Why Kashmiri behemoths have shifted focus to Chenab, Pir Panchal regions

Why Kashmiri behemoths have shifted focus to Chenab, Pir Panchal regions

Taking a temporary break from Kashmir’s challenging political turf, NC and PDP, the two major regional unionist parties from the restive region have shifted their focus toward the Chenab Valley and the Pir Panchal region in Jammu province.

What is the message that is being telegraphed by the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)? What is the motivation behind their renewed public outreach programmes in Doda, Kishtwar, Bhaderwah, Poonch, Rajouri, Ramban and Banihal areas?

The move is being attributed to their aim to reconnect with the people and strengthen the bond with natural political allies there.

One view is that the BJP is “allowing” some freedom to both NC and PDP in Chenab and Pir Panchal to help it further “polarise” the atmosphere and help in “consolidation of the Hindu vote” in the entire Jammu province.

Jammu-based political commentator and executive editor of English newspaper Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin told The Federal that “this way, the BJP gets to electorally encash the Hindu anxieties, divide the Muslim vote between PDP and NC, and give an impression that the valley-based Muslim leadership is invading the Jammu turf. It helps the BJP to raise tensions.”

She said the move also provides an opportunity to the two regional parties to expand their base beyond Kashmir.

Another opinion is that the visits by the two parties also send out the message to both the BJP and the people of Jammu and Kashmir that the elections are just round the corner.

A senior NC leader told The Federal, on the condition of anonymity, that “Omar Abdullah talked about restoration of Article 370, but remained ambiguous and clueless about the roadmap on how to get back the special status. And, he is upbeat as if the assembly elections are happening by March next year.”

What Abdullah said in Chenab

NC vice president and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah is currently busy posting pictures from the picturesque Doda and Kishtwar in the Chenab Valley. The act itself is a form of political messaging.

On November 28, the junior Abdullah alleged that Chenab and Pir Panjal regions have been “completely relegated to oblivion post-August 2019.”

Addressing a public gathering at Doda Bus Stand, Abdullah said that “Articles 370, 35-A were not useless footnotes written in incomprehensible legalese. The discriminatory approach of the Centre towards Jammu and Kashmir smacks of some vengeance towards the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Abdullah was flanked by party’s general secretary Ali Muhammad Sagar and political advisor Tanvir Sadiq. The NC leadership is on an eight-day-long visit to the Chenab Valley. Those who welcomed Abdullah, Sagar and Sadiq included Ratan Lal Gupta (NC’s provincial president for Jammu), Khalid Najeeb Suharwardhy, Sajjad Kichloo, Aijaz Jan, Dr Chaman Lal, Brij Mohan Sharma, Zaffarullah Rather, and Naveed Hashmi.

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“Now that the Centre is directly holding the reins of power in its hands and Articles 370, 35-A aren’t in their way, what is impeding them from giving practical expression to their projected claims on development and investment? Where is the much touted development? Where is the promised job extravaganza for our youth?” Abdullah asked in an oratorical tone.

“One is at their wits end to understand what the Centre is up to in Jammu and Kashmir. Why is Ladakh allowed to retain resident certificates? Why not such protections for the residents of Jammu, Kashmir, Doda, Kishtwar Pir Panjal? Such iniquitous measures smack off some out-of-sight designs of helmsmen in New Delhi. Unlike Ladakh, the flood gates have been left open for non-locals to apply for government jobs and own land in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

On November 27, Abdullah had visited the family of Mohammad Amir Magray, one of the slain youths in the controversial Hyderpora (Srinagar) shootout, in Ramban district. There, he vowed to continue his party’s fight for restoration of the pre-August 5 position of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Wasn’t slain Magray part of Jammu? Isn’t Gool part of Jammu? Where are those leaders? Why didn’t they come forward to seek justice for the bereaved family of Magray? Perhaps he doesn’t fit in their political agenda. These people are here to divide us,” the NC leader said on his visit to the Chenab Valley, his first since the restive region lost its semi-autonomy and statehood on August 5, 2019.

Speaking about Kashmir’s “collective helplessness”, Abdullah said the ground situation was such that “we have to protest for handing bodies to their kin. The situation is such that young Amir, who was killed in Srinagar, had to be buried at Handwara. His father, who is still guarded by police for his prominent role in curbing militancy in his remote hamlet, is knocking on different doors to get his son’s body. We have to take to roads not for justice but for handing over bodies back to their kin.”

Calling the Centre’s August 5 move “unilateral, unconstitutional and undemocratic”, he said “Today the press in Jammu and Kashmir is not allowed to show the real picture. Not because the press doesn’t want to write it. It is because of the threats and intimidation and not allowing them to operate freely. One only gets to see shoddy propaganda and PRs of the government in the press. Those who fail to comply with are being subjected to discrimination in terms of government advertisements.”

Mehbooba Mufti in Chenab, Pir Panchal

Prior to Abdullah’s visit to the areas with a significant Muslim population  another former chief minister and PDP’s president Mehbooba Mufti had also addressed public rallies in several parts of the Pir Panchal and Chenab during her two separate outreach programmes, each a week-long.

Mehbooba Mufti told The Federal, “There was a pattern in which the communal forces are trying to polarise voters by sowing seeds of hatred and division in these areas. So it is the responsibility of secular forces to work harder and reach out in order to defeat the evil designs of the communal forces.”

She says it was important to reach out to the people in these regions and “assuage their feelings and problems.”

“Since we, the political leadership, are mostly engrossed in the situation prevailing in the Kashmir Valley, there is a tendency to pay less attention over these remote and far-flung areas of our own region. They have their own set of humongous problems and often feel left out,” she added.

According to PDP’s spokesperson Najmu Saqib, the party had commenced its week-long visit to the Pir Panchal region on October 10. The party leadership, according to Saqib, first visited Chandimarh, Draba, Surankote, Poonch Haveli, Mendhar, Manjakot,Shadra Shareef Rajouri, Kotranka Darhal, Nowshera area in the Pir Panchal and later moved to the Jammu city.

“During a follow-up week-long visit to the Chenab Valley, our party leadership visited areas like Chhatroo, Kishtwar, Thatri, Bhaderwah, Doda, Batote, Ramban, Gool, Banihal. Separately, we also went to RS Pora and Bishnah,” Saqib told The Federal, adding that, “The BJP has created a false narrative over Article 370. The saffron party has also created an artificial barrier between the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the region’s mainstream leadership so that a vacuum is created to the benefit of the BJP.”

He said the response from the people in the Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal was “overwhelming” and more than the party had expected. He said people who attended the party rallies there chanted slogans like “Cheen ke lenge, 370 (We will snatch and get back Article 370), tum dande maro, 370 (even if you beat us with sticks), tum goli maro, 370 (even if you shower bullets on us).”

‘A form of pragmatic politics’

Key Kashmir watchers believe that the sense of fear regarding demographic change, loss of employment, and lack of jobs for the youths among others is palpable in all different areas of the Jammu province.

Noor Ahmad Baba, Kashmir’s veteran political scientist, argued that the outreach programmes by the NC and PDP in the Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal appear to be “a part of an endeavour to strengthen political narrative vis-à-vis restoration of semi-autonomy, Articles 370 and 35A and statehood.”

Also read: Unpatriotic, seditious, or simply fanatic: Pro-Pak remarks that cost 3 Kashmiris dear

“This is pragmatism and sort of realistic politics. It should have been done much earlier, though. Not involving people in Chenab and Pir Panchal has been a failure of Kashmiri politics across the ideological divide,” Noor Baba told The Federal, adding that “These areas are a natural extension of the Kashmir Valley in terms of geography, culture and politics. With limitations in articulation, the Kashmir-based leadership has not succeeded in understanding that the political sentiment, understanding of complex issues and challenges that peoples face there are no different from Kashmir.”

Noted historians and academics in Kashmir are of the view that since 1846 when the Treaty of Amritsar was executed by the British East India Company and Gulab Singh, “Jammu plains were an artificial political construct with little or no connection with the Kashmir Valley; culturally and politically. On the contrary, Kishtwar, Doda, Rajouri and Poonch always had deep-rooted cultural ties and political connections with Kashmir.”

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