Engineer Rashid’s defiant victory a turning point for Kashmir’s democratic future

Abdul Rashid Sheikh’s electoral win in Baramulla, while in jail, against National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, indicates a shift in voter sentiment.

Published : Jun 22, 2024 18:09 IST - 8 MINS READ

Abdul Rashid Sheikh, aka Engineer Rashid, at a protest against the attack on Kashmiris after the fidayeen attack on the CRPF in Srinagar, on February 16, 2019.

Abdul Rashid Sheikh, aka Engineer Rashid, at a protest against the attack on Kashmiris after the fidayeen attack on the CRPF in Srinagar, on February 16, 2019. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

From the humble origins of remote Langate, Handwara, Abdul Rashid Sheikh, also known as Engineer Rashid, would have seemed an unlikely candidate to emerge as a formidable political figure in north Kashmir. Yet, his journey from an engineering student to a notable political disruptor is nothing short of remarkable.

Despite being held in Delhi’s Tihar jail, Rashid has achieved a surprising electoral victory in the Baramulla Lok Sabha seat, outmanoeuvring heavyweights such as former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference leader Sajad Gani Lone. This victory was not just a personal triumph but a significant political statement, given both his opponents’ substantial political networks and backing.

His win has stirred considerable debate, with some analysts suggesting his success might signal a resurgence of separatist and Islamist sentiments. These fears echo Kashmir’s unfortunate history, particularly the 1987 Assembly election, where similar narratives contributed to the election results being overturned, which led to a severe distrust in democracy, thus igniting prolonged conflict and bloodshed.

The 2024 election was the first significant electoral exercise in Kashmir since that controversial election. Therefore, the turnout was remarkably high, reflecting perhaps a renewed faith in democratic processes or a defiant hope for change.

Also Read | Kashmir’s revolt at the ballot box

For Rashid, a former college mate of mine at Government Degree College, Sopore, his ascent from an unassuming student to a political maverick encapsulates a tale of unwavering resilience and determination.

His political leanings were evident, especially his admiration for Abdul Ghani Lone and his left-leaning ideas, which often led to lively discussions with his peers. When I went to New Delhi to study journalism, which also coincided with the outbreak of militancy and anarchy in Kashmir, we lost touch. I had no idea that he had obtained an engineering diploma after graduation. I barely had a picture of him in my mind.

In the 1990s, the Urdu weekly Chattan, under its editor Tahir Mohiuddin, had become quite popular for its investigative and insightful reporting. The paper used to reserve space for a writer, Engineer Rashid, for an analytical column. A.G. Noorani, a well-known writer on Kashmir and India-Pakistan affairs, frequently relied on and quoted Engineer Rashid’s analyses in his articles published in Frontline. But it was only after almost a decade that I learnt that Sheikh Rashid and Engineer Rashid were the same person. After completing his engineering degree, he had joined Jammu and Kashmir Projects Construction Corporation (JKPCC) as a civil engineer.

From an engineer to an accidental hero

Rashid’s transformation from an engineer to an accidental hero began with an act of integrity that nearly cost him his life. While temporarily supervising a bridge construction work for JKPCC, he was confronted by armed men demanding bags of cement. He told them to visit him on the last day of the month so that he could pay them from his salary in cash instead of bags of cement.

They kidnapped him, and after a few days he was found almost half-dead at the edge of a drain. The bones in his arms and legs were broken. In the meantime, work on the bridge had been stopped due to the absence of the site manager. The complaint reached the Managing Director of JKPCC in Srinagar, who then learnt that a temporary site supervisor had suffered broken bones to save cement bags for the government. His conscience immediately took him to the hospital where he met Rashid and offered him a permanent job at JKPCC.

Engineer Rashid’s mother, Rahmi Begum, and son Abrar Rashid after his victory in the Lok Sabha election, on June 4.  

Engineer Rashid’s mother, Rahmi Begum, and son Abrar Rashid after his victory in the Lok Sabha election, on June 4.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The controversial land transfer of Amarnath in 2008 was a turning point for Rashid. He decided to run for office in Langate, which many of his friends opposed. Rashid justified it as a way of gaining protection and a platform for his causes. Despite a short campaign period, Rashid’s persistence paid off when he won the election by 211 votes over Mohammad Sultan Panditpuri of the Peoples Democratic Party.

According to Rashid, his only concern until then was to protect himself from police raids and summons from army camps. In 2005, he was arrested by the Special Operations Group on charges of supporting militant groups and subsequently detained for three months.

Highlights
  • Engineer Abdul Rashid Sheikh, currently held in Tihar jail, won the Baramulla Lok Sabha seat in Kashmir’s 2024 election, defeating prominent politicians.
  • Rashid’s journey from a civil engineer to a grassroots political figure was marked by activism, two terms as an MLA, and a focus on anti-corruption and human rights issues.
  • His victory, achieved through a low-budget campaign run by his son, has sparked debates about Kashmir’s political future and the state of democracy in the region.

He was subjected to extreme torture in the interrogation centres. The court dismissed all charges against him. He was later detained by gunmen said to be pro-government and released after five months on payment of a ransom. He said that his father had to sell cows, goats, and property to raise money for his life.

Opposition to ‘convoy duty’

As an MLA, Rashid’s involvement went beyond traditional politics. He vehemently opposed the forced labour known as “convoy duty”, used by the army in remote areas at the time. Villagers were forced to guard and ensure the safe passage of military convoys. He explained how four to eight people from each village in Langate would assemble as early as 3 am with lanterns and sticks at a designated spot in their village. Villagers had to take turns being part of the group. About 200 people from different villages would line up and wait for the Army lorries. When the military convoy arrived, they had to move ahead of it, exposing themselves to explosive devices, if any, placed on the road or nearby. They then gathered at the camp around 9 am where work for the day was distributed among them.

After becoming an MLA, he organised peaceful sit-ins outside Army camps and the Secretariat in Srinagar. His campaign led to the end of this practice, which brought considerable relief to his constituents and strengthened his reputation as a champion of human rights.

Rashid’s commitment to his constituents went beyond human rights. He vigorously fought corruption and urged people to report all demands for bribes directly to him. His unique approach to governance included regular visits to remote villages, leading protests, and ensuring the completion of development projects. His hands-on style earned him a second term in the Assembly in 2014.

It was due to his introduction of peaceful protests that Langate remained an island of peace in 2010 and 2016 when the whole of Kashmir was engulfed in violence. Both the security forces and the government credited peace in the region to Rashid’s engagement with the public.

Few may know that when the Aam Aadmi Party was formed in New Delhi in 2012, many of its leaders drew lessons from Rashid. Many of the AAP’s leaders visited the villages of Langate several times to study and understand Rashid’s political model.

In the just-concluded election, Rashid’s popularity skyrocketed when his son, Abrar Rashid, ran a short but effective campaign calling for his father’s release, capitalising on Rashid’s track record as a dedicated public servant.

Also Read | ‘Engineer Rashid’s win a combination of sympathy and perseverance’: Firdous Baba

Remarkably, the campaign’s modest budget of just Rs.27,000 stood in stark contrast to the exorbitant spending of the other candidates, highlighting the grassroots support for Rashid. This is reminiscent of George Fernandes contesting the 1967 Lok Sabha election, when he defeated the Congress stalwart S.K. Patil with only Rs.10,000 in his pocket.

Engineer Rashid’s arrest by the National Investigation Agency on money laundering charges has been a controversial issue since no trial has taken place in the last five years. His application for bail to take oath of office is pending in court. His victory has nevertheless revitalised his career and made him an important figure in Kashmir’s political arena.

His success is reminiscent of the way the writer Shaikh Shamim Ahmed won the 1971 Lok Sabha election in Srinagar against Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, a former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. However, while Shamim’s performance in Parliament earned him much acclaim, he was never able to emerge as a leader in the public eye.

Historically, Kashmiris have long yearned for a leader capable of steering the region through its turbulent political landscape. Rashid’s emergence evokes a sense of cautious optimism. His task now is to promote a transparent administration and create a balanced political environment that bridges ideological divides.

His victory signifies not just a personal triumph but a potential turning point in Kashmir’s quest for true democracy. As the region looks forward to the upcoming Assembly election, it is important that democracy now goes beyond voting. For that, the state must ensure democratic rights and many degrees of freedom in the daily lives of the people.

The demand for the release of prisoners like Engineer Rashid is a crucial test of the authenticity of the democratic process and the state’s commitment to it. Only time will tell if the region can achieve truly democratic governance that addresses its long-standing problems. 

Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.

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