11 sq km of change

In this remote, election-bound hamlet on the LoC, an engineer turned actor is the face of a young, aspiring Kashmir. Peerzada Ashiq reports.

Diesel jeans. Provogue and Tuscan Verve shirts. Harley-Davidson shoes. iPod, LCD TV, MP3s. Panchayat polls. But for this last but, 27-year-old Parvez Ali Mir could just be your everyday city slicker. Instead, the Mumbai-based software engineer-turned-model-turned-actor is an aspiring sarpanch in a remote Kashmir hamlet near the Line of Control (LoC). The political debutant, who returned home to Lachipora to contest the panchayat elections under way in the state as an independent candidate, talks of building roads and attracting industry. “The new generation wants change,” says Mir.

Mir is one of many young people in the fray in the first panchayat elections in the last three decades. The 16-phase polls, on till mid-June, are being held against the backdrop of last year’s civilian violence that left 112 people dead and scores injured in street protests. Voters will elect 29,719 panchayat leaders across the state. Despite a call for boycott by the separatists, voter enthusiasm has been high—the first two phases of polling saw over 80 per cent turnout.

Mehmood-ur-Rashid Vaid, a political commentator and a columnist, sees people getting more nuanced in their understanding of political realities. “People in Kashmir dissociate the Kashmir issue from polls. Theoretical construct by separatists about revolution does not go well with the popular mindset and changing realities. People have the desire for access to basic facilities and to kill the monster of corruption patronized by a few,” says Vaid.

Around 125 km north of the capital Srinagar, Lachipora, Uri in Baramulla district, too has been politically charged for the past several weeks. Much of the action in this hamlet, spread over 11 sq. km of steep hills, has been around the “local boy” who returned to his roots after almost 10 years in Mumbai’s glamour world.

“I was passionate about becoming famous in Mumbai’s fashion industry,” says Mir, son of a police sub-inspector. However, it was a more mundane pursuit—a degree in software engineering from a college in Maharashtra—that drew him to the big city after he completed his schooling at the Modern Public School in Srinagar.

After graduation, though, he gave in to his heart’s desire and took up modeling. “It was not easy to survive in Mumbai,” he adds. Living with his relatives, it took him several years to get his first break. “In the beginning, I earned about Rs700 a day.” With his chiselled face and good body, his list of assignments grew slowly – anchoring TV commercials for sauna belts, modelling for Imperial Suiting, Hyderabad, and Hallmark Shirts, Mumbai. His break came in 2003 when he auditioned for and landed the role of Amit in Ekta Kapoor’s Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Amit’s mother was a friend of the central character, Tulsi.

Small and big roles in other Balaji Telefilms’ productions followed. In Rajshri Productions’ Woh Rehne Waali Mehlon Ki, he played a character named Prem. “A nice guy who shifts to a negative shade later in the serial,” recalls Mir. Mir draws parallels between politics and the world he inhabited in Mumbai. “Both are glamorous. The only difference is that there are retakes in TV and no retakes in politics. If you commit a mistake, you have to live with it all your life,” says Mir, adding that he had nursed a desire to join politics since 2003. The desire was stoked after meeting politicians’ sons such as Chirag Paswan, son of Lok Janshakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan and Shailesh Patil, son of former Union home minister Shivraj Patil.

Mir says the panchayat polls appealed to him because “the sarpanch’s is a post where one cannot afford to be corrupt and must strike a chord with people”. He walks 1.5km from the nearest motorable road to his two-storey concrete house every day. “I could have had a house on the road but I deliberately avoided it. I want to be like any other person of my constituency,” says Mir. He traded his branded casuals for the Indian politician’s trademark white kurta-pyjama and grey-black waistcoast.

His father, Ali Muhammad Mir, doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Mir Senior, who was posted in Kargil in 1999 during the war, was hit by shrapnel and survived an attack on his vehicle outside the Bemina police colony in the early 1990s, thinks his son’s decision to return is foolhardy. “I love Mumbai. I see my son’s hoarding at places and intend to settle in the city where my son has earned a name,” says the father.

Despite his father’s opposition, Mir, the second of three siblings, intends to change the “landscape” of Lachipora, a constituency with 3,000 voters, predominantly Gujjar peasants and labourers who rear livestock. “My father thinks it’s a gaali (abuse)— politics. I had promised my father I would take him to Mumbai for good. But I have big aims for my area. I’m exposed to the outside world. I will bring a new vibe with me to end corruption, provide road facilities, electricity and better employment opportunities by installing factories of limestone crushers and spring-born mineral water bottles, etc. My dream is to connect my village to the outside world through the Internet. Dairy and poultry can also provide sustenance to many here,” says Mir.

Will sarpanch Mir give up his Mumbai life? “I have already formed a committee and the village work will be distributed. After every three months, I will have a week out to continue with my passion for fashion in Mumbai,” replies Mir, who braved the boycott call by separatists and militants to stand in the polls.
 “I believe in realpolitik. I never extend false promises. I will never tell my people that I will make them models. No. I want change for Lachipora spread over 11 sq. km,” says Mir.

(Courtesy Mint)

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