SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — “You cannot go inside to meet the candidate,” said the policeman, guarding a nondescript hotel in Srinagar, where 160 village chiefs and the candidates for the first-ever election for block chairmans are hiding with their families.
“These people are in danger. They are at maximum risk from militants. You will have to sit here and ask your questions. Do you understand?” the policeman said, as he rescued his phone from the children playing in a small enclosure outside the hotel.
In conflict-ridden Kashmir, those who engage with the Indian state — party workers, village chiefs and policemen — are hunted by militants and hated by their fellow Kashmiris. Then are the people who work for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party that unilaterally scrapped Kashmir’s special status and split Jammu and Kashmir into two centrally-administered Union territories.
“Salaam walekum,” the policeman said as Afroza Akhtar, a village chief, or sarpanch, and one of the BJP’s candidates for the block-level election on 24 October entered with her daughters.
“We are in danger every day,” said 45-year-old Afroza, who goes by her first name.
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“The fear that militants will kill us is inside me and my family every minute of every day. But it’s too late to leave the BJP. They will kill us anyway,” she said. “The only way forward for us is to stick with the party and see what happens.”
Militants have killed three BJP leaders since 2017.
Afroza has been in hiding ever since she became the sarpanch — overseeing several villages in Kulgam district — following the village-level election in 2018, which was boycotted by most parties in Kashmir. She won unopposed from a seat reserved for women. Her husband, who was also supported by the BJP, was elected head of one village (panch).
If she was sick of leaving her husband and three children in a small hotel room in Srinagar, Afroza did not let on.
Laughing out loud, she said, “You see the wrinkles on my face, my puffy eyes, well, all that is from the fear that I’m living with”. Her daughters laughed too.
When asked if she would one day like to be a state lawmaker (MLA) or a Member of Parliament (MP), Afroza, who has studied till class five, declared, “Yes.”
The BJP is hard at work ahead of the block-level election in Jammu and Kashmir in which village chiefs will vote to elect a block chairman. This electoral exercise is being forced by the Narendra Modi government despite the imposing a form of collective incarceration on the people of Kashmir.
The internet and mobile phone services have now been suspended for over 60 days, thousands including political workers, lawyers, businessmen, ordinary civilians and even children have been arrested, and thousands of troops have been deployed across the region. (Postpaid mobile telephones will be restored in Kashmir from Monday noon.)
But now there will be elections, which are expected to stand-in for democracy.
The leaders of the two regional parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC), remain under house arrest in Kashmir. All parties have stated they will boycott the election, with the exception of the BJP, which is fielding at least 70 candidates and backing 60 independents in the 137 seats in Kashmir in the upcoming block election.
The vast majority of Kashmiris said they don’t care for the electoral exercise being forced on them, which matters little to the Narendra Modi government focused on increasing the BJP’s “grassroots” presence in the Muslim-majority valley.
“Step-by-step,” is how Arif Raja, the BJP district president of Srinagar, described his party’s expansion in Kashmir, referring to the panchayat election in 2018, the upcoming block election, and the district development chairman in the near future.
That Raja became a corporator after receiving all of 37 of 45 votes polled in the Nawakadal ward in downtown Srinagar in the municipal corporation election last year, is a minor blip in the grand scheme of expansion. The total voter turnout in Srinagar was 2.3% — the lowest ever — that year.
“Today, it is 45. Tomorrow it could be 200. BJP is growing in Kashmir, he said. “There will come a day when Jammu and Kashmir will be a state once again, and its chief minister will be from the BJP.”
By organising two panchayat elections in 2014 and 2018, and now a block-level election, local leaders believe the Modi government is systemically trying to reduce the powers of the MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly) in J&K.
Altaf Thakur, the BJP’s spokesperson in Kashmir, said the Modi government had “empowered” the village chiefs by granting development budgets of between Rs. 22 to 30 lakh — depending on number of villages under them.
Afroza said that she has over Rs 20 lakh since she became a sarpanch, and she went once or twice a week to have meetings and oversee development works in Kulgam.
“I risk my life every time I go, but the government does not provide any security,” she said.
Nizar Ahmed Bhat, a sarpanch from Pulwama district, whose wife is contesting the upcoming block chairman election, was among the village chiefs who met with Amit Shah in New Delhi soon after the state’s special status was revoked.
Shah, Bhat said, told them the block chairman would get a car, security and the powers of a block development officer.
Bhat, who has also been in hiding for 10 months, said, “We are tired of being scared. We are tired of hiding, but we cannot get out now. Things may improve with this new position.”
Expansion of the BJP
“Where should we put them,” a bearded man asked loudly, as he entered the BJP office with two other men carrying pamphlets.
A middle-aged woman edged past the three men arguing about the pamphlets and made her way to meet Raja, the BJP district president of Srinagar.
He listened quietly as the woman told him that she had filled out a form to contest for the block-level election in Budgam, but an independent candidate had unexpectedly entered the fray.
“Can you speak with him and see if he can support me instead,” the woman asked.
Raja assured the woman that he would look into it.
Even as the rest of the party offices remain shuttered in Kashmir, the BJP office is buzzing with activity.
Raja recalled there being just “five or six BJP people in Kashmir,” when he joined the party in 2002.
“People used to point to us and say, ‘Look they have become Hindus,’” he said.
Two decades on, Raja claims that BJP has offices in 10 districts of Kashmir, with more than four lakh workers. An estimated 1,80,000 people, he said, signed up to join the party between January to August, this year.
“There are over 1,000 officer bearers who will come and stand here with one phone call. Please note these are office bearers like district presidents, general secretaries, and all. I’m not even talking about the seven morchas,” he said, referring to the Mahila Morcha, the Minority Morcha, the Kisan Morcha, the SC/ST Morcha, among others.
Unpopular but strategic
The BJP fielded 67 candidates for the 74 ward municipal election in 2018. Nine, including five from Srinagar, won for the first time.
Just how removed Kashmiris are from electoral process can be gauged from the number of votes cast for BJP’s five winning candidates.
While Raja received 37 out of the 45 votes cast in ward number 48, the five other candidates received 70, 55, 8, and 55 votes.
Raja readily admitted people don’t like voting in Kashmir, but he insists that it is fear of militants that makes people boycott election, not their opposition to the Indian state.
Even the eight votes that one of his fellow BJP members won in the municipal election, Raja said, was part of the “step-by-step” process in expanding the BJP’s presence in Kashmir.
That a vast majority of the 1,285 Kashmiris that BJP backed for the panchayat election in 2018 won only because no one else stood against them does not overly worry the party at this stage, Raja said.
That BJP has 1,267 village chiefs in Kashmir, he added, means that their candidates for the upcoming block election are assured victory.
On Saturday, Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, BJP state spokesperson on Kashmir Affairs, told HuffPost India that nine of its candidates for the upcoming block-election had already been elected unopposed.
Just how dangerous? Very
“I have survived multiple attacks by militants,” said Javed Ahmed Qadri, the BJP’s district president of Shopian. “I spent the last three days inside the thana for my own protection.”
As he was speaking, Qadri glanced at the framed photo of a young man in aviators, hanging over his head in the media room of the BJP office in Srinagar. Gowhar Ahmed Bhat was the BJP youth president in Shopian, when militants shot and killed him in 2017.
Next was a photo of Shabeer Ahmed, the BJP’s constituency president in Pulwama, who was killed by militants in 2017. Next to him was a photo of Ghulam Mohammad Mir, the BJP’s district vice president in Anantnag, who was killed by militants during the parliamentary election, this year.
Next to Mir’s photo was that of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, a founding father of the Hindutva ideology. On the wall opposite was a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his arms crossed across his chest.
“I joined BJP in 2014 after looking at Modi ji — Modi ji’s work, Modi ji’s way of talking, Modi ji’s way of walking, and Modi ji’s imandaari. We are crazy about Modi,” said Qadri.
Qadri, who received 2,000 votes when he contested the 2014 Assembly election in J&K and placed second, said, “This is the highest number of votes that a BJP candidate has ever received in Kashmir.”
As he made his way out of the office, Qadri said that he would return to Shopian the next morning because it was “too dangerous” to travel in the evening.
“I have my own ways of travelling out and going back in. Sometimes, I leave on a motorcycle,” he said. “Sometimes, I will sense danger and turn back. I don’t know when or where a bullet is coming.”
Qadri said the BJP would win at least seven of the nine wards in the upcoming block-level election. While the NC and PDP were fielding “proxy” candidates in two wards, Qadri said the seven others were filled with BJP-backed village chiefs.
“We will win,” he said.
Raja turned to this reporter and repeated, “Step-by-step.”