The walls and electricity poles at Batergam village in Kupwara are dotted with colourful posters seeking votes for “the daughter of Kashmir”. She is Somia Sadaf, a local star who has interacted with the Prime Minister, is a key member of a government self-help initiative, and an entrepreneur who runs a knitting centre, a dairy, a poultry farm and a school canteen.
But it is another line in her bio that makes Sadaf stand out as an Independent candidate in the first District Development Council (DDC) polls in Jammu and Kashmir. She hails from Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
“I am the daughter of Kashmir now. For a girl, home is where her family lives, where her husband and children live,” says the 36-year-old.
Sadaf crossed over 10 years ago with her husband Abdul Majeed Bhat and their three sons and daughter. Bhat was a Kupwara resident who entered PoK in the 1990s to pursue arms training when the militancy was gathering pace. But he decided to pursue higher studies instead and went on to acquire two degrees, in Arabic and English, from colleges in Lahore and Islamabad.
Sadaf says she first met Majeed while pursuing her graduation in Lahore. In 2002, they got married in Muzaffarabad.
And in 2010, they decided to sign up for a rehabilitation scheme launched by the then state government, led by National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, for former militants who wished to return.
“Even though I was an orphan — my father was a contractor in Dubai and died before my birth — it was a queen’s life for me there. We had everything. But Majeed longed to see his mother. I came here to fulfill his wish. We were among the first few families that returned to Kashmir,” she says.
Five years ago, Sadaf joined Umeed, a Central Government initiative to alleviate poverty among women in J&K. Since then, it has been a success story.
In 2018, Sadaf represented “progressive women entrepreneurs” from J&K in a countrywide online interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Government subsequently approached her to motivate other women in Kupwara to launch self-help groups. By then, she had also completed her Masters from Maulana Azad National Urdu University.
According to Sadaf, it was during a meeting of Umeed last month that a colleague, who is also a relative, first floated the idea. “’Didi, why don’t you contest the DDC polls?’, she asked me. I dismissed the idea without a thought. I knew my husband wouldn’t agree. But then, other colleagues, too, started prodding me to contest. They said they would help in my campaign. My relative said she would talk to my husband and convince him,” she says.
“As expected, my husband dismissed the idea. He was part of the tehreek (separatist movement) and didn’t want to be part of any elections. But finally, he relented,” says Sadaf.
To her surprise, she says, the road since then has been smooth. “When I went to file my nomination papers, nobody asked any uncomfortable questions. I have all the papers. I have even been issued a passport,” she says.
It’s rare for families of militants, who have returned under the rehabilitation policy, to be given travel documents. And Sadaf knows that she has had a better life in Kashmir unlike many other Pakistani women who have crossed over similarly.
“You can succeed under the toughest of circumstances if you show the courage. I struggled a lot initially but God has been kind. My struggle has paid off,” she says.
Sadaf wants to develop her constituency “like Muzaffarabad” which, she feels, “is more developed”. “We have many government schemes here but also a lot of corruption. I will create awareness among women about their rights,” she says.
With the laptop as her symbol, Sadaf is one of the 11 candidates, including a PDP leader representing the mainstream PAGD front, in Drugmulla constituency that voted Monday in the fourth of the eight-phase elections. It’s a tough task. “But I am hopeful that I will win,” she says.