Illiteracy and poverty are a deadly mix that makes people easy prey for politicians. In Sonawari, Majid Maqbool meets an aged couple whose marriage fell apart in their twilight years because the husband and the wife supported rival parties, hoping they will help their son get a job.
Around 30 kms from Srinagar in Saderkoot Balla village of district Bandipora, a two storey mud house atop a hill houses a poor family torn by their political affiliations. Ninety-five year old Abdul Raheem Ganaie, a staunch NC voter throughout his life, did the unthinkable when his 75-year- old wife Raehti Begum refused to vote for NC in the recently concluded Panchayat elections. Five days before she voted for a PDP candidate, her husband took her to a court in Sumbal and filed for a divorce. Their clashing political loyalties ended a marriage that had lasted over 60 years.
Raehti now lives in the second storey of their dilapidated house along with her son Ghulam Mohiudin Ganaie. Both of them voted for PDP in the Panchayat elections held earlier this year. Raehti’s vote for the PDP candidate separated her from her husband who now lives alone in a small room in the ground floor. The mud walled room also doubles up as a kitchen for him. After separating from his wife, Raheem brought utensils and started cooking separately in his room. He does not talk to his son. Raehti rarely comes down to his room.
The 2005 earthquake had damaged their house. Abdul Raheem received Rs 60 from the earthquake relief fund distributed by the government. The family was too poor to repair the damage to their house. The cracks made by the earthquake are big and visible on the walls. The cracks made by political ideologies are bigger, tearing apart a family into two camps. On one side of the political divide is an old father, a fierce NC loyalist, who has never voted for any other party all his life. On the other side are his old wife and a son who is a PDP loyalist.
The old couple had started arguing over their political affiliations a month before the Panchayat elections. There were heated exchanges between Abdul Raheem and his wife and son. Raehti believed that voting for PDP is a good idea, and it might end their poverty and her son might finally be employed. Her son Ghulam Mohiudin says more than jobs,
PDP offered prospects of a sense of security and dignity. Abdul Raheem, on the other hand, wanted his wife to vote for NC.
Abdul Raheem’s unflinching support for the NC dates back to the sixties. In around 1965, he had pledged to support Sheikh Abdullah and always vote for NC in a public gathering in the Hazratbal shrine. He stood by the pledge; his wife didn’t.
Days before voting for Panchayat elections began, the old couple engaged in heated arguments over their choice of votes. Abdul Raheem even threatened divorce if her vote goes against NC. “There was tension at home. My husband wanted me to vote for NC. But I supported my son and wanted to vote for PDP,” says Raehti in presence of her son who worked overtime to campaign for PDP at the time of elections. Since her husband’s consistent votes for NC had made no difference in their lives, she wanted her son to benefit from her vote. She believed her vote for PDP, even if it came at the cost of her divorce, could make some difference in the life of her unemployed son.
When Raehti refused to listen to her husband, adamant on voting for PDP, Abdul Raheem took her to a court in Sumbal and divorced her in front of a Tehsilder. The Tehsilder advised Abdul Raheem to reconsider his decision. You are taking a wrong decision by divorcing your wife at such an old age, he told Abdul Raheem. “He told him whom I vote is my democratic right and he can’t force me to vote for another party if I don’t want to,” says Raehti. Abdul Raheem, however, was unaffected. The Tehsilder handed over a fifty rupees note to Raehti for her return bus fare. That day, after she was divorced in a court in Sumbal, Raehti returned home alone. She shifted her belongings to a separate room in the second storey of her house.
On the day of voting, Raheem insisted her to come out and vote for NC. Had she voted for NC, he might have reconsidered taking her back. But even after Raehti was divorced, she did not change her mind about her vote. She went on to cast her vote for a PDP candidate in a polling booth in the nearby high school.
After she cast her vote, Raehti did not stay at her home. She left her home to live with her daughter who is married in the neighboring village. For two months, Raehti lived with her daughter. However, after two months she had to move back to her house to take care of her daughter’s two kids who live with them at their home in Saderkoet. On her return, without talking to Abdul Raheem, she moved back to her separate room in the second storey of her house.
Raehti rarely comes down to Raheem’s room to cook for him“Whatever I did, I did it for my children,” Raehti says as tears trickle down on her wrinkled face. “Look at our house and see our condition,” she says, pointing at the cracks on the walls. “If my children get some benefits with my vote, why would I not vote for their welfare?”
“I have always seen only darkness till now,” she says, “Now all I want is some comfort for my children.”
Raehti’s son, Ghulam Mohiudin, 37, worked hard during the two months of campaigning for the PDP in the run up to the Panchayat elections. He did not get anything in return. He works as a laborer, but sometimes there is no work. He hopes that his efforts in electing a Sarpanch from PDP will be rewarded someday.
The elected Sarpanch from PDP, however, is unable to help the jobless youth from his area. Abdul Salaam says government made promises of giving authority to the Sarpanches, but no powers have been given to them yet. People voted for them so that he could do their work after winning the election, but he feels helpless now. “Even Omar Abdullah made promises that he will give authority to Sarpanches during Ramadhan, but nothing has been done so far,” says Salaam.
“When we approach public offices, we are neglected,” says Salaam, who was earlier part of the Kuka Parray’s Awami League party before joining PDP. “We can’t promise jobs for the unemployed,” he says. Even in NEREGA schemes, he adds, people get only Rs120 for a day’s work which is very less.
Abdul Raheem Ganaie spends most of his day alone in his room, looking out of a solitary wooden window. For 75 years Raheem has been consistently voting for NC. When he was young, he was given employment during Sheikh Abdullah’s rule, but he declined it. The salary was a meagre Rs 32 per month, he says. In the 90s, when his son was a teenager, he was given a job by the Farooq Abdullah led government. But a different name figured in the order meant for his son. His son remained jobless. Since then, despite his consistent votes for NC, the ministers only made promises of employment for his son.
Despite being neglected by the party and living in poverty, Abdul Raheem stuck to the pledge he made decades back in Hazratbal shrine in presence of Sheikh Abdullah. “Around two lakh people had assembled on a holy day in Hazratbal shrine that day,” recalls Raheem. “When Shiekh Abdullah asked us to raise hands and always support his party, we made a pledge,” says Raheem.
Those days, Rahim says, people believed Sheikh Abdullah will bring Azadi to Kashmir. He holds him in great regard. “He was the only leader who stood for the rights of Kashmiris,” he says. “He fought with the Indian leaders for us.”
Rahim says for the past 75 years he did not break the pledge since it was made on a holy day in the Hazratbal shrine. He considers it unholy to break a pledge made in a holy place, even if the pledge was made more than 40 years back. He is least concerned about who wins or loses, but his vote must go in favour of NC. “The pledge is sacred,” he says. “I will not break it till my death.”
Dilapidated house of Abdul Rahim GanaieDays before voting began for Panchayat elections, Raheem kept arguing with his wife. Since they have together made a pledge in Hazratbal shrine, he did not want her to vote for any other party. But his wife would not listen. Like her son, she had made up her mind to vote for PDP.
“I told her that we have been married for 75 years, but I have made a pledge in Hazratbal shrine to vote for NC,” says Abdul Raheem. “I told her even if it means I have to divorce her, I will not hesitate since the pledge is more important for me than any relation,” he says. When his wife didn’t budge from her political stand, the divorce became imminent. It came just days before the voting began. In a court in Sumbal, Raheem filed divorce papers in presence of a Tehsildar. The old couple parted ways over their political differences.
“She and my son would not listen to me,” says Abdul Raheem. “I went ahead and voted for NC. I didn’t want to violate the pledge”
Rahim says he can go against his family, but he can’t break the pledge made at a sacred place. “I thought tomorrow I will be answerable before God,” he says. “I will be questioned on the day of judgment. You can not violate a pledge made in a holy place.” “Even if family comes in between,” Raheem concludes, “the pledge has to be kept at all costs.”
Abdul Raheem is also unhappy with the newly elected PDP Sarpanch in the village. He does not talk to him. Despite his wife and son voting in his favour, he believes the elected Sarpanch can’t do anything to alleviate their poverty or provide a job to his son. “My son worked for months to convince people to vote for PDP, but what did he get in return?” he asks.
In the past Abdul Raheem would help people from his village by accompanying them to the NC ministers and getting their work done. He claims he got 17 people employed from his village by approaching NC ministers on their behalf from time to time. However, despite being loyal to NC all his life and sharing a good rapport with ministers, his son remained unemployed. And they continue to live in poverty.
Sonawari has remained one of the many godforsaken spots of the Vale through ages. Its misfortune has been its topography. Despite having enough water, irrigated land, and manpower, it has not been able to flourish as a rice producing area as every time the Jhelum floods, it devastates Sonawari.
The absence of dependable economy forced a significant section of its population to find alternative means of survival. Some struggled as poor handicraft artisans; others barely made ends meet by harvesting and selling. Few others managed to barely live off fishing. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was the first politician to help Sonawari by creating embankments, which reduced the losses inflicted by the floods.
Bakshi exacted his price from Sonawari: He enlisted the men of Sonawari in his squad of goons, known as Gugas. The tradition continued. Low literacy levels, abject poverty, and desperation to make ends meet kept the area volatile. Such socio-economic conditions helped in the rise of Ikhwanis in the area in the mid-nineties, and the same reality shapes intense political differences in communities, even families living in the Sonawari area.
In some ways, Sonawari has remained a game changer in Kashmir. It filled Bakhshi’s goon squad which terrorised political opponents, it moved onto to become a bastion for Sheikh Abdullah, then became the head quarters of counter-insurgency in Kashmir and sent the counter-insurgent commander Kukka Parray as its elected representative to the state legislative assembly in 1996.
Kuka Parray’s Awami league party initially had a strong base in villages like Saderkoet Balla as he was behind some developmental work. But as his men unleashed a reign of terror in Saderkoet and other villages, killing seven innocent people who had voted against him on his election day, Sonawari eventually turned against the dangerous Parrey as well, working for his electoral defeat in 2002. And when Parrey was killed by militants in 2003, Sonawari refused him its graveyards and he had to be buried in the courtyard of his high walled house. Sonawari had elected the current speaker of the legislative assembly, Mohammad Akber Lone in 2002.
Sarpanch Abdul Salam for whom Raehti and her son voted] But it did not leave the powerful Lone without a challenge and he had to face Yasir Rishi, who as a very young man had been Lone’s chief polling agent despite death threats from Kuka Parrey and had been forced to leave Sonawari for a few years. With the insurgency almost over, traditional politics has taken over. There were not many options available for people in the unipolar unionist politics before militancy but the rise of a challenger to NC has sharpened the politics and the differences.
Ghulam Mohiudin is unhappy about his father’s continued affiliation with NC. He thinks his father wasted all his life by being loyal to NC. He was sidelined by the party leadership, says his son, despite consistently voting for the party all through his life. “Everyone in the party knows him. They know he has been loyal to them, but they didn’t help us in any way,” says his son.
In his defense Abdul Raheem says he didn’t ask his sons to vote for NC since they are not bound by the pledge. “I only insisted my wife as I had the right to prevail on her to vote for NC as per our pledge,” he says. “I had to take this extreme step as she didn’t listen to me and broke the pledge. She listened to son and voted for PDP,” he says.
Other than their political differences, Rahim says he has nothing against Raehti. On the importance of his pledge, he waxes eloquent: “Waadas maa kar inkaar, yate kya laere walo..”
Over the years Abdul Raheem has seen the rule of many governments. He has witnessed many MLAs and ministers come to power and then lose it in no time. Most of them, he says, worked for their own ends and didn’t care for the poor people like him who elected them to power.
He says he will be happy to see his son and wife prosper now that they have voted for the PDP. “Despite all this we have been through, if our children don’t benefit what is the use of all these parties?” he asks.
Abdul Raheem remains confined to his room for most part of the day. He lives on a paltry old age fund of Rs 200-300 given to him after every couple of months. Sometimes it takes four months for this small amount to arrive. Being very old, he is unable to move around much. He needs the aid of a walking stick to step out of his room.
Having spent a lifetime with him, Raehti is aware of his limitations and the small things he needs at times. Sometimes, without informing her son, she comes downstairs and quietly cooks food for him in his room. Then she quickly goes back to her room upstairs.