“I want a prime minister who does not bow before world powers and begs them for money,” said Tarsem Lal Sharma, 42, serving hot cups of tea to customers in Jammu’s Raghunath Bazar. “A weakling cannot be a prime minister. He needs to be strong and assertive before world powers. I don’t know about the candidate here or what work he has done. My vote is for a strong prime minister.”
Tarsem Lal Sharma is from the border town of Akhnoor, an area frequently battered by shelling from Pakistan. Many of his customers nodded in agreement. “At the Centre, I am for the BJP,” he added. “But if it is Assembly election, my choice will be different.”
On April 11, he will vote in the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, which includes the four border districts of Jammu, Samba, Poonch and Rajouri. Hindus constitute more than 65% of the constituency’s population, Muslims about 30%. While Jammu and Samba are majority Hindu, Poonch and Rajouri are predominantly Muslim.
For years, politics in Jammu has been defined by communal polarisation. Since 2014, the consolidation of the Hindu vote has meant gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party in this tense border region.
A growing divide
Jammu’s communal faultlines deepened after the 2008 Amarnath land agitation. The transfer of 800 kanals of public land in Kashmir to the Amarnath Shrine Board set off mass protests in the Valley. Jammu saw counter protests and an economic blockade of the Valley, largely led by the BJP. As the gap between Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir grew wider, so did the religious divide within Jammu.
It did not immediately translate into political gains for the BJP. It was the Congress’s Madan Lal Sharma who won the Jammu seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. In 2014, however, the BJP took both seats in the Jammu region, the other being Udhampur. Jugal Kishore, who had led the Amarnath counter agitation, won Jammu, beating Madan Lal Sharma by 2.5 lakh votes.
In the Assembly election held later that year, the BJP won 25 of Jammu’s 37 seats, and allied with the Peoples Democratic Party, based in Kashmir. It was the BJP’s first time in government in Jammu and Kashmir.
This time, Kishore is up against the Congress’s Raman Bhalla, a former legislator. Also in the fray is the former state minister Chaudhary Lal Singh, who recently left the BJP to form his own party.
There are two key reasons for the consolidation of Jammu’s Hindu vote over the last few years. First is the worsening security situation, which has meant more frequent ceasefire violations along the border and militant attacks. Overall, this seems to have driven Hindu voters closer to the BJP. Second is the grievances of the dominant Dogra community, which claims to have been neglected by what they see as Kashmir-centric governments. Now, though, the community has developed grievances against the BJP as well.
After Pulwama attack
Reverberations of the Pulwama suicide bombing were perhaps most strongly felt in Jammu. As anger over the attack spread, mobs in Jammu targeted Muslims, especially Kashmiri Muslims, living in the city. As the city went under curfew, Kashmiris fled in large numbers to the Valley. “Jammu is close to the border with Pakistan,” said Sushil Sharma, a private schoolteacher in Jammu city. “Therefore, the impact of any terror incident is greater. These incidents impact the region internally as well.”
But the violence was in keeping with a growing trend. Army camps in and around Jammu have seen major militant attacks of late, Nagrota in 2016 and Sunjuwan in 2018 making headlines nationally. They coincided with Hindu mob attacks against the Muslim Gujjar and Bakarwal communities over allegations of cow smuggling. After Sunjuwan, Rohingya refugees in Jammu city also became the target of fresh majoritarian ire.
But the militant attacks may only be a lightning rod for deeper tensions. According to Sushil Sharma, they give “some elements” a “pretext to corner Muslims” in Jammu. “A major section of people in Jammu genuinely believes that they are being discriminated against in terms of development, jobs and focus,” he said. “But then there is also the story of Kashmiri Muslims buying land and property in Jammu. The fear of demographic change in Jammu is often raked up. Electorally, this can mean that Hindus have to see themselves as one.”
While the Pulwama attack created a sense of insecurity, the air strike on Pakistan that followed soon after led to the perception that the BJP was the party that could provide security. The air strike often crops up in roadside conversations about the election.
“The Balakot air strike and the sense of national security that the BJP has been able to provide will play a crucial role in determining voters’ choices,” said Pawan Verma, 25, a student of electronics at Jammu University.
BJP’s border strength
The BJP may also look towards Jammu’s border areas for votes. Of the 20 Assembly segments that make up the Jammu parliamentary constituency, 13 are along the Line of Control and the International Border. In the 2014 election, the BJP had a lead in 10 of them.
In the last five years, the BJP has paid some attention to residents of these areas. Compensation for victims of cross-border shelling was increased and the Centre announced the construction of over 14,000 bunkers along the Line of Control and the International Border. In February, it amended, through an ordinance, the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Act of 2004, extending the reservation benefits for people living along the Line of Actual Control to permanent residents living along the International Border.
“The BJP government did show some concern towards the border population,” said Desh Raj, sarpanch of four villages in the border area of Ranbir Singh Pura. “While much more needs to be done, people in the border areas are more inclined towards the BJP. Why not give them another chance?”
Hurt Dogra pride
But some sections of the Hindu electorate are unhappy with the BJP. Take the Dogra community, a powerful group in Jammu. Until 1947, Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by Dogra kings. Since Partition, the community has felt politically marginalised and resentful of the Valley’s prominence in the state’s politics. For decades, it voted for the Congress. But in 2014, the BJP’s success in Jammu was attributed largely to the Dogra vote.
This election, there are several claimants to the Dogra vote. “All major candidates in the fray are Dogra,” said Zorawar Singh Jamwal, a senior journalist in Jammu. “While some follow the ideology of a national party like the Congress or the BJP, some have formed their own groups, like Chaudhary Lal Singh’s Dogra Swabhiman Sangathan Party. Political domination has been skewed towards Kashmir because they have more seats in the Assembly than Jammu province. But no party can afford to ignore the Dogras.”
It does not help the BJP that the Dogras have grown disenchanted with the saffron party since 2014, especially after it tied up with the Peoples Democratic Party. The years since have seen an assertion of “Dogra pride”. Jamwal, for one, heads Team Jammu, a “platform for youth”. Among other causes, it actively supports the demand to declare the birth anniversary of Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler, an official holiday. In September 2017, Dogra activists heckled the BJP’s Nirmal Singh, then deputy chief minister, over his government’s failure to do so.
Dogra pride was dealt a blow last year when several Hindu men were arrested for murdering a Muslim Bakarwal child in Kathua after allegedly raping her. The Jammu region erupted in protests, defending the accused and demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the matter.
BJP leaders were seen attending the rallies as well as meetings calling for a social boycott of the Gujjars and the Bakarwals. Under public pressure, the BJP removed two of its state ministers. One of them was Lal Singh.
“If you read between the lines, each candidate’s campaign is revolving around the Dogra sentiment, the Dogra heritage and discrimination against the Dogras by the successive governments,” said Jamwal. “That is why Lal Singh may be a game changer.”
Rekha Chowdhury, former professor of political science at Jammu University, seemed to agree. “Lal Singh is an extreme of what the BJP represents,” she said. “Him being in the election is certainly not going to hurt the Congress but it will affect the BJP.”
The BJP is especially vulnerable in the urban areas. “In urban areas, the feeling of Dogra pride is strong,” Chowdhury explained. “In a way, there is also some kind of disillusionment with the BJP.”
No country for refugees
West Pakistani refugees, many of whom have lived in Jammu for 70 years without citizenship rights, are also unhappy with the BJP. According to Labha Ram Gandhi, president of the West Pakistan Refugee Action Committee, the BJP government has failed to deliver on its promise to grant them citizenship.
The “agenda of alliance” agreed upon by the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party spoke of “measures for sustenance and livelihood” of the West Pakistan refugees. Four years later, the community remains dissatisfied.
“We have been living in Jammu since Partition, but we are yet to get Permanent Resident Certificates,” Gandhi explained. “Only if we get PRC can we have other benefits. The compensation of Rs 5.5 lakh announced by the government is too little.”
According to the committee, there are around 20,000 West Pakistani refugee families in Jammu, most of them Hindu. “We have 60,000-70,000 votes but we haven’t decided which party to support yet,” Gandhi said. “We are compelled to support the party that talks about our issues. First we tried with the Congress and then the BJP. Both of them disappointed us.”
Indeed, such is the resentment that last month the West Pakistani Refugees and the Other Backward Classes decided to field Gandhi as their joint candidate in Jammu. “I even filed my nomination papers,” Gandhi said. “But my nomination was rejected due to some incomplete formalities.”
While the refugees can vote in parliamentary elections and get central government jobs, they cannot vote in the Assembly elections, neither are they eligible for state government jobs. Gandhi said representatives of the community will meet soon to decide which party to support in the impending polls.
Voting against the BJP
While the Hindu vote has several claimants, the Muslim vote in Jammu appears consolidated against the BJP. For Tahir Mir, a resident of the Muslim-dominated Gujjar Nagar in Jammu city, the post-Pulwama violence made his voting choice clear. “I will vote to keep BJP out,” said the businessman.
Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest political party, the National Conference, has allied with the Congress and given the two seats of the Jammu region to the national party. The Peoples Democratic Party has decided against contesting these two seats to prevent the division of the “secular vote”.
The decision is rooted in the demographic composition of the Jammu seat. While Poonch and Rajouri are majority Muslim, they are far less populous than Jammu district, which alone accounts for over 50% of the constituency’s population. “The Muslim vote will go to the Congress because that is the only way to keep BJP out,” said Ata Ur Rahman, 25, in Thanamandi, Rajouri. “By voting for the Congress, the Muslims will try to make themselves secure.”
His choice is informed by other factors as well. Rahman, who has a post graduate arts degree, has interviewed for multiple government jobs, but without success. “Unemployment has grown manifold under this government,” he said. “There are no jobs. Where will the educated youth go?”
A straight fight?
But others who might have favoured the Congress have turned away because of its choice of candidate. “If the Congress had gone with Madan Lal Sharma, its chances would have been better,” argued Kulvir Singh, a law student at Jammu University. “Also, the Congress lacks a face like Modi.”
Recently, the BJP got a shot in the arm when the former Congress minister Sham Lal Sharma joined the party along with a posse of supporters. He is the younger brother of Madan Lal Sharma.
Still, political observers predicted, it will not be easy for the saffron party. “It is not going to be a cakewalk for BJP,” said Chowdhary. “At the same time, one cannot say that everything is lost for the BJP as well because Modi factor will certainly apply over there. It will be a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress.”