Participants hide faces at BJP’s first election rally; Shah Faesal launching J&K Peoples Movement in Srinagar on Sunday
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz SRINAGAR: With the notifications for Lok Sabha elections on the North Kashmir and the Central Kashmir seats being just three or four days away, mainstream political activity is still restricted to the parties’ indoor meetings with workers across the Valley. By-election on the Central Kashmir seat, which recorded a dismal voter turnout of around 7 per cent and was marred by violence and death of eight people in April 2017 apart, this is for the first time after the massive Burhan Wani turmoil in 2016 that the Election Commission of India is holding a major democratic exercise in Kashmir. It was due to the violence on the day of polling in Central Kashmir in April 2017 that ECI was forced to cancel by-elections on the South Kashmir seat and could never hold the same, creating a dubious national record. Governor’s administration managed to conduct the Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat elections in Kashmir after termination of Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP government in August-November 2018. However, the voter turnout was the lowest ever even as many of the wards and Halqas remained unrepresented and many of the single candidates were returned unopposed. Contrarily, both, the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2014, as well as the previous municipal and Panchayat elections in 2005 and 2011 respectively, had witnessed huge enthusiasm and people’s participation. The first and the second notifications for North Kashmir (Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipora districts) and Central Kashmir (Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal districts) are being issued on March 18 and 19 respectively. Polling is scheduled to be held on the North Kashmir seat on April 11 and on the Central Kashmir seat on April 18.
The hypersensitive seat of South Kashmir has been for the first time split into three parts. For Anantnag district, notification is being issued on March 28 and polling would be held on April 23. For Kulgam district, notification will come out on April 2 and date of polling is April 29. Notification for the twin districts of Shopian and Pulwama would be issued on April 10 and polling would be held on May 6.
Even as almost all the political parties, with the obvious exception of BJP, have been demanding holding of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections together, none of them has been able to hold a major electoral rally before or after March 10 when the ECI announced Lok Sabha elections across the country including on all the six seats in Jammu and Kashmir.
The mainstream majors, National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which had won 15 and 28 seats respectively in the 2014 Assembly elections, have been holding indoor meetings with the party workers in several parts of the Valley. Congress party has also discreetly mobilised its activists and cadre on all the five seats it won in the 2014 Assembly elections as also in several other segments. BJP’s 2014 pre-poll ally, Peoples Conference, that bagged two seats, is also interacting with its cadre in parts of North and Central Kashmir, notably in Kupwara district.
However, mainly due to the negative impact created by the 2016 turmoil coupled with a chain of encounters and killings, including the February 14 suicide bombing that left over 40 CRPF men martyred near Awantipora on Srinagar-Jammu highway, none of the mainstream parties or politicians has mustered courage to organise a thick public rally in the Valley. In recent past, NC and PDP have organised motley gatherings at Dak Bungalows in Baramulla and Anantnag besides a few quick public meetings at other places.
Arguably the largest attend was the one organised by Dr Shah Faesal, the IAS topper of 2010 who has lately resigned his job and announced to float his own party. Last month, Faesal addressed his first political gathering in his home district of Kupwara. If well-placed sources are to be believed, Faesal is all set to launch his party, named as Jammu and Kashmir Political Movement (JKPM) with a major rally at the Indoor Sports Stadium in Srinagar on Sunday, March 17. While as his workers claim that around 10,000 people’s, mainly youths, would attend the rally, officials expect attendance of about 5,000.
JNU student leader Shehla Rashid Shora is said to be among a galaxy of men and women who are expected to join Faesal’s party on Sunday. Sources insist that this party, which is completing the process of registration with ECI, would field its candidates on all the three seats in Valley.
In a significant development, BJP on Thursday organised its first major rally at Sher-e-Kashmir Park in Srinagar amid tight security. Party’s National Vice President Avinash Rai Khanna and its Valley-based leaders, who drew workers from all the ten districts, addressed the gathering. Even as the organisers claimed that “thousands” attended the rally, officials in J&K Police insisted that the size of the rally was “not more than 500”. They said that the biggest contribution was from MLC Sofi Yousuf who ferried around 150 of his workers from Mattan-Pahalgam area of Anantnag district.
Fear among the participants was betrayed by their desperate attempts to hide their faces when cameras panned over them. Such kind of fear and consternation has been unprecedented in all pre-1990 and post-1990 elections in the Valley. Even in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996, noted female singer-danseuse Haseena Akhtar used to perform at several election rallies.
That the fear among participants is not without reason became evident when, parallel to the BJP meeting in Srinagar, gunmen shot at and left critically injured NC’s Block President of Bijbehara, Mohammad Ismail Wani (60), at his village Dupatyar in Anantnag district. He is the first mainstream political activist targeted by terrorists after declaration of the Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir.
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