed to get 17,000 Muslim votes of the 73,000 total votes cast in the Rajouri Assembly constituency in the 2014 state election.
In Rajouri district, the BJP won two of the four Assembly seats—Kala Kote and Nowshera.
These wins are attributed to a higher number of Hindus than Muslims in these two seats inside the Muslim-majority district.
In Kala Kote, where the Hindu-Muslim ratio is estimated to be 60: 40, the BJP fielded a Muslim candidate, Abdul Ghani Kohli, who won with a margin of 6,178 votes.
“Long live the BJP,” shouted village chiefs and BJP workers — Hindu and Muslim — as Jugal Kishore Sharma, BJP’s Member of Parliament from the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, beamed at the gathering of around 100 people.
Over the course of the hour-long meeting, various party workers spoke of BJP’s grassroots expansion in J&K.
Chaudhary, who appeared to be the man of the hour, declared that he was confident of winning the Rajouri block. His colleagues congratulated him.
Following the meeting, people rushed to shake hands with the MP before making a dash for the lunch buffet.
Speaking with HuffPost India, Sharma said that BJP had an advantage in the BDC election since other parties had decided to keep their distance.
“The BJP is fighting and fighting hard,” he said.
Leaders of other political parties have been under house arrest in Kashmir for almost three months.
The dearth of public interest in Kashmir, however, does not seem to bother the BJP, which is focused on having its people in the three levels of grassroots governance in J&K—the village chief, the BDC and the District Development Chairman (DDC).
At the BJP meeting in Rajouri, a Muslim village chief said he had never imagined that funds worth lakhs would be routed to village chiefs instead of state legislators, who had done little to help the state.
Sharma told HuffPost India, “In Rajouri district, the BJP is winning all the seats with a substantial lead. In Jammu Division, the BJP candidates are ahead in all the seats.”
On BJP’s wooing of Muslim Gujjars, Sharma said, “This is their right. They are marginalised.”
BJP’s candidate in Thana Mandi
BJP’s candidate in Thana Mandi, which is a non-reserved seat, is Mohamed Qasim, a Muslim Gujjar, who served for 26 years in the Indian Army before retiring as a subedar.
Unlike the Kashmir Valley, where BDC candidates are hiding in hotels out of fear of being targeted by militants, Qasim says he has been traversing the mountainous terrain of Rajouri to meet with the village chiefs in the Thana Mandi block.
“This is the time when everyone is cutting dhaan. I’m having to travel deep inside villages to meet with the panches and sarpanches in their fields,” he said. “I hope all this hard work brings results.”
This is not the first time that Qasim is contesting an election. In the 2018 panchayat election, the 46-year-old was elected panch of Ward No. 3 which covers 40 families and 180 voters. Qasim says that he has received funds worth lakhs for the development projects that he has proposed, but no work has started in the past ten months.
“The sarpanch has to do it. That is one reason I want to become BDC—to be more influential,” he said. “The BJP is the world’s biggest party, India’s biggest party. I can get votes as an independent candidate, but being with the BJP means that I will have the power to get things done.”
Qasim, who is going up against other Gujjars, pahadis, and a Kashmiri Muslim woman, regards the woman as his “biggest competition.
“She has money. At the end of the day, money in India wins over everything else,” he said.
Even as he praises the BJP, Qasim says that he is apprehensive about the backlash from people in Thana Mandi, given the confusion and anger at the Modi government’s decision to revoke Article 370 and demote J&K to a UT.
Qasim said the BJP was aware of the “tense” environment and had offered to arrange a PSO (Public Safety Officer), but he refused.
“The mahaul is still tense. People are still angry,” he said. “One can never predict how the situation changes.”