Aashiq Ahmad Dar always looks over his shoulders. So while he agreed to meet on a Thursday afternoon,he wouldnt tell us where. Minutes before the scheduled appointment,he calls to say he will reach the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in the heart of Srinagar. He drives down with three other men. Once inside the car,he says,I have travelled from Anantnag to meet you, he says. We have to be very careful.
Its not easy being a political activist in Kashmir,least of all a worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dar,a district president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha,the BJPs youth wing,was among the party workers arrested for attempting to hoist the national flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar.
We arent indulging in any anti-national activities. Whats wrong with hoisting the national flag? The Constitution gives you that right. Omar Abdullah was made Chief Minister under the same Constitution. So how can he stop us now, says Dar,who was released from jail a day after Republic Day.
Its hard to slot Dar,a tall,thin 27-year-old with a short beard. His speech is familiarangry and agitated,almost like every young man in Kashmir these days. But everything else about him seems quainthis ideology,his touching faith in the Constitution and the fact that he is a BJP worker and a Salafi (a hardline school of thought among Muslims).
How does he reconcile his religious and political thoughts? We are Muslims and the BJP is not our religion. Politics is only our profession, he says. Our leader is Prophet Muhammad and not L K Advani or any other BJP leader. This clarity,he says,helps him reach out to people and makes him acceptable to them. I regularly engage them in religious discussions,so they know I am no different from them.
Till seven years ago,Dar had
another profession. He ran a footwear shop in south Kashmirs Anantnag town. But members of the counter-insurgent force,Ikhwan,looted his shop several times,he says,forcing him to shut it forever.
Dar drifted for a while before joining the Samajwadi Party. But that was a brief association and he joined the BJP in 2004. The motivation,he says,was Atal Bihari Vajpayees statesmanship. He (Vajpayee) is my favourite leader, he says. He started the peace process for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. His statement that friends can be changed but not neighbours changed my view about the BJP.
But his decision didnt go down too well with his family. When I joined the BJP,even my family members were against me, says Dar. I was always a religious boy. They couldnt understand my decision. Why would a religious Muslim boy join the BJP, they thought.
But by then,the decision had been taken and there was no going back. But it was a decision that transformed Dars life forever. He can no longer move freely,his friends have parted ways from him and his family members continue to be angry with him. Instead of his friends,Dar was surrounded by security guards in combat fatigue. I was always encircled by a dozen security men. I didnt like it and asked the government to withdraw my security, he says.
So now,when he travels from Mominabad,his village in south Kashmirs Anantnag town,to the party headquarters in Srinagar,he is not guarded by the men with guns,but he doesnt move alone either. His party workers always accompany him. In fact,most of them accompany each other when they are on the move.
In 2008,unidentified men hit on my head with a pistol during the Amarnath land row agitation, Dar says. The fear is always there. We are always afraid that some anti-social element may target us. We are always cautious. I have heard people pointing out to me and saying,these are BJP men.
Dar knows too well that there are few takers for the BJP and its ideology in Kashmirhe learnt it the hard way when he contested against PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed from Anantnag assembly constituency in the 2008 assembly elections and lost by a huge margin. I know it is a difficult job, he says. Thats why I always try to solve small problems.
So every morning,Dar leaves his Mominabad residence for the party office in Anantnag,trying to solve these small problems. There,he meets the few people who come to him with their problems. Then,he spends some time with his fellow workers,discussing party issues,before heading for the town to meet more people. Every afternoon,I accompany people to the government officials and police officers so that their problems are solved, he says. The second half of my day is almost entirely spent in these offices. Occasionally,he visits the party headquarters in Srinagar,some 55 km away,to attend the party meetings.
Its tough,he says,being associated with a party like the BJP,even dangerous,but Dar tries to put up a bold face. I have left it to Allah. Only he can kill you, he says. But he is careful with his words; he doesnt want to talk about the militants or even the separatists.
But he is openly critical of the mainstream political parties in the statethe National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Whatever you see today is the outcome of their political manipulations, he says. Even after 60 years,these mainstream parties have failed to earn the trust of people.