City Masters

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For the first time in 13 years, the city of Kashmir ‘elected’ 73 new faces to manage its municipal issues. Though the region’s two main parties stayed out of the exercise and not many people participated, the newly elected took the oath to assume office. Saima Bhat met some of these men and women to understand who they are and what they stand for

The municipal councillors taking their oath.

“Raath taan aasik daane lonan te guh saaran (Till yesterday, you would have been harvesting paddy and carrying cow dung),” one councillor shouted at her counterpart. “Mein tum sey zyada powerful houn, mei tumharey patti ka FIR katwa kar he rahu ge (I am more powerful than you, and I will make sure that an FIR is lodged against your husband).”

The two women representing the Srinagar voters were in a formal event supposed to train them of their roles and responsibilities. “Shut up! Don’t talk to me! Get out of the class!” was the part of a 10-minute verbal duel between two female councillors at the event. It was after the intervention of at least five or six councillors, who literally separated the two as they were about to go for fisticuffs.

In the recently held elections for the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, first after thirteen years, a set of new faces emerged to run the historic city. Barring Soura ward, where not a single voter came out, all of the 74 wards witnessed some sort of contest. Congress and BJP contested on party symbols but there were a lot of people who contested independently. BJP won from four Srinagar wards and Congress from 16. All others were independents, including proxies of National Conference and PDP. As many as 27 berths were won by women, both unopposed and in the contest.

The newly elected took the oath, choose their Mayor and his Deputy but the question is still being asked: who are they?

One councillor’s husband, a graduate, had a dream to join politics since his childhood. He spoke to Kashmir Life on the condition of anonymity. Associated with the tourism industry, he said for the last four years the hospitality sector is seeing a new low, so he decided to contest elections. “But at the last moment I was told that Junaid Mattu is also contesting from the same ward so I was suggested to contest from any other ward,” he said. It was a Congress worker who approached him with the suggestion that he must contest from a vacant ward, almost eight kilometres away. But the ward was reserved for a female contestant.

“I thought I had many financial issues so let it be my wife and I will support her,” the tourism professional said. “We have three children and they are still in their primary classes. And more importantly, he told me that in the political history of Kashmir, no Congress member has ever been attacked as the party is oldest.” After the elections were over, this female Congress contestant was declared a winner as her ward witnessed just eight votes and she managed to get all the eight.

The couple was provided with a government accommodation in a hotel in Lal Mandi area and they had to shift their children to one of their uncle’s residence. “Believe me since the day we filed nomination papers, I have not talked to my in-laws. They were hurling abuses to me on phone, and then I stopped taking their calls. And finally, they stopped calling. Even my own family was against my decision.” He says almost after a month after the results were announced, all of the dreams shown to him were nothing but ‘fake’.

“Leave the accommodation, they have not provided us with security. I have to accompany my wife to wherever she goes,” he said. “This is politics and I am a beginner. So far I am only confused. One day they decide something and the next day they do its reverse. You won’t believe while in the hotel my wife was offered Rs 12 lakhs for changing her party. But we decided against it because we have promised our voters that we will work for them and I thought if I have come into this gamble let us continue. And then we were again offered money when the councillors had to decide mayor and his deputy. That time the rate was from Rs 12 to Rs 15 lakhs. This time my wife decided to take the money and leave the ward. But I remained adamant with my decision because I have seen money since my childhood so they could not tempt me.”

Before elections, the couple visited the ward from where she contested and promised locals she would provide better lanes and by lanes. “They have not decided the salary of the councillors yet. Last time, I heard it will be around Rs 5000 to 7000, and we decided to leave the ward, but as I met more people, I got to know the salary would be around Rs 25000 or 30000, which is a respectable amount at least. Salary is the most important thing. And for attending the meetings they are given an additional Rs 2000; every month, they have at least four meetings.”

While in the hotel, he says they are kept in ‘worst’ conditions and served non-vegetarian food once a week. “I swear I fell ill and had to consult a doctor where I had to spend Rs 2000.”

Another candidate, Fancy Jan who contested from Lawaypora ward and defeated Asifa Tariq Karra, is also new to politics. She was reluctant to talk saying she has never come in front of cameras nor showed her face anywhere. “Nobody has threatened me but I am very afraid. I know I have defeated Karra sahib’s wife, but this is politics anything can happen to me. I can’t speak freely to risk my life,” she said.

Fancy claims she contested municipal elections because of her neighbours in Lawaypora area where she has shifted a decade back from Khayam. She got 518 votes and her rival got only 501 votes. When asked more about her family details, she refused to talk, saying her husband has left his work and has become more of an escort to her. But she insists she had the support of her parents as well.

Before and after elections, Fancy has not sought any government accommodation and stays home. “See, I came into this because of my people who voted me. Why should I be afraid in my locality?” But when it comes to getting the residential accommodation, she also joins her team of other councillors to protest for not having an accommodation.

But the most outspoken among the female councillors, Sumaira Akhtar, 25, an arts graduate and apparently most modern, has earlier worked as a cabin crew with an airlines company. She says she filed her nomination papers after her father, a retired government employee, called her in Delhi and suggested filing her nomination papers.

A resident of Buchwara, Sumaira after landing in Kashmir, held a meeting in her locality where she asked the locals if they would vote for her. Promised votes, she contested the election as an independent candidate and won by 80 votes. She claims her four contenders had indirect support from BJP and Congress.

“I have told my people that I will solve their problems of lane, drain and electricity. Our Dalgate area has been the most underdeveloped area under all regimes, and since I grew up I always wanted these problems to be solved,” Sumaira said. “The people in our locality are mostly poor, and if God forbid their main bread earner dies, they don’t even have money to visit a doctor. I want to have money to help them.” Sumaira says she won because of the efforts of her father, uncles and cousins who did her campaigning when nobody even dared to come out for elections.

Frequently visiting her family and wards twice a week, Sumaira has been given accommodation in a nearby hotel. “Before elections, we were given a vehicle and security, but after the results now, we neither have a vehicle nor the security cover. I don’t even have a brother who can accompany me every day so I have to go alone. We are continuously in touch with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor and they have asked to wait for some time.”

Sumaira’s eldest sister is married and youngest sister is studying in Bangalore, but she says after graduating from women’s college she did a course through IGNOU. But her dream of being in politics does not stop at being a counsellor. “My people have promised me that if they like my performance as a councillor then they will nominate me to assembly.” Her areas fall in upper Donikhud, upper Buchwara, Naid Mohalla, Raisgar Teing and Sonwar.

After a month when she was declared a winner, she says she visited her ward and made the estimate of works she has to do after the winter season is over. But she is still unsure about her term as councillor as somebody has told her the new government may cancel the municipal bodies. “They spent so much of money on these elections that happened after thirteen years. Why would they cancel it now?” she asks.

But independent candidate from Mehjoor Nagar ward, Mohammad Saleem, 31, joined SMC elections after getting inspired by Governor’s speech about youth. He says he also wanted to end the Khandaani Raj in politics. “It was always either they or their relatives and workers. A commoner is never given an opportunity to work for the people. They have left Shahre Khass in bemaari ki halat mei (Old City is in worst conditions),” he said.

Basically, a resident of the downtown area of the city, Saleem’s family has shifted a decade back to Mehjoor Nagar. Eldest among his four siblings, he has studied 10+2 and then did a diploma in computer. Before being a councillor, he was running a small scale business of sale and purchase of bikes. His father is a government employee at PCR and mother a housewife.

“I have never been associated with any political party, but I won’t lie that I have not visited any politician,” Saleem said. “I have visited a couple of them whosoever was in power but they kept on lingering the issues for years together. In Kashmir, for example, if there is a correction to be made in your I-card, it takes at least six months.” He won elections with 86 votes out of total 118 votes polled and desires to change the work culture in public offices.

But before and after elections, Saleem was provided with an accommodation which was three kms away from the city and they did not provide him with good food or security. Saleem along with some more independent contestants rented a place in some safe area and are still living there. “Shayad Galati ki Hindustan ki Jamhooryat maaney ki aur is Jamhooryat ko zinda rakhney ki (I guess we did wrong for accepting India’s democracy and for keeping it alive) at the times when bigger political parties did not contest this election,” he lamented.

Recently the councillors were informed that they will be accommodated in the MLA hostel on the M A Road. The government has already sent notices to the former lawmakers to vacate the Hostel. But a day later, Saleem said the government was “pressurized” against doing it. “Are we not worth it? We are still wandering because we neither have the accommodation nor we were provided security,” Saleem said. He says it has been since 90’s that people are speaking about threat calls and letters but nobody ever saw those letters. “But the threat perception is always there.”

Saleem says he was also offered money to join the two parties contesting elections, but he says he rejected the offer just because he wanted to work independently for the people. “Why are we spending out of our own pockets? Otherwise, I could have also joined any political party and they could have managed my expenses of living in private accommodation,” Saleem said.

But a fresh arts graduate, Rabia Rehman, 21, who won as an independent candidate from Nundreshi colony in Bemina, says the municipal elections and mainstream politics are different things. “Municipal Corporation has nothing to do with politics. It is all about saaf, safaye (cleanliness) and development of areas.”

Rabia says she had the support of her family and it is mostly her eldest brother, an engineering student, from a local private college, who has become her face. “People have a problem and they contact my brother. It is him who meets these locals and then he tells me what and how I have to work.” She says she has to attend her office every day, where her brother drops her.

“I can travel in public transport as well because I am there for my people, who voted me.” But during oath ceremony at SKICC Rabia was amongst the girls who were in full veil, only her eyes were visible, and on other days, she does not cover her face. “I cover my face during summers. In winters, it becomes difficult. Moreover, I have joined Aayen e Hind, the constitution of India and that doesn’t have any clause if I can cover my face or not.”

Rabia’s father is a government employee in the health department and her mother a housewife. She has three more siblings and her eldest sister is married. Rabia says after the results were announced it was a celebration at her home for at least a week; her relatives, friends and neighbours came to congratulate her. “I am safe in my locality so I did not seek any accommodation before or after the elections.”

Ajaz Rasool, 40, a councillor who won uncontested from Badshah Nagar ward and his wife, Sobia Jan, who also won uncontested from Natipora ward, are amongst two couples who were in the municipal election race. “I knew I would have to run along with my wife if I contested the municipal election, so I asked myself why not we both file the papers and run together,” Aijaz said.

An erstwhile employee of Power Development Department (PDD) since 1998 through a selection board, Ajaz got interested in politics after his cousin joined Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and started doing basic work for the people. “I always supported him for being in politics. So in 2010, I also joined mainstream politics; I joined National Conference’s (NC) youth wing where I got exposed to politics.” But before municipal elections, NC decided to boycott the elections to ‘safeguard the Article 35A’ but Ajaz thinks otherwise.

“Article 35A was just an excuse. They actually don’t want to empower the grass root workers if they are outside their party. They are just projecting their kith and kin. Tell me who is heading their youth group and other initiatives; they are their sons and daughters. So after giving them my eight years, I thought I was at the wrong place as they will never allow me to go beyond a point.” Ajaz says everybody lives for themselves but only some rare people live for others and he wanted to be amongst those limited people. He says his constituency, Amira Kadal, in the Srinagar City, is the most neglected one, and when he decided to file his nomination papers he joined Congress.

Junaid Mattu, mayor of the Srinagar City.

The Congress party has made him a chief whip of the party which he thinks was not possible while being in NC.

Before elections, Ajaz along with his wife and lone daughter shifted to a government accommodation in a hotel and he had to shift his mother to his other brother. He says one hotel is being provided with just one vehicle so they have to take turns to use the vehicle but they are moving without any security. “The government promises before elections proved to be all wrong after elections. We are under threat and they are not helping us or doing anything for our security,” he said.

All the councillors are presently struggling to have accommodation. “It was because of the personal efforts of deputy mayor with the support of mayor that we were provided accommodation in MLA hostels, 30 rooms for 68 councillors. That is a single room with some of them with kitchens.” Ajaz adds, “This is Jugaad. They are doing opposite of everything they had promised.”

But Ajaz is living a dream of going up to assembly elections at least.

Last week, the newly elected team of SMC received their salaries in their accounts with Rs 10,000 credited to Mayor, 7,500 to deputy mayor and 6,000 to each councillor. Now only time will prove if the re-elections are required for more wards.

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