A few hours after a section of Congress workers burnt an effigy of Ghulam Nabi Azad here on Tuesday and accused him of conspiring against the party at the behest of the BJP, another group of their colleagues came out in Azad's support, bringing a rift within the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the party to the fore.
Congress workers, led by former general secretary of the party's Jammu and Kashmir unit and District Development Council (DDC) member Mohammad Shahnawaz Choudhary, burnt Azad's effigy outside the Press Club in the afternoon and accused him of conspiring against the party at the behest of the BJP to weaken it for "personal gains".
A few hours later, another group of Congress workers, led by JMC councillor Gaurav Chopra, staged a protest against Choudhary and said "a person who fought the recently held DDC polls against the party mandate is not a Congressman and is working on the directions of the BJP and the RSS to weaken the Congress".
The protest against Azad came days after a rally addressed by some "G-23" leaders, ostensibly to felicitate the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister on his retirement from the Rajya Sabha. It was seen as a show of strength to convey a message to the Congress leadership.
The group of 23 leaders wrote to interim party president Sonia Gandhi in August last year, urging her to ensure a "full-time" and "visible" leadership. The group has since come to be known as the "G-23".
Chief spokesperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress Ravinder Sharma said the party had no prior knowledge of the two protests in the city and will do whatever necessary in its interest.
Raising slogans in support of Azad, Chopra said, "Azad is a Congressman by heart and does not need a certificate from anyone. He strongly raised the issue of Jammu and Kashmir in Parliament to disapprove of the August 5, 2019 development (when the Centre revoked the erstwhile state's special status and bifurcated it into Union territories) and his long innings in the service of the nation drew praises even from the prime minister."
Demanding the ouster of all those who took part in the protest against Azad from the party, he said, "It is understood who is pulling his (Choudhary's) strings."
Chopra said the G-23 leaders, who spoke at a private function here on Saturday, called for the strengthening of the party.
Earlier, the Choudhary-led group shouted slogans against Azad and demanded his ouster from the party.
"The Congress has always put him (Azad) on the top and when the party needed his experience at a time of crisis, he came to Jammu and Kashmir and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who deprived us of statehood. It is clear that he is working at the behest of the BJP to weaken the party for his personal gains," Choudhary, a former Jammu and Kashmir Youth Congress president, told reporters.
Choudhary, who won the DDC polls from the Surankot-A constituency of Poonch as an Independent, accused Azad of conspiring against the Congress leadership.
Amid sloganeering in support of Rahul Gandhi, he said they took to the streets to give vent to their anger.
"It is the Congress that groomed him (Azad) over the decades, sent him to the Rajya Sabha repeatedly and made him the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
"When the Congress is facing a crisis and he should have used his experience to strengthen the party, he comes to Jammu and Kashmir with a select group of G-23 leaders and showers praises on Prime Minister Modi to weaken the party for his personal interests," he said.
At a function here on Sunday, Azad praised Modi, saying he speaks frankly about his past as a tea-seller and does not try to hide his background from the world.
"I admire several things about a number of leaders…. I am from a village and I am proud of it. A big leader, our prime minister, says he is from a village, he used to sell tea. We may have political differences but at least, he does not hide his reality," he had said.
Choudhary said Azad stayed away from the DDC poll campaigning and invited a select group of G-23 leaders to a function organised by the Gandhi Global Family, which is headed by himself.
"Congress workers are not fools. He enjoyed the benefits when the Congress was in power and when the time came for him to pay back to the party, he is conspiring against it," he alleged.
Choudhary said Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are the "real leaders" for every Congress worker and the G-23 leaders are conspiring against them. "We are the foot soldiers of the party and anyone conspiring against the party leadership will have to face our anger," he said.
When contacted, Sharma said what happened was not in the prior knowledge of the party.
"The statements of some leaders at a private function were not in good taste but we should leave the matter, if any, to the wisdom of the central leadership. We respect Azad and gave him a warm welcome at the airport before felicitating him at the party headquarters on his arrival here last week," he said.
Senior vice president of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress and former minister Raman Bhalla expressed displeasure over the protests and said the party would take note of the developments.
"We are proud of his (Azad's) speeches in Parliament, especially after the abrogation of Article 370," he said, adding that every Congress worker supports the leadership of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.