“I was the butt of jokes. I was humiliated all along,” Sajjad Gani Lone, chairman of the People’s Conference told a packed press conference in Srinagar on November 23. “When we used to fight elections in the past, we used to be laughed at. People used to call me ‘loner’, ‘loser’, ‘joker’ or someone with chief ministerial ambitions. The reality is that I made a claim yesterday and almost got it.”

Two days earlier, on November 21, a tentative alliance had laid claim to forming the government in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been under Governor’s Rule since June. It included the Congress as well as the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party – traditional rivals in the Kashmir Valley. In response, Lone, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, made a rival bid to form the government. By the end of the day, the 87-member Assembly had been dissolved.

On November 24, Governor Satya Pal Malik, protesting against claims that he had acted on the Centre’s behest, said that if he had listened to Delhi, Lone would have been the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

While Lone’s bid to form the government failed this time, rumours of a “Third Front” in Kashmir have not died down. Since 2002, the state has been ruled by alliances led either by the National Conference or the Peoples Democratic Party. Could Lone’s People’s Conference, which commanded just two seats in the recently dissolved legislature, provide a third pole for alliances to form in Jammu and Kashmir?

Third option?

Crucial to Lone’s claim to government was the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had the backing of 25 legislators. But they would have needed more to make the halfway mark of 44 in the 87-member legislature. Lone insisted that he had the numbers, suggesting that they had made inroads in the Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference camps.

At least, seven legislators from the Peoples Democratic Party have openly expressed their disagreement with their party’s top leadership in the last five months. In November, party MLA Imran Ansari joined the People’s Conference, and Muzaffar Hussain Baig, a co-founder of the party, announced his intention of backing a Third Front, should it be formed. Lone also supported the nomination of Junaid Azim Mattu to the post of Srinagar mayor. Mattu had quit the National Conference to take part in the municipal elections that were held in October.

According to Lone, several prominent legislators in the two major Valley-based parties have a People’s Conference background. Baig himself was once part of the People’s Conference. “It is a fact that People’s Conference, at one point of time, had a good number of credible names and leaders,” said Tahir Mohideen, editor of the Urdu weekly, Chattan. “They eventually landed up in other parties.”

Both the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party have steadily shifted towards the centre, each dialling down their original demands of autonomy and self-rule. But the People’s Conference under Sajjad Lone has perhaps travelled the longest political distance, from being part of the separatist camp in Kashmir to a party allied with the BJP.

Abdul Ghani Lone in New Delhi in 2001. He was killed in Srinagar in 2002. (Photo credit: Raveendran/AFP).

A study in contrasts

Born in 1966, Sajjad Lone is the younger son of the late separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone, the driving force behind the formation of the Hurriyat Conference, a conglomeration of separatist parties in Kashmir. He attended the prestigious Burn Hall School in Srinagar in the early 1980s before going to Cardiff in the United Kingdom to pursue a degree in economics, which he completed in 1989.

By the time he returned to the Valley, it was already plunged into conflict, with militancy and the ensuing security crackdown. Inevitably, Lone would be pulled into the maelstrom. Along with his brother, Bilal Gani Lone, he became a senior associate of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader, Yasin Malik. Lone would go through torture and a jail sentence before he was packed off to Delhi, where he joined an ornament export house. Eventually, he started a gold business with a Pakistani associate in Dubai. In 2000, Lone married Asma Khan, daughter of Amanullah Khan, one of the founding leaders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

Sajjad Lone’s personal connections remain a study in contrasts, making him a target for critics on all sides. While he is the son of a prominent separatist leader in the Valley, he married into a prominent pro-freedom family across the Line of Control. His brother, Bilal Lone, is an executive member of the Hurriyat faction led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, while his sister, Shabnam Gani Lone, is a lawyer in the Supreme Court.

The legacy

But Lone’s political history is tied with that of his father, the legendary Abdul Ghani Lone. Like his son, Abdul Ghani Lone, who belonged to North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, made several tricky political journeys.

“He started with Congress and became an MLA in 1960s,” said Mohideen. “Then he had a brief tryst with the National Conference and eventually landed up in the Janata Party. But he was not someone who could get accommodated in a party. He was of a rebellious temperament.”

Mohideen added: “Lone Sahab was a Kashmiri nationalist who wanted the restoration of internal autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir. He was among the first to give a call for strike on the hanging of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front founder Mohammad Maqbool Bhat in 1984.”

In the 1970s, the senior Lone had floated the People’s Conference to take on Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference, which had near complete control of the Valley. But the polls of 1987, which were allegedly rigged to ensure a National Conference victory, would turn Abdul Ghani Lone away from electoral politics. “The shift in his politics came in 1987 and he became an advocate of the right to self-determination for the people of J&K,” said Mohideen. “He also got closer to Pakistan.”

Although considered a “moderate face” in the Valley’s politics, Abdul Ghani Lone seemed to join the drift towards an armed struggle. The People’s Conference would float its own militant outfit Al Barq (the lightning) during the onset of an armed uprising. While Al Barq’s influence in the Valley waned in the mid-90s, the outfit continues to be one of the members of the United Jihad Council – an amalgamation of armed groups fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, based out of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

In 1993, Kashmiri separatism got a political face in the form of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. The senior Lone was credited with playing a key role in bringing nearly two dozen social, political and religious organisations under one umbrella.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US and the subsequent crackdown on militant groups in Pakistan under the military leadership of General Pervez Musharraf, Kashmir’s separatist leadership also went into introspection and appeared to soften towards the prospect of talks with the Centre. Abdul Ghani Lone spoke out against “non-Kashmiri”, Pakistan-based militant groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which he claimed stood for “international jihad” and diluted the demand for “azadi” or freedom.

On May 21, 2002, when Lone was assassinated by a group of unknown gunmen in Srinagar’s Eidgah ground, many believed it was on orders from across the border.

The son rises

Their father’s killing would force Sajjad Lone and Bilal Lone to take up the reins of the People’s Conference. In 2002, friction arose within the party as Sajjad Lone was accused of secretly fielding proxy candidates in the Assembly elections at a time when the Hurriyat had decided to boycott the polls. This would eventually lead to a split in the ranks.

In February 2004, Sajjad Lone became the chairman of his own outfit, still called the People’s Conference. During a press conference in Srinagar in 2008, he swore on the Quran that he would quit politics if it was proven that his outfit had fielded proxy candidates in 2008 Assembly elections.

But the party already seemed to be set on a course that would take it away from political separatism. In 2007, he released a vision document called “Achievable Nationhood”, a conflict resolution model that would turn both sides of disputed Jammu and Kashmir into a single economic entity with joint control of India and Pakistan.

By 2009, he was contesting the Lok Sabha elections. In the 2014 general elections, Sajjad Lone fielded a candidate from North Kashmir constituency. Both times, he was unsuccessful. Then before the Assembly elections of 2014, he had a friendly meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That year, he would taste success, winning the Handwara Assembly seat. He went on to become a cabinet minister in the coalition government that was cobbled together between the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party.

In the Valley, the BJP’s proximity to Sajjad Lone has often prompted his opponents to dub him as the saffron party’s local face, a means to make inroads in the Muslim majority region. The BJP’s advance in the Valley is eyed with alarm by many as it seems keen to demolish provisions like Article 370 and Article 35A, which ensure special protections and autonomies to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Sajjad Lone was defensive when asked about his ties with the BJP and its apparent antipathy to such special provisions. “Ninety per cent erosion of Article 370 has been done by the Congress,” he said. “And they [the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party] are trying to save it from the eroder [the Congress].”

He added: “PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] and NC [National Conference] can’t wear morality hats now. Wasn’t Omar [Abdullah] a minister under the National Democratic Alliance government? Wasn’t Mehbooba Mufti part of the BJP government for three years?”

Ansari, the new recruit to the People’s Conference, is more frank, choosing to emphasise an agenda of development rather than autonomy. “This is a different People’s Conference,” he said. “We won’t sell dreams of solving the Kashmir dispute to people for votes and then rush to Delhi saying that we got votes and now help us. We’ll tell people our domain is water, electricity, housing and other common problems. We’ll tell people the truth. We won’t deceive people.”

Political observers in the Valley are unimpressed by the claims of a Third Front. “It is wrong to call it a Third Front,” said Siddiq Wahid, former vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. “Just like the National Conference or Peoples Democratic Party, it is an establishment party. The only difference in this Front is that it gives a platform for a sort of Hindutva-inspired muscular Indian nationalism by co-opting the Peoples Conference.”

The development plank has not cut much ice either. “We have heard this before, added Wahid. “It is a party that has already given up its political agency. And that it does not care about the political resolution gives us an inkling. It cares only about giving people what they need. I mean poverty levels in Kashmir are nowhere close to the poverty levels in India. Nowhere.”

According to Mohideen, the People’s Conference’s only hope lies in attracting leaders who already have their individual bases in the Valley. For the Lone family in Kupwara, the “loyalty factor” will be key in the next elections, added Mohideen, who is a resident of Kupwara. “The district has traditionally been against NC [National Conference],” he said. “Even the late Lone sahib’s fight would always be against NC. Loyalty is paramount. It doesn’t matter which side Sajjad chooses.”

The North remembers

So far, the Third Front, or the People’s Conference, seems to be focused on three districts of North Kashmir, Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora, which together comprise 15 Assembly seats. Most of the lawmakers who showed interest in the People’s Conference are from this region. In Kupwara, its traditional stronghold, it seems to have a healthy cadre base.

“North Kashmir has to think,” said Ashiq Hussain, 53, who is in charge of Handwara constituency for the People’s Conference. “There hasn’t been any chief minister of Kashmir from North Kashmir. Isn’t Sajjad Sahab CM material?” He added: “People of North Kashmir crave for development. This is not to say that they deem the cause of aazadi unimportant. When somebody brings development, people like it.”

A resident of Vilgam village in Handwara, Hussain said his family have supported the Lones for three generations. In the municipal elections held in October, the People’s Conference had won all the 13 municipal wards in Handwara, he said. Hussain is not very troubled by the People’s Conference’s embrace of the BJP either. “My grandfather used to tell me that when the late Lone sahib joined the Congress in the 1960s, his supporters were socially boycotted as Sheikh Abdullah had called Congress supporters ‘gutter worms’,” said Hussain. “But who was the party which eventually hugged Congress for power? It was the NC [National Conference]. Now, they can’t give lessons to us.”

Still, in Kupwara town, a People’s Conference worker got uneasy when asked how Abdul Ghani Lone would have reacted to his son’s foray into electoral politics. “The Lone family has always cared for the people,” he said. “Abdul Gani Lone was a tall leader and it will not be right for me to guess his thinking. I will not say he would have turned his face away from the Kashmir issue but day-to-day problems of the public are also important. They need to be taken care of.”