Mohammad Akbar Lone, third time MLA from Sumbal in Sonwari belt, and former Speaker of state’s legislative assembly, has managed to survive through the troubled 90s when entire north was ruled by Ikhwanis under Kuka Parray’s command. He tells Shams Irfan how political space is fast shrinking for unionists in Kashmir
Kashmir Life (KL): Your political career started during troubled 90s. How did you manage to survive?
Akbar Lone (AL): Those were difficult times. I still remember when I filed my nomination for 1996 assembly elections from Sumbal. I was fighting elections against government backed gunmen Mohammad Yousuf Parray aka Kuka Parray. Since he was backed by the governor and other agencies, you can only imagine what I was pitted against.
It was peak Ikhwan era when even Kuka Parray’s name would send chills down your spine. He switched side with a promise that he will rid the region of militants.
But by 1996, when he decided to fight the elections, he changed his tactics and started going after the same people he vowed to protect from the militants. He used his brutal tactics to manipulate the elections and I lost by 700 votes.
His men captured polling booths, threatened people, beat them up for their political affiliations, and forced people to vote in his favour. I could do nothing but watch like a mute spectator. After Kuka Parray was declared winner, he celebrated by killing seven people in Saderkot Bala village. I visited the victim’s families the next day but nobody dared to come out and meet us. Such was the fear of Ikhwan.
KL: Did things change after you won 2002 elections?
AL: My actual political journey started after I won 2002 elections with a margin of 12,000 votes. But by that time this entire belt was left devastated by both Ikhwanis and militants. During 90’s schools were burned, health centres were in shambles, colleges were in bad shape, there were no roads, no water supply schemes, jungles were looted. I had to literally rebuild the entire region from the scratch.
Two things helped me work smoothly: the decline of Ikhwan and my elevation as deputy speaker of the state legislative assembly.
KL: Then you won again?
AL: In 2008, I fought against Kuka Parray’s son Imtiyaz Parray and won by a margin of 12 thousand votes. This time I became the speaker of the assembly. In 2012, I was made a cabinet minister as well. My aim was to help this area prosper and help people recover from Ikhwan era threat.
KL: It must have been difficult to revive your party’s carder after Ikhwan lost steam?
AL: Those were difficult times. Some of us had to shift our base out of Sumbul. Some stayed in hotels, some were given security cover. It took lots of groundwork and canvassing to get people back. Nobody would feel safe in this belt because of Kuka Parray and his men.
You have to understand that even after Kuka Parray’s death threat perception is still there. Kuka Parray was a local and thus deep rooted into the society via his relatives and friends.
You may call it neo-Ikhwan or his relatives, or his son’s affiliation with Congress. I know threat is still there. Ordinary person cannot counter them still as they are well connected.
KL: Why this region has remained under-reported so far?
AL: You have to understand the topography of this belt to know why it remained unreported. I can count around two dozen killings by Ikhwanis on my finger tips still.
Those were difficult times. Nobody dared to report anything against Kuka Parray. There were many killings by militants as well. But since 2002, by and large almost every incident has been reported and well documented. In Markundal area army killed a young boy named Irfan. A case is registered. There are many other cases which are well documented.
KL: Which killing you can count on your fingertips?
AL: Saderkot Bala massacre is one. Two teachers, Mohammad Kamal Rather of Ajas village and Abdul Karim Bhat of Chewa village, were killed by Ikhwanis. I still recall how brutally they were killed. There were many more people killed by Kuka Parray’s men. How many names you need?
KL: Some of the known Ikhwan faces later joined NC?
AL: We had to choose between the lesser evils. During 1996 elections, on the day of voting, I had a fist fight with Kuka Parry outside Nawabad polling both. His deputy Dilawar and other men beat me. Such was the fear that nobody could do anything. But then politics is altogether a different thing, and the same Dilawar is now part of NC. He left Ikhwan and joined NC. He joined us after militants attacked him. I helped him to get security cover. Do you know most of the Ikhwanis joined Congress? There is this man Rashid Pohlu who has a number of cases against him. He joined PDP. He still moves out with authority. We just have one former Ikhwani, but both Congress and PDP are full of them.
KL: There were incidents of loot and plunder by Ikwanis?
AL: They cleared plantations and jungles worth crores of rupees. They used to snatch cars from locals without anyone daring to ask them why. Nobody would dare to register a case against them. A very few of them could actually come to me for help. I would then seek help from police to get their vehicles back. But those were tough times. Nobody in that belt would dare to move out wearing an expensive watch, wear a nice suit or a Karakuli (traditional sheepskin cap). It would attract attention of Ikhwanis instantly. There was widespread extortion and intimidation.
KL: How difficult was it to visit your constituency during Ikhwan days?
AL: I used to take all sorts of precautions while visiting my home. I would not visit without full escort. Always travel in a bullet-proof vehicle. Never share my travel plans with anybody. Even my closest aides would not know which route I was about to take to reach Hajin. They (Ikhwanis) could have done anything as they enjoyed absolute impunity from the system. That could have made me a soft target anytime had I not taken extra care.
KL: Your party was voted out of the power in 2014 elections.
AL: There was anti-incumbency factor against NC. Besides, people blamed us for not doing enough during September 2014 floods. There was resentment in people against NC as Afzal Guru’s hanging happened during our rule. People were really angry. And to vent their anger they voted us out. Even I managed to win by a very small margin.
Besides PDP created a fear psychosis among people that if they won’t vote for them then BJP will win and rule Kashmir. Ironically, the same PDP then formed an alliance with BJP for sake of power. People felt cheated. And since then their alliance partner BJP is provoking Kashmiri Muslims.
This attitude of BJP reversed the anger against NC and now people see PDP as their main enemy. That is evident as we recently won by-elections for Srinagar seat.
However, I am satisfied for what I have done so far in my area. My aim is to stay connected with the people. I don’t stay in Hajin, but I try to stay in touch with people via phone.
KL: How do you see present situation in Kashmir?
AL: Present generation doesn’t know what we had gone through in 90s. They have no idea how dreaded Ikhwan was. But the current situation is worse. Right now we are witnessing worst form of state terrorism. Today people are killed for throwing stone, for speaking against the government, for raising their voices against injustice.
KL: Is resurgence of Ikhwan in the pipe-line?
AL: PDP is using police to do Ikhwan’s dirty work. Rashid Billa was living under police protection. It was not even a secret. Everybody knew whose patronage he enjoyed. In Hajin and Sumbal, PDP is using police to intimidate their political opponents. They interfere even in civil works like laying of roads, panchayat works etc. If a NC worker intervenes or raises a query, he is booked and arrested. It is done to satisfy PDP local face in Sumbal, who was a former Ikhwani. You can say, Ikhwan is gone, but Ikhwanis are still there.
KL: What is the way-out?
AL: India as of now considers Kashmiris as outsiders. They are not allowed to become part of the mainstream. Stone-pelters are expressing themselves. Today’s youth cannot tolerate when an outsider CRPF or army man enters a college and harasses students. How can a youngster tolerate such highhandedness? Such provocations hurt these youngsters ego and they pick up a stone to vent their emotions.
Our kids have witnessed barbarity, jails, PSA, teargas shells, bullets, pellets and what not. Besides, PDP-BJP is provoking Kashmiris on a daily basis now. They are now interfering with what we should eat and what we should do.
Sheikh Abdullah wanted to be with a secular India, not the India where a person is killed for just transporting a cow. This is not tolerable. Even an aged person like myself cannot tolerate this, it boils my blood. Then how can a youngster tolerate such provocations.
A Kashmiri youth is not concerned about his job, studies, social security, or any other thing. He wants to live with dignity.
KL: What are the odds of PDP-BJP alliance given the current situation?
AL: People talk about governor’s rule. Hell with governor’s rule. Mehbooba was crying that I have saved Kashmiris from STF and Ikhwan. Then the same women taunted kids who were killed (in post-Burhan uprising) that have they gone to get toffees from army camps? How can anybody forget that?
Let’s imagine Mehbooba resigns and governor takes over, does it solve anything. No. Let’s assume fresh elections take place and NC wins. Can we deliver anything and pacify people’s anger? No. Not at all.
It won’t happen unless Modi abandons his policy of ruling Kashmir with an iron fist. Unless Modi’s abandons his plan of implementing RSS and Bajran Dal’s agenda in Kashmir, nothing will change on the ground. This generation of Kashmiris is not even afraid of bombardment. The earlier India understands it, the better it would be.
Besides, nobody is spoon feeding Kashmiris as claimed by the PDP. In fact Kashmiris have realized that they are not safe with India anymore. How can they feel safe when people are killed every day for even throwing stones?
Modi and RSS have created a situation of fear among Kashmiris. How can Kashmiris tolerate when RSS talks about ban on Azaan in mosques, ban on what you eat.
How much does one tolerate? From Kunan Poshpora to current times, how much are we supposed to tolerate.
KL: How bad is situation for unionist politicians in Kashmir?
AL: I cannot even visit my relatives. Situation has changed quite dramatically. Recently, I visited a polling booth and I was shocked to see the massive presence of armed forces around it. How can anybody come out to vote in such an overwhelming situation? In fact Kashmiris are not at all in a mood to vote. They are fed up with mainstream politicians. Even separatists are irrelevant in present situation. You can only imagine politician’s condition.
Now youth are running the show. However they lack leadership. I appeal to them not to fall prey to dirty politics and indulge in anything communal. Mainstream politicians have lost relevance completely. It is the students, youngsters, who should come forward and take command.
I believe Kashmiris are no more afraid of India. It is my personal opinion, I could be wrong. But I am saying on the basis of what I see on the ground.
KL: When PDP was in opposition they came after NC. But you are not as proactive as they were.
AL: We believe in constructive opposition. Time will come when PDP will have no takers in India. They have already shrunken their space in Kashmir. Going to Pakistan is not an option for them. For them the circle is shrinking fast. They will get sandwiched. On one side they will face India’s wrath and on the other side Kashmiris will not allow them to stay here. No matter how many houses they construct, how many jobs they give to their workers, how much money they loot, they will ultimately be driven out. Their power is temporary. That is why we are warning them time and again to read the writing on the wall. But they are blinded by the power right now.