Jammu and Kashmir

The BJP’s diatribe against the Roshni scheme and the Manoj Sinha administration’s eviction of nomads from forest dwellings signal that the party fears a setback in the DDC elections

Print edition : January 01, 2021

During the second phase of the DDC elections, at Ganastan village in Sumbal block of Bandipora district in north Kashmir on December 1. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mehbooba Mufti, PDP chief, is prevented from leaving her Gupkar Road premises in Srinagar on December 8. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

With the abrogation of Article 370 losing its emotional appeal, the odds against the BJP in the DDC elections are not confined to Jammu; its entire game plan in Kashmir Valley may be heading for a collapse.

THE ongoing District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir which have been marred by the detention of political leaders, the onslaught on nomads, and the unidimensional discourse on the Roshni scheme have shed light on the tactics the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre is employing to eliminate any chance of a resurgence of its opponents in the erstwhile Himalayan State, in particular in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley.

The eight-phase elections, which began on November 28,are seen as a litmus test for the Srinagar-headquartered regional parties that are faced with the daunting task of assembling the wreck of mainstream politics, but it is no less significant for the BJP for which attaining a consequential lead over the Congress in Hindu-dominated Jammu and Udhampur districts is imperative. Anything less would be read as a rejection of its unilateral action of August 5, 2019, when it derogated Article 370 of the Constitution which guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir special status. It would also mean the political contours in Jammu and Kashmir would shift rapidly, with Kashmir-centric parties launching a coordinated and combative struggle for restoration of the special status amid starker international scrutiny.

Also read: Allegations of voter suppression and intimidation during DDC polls

There is optimism in the Congress rank and file that the widespread disillusionment among the people of Jammu, stemming from the BJP’s failure to deliver on its promised big reforms and create economic opportunities, has dented the emotive appeal of its decision to abrogate Article 370. The Congress hopes to leapfrog ahead of the BJP in Jammu and Udhampur. According to Ashwini Handa, the party’s district general secretary, the people in Jammu are no longer looking at Article 370 from the narrow prism set by the BJP.

Handa told Frontline: “There is no longer the jubilation one witnessed on August 5 [2019] in Jammu when the special status was stripped off. People now realise that settlers from outside the Union Territory would first land in Jammu before they moved to Kashmir. They realise that they would be the first to lose exclusivity over land and economic opportunities. At a time when the rate of unemployment is at a record high, this apprehension has significantly altered how people, in particular youths, are viewing and reacting to the BJP’s politics.” He is confident that if Assembly elections are called today, the BJP will lose most of the 25 Assembly seats it won in 2014.

The Congress’ on-and-off allies, the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), are more cautious in their assessment. An interaction with top-rung N.C. and PDP leaders gives one the sense that the Congress could prove to be a weak link in the fight against the BJP’s machinations. “The Congress is approaching the elections without an ideological narrative and preparedness to cash in on the emerging anti-BJP sentiment among the Hindus,” is the common refrain of the signatories of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), who are miffed at the grand old party’s flip-flop on the question of aligning with them.

Outwardly, the BJP exudes confidence about sweeping Jammu. Rahul Sharma, BJP leader from Jammu who is managing the party’s campaign, told this reporter that the party’s support base had not been eroded. “We will sweep the entire Jammu region. The Congress has no leadership at the State level; nationally it is weak and is riddled with factionalism. Its support for the Gupkar is has alarmed the people,” Sharma told Frontline.

Also read: BJP rattled by Congress alliance with Gupkar signatories

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha issued statements highlighting the development work of his administration. He said at the IT-2020 Global Summit, organised by PanIIT USA, on November 5: “The young population is ready to be an entrepreneur and contribute to Atma Nirbhar Jammu Kashmir.... We are devising new path, new policies, new technological tools to strengthen our business ecosystem....”

The odds against the BJP are not confined to Jammu. Its entire game plan in Kashmir Valley may be heading for a collapse. The thinking in the BJP was that the N.C. and the PDP would abstain from the elections in order to reassert their decision not to recognise the altered status of Jammu and Kashmir. It hoped this would leave the space open for the Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party, which is widely believed to have been propped up to replace the traditional mainstream in Kashmir. But the N.C. and the PDP saw through the plan and teamed up with Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Muzaffar Shah’s Awami National Conference and Mustafa Mir’s People’s Movement to form the PAGD. They are contesting the elections jointly.

The average turnout in the first four phases of the DDC elections ranged between 48.62 per cent and 51.76 per cent, with the turnout in Kashmir Valley at a steady and impressive 30 per cent and above. It is clear that the PAGD will prevail over the Apni Party in the Valley, though sources in the N.C. and the PDP told this reporter the latter would wrest some seats in the Chenab region.

The apprehension of a setback, for its covert ally, the Apni Party, in Kashmir and possibly for itself in Jammu, was bound to make the BJP restless. A series of strong-arm measures combined with the deployment of the nationalistic rhetoric show that the BJP is attempting to turn the local elections into an ideological contest. At the heart of the BJP’s diatribe against the PAGD, which it refers to as the “Gupkar gang”, is the Roshni scam. The BJP and the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh (RSS) sharpened their attack on the Abdullahs and the Muftis over the so-called Rs.25,000 crore scam, the biggest ever in Jammu and Kashmir.

Also read: Leaders take to streets over Kashmir's new land laws

Recently, Union Minister Jitendra Singh, who represents the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency, remarked that “what was witnessed [in the Roshni scheme] was that all the loot went into the construction of lavish bungalows at Gupkar Road and other VIP locations, whereas the poor neither got the electricity nor the house.” In another statement recently, he reiterated the Narendra Modi government’s commitment “to regaining Pakistan-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir”.

The Roshni Act

The Roshni Act was enacted in 2001 with the objective of transferring the ownership of state land to its occupants for a fee determined by the government. The funds thus collected were to be earmarked to fund power projects in Jammu and Kashmir, a goal-post that fetched it its alias, Roshni, or light. The Farooq Abdullah government planned to raise Rs.25,000 crore under the Roshni scheme, but the fee collected from the regularisation of 71,000 acres (one acre equals 0.4 hectare) of land in Jammu and over 4,000 acres of land in Kashmir was a meagre Rs.76 crore. In October, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court annulled the Roshni Act as “completely unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable”. It also ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into it.

The website of the office of the Divisional Commissioner names Farooq and Omar Abdullah, among others, as encroachers on state land. The father and the son are in illegal occupation of seven kanals and seven marlas, or 0.91 acre, in Jammu’s Sunjwan area. The N.C. dismissed the allegation as an attempt to “hype up a frenzy” ahead of the elections. “The malicious nature of the allegations is laid bare by the fact that Mr Omar Abdullah does not own the land but actually lives with his father in Jammu as he does in Srinagar,” the party said in a statement on November 25.

Also read: NIA raids at properties of Valley's civil society members

However, long-time political observers of Jammu and Kashmir are of the opinion that the Roshni scheme indeed favoured the political and bureaucratic elites and that “the allegations could be more truth than fiction, though the BJP’s intent and timing smacks of political opportunism”. Some N.C. leaders known to this reporter murmur that the allegations against Farooq Abdullah “may not be entirely untrue”.

The pivot of the BJP’s politics in Jammu and Kashmir centred around the alleged appropriation of Jammu and Kashmir’s resources by its two prominent political families, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, and the need to undo that. The party is of the opinion that the discourse over the Roshni scam will be doubly profitable. In Kashmir, by upping the ante against the PDP and the N.C. leaderships, it is aiming to create a level-playing field for the Apni Party. In Jammu, on the other hand, its entrenched Hindutva structure along with a large section of the electronic media has raised the bogey of Hindu marginalisation. An army of usual suspects on television ran several prime-time programmes on Roshni, calling it a “land jehad” carried out to realign the demography in Jammu.

Eviction of nomads

Around the same time, the Manoj Sinha administration stepped up its anti-encroachment drive, depriving at least a score of Gujjar and Bakerwal families of their decades-old dwellings. The demolition was more pronounced in Pahalgam, Anantnag and Budgam districts. The Union Territory administration maintains that the evictions are being carried out to retrieve forest land.

Raja Muzaffar Bhat, noted Right to Information (RTI) activist and columnist based in Budgam, disagrees. He told Frontline:“The Modi government maintained that Article 370 hindered empowerment of the people in Jammu and Kashmir as several Central laws could not be extended to the State. But after the repeal of the [erstwhile] State’s special status, there is no hint of that development. We have these heart-wrenching spectacle of people rendered homeless.”

Raja Muzaffar, who had been in the forefront of anti-demolition protests, said even as the government’s stated policy was to encourage afforestation, the demolition drives were often accompanied by large-scale felling of apple trees grown by nomads. “What sort of vandalism is that?” he asks, “They came with axes! This is blatant targeting of a specific community; 95 per cent of the forest dwellers are from a specific community.”

Also read: Kashmiris stunned by new land laws

Abdul Rashid, 38, a resident of Kani Dajan village at Yusmarg in Budgam district, is one such victim. Rashid’s family had been growing plantations in the surrounding jungles for the past 40 years. In November, the administration served his family notice to stay away from the forest land. Within seven days, the authorities came and axed scores of apple trees grown by the family. Forty other families of the village faced a similar plight. “We had invested around Rs.40,000 on this year’s cultivation. The losses amount to more than a lakh. The income would have sustained us for one year,” Rashid said. He recounted the abruptness of t he government’s action. “We were not told that they were coming; we did not even know they had felled our trees. We learnt that from passers-by.”

The administration thwarted PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti’s repeated attempts to meet these families. On November 8, just as the former Chief Minister was about to head for Budgam, her official residence at Gupakar was locked from outside. She tweeted: “Illegal detention has become GOI’s favourite go-to method for muzzling any form of opposition. I’ve been detained once again because I wanted to visit Budgam where hundreds of families were evicted from their homes.” She also shared videos showing her demanding in vain for the door of her residence to be opened. Throughout the DDC elections, the administration detained PAGD candidates, citing security threat.

‘Land jehad’ narrative

Mohammad Akbar Dar, who lives at Zilsidara village in Chadoora tehsil in Budgam, was recently served an eviction notice although his family had been living at his current residence for more than hundred years. He shared with this reporter two documents issued by thepatwari, one in1951 and the other in 1979. He said both documents “recognised” his family’s residency and did not object to that arrangement. Dar, who is also the village cleric, sounded perturbed during his phone conversation with Frontline. “We held a sit-in at Lal Chowk [in Srinagar], but to no avail. We went to the Budgam Deputy Commissioner’s office to give a representation but were turned away. I don’t know what awaits us,” he rued.

After the abrogation of Article 370, two important Central laws, the Indian Forest Act, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, were extended to Jammu and Kashmir. Under Forest Rights Act, S.Ts such as the Gujjars and Bakerwals and other traditional forest dwellers enjoy certain rights over forest land. In February 2019, when the Supreme Court approved the impending eviction of around 11.8 lakh illegal occupants of forest land across 16 States, the Modi government took up the cudgels on their behalf. In a subsequent judgment, the court stayed the eviction. Political analysts are baffled that the Manoj Sinha administration is going ahead with eviction drive under the Forest Rights Act despite the stay order.

They believe that there could be a link between the demolition drives and the overall caustic discourse over the Roshni scam. An N.C. leader, who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity, explained: “It is hard for the BJP to touch the rich and powerful Roshni beneficiaries; that would be opening a Pandora’s box. But having set the ‘land jehad’ narrative, they need to create some optics to support it and demonstrate that they are ‘purging Muslims’. Nomads are easy prey.”

Also read: The myth of love jehad

It is pertinent to mention here that the Manoj Sinha administration has sought a review of the High Court order that declared the Roshni Act illegal. According to an N.C. press release, “after realising that the major beneficiaries of the [Roshni] scheme were from the BJP and the RSS from Jammu, the BJP wants a silent backtrack on its vitriol on Roshni scheme”.

But one wonders if polarisation has already been done. Or is the BJP’s rhetoric past its sell-by date?