The battle ahead

Even as polling date for Baramulla (North Kashmir) Lok Sabha parliamentary seat draws close, focus has once again shifted to North Kashmir, which is right now politically the most active sub region of Kashmir valley, where candidates from not only the National Conference (NC) and PDP, two major political parties of Kashmir valley, but other smaller political parties like Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (PC) and Engineer Rashid’s Awami Ittehad Party are also in the fray.

Unlike Srinagar (Central Kashmir) and Anantnag (South Kashmir) Lok Sabha seats, where polling is expected to be very low amidst expected poll boycott calls, Baramulla Lok Sabha seat on the other hand is expected to witness a good turnout as was also seen during the last year held Panchayat and Municipal body elections.

This makes the electoral battle for North Kashmir a fascinating barometer to gauge political preferences of the people of Kashmir valley.    

North Kashmir is one of the most ethnically diverse sub regions of Kashmir valley, situated very close to the Line of Control (LOC). The sub region is home to not just the ethnic Koshur speaking Kashmiri people but also non-Kashmiri communities like Paharis, Gujjar & Bakarwals, who mostly live in mountainous areas like Uri & Karnah close to the LOC.

There is also a Shina speaking community in Gurez valley and a substantial population of Sikhs in Baramulla town. Additionally, there is a huge community of Kashmiri Shias in Pattan and few scattered households of Kashmiri Pundits all across North Kashmir.

The sheer size and ethnic diversity of North Kashmir has meant that the sub region has traditionally behaved politically somewhat differently from South & Central Kashmir.

The sub region has always had relatively much more active political landscape even amidst a general call for poll boycott in rest of the Kashmir valley even during worst of times.

Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency has historically been mostly dominated by candidates from Congress and National Conference parties including that by Saifuddin Soz.

In fact, Saifuddin Soz represented Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency four times on National Conference ticket before he switched over to Congress. The monopoly of Congress – National Conference over Baramulla Lok Sabha seat was broken down in 2014, when Muzaffar Hussain Beigh won Baramulla seat on PDP ticket, giving PDP, a significant breakthrough in North Kashmir. This was a major victory for the PDP in North Kashmir, which otherwise was thought to be a South Kashmir based political party.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (PC) also emerged as a significant player in North Kashmir. The candidate of PC polled in nearly 15% of the total vote casted in the Baramulla Lok Sabha election behind 37% polled in by the PDP and 31% polled in by the NC.

The PC’s core strength however lies in Kupwara district of North Kashmir, where it has continued to do well since 2015 assembly elections, including that in Panchayat and Municipal body elections held last year.

Also adding to the competition has been Engineer Rashid, who is MLA from Langate assembly seat, which is a part of Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency. Engineer Rashid, who represents Awami Ittehad Party, polled in over 22,000 votes in last Lok Sabha elections, though he came behind the candidates of PDP, NC and PC. Incidentally, the BJP candidate, who fought from the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency polled in nearly 7,000 votes.

In all, Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency threw one of the toughest and most competitive parliamentary elections fights among all Lok Sabha seats in 2014. And the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are not expected to be any differen from 2014.

The NC has fielded its firebrand Kashmiri MLA Muhammad Akbar Lone, who has been representing Sonawari assembly constituency that lies in densely populated belt on the banks of Jhelum river. PDP on the other hand has fielded a prominent Kashmiri trade union leader Abdul Qayoom Wani, who hails from Tangmarg assembly segment of Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency.

In contrast to both the NC and the PDP, Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference has not fielded a Kashmiri candidate but has given mandate to former IPS officer Raja Aijaz Ali from ethnic Pahari community, which has a strong base in border areas of Uri.

The reason behind the mandate being given to a Pahari candidate also stems from the fact that most Kashmir based parties believe that while Kashmiri community largely boycotts elections, non-Kashmiri communities like Paharis, Gurezi Shinas and Gujjar & Bakarwals on the other hand tend to take part in these elections in large numbers, which makes their role in these elections extremely significant.

Adding to an already crowded mix is Engineer Rashid, who is once again fighting the Baramulla Lok Sabha election and who can very easily throw a surprise, given his influence in his strong hold of Langate.

Also, not to forget that North Kashmir is also home to Shah Feasal, the former IAS topper who recently quit his job and formed his own political party – Jammu & Kashmir People’s Movement, is also from North Kashmir. Even though he has announced that he would not be fighting the Lok Sabha election, his party can emerge as a major player in upcoming assembly elections.

Unlike Srinagar & Anantnag Lok Sabha constituencies, the battle for North Kashmir will be the most interesting and most fascinating to watch, due to distinct political culture of its geographically and ethnically diverse population.

Wining Baramulla Lok Sabha seat will depend on quite a few factors, the most important of which is the extent to which Kashmiri community boycotts the polls and non-Kashmiri community participates in the poll. Winning will also depend on how much Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri candidates take different ethnic groups of North Kashmir along with them. Either which way, the electoral fight for the North Kashmir Lok Sabha seat will be perhaps the fiercest among all Lok Sabha seats and the party, which will eventually take the crown of North Kashmir will be revealed very soon.

(Javaid Beigh is a Political Activist and aspiring Politician, who has worked as PRO to Ex CM of J & K)