On November 2, the body of 30-year-old Gowhar Hussain Bhat, his throat slit, was found in an orchard in South Kashmir. He was district president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. The district in question is Shopian, a stronghold of the indigenous militancy that has gained ground in Kashmir over the last few years, and the site of frequent gunfights between militants and security forces as well as of large-scale cordon and search operations.
Within a day, the Shopian police named his alleged killers: a Pakistani operative of the Lashkar-e-Taiba known as Hamas and three Kashmiri militants – Umer Nazir of the Lashkar, and Ishfaq Thoker and Zubair Turray of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Three days later, mourners thronged Bhat’s house in Shopian town’s Bongam area. Rayees, his older brother, insisted that “Gowhar has always been with the tehreek”, or the separatist movement, even if he had joined a Hindu nationalist party.
Bhat’s funeral had been well attended, according to the family. They do not explicitly blame anyone for his killing, notwithstanding the police’s claims. “What else do you say when a person gets stone-pelters released and helps the families of militants?” asked Rayees. “There were 2,000 stone-pelters at his funeral. We still don’t understand why anyone would have killed him.”
Another relative was more blunt. “Gowhar helped the families of the people who did this,” said the relative who asked not to be identified. “He used to say that if someone has become a militant why punish their families.”
Although there is popular support for militancy in Shopian, Bhat had created an organisation for the BJP in the district, his family said, recruiting 200-250 workers from Shopian town alone. He did not usually talk about his party or politics at home, they added, but a few days before his death he had been upset about the “othering” he felt subjected to in the town.
Indeed, rumours have been floating in Shopian that BJP workers were given “Rs 500 and bottles of whiskey for attending the party’s rallies” organised with Bhat’s help. One such rally was held in Srinagar on October 23 and attended by the Yuva Morcha’s national president and MP Poonam Mahajan.
His family and friends said Bhat was disturbed by online abuse that came his way after BJP banners, with his face on them, were put up in Shopian, allegedly by a rival from the People’s Democratic Party. Days later, on October 26, he announced his resignation from “all political parties” in a local Urdu daily. It was similar to the public resignations posted by several workers of pro-India political parties in recent months.
The BJP still claims Bhat as its own. He was reportedly seen at the party’s first state executive meeting in Kashmir, in Srinagar on October 29. The meeting was attended by the BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav and other senior leaders.
Veer Saraf, who oversees the BJP’s affairs in South Kashmir, claimed that Bhat had not “officially resigned” from the party. “We are told he resigned through a newspaper but we have not been given proof of it,” he said.
He added that the party would offer Bhat’s family a compensation of Rs 5 lakh, in addition to any ex-gratia from the state government.
Saraf claimed Bhat had joined the BJP as a worker in early 2014, but Rayees claimed his brother had been with the party for less than a year. According to Ghulam Hassan Khan, the BJP’s Budgam district president, Bhat may have kept his family in the dark “to stop them worrying”. In fact, Khan claimed, Bhat had, at the October 29 meet, “told Madhav ji that not only he but also his prominent workers in Shopian were under threat”.
These concerns, he added, were shared with security forces in writing. “We don’t want police protection so they may die instead of us,” Khan said. “We just want the strength to retaliate.”
Bhat’s killing, Khan claimed, would not frighten them into submission. “We are all grassroots workers who live in their own homes, unprotected,” he said. “We will do try things to protect ourselves but we will not leave our ideology.” Party workers scared of their safety sometimes take shelter at friends’ houses or the party office in Srinagar, he added.
It is “more dangerous” to raise the BJP flag in Kashmir than to speak of the Hizbul Mujahideen in Delhi, Khan claimed, but the party leadership would stand its ground in the Valley. Just as the militancy struck roots in the Valley “and refused to leave, so too has the BJP”. “We won’t leave easily,” Khan said.
The BJP, which runs the state’s coalition government along with the People’s Democratic Party, took all its 25 seats in the Assembly from Jammu region in the 2014 election. The party, however, has long had a presence in the Valley too.
In 1989, BJP leader Tika Lal Taploo became the first Kashmiri Pandit to be killed by separatist militants. In 1999, the BJP nominee for the Anantnag parliamentary seat, Ghulam Hyder Noorani, and three of his workers were killed on the campaign trail. Several party workers were injured, among them Sofi Yousuf, now a member of the Legislative Council.
Yousuf, who joined the BJP in 1999 and is one of the party’s oldest members in Kashmir, unsuccessfully contested three assembly and as many parliamentary elections before he was elected unopposed to the Legislative Council in 2015, becoming the party’s first Kashmiri Muslim lawmaker.
He said the BJP’s progress in Kashmir has been difficult. “The administration would say ‘Sofi you have become a Hindu, are you converting people you help in government offices’,” the lawmaker said about his early days with the party. “I was pushed out of the offices of four district commissioners.”
Yet, Yousuf claimed, the BJP has grown stronger, swelling from 100-150 workers across the Valley in 1996 to a whopping 3,30,000 today. His claims would be tested when panchayat elections are held in a few months.
Saraf said the party would campaign on the plank of development and fight independently of the People’s Democratic Party. “We have to test our waters and the PDP theirs,” he said.
The BJP’s last electoral outing in Kashmir, the 2014 Assembly election, did not go well. Despite trying to create a committed grassroots base by getting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Muslim Rashtriya Manch and the Jama’at Ulema-e-Hind to work silently with the local clergy, the party failed to win a seat. The effort did yielded the party’s highest vote share ever in the Valley, though, even if it was a mere 2.2%.
If the BJP’s electoral influence is so negligible, what draws people like Bhat to the party? Yousuf offered nationalism and the pursuit of development. He himself has stuck with the BJP for nearly two decades because it is the only “nationalist party”. “Our Quran tells us to praise the country we are born in, to treat it like a mother,” he said. Other parties in Kashmir, he claimed, had links with the separatists.
Nationalism is twinned with development. Yousuf claimed other mainstream parties have “only looted Kashmir since 1947 and there are still villages where the situation is the same as it was in ’47”. Only the BJP, he added, had the will to bring development to such places.