From party founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to current CM Omar Abdullah, Ganderbal means prestige. But with political equations fast changing on ground Abdullah scion has a tough time to manage what once was passed on to him as safe heaven. Tasavur Mushtaq meets politicians, political activists and common people to gauge the mood on ground.


In 1975, after spending 22 years in jail, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the founder of National Conference, chose Ganderbal to make his political comeback by successfully contesting state assembly bi-elections.

Sheikh Abdullah became chief minister only after Congress asked its incumbent legislator advocate Muhammad Maqbool Bhat, to make way for him in Ganderbal.

That was the beginning of Abdullah family’s longstanding political association with Ganderbal constituency. After the Sheikh’s death his son, Dr Farooq Abdullah won 1983, 87 and 96 elections from Ganderbal.

Till chief minister and Sheik Abdullah’s grandson Omar Abdullah took over party’s command, (in 2002) no Abdullah has lost election from Ganderbal.

Even before Sheikh Abdullah’s entry into Ganderbal it has remained a NC stronghold.

In 1957, Ghulam Ahmad Sofi represented the constituency for the party. After him it was Abdul Salam Aitu (1962). Except for 1967 and 1972 elections when Congressman Mohammad Maqbool Bhat won the seat, Ganderbal remained NC’s bastion.

Even before 2002 elections, when Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson Omar Abdullah decided to contest his first election from Ganderbal, political pundits predicted his victory hands down. But his humiliating defeat by a little known politician Qazi Mohammad Afzal, shocked all including Omar and his dad Farooq.

Qazi, a former timber trader, had recently joined a newly formed party called Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). First timer Qazi managed to get 11622 votes against 8752 bagged by Omar.

It was defeat for both Omar and his grandfather’s party. NC was ousted out of power after 27 years of rule. The once NC dominated political stage in Kashmir has changed. PDP-Congress coalition formed government.  NC lost its VIP constituency Ganderbal for the first time since 1977. Ganderbal till then was known for electing chief ministers.

The importance of Ganderbal constituency for Abduallah family can be gauged from Hurriyat (M) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s reaction after Omar’s defeat in 2002, “it is like me being thrown out of the Jamia Masjid.”

Omar accepted his defeat and said, “There will be self-introspection and we will try to figure out where things went wrong.” Later Omar told a reporter that MLAs and senior leaders of the party are answerable as they were in power for the past six years. A few days later Omar blamed factionalism within the party and political weakness for his defeat.

“I could not understand for about 30 minutes what has happened. It was simply unbelievable that democracy has finally returned to Kashmir,” says Qazi about his win in 2002 elections.

For the first time in Ganderbal’s political history a non Abdullah candidate has won. The town reverberated with “Qazi Hamara Gazi Hai,” slogans.

Qazi who has been fighting unsuccessfully from Ganderbal for a long time, termed his win as “a major victory since 1947 when Maharaja’s rule ended in Kashmir.”

Shiekh Ishfaq Jabbar and Qazi Mohammad Afzal
Shiekh Ishfaq Jabbar and Qazi Mohammad Afzal

“I have avenged my defeat. I would have enjoyed my victory more had it been Dr Abdullah instead of his son. But father or son revenge is revenge,” says Qazi.

A close associate of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Maulana Masoodi, Qazi joined Janata Party just before the 1977 elections when NC participated in polls following the 1975 Sheikh-Indira accord. In 1977 elections, Qazi was defeated by Mian Bashir Ahmed (NC) from Kangan constituency.

Two years later, Qazi joined Congress under the leadership of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, but failed to make it to the State Assembly as he lost both 1983 and 1996 elections. NC’s Sheikh Abdul Jabbar humbled him in the 1983 elections and Dr Farooq Abdullah defeated him in the 1996 polls from the Ganderbal segment.

Later he joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 when it was formed by Mufti Sayeed.

“Sheikh Abdullah also suffered fluctuations in his popularity, but never a loss of credibility,” reacted noted journalist Muhammad Sayed Malik.

Then came 2008. Omar Abdullah, the scion of Abdullah family was again in Ganderbal hoping to revive his family’s lost political connection with the place. This time around Omar made no mistake. He had his homework done. He went door to door asking for votes. He sought forgiveness for the neglect.

But surprising when Omar went to file his nomination papers, he was greeted by deserted streets as Ganderbal observed complete shutdown and people raised pro-freedom slogans. Omar downplayed the strike and protests by saying, “this has been happening here since Sheikh Abdullah’s time.”

Around same time PDP was once again debating Qazi’s name for upcoming elections from Ganderbal seat.

There was opposition from within the party against Qazi, who was serving as forest minister in PDP-Congress coalition.

Qazi had drawn flak for his alleged involvement in transferring 40 hectares of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which looks after the annual Amarnath pilgrimage. The transfer of land to SASB snowballed into a major controversy with BJP announcing a formal economic blockade of the valley. It became basis for Ghulam Nabi Azad led PDP-Congress coalition government’s fall.

With PDP-Congress government failing to sail through its six years time period, parties started working on their poll strategies. Congress fielded, Sheikh Ishfaq Jabbar, son of slain Sheikh Abdul Jabbar, who gave up his job as police officer to contest 2008 elections from Ganderbal.

Shiekh Ghulam Ahmad Saloora
Shiekh Ghulam Ahmad Saloora

Ishfaq’s father was an influential figure in Ganderbal and a close confident of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. But in 1984 he severed ties with the National Conference and joined Sheikh Abdullah’s rebel group led by G M Shah. During Shah’s tenure as chief minister, Sheikh Jabbar served as law minister.

Congress was reintroducing itself in Ganderbal after a gap of around three decades. But the decision to field Ishfaq was taken just a few days before 2008 elections. “I don’t know the reason for this delay. It might be some sort of policy decision from some external agencies to delay my mandate,” feels Ishfaq.

Despite lukewarm response from people in Ganderbal during Omar’s nomination filing, he won hands down with third-largest victory margin to his credit in the state in 2008 elections. With this win both Omar and NC were back in game. Omar has successfully reclaimed his ancestral constituency. “The decision to go back and stand from Ganderbal was an emotional rather than a practical one,” said Omar after winning Ganderbal.

But the win was hardly satisfying for Omar as Congress’s Sheikh Ishfaq, a political novice, managed to bag more than 8 thousand votes, which is huge by Ganderbal standards. Political analysts believe, unlike Sheikh Abdullah and his son Farooq, Omar was never placed comfortably in Ganderbal.

On the other side Sheikh Ishfaq’s ‘success’ prompted Congress to change their strategy towards Ganderbal. The area was no longer a NC stronghold as was case once. Congress has made its presence felt in the area. Making their intentions clear before upcoming elections Congress held a massive rally in Ganderbal to mark Sheikh Jabbar’s death anniversary, where Omar Abdullah’s ‘grand alliance remark’ was snubbed openly. The message was clear: there won’t be any pre-poll alliance between NC and Congress in 2014 elections.  The presence of AICC general secretary, Mohan Prakash at Ganderbal rally made Congresses’ intentions clear. “Choosing Ganderbal for such a rally is a calculated move by Congress. They are making their intentions clear to NC. The coalition is falling apart,” a senior political analyst told Kashmir Life.

But nothing remains constant in politics. The equation changed overnight in Ganderbal when Sheikh Ishfaq, Congress’s trump card in the area for 2014 elections, joined NC. Sheikh Ishfaq termed his move as “homecoming” for him. In fact, even when he was part of Congress he never lost his touch with NC leadership. It was none other than Farooq Abdullah himself who facilitated his marriage with senior NC leader Muhammad Syed Akhoon’s daughter.

During 2008 elections Akhoon was sidelined from the party when his son-in-law Sheikh Ishfaq contested election against Omar Abdullah from Ganderbal. It is said that before 2008 elections Sheikh Ishfaq was close to NC leadership particularly Omar Abdullah. It was NC’s denial to field him from Ganderbal that prompted him to join Congress. “Politics apart, I was a part of Omar’s core group which includes Devender Singh Rana and Nasir Aslam Wani,” said Sheikh Ishfaq. Insiders say that Akhoon will contest from Hazratbal in 2014.

A number of senior Congress leaders believe that Sheikh Ishfaq’s “homecoming” has tilted political balance in Ganderbal.  “It’s a setback for our party,” said G A Mir, minister of tourism.

But, Ishfaq, who was well connected with the Congress national leadership, did not make a hasty exit as perceived by most. According to his close aides Sheikh Ishfaq was unhappy when he was not nominated for Legislative Council (LC) elections. In protest he resigned from all party posts. “I talked to Mohan Prakash, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi and they all assured me that I would be contesting LC elections. But finally they chose someone who has managed just a few hundred votes in 2008 elections,” said Sheikh Ishfaq. Congress reacted sharply to Sheikh Ishfaq’s ‘defection’ to NC and termed it political “back-stabbing”. “Our coalition partner (NC) has publicly demonstrated dishonesty and the action of luring our leader is against the ethics of the coalition dharma,” Congress MLC Ghulam Nabi Monga said after Sheikh Ishfaq joined NC.

However Sheikh Ishfaq told Kashmir Life that he had conveyed his decision to PCC Chief and also sent letter to party high command two months ago. Sheikh Ishfaq says Congress’s policy of ignoring Central Kashmir prompted him to leave the party. “Ganderbal was a no go zone for Congress. They feared that its NC stronghold,” says Sheikh Ishfaq. “Congress did not support me despite my being in good position against Omar,” he says.  “Though central leadership was supportive but the behavior of state leaders prompted him to resign. Factionalism has jolted the party,” says Ishfaq.

Ishfaq’s entry into NC has given boost to the party in Ganderbal. “There is a reward of Rs 10000 for hoisting NC flag in Lar (Ganderbal). The reward has remained unclaimed for two decades. But with Ishfaq’s entry into NC it will happen soon,” says Rouf Ahmad, a local shopkeeper from Lar.

Interestingly, former forest minister Qazi Afzal, is optimistic about PDP’s future in Ganderbal. He says that Ishfaq’s decision will not change political situation in the region. “No doubt Ishfaq is Sheikh Jabbar’s son but surely he is not Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson,” says Afzal. “I will defeat Omar with a huge margin in 2014. I don’t even count Ishfaq as a strong opponent,” says Afzal.

With Ishfaq back in NC amid fanfare chances are that he will be fighting 2014 elections from Ganderbal. In that case Omar Abdullah has to hunt for a “safe seat” for upcoming elections. “Omar not contesting from Ganderbal can prove costly for NC,” said a political observer who wished not to be named.

Though Ishfaq is tight lipped about the issue but he does not hesitate to say that there is demand for a local candidate.

Kashmir’s political circles are abuzz with rumors that Omar’s poor performance is prompting him to look for a ‘safe’ seat to fight 2014 elections. “Omar is leaving his ancestral grounds for the fear of loss. It clearly shows his insecurities,” feels Afzal.

But more than insecurities it is his inability to connect with the people of his constituency worries Omar. “It is sometimes problematic to have local MLA as chief minister as it restricts your access,” feels Ghulam Mohammad Wani, a local resident.

“On the other side being locals both Afzal and Ishfaq are always just a call away,” says Mukhtar Ahmad, another resident.

“We went to meet Omar Sahib and stayed in Jammu for 15 days, but failed. What is fun to have him then as local MLA,” says Owais Ahmad, a student from Ganderbal.

NC is trying hard to retain Ganderbal but factionalism within the party ranks has marred party’s prospects. In last few years senior NC leaders are seen opposing Omar’s policies in public.

Senior NC leader and former provincial president Sheikh Ghulam Ahmad Saloora, while talking to Kashmir Life made no qualms about his discontent with the party. Party leadership has sidelined Saloora deliberatel.

At the peak of armed militancy in Kashmir, Saloora was Farooq Abdullah’s chief election agent in1996 election. “I managed to get 120 polling agents for 60 polling booths,” says Saloora.

From once representative of Dr Farooq Abdullah in Ganderbal, Saloora is completely sidelined from by the new leadership.  “It is a conspiracy of few NC leaders to keep me away from people,” claims Saloora. But insiders in NC claim that ‘Omar wants to have discipline in party.’

Though anger was brewing from last few years, but what annoyed Saloora was party’s decision to replace him with Showkat Ahmad Mir for provincial president post. Mir who retired as Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal earlier this year immediately joined the NC and was given an important assignment in the party.

Another leader Muhammad Yousuf Bhat, who was appointed by Omar as his constituency representative on January 12, 2010 was removed immediately after he was found to have paid an amount of Rs 84 Lakh to another NC activist, Syed Yousuf, allegedly for getting him a ministerial berth and a seat in Legislative Council. Syed Yousuf died under ‘mysterious’ conditions.

On several occasions Saloora has hinted that he will go his separate way if NC does not own him and accommodate him in a dignified manner. But according to sources Omar does not want him to interfere in Ganderbal. “I go to people and daily organize rallies in every corner of Ganderbal as senior leader of NC, but if NC does not want me, I have options open,” Saloora told Kashmir Life.

According to locals, Saloora is the among few NC leaders who stayed back during peak militancy years and was attacked many times. He lost his vital organs in a car blast. He enjoys Y category security. “If I am not rewarded even after sacrificing my entire life for the party and serving people, this would be sheer injustice,” feels Saloora.

With almost all big players eyeing Ganderbal in next assembly elections political parties are busy locating influential people in the area. “In Ishfaq we see Jabbar sahib,” said Ali Muhammad Teli, a political worker from Ganderbal.

Teli, who was once a close associate of PDP’s Qazi Afzal, claims to have played a key role in defeating Omar in 2002 elections. But Teli and Afzal almost two decade long camaraderie came to end when Afzal failed to deliver. “In (Qazi) Afzal we saw hope, but he failed to do anything, particularly regarding unemployment.”

However, Afzal said that he kept all his poll time promises and provide people a safe and conducive atmosphere.  “We tried to restore the sense of security among the people. That was our priority. May be we lacked in generating employment, but that does not mean we did nothing for development of Ganderbal.”

It is widely acknowledged that Sheikh Jabbar was instrumental creating 12000 jobs for the people of Lar. People are hopeful that his son Ishfaq will follow his father’s footsteps if elected.

No doubt the people acknowledge that PDP’s biggest plus point in Ganderbal is the status of ‘district headquarters’ conferred on the constituency during its rule, a long-term demand of the people of the constituency.

On the other hand NC’s disconnect with the people is making party workers apprehensive about their future in Ganderbal.  When Farooq Abdullah was chief minister, he appointed Late Qayoom as his representative from Ganderbal. But locals say that Qayoom, who was engaged with various party related activities could hardly spare any time for people of Ganderbal.

If recent elections for four MLC seats from Panchayat quota are any indication, Omar seems to have lost considerable ground in Ganderbal to opposition PDP.

Viewed by many as pre-poll indicators, MLC elections have shown steep decline in the vote share of NC -Congress coalition government in Ganderbal constituency.

Unlike 2008, NC-Congress coalition together secured 53.98 per cent votes while 42.51 per cent village electorate voted for PDP. Coalition did boost of having decimated PDP in Kashmir valley but failed to realize that its vote share had slumped, noticeably in the high profile Ganderbal constituency.

According to locals in Lar where the two major players, Qazi Afzal and Sheikh Ishfaq reside say that from the day Ishfaq joined NC, the dissent against party is becoming less. People have started to associate themselves with the party.

“Like we used to have before militancy, workers are making bee line to the house of Sheikh Ishfaq till late midnight,” said Abdul Samad, a resident of Lar.

Shabir Masoodi, lawyer and son of Moulana Masoodi, NC’s founder general secretary feels that, “People still remember the sacrifices of Sheikh Abdullah. They vote for NC as a tribute to him 27 years after his death.”

Unlike other parts of valley Ganderbal is political amphitheatre for many ideologies and parties. The death of a Jamaat-e-Islami worker recently highlighted the tensions brewing in Ganderbal.

Senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani termed the killing as a “pre-planned political murder” and further added that there is nothing sectarian in it but it is “political” (NC v/s Jamaat).

Since Sheikh Abdullah’s times Ganderbal has remained a matter of prestige for Abdullah family. But with Ishfaq’s “homecoming” let us wait and watch how Omar is going to plan his strategy in Ganderbal.


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