The change of guard in Delhi has brought Kashmiri Pandits to the centrestage of the Jammu and Kashmir elections. With the Bharatiya Janata Party taking over the reins of power at the centre, the community that has been living in exile for 25 years now is suddenly finding itself in spotlight for the first time since 1989 when it was forced to leave the Valley as a result of militancy raising its head.
The timing is just perfect for BJP as despite the fact that all major parties of the state are losing their support bases, the saffron party is on the ascendance as a major force in the state and is likely to form the government.
Ever since coming to power in May 2014, BJP has been pursuing the cause of Kashmiri Pandits and talking about their rehabilitation in the Valley. Other parties, which had been ignoring the community so far, are now feeling the heat in the changed political scenario.
The Kashmiri Pandits are expected to prove influential on eight seats which include Habbakadal (12 per cent), Ganderbal (52 per cent), Kulgam (62 per cent), Anantnag (42 per cent), Tral (49 per cent) (substantial Sikh population), Amirakadal (15 per cent), Sopore (20 per cent) and Khanyar (18 per cent). There are about four lakh eligible Kashmiri Pandit voters who reside in other parts of the country and they are eager to exercise their democratic right this time with a hope for change.
The Election Commission of India has made special preparations to ensure that Kashmiri Pandits living in Delhi are able to exercise their right to vote. The poll panel is making some arrangements for the migrant voters at Jammu and Kashmir House on Prithviraj Road, New Delhi. Arrangements have also been made at Office of Deputy director, Horticulture, Planning and Marketing, Shalimar Bagh, New Delhi; BDO, Office, Najafgarh, New Delhi; Arwachin International School, pocket F, Dilshad Garden, Delhi. While the Election Commission said that it is not feasible to provide polling stations for the migrant community, the option to exercise their vote through the postal ballot system will be made available.
Though the option to vote through postal ballots has been available for Kashmiri Pandits in Delhi earlier too what’s different this year is the enthusiasm and optimism in the community for change. The enthusiasm is likely to actually translate into the community members using the postal ballot option.
Shaken by the sudden turn of events, parties ranging from the National Conference and People Democratic Party (PDP) to the Congress, are putting in their efforts to win the confidence of Pandits to make a mark in the assembly elections. Interestingly, even the Kashmiri Pandits were not expecting much of a change six months back but the Lok Sabha election result and Prime Minister Narender Modi’s focus on Kashmir have forced other mainstream and regional political parties to think about ways to woo Pandit voters.
‘I am surprised to see how National Conference, PDP and Congress which have ignored the Kashmiri Pandits all these years are now projecting themselves as sympathisers of the community. The situation changed only after this new government came to power at the centre. We cannot forget the indifference of these parties towards us and now they will have to pay the price for it,’ said Sandip Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit, who works as a lead architect with a Delhi-based firm and has been living in exile for last 25 years, said.
‘We are fed up with terrorism and radicalism in Kashmir. We are homeless and living like a refugee since the last 25 years. None of the previous governments, whether it was centre or state governments, have ever considered us as Kashmiri or even Indian. Now after the new government led by Modi has come to the power, we are hoping that good days will come for us,’ said Kaul.
According to senior Kashmiri journalist, Zulfikar Majid, ‘This is the first time when BJP is likely to make its presence felt in the Valley. Earlier, BJP could not even find candidates to participate in the election. Now a number of people have joined the party. Sajjad Gani Lone, who has some influence in north Kashmir especially in Kupwara seat and four other seats in the area, can make a difference in the election. It looks like that he can go with the BJP in the assembly election. BJP has also given tickets to several Muslim candidates, who can make their presence felt more than ever before.’
Majid, however, said that the Modi factor is not as strong in the Kashmir Valley as it is in the Jammu region. ‘The real issues here in the Valley are corruption and development,’ he added.
Meanwhile, Pandits who are living in Delhi NCR have expressed hope for the change. ‘The political paradigm has changed a lot in Jammu and Kashmir. At this moment the separatists are being sidelined and the neglected people have come up in the mainstream. Look at the social networking websites and election campaigns of the political parties. Voters are looking for jobs and development. They want someone who can eliminate corruption, bring entire state together for the betterment of the society,’ said Raman Sharma, a Jammu-based journalist and RTI activist.
In the changed political scenario in the state several prominent leaders in Kashmir have switched over to the BJP. ‘Ajatshatru Singh from Congress, PDP leader Taj Mohammad Khan, PDP Youth Wing State general secretary Showkat Javed Daing, former NC Senior leader from Rajouri, Choudhary Talib Hussain, Dr. Hina Bhat, daughter of former NC leader Muhammad, Shafi Bhat, former Jammu and Kashmir inspector general of police (IGP) Farooq Khan and Satinder Singh Bijral and also two time MLA of the Jammu State Morcha (JSM) Ashwani Sharma all have joined the BJP,’ said Sharma.
Meanwhile, to rope in more Kashmiri Pandits into the electoral process, BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have launched door-to-door enrolment in Jammu, Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon, and some pockets of Punjab.
According to some media reports, Ministry of Home Affairs is ready with its plan for rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits.
‘The Kashmiri Pandits are the part of our culture. No one can ignore their presence in our society. We want them to come back home. There are about 70 per cent people below the age of 35 years, who will use their democratic right to vote, and they are fed up with the corruption, terrorism, poverty, radicalism in the society. They need jobs and a better life. However, mainstream parties such the Congress, the NC, and the PDP, which promised a better future have failed. Now BJP is also showing its presence in the valley and that has certainly heated up the political war in the state,’ Nadeem Qadri, an advocate from Pampore, Kashmir told Millennium Post over phone.
On the question of call for election boycott, Qadri said, ‘Hurriyat Conference still has some influence in the Valley but as a non-political person I believe that there will be huge turnout of voters this time to the polling booths compared to earlier elections. Voters will cast the vote for change despite the boycott call by other groups here. People want change and it seems it will happen now. However, BJP needs to rethink about its stand over Article 370.’