Caught In Between

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As people accuse them of betrayal and the government of destabilization, the ground zero political workers in Kashmir periphery have nowhere to go, reports Umar Khurshid

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

At Pahalgam constituency in Anantnag, if one seeks any information related to Kashmir politics, Mohammad Yusuf, 38, is the person to turn to. A tall man with an athletic figure, Yusuf has been in politics as a ground-level worker for the last 20 years. But despite being a member of many parties till now, Yusuf at the end of the day feels neglected and betrayed by his masters.

“At this point, I can neither call myself a party-member nor a common man,” Yusuf said in a disappointing voice adding the evolving situation in the Valley has forced dozens of the dedicated party workers like him to cut-off their relations with their concerned parties.

A resident of Naghbal village, Yusuf joined Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)  a decade ago and represented the Gujjar-Bakerwal community of Pahalgam constituency. In Pahalgam constituency, 70 per cent of the population is Gujjar-Bakerwals.

“My people support what I support; they have chosen me as their representative,” Yusuf said while pointing towards a bunch of people sitting next to him at his home. But now, he added, in most of the instances he feels ashamed when his people wanted him to help with some government work. “I’m myself being ignored by both the parties and officials, how I will help them,” Yusuf said while flipping a bunch of certificates of appreciation he received from the different political parties. “These certificates are of no use now.”

Yusuf said it is because of him that the BJP had massive support of GujjarBakerwals from Pahalgam. “But my people have understood the mind of the party now,” Yusuf said. “They won’t support the parties which are against Kashmir and Kashmiris.”

He said the political activity in Kashmir had come to a stop and a majority of the voters had lost faith in the political parties. Talking in general, he said, people were told that parties work for the core agenda of saving the “special status” but when it was abrogated people felt betrayed. Yusuf is chary of flaunting his affiliation with his party after August 5, 2019.  He feels that people might turn violent and harm him.

Released Not Freed

“Whenever I see people having heated arguments over the current political situation, I simply leave the place,” he said. “The hate, anger and frustration among the people scare me all the time,” Yusuf said.

But at the same time, Yusuf doesn’t think he can completely detach himself from politics. He is also of the opinion that if he detaches himself from the politics now for whatever reason,  he would be hated by both the sides, “Mein Toh Na Ghat Ka Rahuga Na Ghar Ka (I will belong neither here, not there),” Yusuf said. “Log Bhi Nafrat Karege Aur Party Bhi (Both people and party will hate me).”

Yusuf said that with top leaders being caged, ground-level workers like him have no standing left. “The party workers fear if they are jailed like the leaders, no one would come for their rescue,” he said. Claiming that he used to work tirelessly to contribute to the development of his village, Yusuf said he has no work now. “In BJP I admit they helped me in the development process but now workers are being neglected,” he said.

BJP Took Over

In Shopian, Shabir Ahmed, 56, an NC worker believes that the BJP has taken control of everything in the Valley and there was no space for the regional mainstream parties. “From Panchayat to DC office every department has neglected the members of the regional parties,” Shabir said. “BJP doesn’t respect the octogenarian leader like Dr Farooq Abdullah, why would it bother about ordinary workers like me.” An advocate by profession, Shabir said that when top leaders are not safe workers just don’t matter. He says the regional parties were caught between the anger of the people and the apathy of the current government. “It is very daunting to be a part of the politics now,” Shabir said. “I think politics at the ground level has been destroyed.”  Shabir said that after BJP got the reins, no regional party had lost control over everything.“Outside parties have created their cadre in almost every village and city. They do whatever they like,” he said. “They are contractors of the valley and they work for their gains.”Shabir rues that despite being a member of the NC for so many years he has no standing left. “Regional parties have been sidelined and everything is up to the current government,” he said. “And when established parties are sidelined who will listen to their workers.”  Earlier Shabir used to approach different departments for development work in his area and also help resolve the complaints of people but now he has nothing to do. “Time was when I used to order, now  I simply bow down my head  and be as polite as possible.”

The existing situation in the Valley scares Shabir. “In many instances, the properties of the people belonging to political parties were damaged by the unknown men,” he said.  “I also fear for myself and my family.”

Outcasts At Home

In Pulwama, Mohammad Imran, 37, toiled for years to get people to vote but now feels like a total outcast.

“At this point, we workers are being seen as enemies by both the sides, people as well as the government,” Dar said adding people see workers as traitors for their affiliation with the political parties who they reckon have betrayed them. Dar fears that like other workers in different parts of south Kashmir he could also be harmed by unknown gunmen. “Dozens of people have been kidnapped or their properties damaged. I am terrified,” Dar said recalling the death of a young BJP worker who was kidnapped and then killed in the dead of the night. However, Dar has now decided to quit politics. Terming his area volatile Dar said, “anything can happen here any time.”He said earlier workers remained active and backed their parties despite facing threats, attacks and public humiliation but now they feel completely marginalized and fear for their safety. “Many people associated with the parties lost their relatives at the hands of gunmen and what they got in return was nothing,” Dar said. “Now I think politics is not worth it.”

Betrayed

At his modest two-storey house in Kulgam, Ghulam Qadir, 57, sits pensively remembering the fruitful experience he had with one of the region’s political party. A skinny tall man with an unkempt long beard, Qadir was one among the dedicated supporters of his party. But after Kashmir was stripped of its autonomous status and statehood; he has lost both interest and faith in politics. “Workers feel betrayed and they have been venting their anger wherever they get a chance,” he said.  He refers to the criticism being faced by Kashmir politicians on social media after the restoration of the internet. Qadir said on one evening in October 2019, as he was returning home from work he saw a bunch of young boys hurling abuses at political workers. “I quickly moved ahead fearing for my life,” Qadir said. Being associated with politics for many years, Qadir expected to find a government job for his grandson. He also wanted to help the villagers in the redressal of their complaints but now he can do nothing. “My party is not able to hold its activity. As a result, I am being ignored by officials and face threats from militants,” he said.

Politics Is Dead

Irfan Ahmed Wani, 29, PDP’s youth secretary, in Ganderbal has a similar story to tell. A resident of Kangan in Ganderbal district, Wani feels that humiliation is the only thing workers feel these days. “As I see it, the politics on the ground is dead,” he said. “After the abrogation of 370, the belief in the politics among people has vanished. It is now normal to call people associated with politics as traitors.”People, he said, ask him if his leaders are in jail how come he is still in politics. At the same time, Wani bemoans the neglect of the local political leaders and the activists by the government.

Politics Of Silence

“Despite holding a position of J&K Youth Secretary no official takes me seriously. We are being seen as enemies at government offices as well,” he said. Wani claims his grandfather Mohammad Yusuf Wani was one of the founding members of the PDP from Ganderbal.  “I want to follow in his footsteps,”  he said adding that it was not easy to get people to engage in politics. “Rebuilding the same confidence among the people looks impossible as they seem to have lost interest.” Admitting that local government in Kashmir was important, Wani said District Ganderbal was sanctioned a degree college years ago but later when Governor took the charge nobody dared to approach his administration. “Without the local government, there would be no progress in Kashmir,” he said.

Avoiding The Young

The opinion of Bilal Ahmed of Reshi of Gund in Kupwara is no different from the workers in other parts of the Valley.

Reshi believes that it’s now impossible for Kashmiri people to follow the leaders who deceive them time and again. “Apart from being branded as traitors and being called informers one gets nothing good to hear from the people,” Reshi said. “I often change my way when I see youngsters gathered at a place.”

Reshi said when the major leaders were held, he also feared the arrest and so was forced to leave his village. “Whenever I saw a police vehicle around me I used to walk away,” recalls Bilal, who believes if he had been caught, there would have been no one to rescue him. “I was very perturbed during those days.”

Reshi had joined PDP as a ground-level worker but now, he says, he is just a common man with no interest in politics. “The humiliation faced by the workers is forcing them to leave their parties.”

The Otherness Of Apni Party

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