Hilal Mir/ Moazum Mohammad
Bandipora: Every resident of Bandipora makes it sure to remind an outsider that this pretty part of north Kashmir is defined by the alliterative trinity of Alim, Adab, Aab (knowledge, culture and water).
In the highly divisive world of Kashmir’s electoral politics, this place is better known as the one that was the first to vote in 2008 Assembly polls, three months after the bloody uprising over the Amarnath land deal, setting a trend that was emulated in most parts of the Valley and surprised even pro-India politicians who were expecting a low-turnout election or a complete boycott in the worst-case scenario.
There is stark difference between the two elections. A day before Bandipora went to polls in 2008, the only sign of elections was the heavy deployment of troops and polling staff emptying poll paraphernalia in a government building. Hardly any civilian walked on the roads.
Azim Jan, who was Greater Kashmir’s stringer then, told me that Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, a BBC broadcaster then and now PDP’s media advisor, called him on phone and asked him to get her a bite of someone who will be voting. All other persons she had spoken to by then, Jan said, had told her they would be boycotting the election.
An old man whose son had been killed in firing by the police at Bandipora town during the uprising told this reporter, “Tomorrow, the people who persuaded my son to join the agitation and were protesting along with him would be the first to vote.” But his words appeared as an outburst of a father embittered by the loss of his son. Outside, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that of an imminent boycott. What happened the next day is, to use the useful cliché, history.
In contrast, the mood today in Bandipora is that of electoral festivity one witnesses in various parts of India around elections. A mesh of crisscrossing buntings of various political parties forms a canopy over the bus stand in the town. Songs extolling virtues of candidates (all seem to have been sung by the same singer) are broadcast from vehicles that pass through the town every now and then. Children sport election caps of political parties for fun.
The poll battle in 2008, on the face of it, appeared to be boycott versus vote. It later turned out that the deceptive voters had already fashioned it into a decisive fight between Usman Majid, the incumbent Congress MLA and former counterinsurgent, and Nizamuddin Bhat, a former People’s Conference member-turned-journalist-turned PDP candidate. The duo is locked in a straight contest once again.
It seems the Alim and Adab part of the Bandipora, represented by the aspirational, educated middle-class as well as Gujjars are going to vote for Bhat again. A sizable number of the people from the marginal sections of the society, among them families of former counterinsurgents called Ikhwanis, lean towards Usman Majid.
“In the last election, only two-members of my family cast vote. But this time, my entire family of seven will vote for Usman Majid. My son, a Tableegi Jamaat member swore this morning that he will vote for Usman sahib,” said Habibullah Malik of Lawypora, a card-carrying Congressman in his early seventies.
According to Malik, PDP supporters play up Usman’s past an Ikhwani because they are “aware of his popularity”.
“Nizamuddin sent thousands of youths to Pakistan for arms training when he was late Abdul Gani Lone’s confidant. I have travelled all over the Valley and I know everyone here. He spent money to buy votes in 2008 polls. But what will he do this time?” Malik, who claimed to be a Congress worker for past 40-years, told Kashmir Reader.
Many people said that both Usman and Bhat have been able to pacify and win into their party fold tens of stone pelters. That might explain the relative calm in the town.
More than a dozen of these stone-pelters-turned Usman supporters were arranging chairs, hoisting buntings and managing people at an election meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressed on Friday at Sheri Kashmir Stadium in Bandipora town.
One of them, a very outspoken Irshad Ahmad from Bagh area, explained why “Usman is going to win”.
“Usman sahib is very down to earth. He picks up a spade and joins labourers in public works. Even when he was not an MLA, he would help people out in official issues. This stadium, sub-district hospital, a college, district status to Bandipora are some of Usman Majid’s achievements. Nizamuddin did not add anything to these achievements,” Irshad said.
Usman’s loyalists, and disgruntled Bhat’s supporters too, accuse Bhat of nepotism and discrimination.
“His brothers are contractors and they constructed the polytechnic college. You should go and see its condition. Whenever we go to him, he shoos us away and calls us Ikhwanis,” Irshad said.
“In Watpora, which is Nizamuddin’s native place, our vehicle was attacked with stones by his supporters when we were coming to the election meeting,” said Farooq Ahmad, an Usman supporter from Lawaypora.
Usman’s vote bank attributes his defeat in 2008 polls to “laziness” and “not taking care of workers”.
In fact, Ghulam Rasool, a Congress supporter from Garoora, said, “We have nothing to do with his past. If our leader (Usman) was an Ikhwani, why did Nizamuddin campaign and vote for him in 2002 polls?”
However, Fayaz Ahmad, a resident of Bagh, said the highhandedness of some of Usman’s henchmen had disappointed a lot of people who voted for Bhat in anger.
“That is why the first thing Usman sahib did after his defeat was to throw those men out,” Fayaz said.
A local journalist, who requested anonymity, said that despite the seemingly overwhelming support for Usman, as reflected in Friday meeting, Bhat will manage a second victory. He said a clique of contractors’ power both Usman and Bhat’s political engines.