The Jammu and Kashmir government’s ban on civilian traffic along the 253-kilometre Udhampur-Baramulla section of National Highway 44 on Sundays and Wednesdays has fuelled public anger in the Valley. Although political leaders and candidates are allowed to travel on obtaining permits from specially appointed magistrates, the move is likely to discourage voters from attending election meetings. While National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah has damned the restrictions as “dictatorial”, PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) chief Mehbooba Mufti has said that the central government is trying to “smother Kashmiris and imprison people in their own land”. People’s Conference chief Sajad Lone has also warned that the move could lead to a “humanitarian disaster”, and the Congress has demanded immediate revocation of the ban.
However, amid all the restrictions and the ubiquitous security personnel toting assault rifles, the election campaign in the Valley is off to a rousing start. Both the NC and the PDP held rallies in north Kashmir on March 26.
“BJP yet wath dera, asli shera agaya (Pack up BJP, the real lion has arrived) “-this slogan was raised as former chief minister Omar Abdullah rose to address a rally in Khawaja Bagh in Baramulla. “It is imperative for us to send Mohammad Akbar Lone (the NC’s nominee in Baramulla) to Parliament,” he said, pointing to the saffron threat to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Barely two kilometres away in Baramulla town, addressing supporters, Mehbooba, too, dwelt on attempts to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A.
The BJP, which is yet to hold a public event in Kashmir, has accused the Valley parties of “misleading voters”, emphasising how neither the NC nor the PDP implemented their promises of greater autonomy and self-rule for J&K. However, in the wake of statements by senior BJP leaders Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Ram Madhav, the party is apparently finding no traction in the Valley.
Both the NC and the PDP, hitherto not venturing into the hinterland fearing opposition from stone-pelting youth, have held more than a dozen rallies so far. Even Lone has campaigned for his candidate from Baramulla- former inspector general of police Raja Aijaz Ali.
This is unlike anything witnessed in any electoral exercise since the street protests erupted and continued for months after Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. During the Lok Sabha bypoll in Srinagar and the aborted bypoll in Anantnag in 2017, candidates would, at best, hold clandestine meetings in workers’ homes due to the threats from militants.
Many say the resumption of political activity in the Valley may partly be an outcome of Delhi’s crackdown on the Hurriyat separatists. PDP and NC workers say the clampdown on the Jamaat and other hardline groups has given them unhindered access to the villages. One political functionary in Bandipora said, “Many families whose kin were picked up (in the wake of the ban on the Jamaat and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) sought help from local politicians, which, in turn, helped mainstream leaders reconnect with ground realities.”
The changed mood was evident on April 7, when NC supporters showed up at Srinagar’s Rajbagh to hear Farooq Abdullah. They danced to the chants of, “awa awai padar seh choun yezat, moun yezat 370, 370 (the lion has arrived, your honour, my honour 370, 370)”, countering the BJP’s shrill rhetoric against Articles 370 and 35A.