Srinagar: Thirty-seven-year-old Abid Kashmiri was busy “building a cadre base” in western Uttar Pradesh when he was summoned by the Congress party to strategise ahead of the urban local body (ULB) elections in Jammu and Kashmir. As someone who claims to have been associated with the Congress for nearly two decades and held several national-level positions in the party, Kashmiri had a hard choice to make.
“I don’t want to boast about my body of work or contributions to the party, but my experience is enough to make me a worthy candidate to fight any assembly elections. Yet I have chosen to fight to be a councillor so that communal powers do not take root in our Valley again,” said Kashmiri, sitting at the party headquarters in Lal Chowk.
Having served as the in-charge of state elections in Uttarakhand and now given the duty to handle western Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2019 general elections, Kashmiri decided to fight for the seat of councillor in Srinagar’s tremulous Downtown area to halt the Bhartiya Janata Party or its allies from entering the Valley’s grassroots-level politics.
A civil contractor by profession, Kashmiri hails from the Pantha Chowk area, which is one of the main entry points into south Kashmir, the centre of militancy. He credits Congress leader and MLA from the Jammu province Yogesh Sawhney for his entry into the national party.
“Nobody in my family has any association with politics but I had this thinking that being a politician brings respect and dignity to an individual. That was my primary motivation to join politics – otherwise I belong to a business family,” said Kashmiri.
He added that his family owned a wealthy coal business and at the height of militancy became the main supplier to the Border Security Force (BSF). “Those days no one wanted any association with the BSF but we became their main supplier of coal. Due to that, our influence in the area increased,” Kashmiri said.
The Congressman said the party was a natural choice to make for him due to the ideology that it stands for. In 2002, Kashmiri was chosen as the general secretary of the J&K Pradesh Youth Congress, a position he held till 2006. Then in 2006, Kashmiri was made incharge of the Kashmir province, until Congress president Rahul Gandhi introduced “elected system” into the party in 2011.
“Before that people were selected on nomination basis, and through the elected system I was chosen as the secretary in the Pradesh Congress Committee,” Kashmiri said.
The same year, in December, Kashmiri was selected as one of the 38 members of the nationwide All India Congress Committee as a secretary, and subsequently was chosen as the state in-charge of Uttarakhand during the last assembly elections which the BJP won.
“Militants issued a threat that those who decide to participate in the ULB elections should do so while wearing a shroud. The regional parties announced a boycott. I thought I owed it to the party and to the nation to fight the elections even though they don’t fit my profile,” said Kashmiri.
He is currently now fighting for the seat in three wards. Ward number 5 in Pantha Chowk area, Ward number 3 in Brein locality of Nishat area and finally Rathpora ward Eidgah area of the old city, also known as downtown.
All of his wards have a unique feature to them. While Pantha Chowk has become prone to increased militancy in recent times, violent clashes with government forces is a regular feature in downtown.
“To fight from ward number 3 in Brein was a choice made at the last moment as we believed Junaid Mattu of the People’s Conference will be fighting from there,” Kashmiri. Mattu, who was recently with the National Conference, joined separatist-turned-mainstream-politician Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference, an alliance partner of the BJP.
In Pantha Chowk, Kashmiri faces Lateef Mir, whom he accused of being a proxy candidate for PDP MLA Ashraf Mir. He said Lateef Mir is Ashraf’s cousin and because PDP has announced a boycott of ULB elections, they are fielding proxy candidates.
The Wire got in touch with Ashraf Mir who refuted the allegations and called them baseless. “I am in Bangalore, I have no idea what rubbish is being spread behind me,” said Mir.
His third ward in Eidgah’s Rathpora area is an even more unique choice for Kashmiri, as the area is considered a separatist bastion. Kashmiri believes there won’t be more than 50-60 voters and all of them will side with him.
“I have helped a lot of youth in the area enter the mainstream,” Kashmiri added. However, the Downtown area was in the news very recently when two National Conference workers were killed by unknown gunmen last week.
Senior National Conference leader and MLA from Habba Kadal constituency Shameema Firdous accused the BJP and its idealogical parent RSS in the killing of two of her party workers.
“I have no hesitation to say that the BJP and RSS killed my workers. I have no doubt about it,” a fiery Shameema had said in the presser.
The area where the two workers were killed, Karfali Mohalla, is around three km from Kashmiri’s ward Rathpora, and he said he would be lying if he claimed he has no fear of death.
“Of course I am afraid of dying but that is how life is. The killings of National Conference workers shook me but no one is asking the right questions,” said Kashmiri. When asked what he thought of Shameema’s accusations, Kashmiri said, ” I don’t want to name anybody but please tell me which party will benefit the most if workers are killed or voters are deterred from coming out to vote. So many seats have been won without an election, who benefited from the killings?”
Azaan Javaid in a Kashmir-based journalist and has previously reported from New Delhi for Hindustan Times, DNA, Deccan Herald, Statesman and Caravan magazine. He has covered Ministry of Home Affairs, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Enforcement Directorate and major crimes in North India.