In 2014, Abdul Rahim Rather won South Kashmir’s Kokernag assembly seat as a candidate of the People’s Democratic Party. It was his maiden victory.

But like every other legislator in Jammu and Kashmir, he could not complete his term. On August 5, 2019, the central government dissolved the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly to which Rather was elected. The state was stripped of special status under Article 370 and split into two Union Territories.

As it introduced the legislative changes, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre declared it would free Kashmir of dynastic rule under the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference – the two major Kashmiri parties that had formed governments in the state for decades. The BJP declared it would refashion electoral politics to establish a “Naya Kashmir”.

A few months after the changes, Rather decided to join the Apni Party, a new political outfit largely composed of the second-rung leaders of the People’s Democratic Party and the Congress. It was widely believed to have been created with Delhi’s blessings, part of the BJP’s plan to change the political landscape of Kashmir.

But now, Rather finds himself without an electoral base. The Kokernag seat that he had wrested away from a Congress legislator, winning by a substantial margin, no longer exists.

It has been wiped out in the new constituency map proposed by the delimitation commission set up to redraw the electoral map of Jammu and Kashmir. A total of 18 assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir have been erased in the map. Six of them were last won by candidates who went on to join the Apni Party post August 2019.

Rather’s constituency, for instance, has been carved up between Lernoo and Dooru constituencies. “I have had no connection with those people [in Dooru and Lernoo],” said Rather, who is also the Anantnag district president of the Apni Party. “This is a challenging issue for me and I have to create a base for myself in these areas from the scratch.”

Another seat that has been wiped out is Amira Kadal in Srinagar. In 2014, former state cabinet minister Altaf Bukhari had won the seat on a People’s Democratic Party ticket. After August 2019, Bukhari quit his old party to head the Apni Party.

As the party’s leaders joined the chorus of criticism against the new delimitation plan, it suggested the accord with Delhi may be fraying. Has the Apni Party been pushed to the margins barely two years after it was formed as the engine of political change in Jammu and Kashmir?

Redrawing J&K

Back in 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had promised that statehood would be restored in Jammu and Kashmir. But first, the freshly minted Union Territory’s constituencies would have to be redrawn and elections held.

In February 2020, the government set up a three-member delimitation commission, headed by former judge Ranjana Desai. They were tasked with drafting a new map of constituencies before deliberations could begin with the five associate members – that is, the Lok Sabha legislators from Jammu and Kashmir.

Early this February, the three members shared a draft plan with the five members of Parliament. Seven new seats were added, taking the assembly strength from 107 to 114 – Hindu-majority Jammu got six new seats and Muslim-majority Kashmir got one. Nine seats were reserved for Scheduled Tribes and seven for Scheduled Castes in the region. Almost every constituency was redrawn.

It drew angry protests from the established Kashmiri parties. The National Conference, which has three Lok Sabha legislators at present, rejected the draft plan, saying the commission had not gone by the established logic of delimitation, which is to ensure all members of the population were equally represented. The People’s Democratic Party accused the commission of working to ensure more seats for the BJP.

More surprisingly, the Apni Party also registered its displeasure with the draft plan. When the commission first floated the plan to introduce six new seats to Jammu and one to Kashmir, the party had said it went against the “very idea of secular India”. Without naming the BJP, the Apni Party said the distribution of seats was “visibly disproportionate and encourages doubts of favouritism towards a specific political party.”

At a press conference in Jammu on February 19, Bukhari rejected the proposed electoral map, saying it was aimed at “dividing people on communal lines”.

Erasing identity

Apni Party leaders have continued to criticise the identity politics of the delimitation plan. Apart from accusing the plan of being communally divisive, party leaders have claimed it aims to demolish the history and cultural identity of the Valley by changing the names of certain constituencies.

“My constituency is named after the world famous health resort of Kokernag,” said Rather. “The commission didn’t take those sensibilities in mind and people of Kokernag are feeling dejected by it.”

He pointed to the contrast with Jammu, where the commission had named a new constituency after the famous Shri Mata Vaishno Devi shrine, a source of local pride. “Even though nobody lives around the shrine, they still named a constituency after it. Why couldn’t they do the same and retain the name of Kokernag?” he asked.

In Srinagar, the Batamaloo constituency, named after one of the city’s most well-known hubs, has been wiped out. It is replaced by the more bureaucratically named Central Shalteng constituency. Noor Mohammad Sheikh, who won Batamaloo as a People’s Democratic Party leader in 2014, later joined the Apni Party.

“In terms of population and geography, there isn’t much change in my assembly segment but they have taken away the revered identity of my constituency. It’s deeply saddening,” said Sheikh.

Batamaloo derived its name from the shrine of a revered Sufi saint, Sheikh Dawood. “Batamaloo consists of two words Batte (food) and moul (father). It’s said that the saint was very generous and he would provide food to people for free,” Sheikh said.

Every year, the saint’s death anniversary is observed and for five days, people living around the shrine cook only vegetarian food as a mark of reverence.

“Our history is being erased,” said Apni Party general secretary Rafi Ahmad Mir. “What we are regretting the most is the erasure of historical names like Amira Kadal and Habba Kadal. There’s no logic in erasing these names.”

Both Amira Kadal and Habba Kadal are constituencies named after famous bridges in downtown Srinagar. The original Amira Kadal bridge was built in the 18th century by the Afghans. The first Habba Kadal bridge is said to have been built in the 16th century and named after Kashmir’s famous poet-queen, Habba Khatoon.

Echoing Delhi

The Apni Party’s criticism of the government is new. For over a year after its inception, the party, which is widely believed to have been shored up by Delhi, merely echoed government statements.

Speculation that Delhi had a hand in the party’s creation was fuelled when Bukhari and the People’s Democratic Party leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig lunched with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in the capital in October 2019. This was at a time when almost the entire Kashmiri political leadership was locked up in detention centres to stifle dissent against the August 5, 2019, decisions. Bukhari and Baig were among the first to walk free.

Five months after the lunch with Doval, the Apni Party was floated. Bukhari had used this time to muster together a motley crew of politicians, mostly from the People’s Democratic Party and Congress.

The Apni Party seemed to have made a compromise with the new political realities of Jammu and Kashmir. While other parties demanded the restoration of autonomy and special status under Article 370 and of special protections to jobs and land under Article 35A, the Apni Party carefully calibrated its statements to stay within the red lines drawn by Delhi.

It called the restoration of special status a “fantasy” and spoke instead of the restoration of statehood, a promise made by Shah. Like Delhi, it spoke of “equitable development of all the regions and sub-regions of Jammu and Kashmir.”

In August 2020, most of the established political parties in Kashmir formed the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, named after a common pledge to fight for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A. The only outlier was the Apni Party.

In December 2020, when the Union Territory administration organised elections for the new district development councils, it was the Apni Party versus the Gupkar Alliance in most parts of the Valley. The councils were the third tier of Jammu and Kashmir’s panchayati raj system. While provisions to create these councils had existed for decades, they were implemented for the first time since the December 2020 elections.

The Apni Party fared badly in the elections; people in Kashmir voted overwhelmingly for the parties demanding the restoration of special status. Out of 280 district development council seats, the Apni Party won only 12. For a party that counted 22 former legislators as members, it was an embarrassment.

Criticising Delhi

Over the past few months, the Apni Party’s statements have become increasingly critical of Delhi.

In August, Bukhari said the “unprecedented way” in which special status was scrapped had “profoundly hurt the sentiments of the people who continue to feel politically disempowered.”

Then in December, when the central government and the union territory administration organised a real estate summit in Jammu, inviting investments in property, the Apni Party appeared to echo other Kashmiri parties in its anxieties about land and jobs being taken away from local residents.

“Our party will always welcome any efforts that will foster progress and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir,” Bukhari had said in a statement. “But at the same time, we are pledged to resist any plans that will do away with the exclusive rights of the people on their land and jobs.”

It appeared to be a tacit demand for the restoration of special protections once guaranteed under Article 35A.

What accounts for this change in rhetoric from the Apni Party? Political observers in Kashmir diagnose that it might have to do with the stabilisation of ties between Delhi and traditional Kashmiri parties such as the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference.

Despite their dissatisfaction with the new political scenario, none of these parties have indicated they will boycott the electoral process. Delhi, once bent on undermining these parties, seems to have accepted their continued presence in the electoral landscape, suggested a political scientist in Kashmir who did not want to be named.

“In that case, other alternatives might not attract the attention of the Centre as they used to immediately after August 2019,” he said.