In 1992, when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders arrived in Srinagar to hoist the tricolour at Lal Chowk, in the heart of the city, Mohammad Ashraf Azad joined them. He also struck up a bond with one Narendra Modi, then a functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Soon afterwards, he became one of the first members of BJP in the Valley.

Nearly three decades later, Modi is prime minister. Azad, now 50, is a sarpanch in the Soibugh area of Central Kashmir’s Budgam district.

Proud of his Modi connection, he is standing for the post of block development council chairman in Soibugh in elections scheduled for October 24.

The councils are the second layer in Jammu and Kashmir’s three-tier panchayati raj system. These will be the first block development councils in Jammu and Kashmir, which has had a dysfunctional panchayati raj system for decades. They will also be the last elections to be held in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

On August 5, the government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and split the state into two Union Territories. On October 31, the government decision will come into force.

The council elections have been controversial for various reasons. First, they take place amid shutdowns to protest against the government decision and an internet blackout.

Second, most of the Valley’s traditional leadership, even those who were dubbed the political “mainstream” because they took part in elections, is behind bars. The two major Kashmir-based parties, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, will be staying away from the polls. The Congress has also followed suit.

According to election rules, candidates are deemed to have been set up by a party only if they declare it so in their nomination papers. Out of 1,092 nominations filed across the state this year, 853 are “independents”. Twenty seven candidates have already won unopposed.

Finally, the electoral colleges in the Valley are sparsely populated, with most of the seats lying empty. Most of the seats that were filled saw low voter turnouts or candidates who won uncontested.

Yet, 396 candidates will stand for elections in the 162 blocks of the Kashmir Valley. spoke to some of them.

‘I live in fear’

Not long before Azad joined the BJP, another man from Soibugh rose to prominence in Kashmir – Syed Salahuddin, who heads the Hizbul Mujahideen and the United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of various armed outfits based in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Azad’s ambitions go beyond the traditional remit of panchayat bodies, which is mainly to supervise local developmental projects and collecting certain levies. He wants to eradicate poverty in the Kashmir Valley, end the “gun culture” which has prompted so many youth to take up arms, stone pelting and protests. He also wants to highlight government schemes and end corruption in Jammu and Kashmir.

Azad has not always stayed with the BJP. He cut his electoral teeth as a candidate from Budgam in the 1996 assembly polls. But he fought on a Jammu and Kashmir Awami League ticket. The party had been formed in 1995 by Kuka Parray, chief of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, the counter-insurgency militia raised by the Indian Army.

By the next assembly elections held in 2002, however, he had migrated back to the BJP again. Both 2002 and 2008 assembly elections were fought – and lost – on a BJP ticket. In 2018, he was elected sarpanch unopposed.

The Soibugh block has eight sarpanches and 24 panches, filling just about half the total seats. The chairperson is chosen by an electoral college formed by panches and sarpanches in the area. A sarpanch heads a halqa panchayat, which is a conglomeration of village wards, each headed by a panch.

Azad does not live in Soibugh. He has been quartered at a hotel by the Dal Lake in Srinagar, about 25 kilometres from his village, guarded by four armed policemen. “I visit my home only occasionally, for five minutes or so,” he said. He fears being targeted by militants.

He has his family to think of – two sons and two daughters. Three of them are government employees. Apart from being a sarpanch, Azad trades in shawls. He also runs the All J&K Peace Council, which he describes as a “non-governmental organisation”.

Soon after August 5, Azad had appeared on television channels rationalising the government’s decision.

Two months later, he says the decision has made life worse. “The decision was taken by Parliament but since the government is of the BJP, I have become the main target,” he said. “I live as the target of militants, stone-pelters and protestors. I live in fear.”

But he will contest the elections on October 24: “The party wanted me to do so”.

Ashraf Azad (right) at a BJP press conference in July 2019. Photo: PTI

‘My victory is certain’

Afroza Akhtar was propelled into politics by her husband, Riyaz Ahmad Shah. A resident of the Behibagh area of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, a hub of local militancy, Shah is an old BJP hand. He contested the 2008 and 2014 elections on a BJP ticket from Kulgam. Before joining the party, he was a soldier in the Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry unit.

Forty-year-old Akhtar, who has three children, made her electoral debut in the panchayat polls last year, mostly at her husband’s insistence. “Our panchayat seat is a reserved seat for women,” Shah explained. “The party told us that we need to elect panchs and sarpanchs. So, I told my wife to contest.”

Afroza is now a sarpanch. She has the support of five panches, including her husband. On October 24, she will be pitted against another female candidate, a Kashmiri Pandit migrant who now lives outside the Valley.

“She has the support of only two panches; my victory is certain,” said a confident Akhtar. If elected, she said, her focus would be on the “getting the work of common people done”.

For the last 15 years, Akhtar and Shah have lived the life of migrants, too. Even though all of their relatives are in Kulgam, their house remains locked. The couple and their three children have been holed up in a Srinagar hotel since last year.

“I was in the army so I was always a target,” said Shah. “Then I joined the BJP. That’s why we were always on the move. In 2013, militants had issued a hit order against me.”

Like the other candidates, they can only make quick visits to their homes in the village. “If we have to stay in Kulgam for the night, we stay inside the Kulgam security zone,” Akhtar explained.

The scrapping of special status, Akhtar confesses, has pushed BJP supporters in the Valley even deeper underground. “Now, we can’t even tell people that we are with the BJP,” she said.

‘A golden chance’

Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a panch from Chunduna village in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, does not identify with any party. He calls himself a “common man” concerned about the “common problems” of rural areas. He does not want to comment on Article 370 since he is just an “ordinary” man.

“The issues of a rural area are completely different from those of an urban area,” said 45-year-old Bhat, who also has a shawl business. “We don’t have proper drinking water, our land is not properly irrigated, there are no proper roads. When there’s winter, we don’t have electricity for months.”

For almost 10 years, Bhat said, he tried to address these issues as a member of the BJP. He was even party’s Ganderbal district president for a while. But in 2018, he quit the party over “personal differences,” he claimed.

Now, Bhat is a part of a collective of independent panches and sarpanches called the Local Bodies Panch and Sarpanch Association, which has vowed not to leave the field open for the BJP in the block development council elections.

According to Bhat, the elections are a “golden chance” for the people of rural areas to get their due. “There is no doubt that the government has pumped in a lot of money in Kashmir for rural development but where was it spent?” he asked. “Once we have a BDC, we will have efficient supervision of all the works that happen at the village level. Earlier, our village elders were not elected. Now, when you have an elected face, it will bring change on the ground.”

Bhat is not afraid to live at home, partly because Ganderbal has been calmer than other districts in the Valley. But with his focus on rural problems rather than contentious political issues, Bhat believes, he does not need to fear.

“I have joined politics to act as a bridge between the common people and an officer,” he said. “My aim is to bring their grievances into the notice of officials. Nothing else.”

Bhat is gearing up for a difficult battle. Out of 75 wards in Block Sherpathri, where he is contesting, only 46 wards have elected panches. There are only nine elected sarpanches. “We are seven candidates fighting for the post of block chairperson and the total number of votes is 55. It’s going to be a tough contest,” he explained.

‘Everything is finished’

Parveena Akhtar, from Kokernag in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, is more reticent about her political career. The 38-year-old said she had been in politics for 15 years and had been district women’s president for both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party.

“I was PDP’s women district president. Now, the PDP’s ship has sunk. That’s why I am fighting as an independent,” she explained. Since the People’s Democratic Party boycotted panchayat elections in 2018, she decided to stand for the post of sarpanch as an independent. “Unlike in the rest of the panchayats where nobody came out to vote, I got 150 votes,” she claimed.

In the run up to October 24, Parveena Akhtar is staying at a hotel in Srinagar, recently allotted by the government to vulnerable candidates. Her family and she have rarely known security. Every year, she, along with her daughter, spends a few months in Jammu with her husband, who has a job there. Her son is a student in Jammu and does not visit Kashmir.

“We have our own house in Kokernag but it’s not safe there,” she said. “When I go to my village, I stay in police protected government accommodation near the Kokernag police station.” In 2016, it was in Kokernag that Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in a gunfight with security forces.

Earlier this year, she did try to return home. “When I returned from Jammu in March, I stayed at my home along with my daughter,” Parveena Akhtar recounted. “When it was dark, I used to leave my house through a window and put a lock on our main gate, so that no one thinks that there’s anyone inside the house.”

Then one night, she said, there were men banging on her door. It continued for a while. “I was shivering. Then I heard them talking among themselves, saying that there’s no one here,” she recalled.

When she approached the local police the next day, they advised her not to sleep in her own house. “After that, I slept at neighbours’ houses or at the police accommodation in Kokernag. Then, I shifted here,” she said.

At times, Parveena Akhtar says, she had thought of leaving politics. “Maathe pe daag lag gaya [our reputation is tainted],” she said. “That taint won’t go even if we quit politics. They [militants] will still kill us.”

It is not safety alone that worries her. She laments the paltry salary paid to sarpanches – just Rs 2,500 per month. “They promised us a salary of Rs 25,000 per month,” she said. “They haven’t fulfilled that promise. Even our Rs 2,500 salary is not paid on time.”

With special status gone, she is even more disillusioned. “Everything is finished. Our land and the future of our kids has finished. Everything is gone,” she said.

But she will still fight polls, she claims, to “serve the people”. “I contested panchayat elections in 2011 as well,” she explained. “When I became a panch, I realised that whatever the government used to give for the poor was divided among the rich. A poor man gets nothing.”