12/04/2019 1:34 PM IST

Kashmir Shia Muslims Conflicted About Elections As BJP Courts Their Leadership

In Kashmir, voters are struggling to explain why they participate in an exercise they often dismiss as futile in the same breath.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

BARAMULLA, Jammu And Kashmir — “If our pir says vote for the RSS, we will vote for RSS. If he says vote for the Congress, we will vote for the Congress. If he says, boycott elections, we won’t even spit at elections,” a Shia man in Baramulla parliamentary constituency of Jammu and Kashmir said.

This is the clearest articulation of a community’s motive for voting in Kashmir, where separatists long ago made participation in elections a morally fraught choice by likening them to betrayal of the struggle for right to self-determination. Voters are, therefore, often seen struggling to explain why they participate in an exercise they are often at pains to dismiss as futile in the same breath.

“You know who our pir is,” the Shia man said, referring to Imran Raza Ansari, a prominent Shia religious leader who was a minister in the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government. After the BJP pulled out of the government dramatically in 2017 and PDP faltered, Imran quit the party and joined People’s Conference led by Sajjad Lone, who was an ally of the BJP and minister in the coalition.  

Meanwhile in Handwara, Lone’s home town, many of his followers have switched sides this election and are voting for other parties because of his proximity to the BJP.

Many other Shia voters in Mirgund, where 95 percent of the population is Shia, explain why political alliances, developmental agendas or manifestoes make little difference to their choice of candidates even if, individually, they say that their leader has made a wrong choice. Kashmir, as a whole, is majority Sunni.

“I know BJP is anti-Muslim. It is a terrorist organisation. But we don’t vote for any party. We vote for our pir,” said a young man who works with Jammu and Kashmir Bank. To reinforce the young man’s point, an elderly man said, “If the family’s head says ‘ruin the family’, the family has no choice but to ruin itself.”

By 1.15 pm, out of the total 1,300 odd voters, 500 had cast their vote, a “dismal” turnout compared to the last Lok Sabha poll, they said, but decent when compared to polling elsewhere in the constituency. Some of the poor residents at work would miss the vote and a miniscule minority was boycotting because of separatist sentiment. Fewer guards could be seen in this polling station housed inside a school, compared to dozens of policemen and paramilitary soldiers guarding other booths in the constituency.  

Since 1990, when the anti-India insurgency erupted, Shias have by and large voted for their religious leaders who are also their default representatives in the local Assembly. These leaders have in the past aligned with National Conference, Congress and PDP, creating an erroneous perception that the community is pro India.

The BJP tried to tap into this perception by recently announcing job reservations for Shias, demarcating a constituency with majority Shia voters, lifting ban on Muharram processions, a separate Shia Waqf Board and exclusive Hajj quota for the community, which constitutes about 14 percent of the state’s population and is mainly concentrated in Budgam district, a few areas of Srinagar and Pattan in Baramulla district.

Had there been a sizable boycott of elections yesterday in Baramulla constituency (total number of voters: about 14 lakh), about a lakh Shia voters could prove decisive. That is probably why more than the sops, most political parties bank on the community’s propensity to follow their religious leaders in matters of local politics.

“This is clear that majority of the Shia community votes,” state BJP leader and in charge of its grievance cell Dr Rafi told Kashmir Press news portal recently.

“So there is no impact of the poll boycott or low voter turn on the Shia votes. Their voting share in Kashmir and Ladakh is competitive as well. And, we are working hard to garner those votes by roping in the leaders from the community,” he had said, counting Imran Ansari as an ally by association: Ansari is People’s Conference member and People’s Conference is BJP ally.

But this is not how Shia voters in Mirgund see their leader. They try to explain the contradictions inherent in his association with Sajad Lone. They said Imran has nothing to do with BJP because he is a member of the People’s Conference. Also, they said, Imran has told them that he would “bring his own family members out and participate in any struggle needed for preserving the unique constitutional status of Kashmir”.

Their defence of Ansari’s decision to align with Lone is despite the fact that BJP manifesto clearly stating that the legislations granting Jammu and Kashmir a special constitutional status in the Indian Constitution would be abrogated if the party retains power.

The Shia community’s electoral conundrum, a local Shia youth leader said, actually springs from the impossibility of having an independent political existence. None of the Assembly constituencies in Kashmir Valley has Shia majority. The Shia leaders win two to three Assembly seats that have 45-48 percent Shia population because the community votes en bloc.

“Our leader has to be part of the same muck the rest of Kashmir is mired in,” said the youth leader. He asks why should a minority be judged for its participation in elections when the majority Sunni population does the same.

National Conference and PDP leaders have in their election speeches called BJP feting the Shia and other communities as an attempt to fragment the Kashmiri society on the basis of sects and ethnicities. But many in Mirgund pointed to the fact how PDP, which has lost much of the political ground due to the catastrophic alliance with BJP, has fielded Aga Mohsin, a Shia leader, for the Srinagar constituency. Mohsin had contested 2014 Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate, securing 16,000 out of the 3.12 lakh votes polled.

Many Shias are, however, not comfortable with reducing the community to a vote bank, given how such reductive politics could deepen sectarian tensions. Iran-based Kashmiri journalist Zafar Mehdi, hailing from a prominent Shia family, reacting to BJP’s poll promises for Shias, wrote on his Facebook wall:

Ram Madhav is smart but the people he is trying to hoodwink are smarter. Appeasement politics and ill-conceived election gimmicks, especially of this kind, never really worked on us. Such moves have been attempted in the past too. We refuse to fall into this vicious trap. We refuse to accept India’s colonization and the insipid charade of democracy. We refuse to participate in a sham exercise meant to strangulate our legitimate political aspirations. We refuse to swear allegiance to tyrants and oppressors… We are not a minority and we should not be treated as one. We are all Kashmiris and Muslims and any attempt to divide us, polarize our society or weaken our movement will be resisted and thwarted.”