Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Kishtwar in Chenab valley for his first election rally in Jammu and Kashmir. And it was during her first rally here that Sonia Gandhi decided to announce the Congress’s plan to create a developmental council each for Chenab valley and Pirpanchal in Jammu.
The fight between these two parties is centred on Chenab valley, which votes Tuesday, and where the BJP wants to undo the influence of former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. And as a wave of support for Modi grips Jammu’s Hindu-dominated districts, until recently a Congress stronghold, it is Kishtwar that has become symbolic of the BJP effort.
Though the BJP’s Lok Sabha poll success in Jammu is attributed to the projection of Modi, the effort to displace the Congress had started years earlier. It worked on a strategy to utilise the traditional “soft saffron” political base of the Congress to build a strong vote-bank. The opening came during the Amarnath land row in 2008 when the Hindu population felt let down by the Congress-led government when it decided to revoke allotment of land to Amarnath Shrine Board. Amid the polarisation in the assembly elections of 2008, the BJP’s tally rose to 11 from one in 2002.
Kishtwar was the one place that witnessed a serious communal clash during the Amarnath land row; two people were killed. The constituency saw communal clashes again in 2013, which led to the resignation of then minister of state for home and local NC legislator Sajjad Kichloo.
Kishtwar was once considered the least communally divided region in Chenab valley. The two communities, made of almost equal numbers, had even fought joint struggles for decades for getting district status.
The first visible communal divide in Chenab valley came when the separatist movement and militancy emerged in Kashmir in 1990. The movement, especially militancy, spread to Chenab valley, where the Muslims are Kashmiri-speaking, sooner than to other districts of Jammu. The Hindu population opposed it, and with the emergence of groups such as Harkat and Lashkar, there were several instances where Hindu villagers were selectively attacked and killed. Members of the Muslim population, meanwhile, were targeted by security forces while the government gave arms and training primarily to Hindu villagers to repel militants; these village defence committees contributed to the rift.
None of that, however, went on to trigger a communal riot, because such a flare-up then didn’t fit into any vote-bank calculus. The NC or the Congress dominated the assembly constituencies in Chenab valley. Though the saffron parties had a support base, they couldn’t translate it into an electoral victory then. It has been of late that the BJP has become a serious contender across Jammu, beginning with Kishtwar.
Kishtwar’s poll history shows how significant polarisation can be. It has always had a Muslim legislator, mostly from NC, since the 1950s. In 1983 and 1987, the BJP polled a mere 1,000 and 3,000-odd votes. In 1996, following the emergence of militancy, the BJP made its implications a poll issue and its candidate came second with 10,900 votes to NC winner Bashir Ahmad Kichloo’s 17,889. In 2002, the BJP was again nowhere as Kichloo’s son Sajjad won.
The BJP bounced back in 2008 by polling 32.68 per cent, just behind Sajjad Kichloo’s 37.48 per cent. But for the SC votes, Kichloo would have lost because the BJP had managed to unite the Hindu vote following the land row. That year, the BJP was runner-up also in Bhaderwah, Inderwal and Ramban. In Banihal and Doda, the contest was between the NC and the Congress but the BJP was number three in the latter.
The march of the BJP was halted primarily by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who hails from Bhalesa in Chenab valley. When he became CM in 2005, he focused on developing Chenab valley to strengthen his influence.
It was only in the last Lok Sabha polls that the polarisation of 2008 started showing results. Azad lost his Udhampur seat, which Chenab valley is part of, and he led only in the Muslim-majority segments among the 17 in the LS seat.
Azad remains key to the Congress’s hopes, as was evident when Sonia Gandhi announced the promise to carve out developmental councils. The intent and timing was clearly a last-minute effort to reach out to the hilly districts of Jammu, especially Chenab valley. Such councils have been a longstanding demand from these two remote regions because locals feel the developmental effort in Jammu is concentrated in Jammu-Kathua-Sambha.