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In separatists’ heartland, Lone roots for change
Aditi Tandon
Tribune News Service

Baramulla/Kupwara, May 11
Sajjad Ghani Lone is a changed man. Only five months ago, he was one with the separatists in seeking the boycott of the Assembly elections in the state, his voice laden with certain firmness of resolve.

The firmness is intact, but the resolve has changed, with the former separatist now asking people to vote, and unlearn the boycott lessons he taught them for years. He is pleading with them not to “misconstrue” his decision to fight the Lok Sabha elections from Baramulla, saying “it was the need of the hour”.

“My decision implies a change in strategy, not ideology. Let this not be seen as a pro-India stand, but a step toward liberating the voice of Kashmiri nationhood that has remained suppressed for years,” he tells people in his road shows, public meetings and door-to-door campaigns.

The new-age separatist has also canvassed in the frontier district of Uri, a Congress stronghold, recalling his father Abdul Ghani Lone’s sacrifice, and the latter’s vision of Kashmir, promising to take it to fruition. He has even kept a road map ready should people elect him to Parliament. Titled “Achievable Nationhood”, the document sounds like the PDP’s self-rule and roots for an economic union of the two Kashmirs and a free trade zone.

“This is an evolving approach,” argues Sajjad, referring to the history of conflicts across the world, and how in every conflict there comes a stage when people must enter the system to change it.

Not everyone understands this language of change here, with the leader’s fate virtually hanging between extreme reactions to his decision. In segments closer to Srinagar like Sonawari, Patttan, Baramulla and Sopore, Sajjad is being dubbed as a “traitor”, with pro-freedom demonstrators at Sonawari recently stoning his cavalcade. “He has sold the martyrs’ blood. For us, he is dead,” says an angry Manzoor Ahmad, as many others join him in Baramulla voicing the Hurriyat sentiment.

These are areas where the Hurriyat holds ground, with Sopore being native to separatist ideologue Syed Ali Shah Geelani. People here are confused about Sajjad’s new stand, and some like Aamir Siddiqui are asking, “A few months ago, Sajjad wanted us to boycott poll even when his sister was contesting from Kupwara. Now, he feels the need for a change. This transition is confusing.” Sajjad’s sister Shabnam Lone lost the elections last December.

But as you move further north toward Kupwara, violent reactions to Sajjad’s stand pave way to sympathy, with people likening the leader to his father Abdul Ghani Lone, who was gunned down on May 21, nine years ago. Nisar Ahmad, a Handwara resident, says he trusts every word Sajjad utters. “If Sajjad says he will represent us in Parliament, he means it. He is the son of the soil.”

But such obliging remarks have no resonance beyond Kupwara, Handwara and Langate, where Sajjad’s traditional support base offers him a good buffer zone wherein to canvass and reason with the voters. Elsewhere, such privileges are absent, one reason why Sajjad has concentrated on his key areas.

But even there, he could face some trouble, considering his party, the People’s Conference, is in a bit of a disarray and the fact that Sajjad’s confidante and sitting Langate MLA Abdul Rashid is openly supporting NC candidate Sharifuddin Shariq in the Baramulla segment, where the NC has seven seats and the PDP five. Another challenge is on the boycott front; the Hurriyat call has already worked in Srinagar and Anantnag.

That apart, some people in Baramulla are busy insinuating that the NC is covertly working to help Sajjad win. “That is possible. Why else would the NC field a weak candidate against Sajjad when they could have fielded a stronger one?” asks Nisar Geelani, a local; many share his view.

But political analysts disagree. They feel the NC could not afford to lose any seat this time. “Had they so wanted Sajjad to win, they could have withdrawn their candidate in his favour. That would have silenced the separatists. But who wants things to change?” they ask.

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