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Off boycott coldstore, on steep uphill

Lolab (North Kashmir), May 11: He deliberated long on dipping his toes into the mainstream, perhaps too long. But having finally taken the plunge, Sajjad Lone is finding the currents tearing at him.

He isn’t self-crowned prince of the insulated realm of renunciation anymore, he’s suddenly one among the many having to compete in the town square for a place he has so far thought an insult to seek.

Denial is an easy perch — fire off angered proclamations, reject and defy, court arrest and renown comes served on a platter in Kashmir, you become a hero sitting at home. The rewards of democracy come dropping slow; you venture out and you venture hard and there’s nothing to ensure you still won’t come a cropper.

Sajjad, fancied son of the legendary and slain Abdul Ghani Lone, president of the People’s Conference and Kashmir’s first prominent separatist to resort to the ballot, is trudging from village to village, up and down rutted tracks turned muddy in the sleet, begging votes he quite suspects may not add up to enough on May 16.

“Victory will be a plus,” he says, angularly accepting he is on a steep uphill, “It’s tough, but I am in the fight, anyhow, this election has ended up reinvigorating my party cadres, I’ve come alive again after two decades in the boycott coldstore.”

We are in a remote but unbearably beauteous corner of north Kashmir — the saucer-like Lolab valley, closed to the world by a rim of pristine coniferous forests and beyond them, lofty snow-capped peaks that dip on the other side into the furious battlefields of Swat and Buner. But spring lies languorously sprawled across Lolab, its streams frothing away, its meadows overrun by poppies, its pines and chinars a parade of new plumage.

About the only dishevelled site in these parts is Sajjad himself — his jacket puffing the dust of the trail, his shoes caked in mud, his hair tossed in the wind, his three-day stubble completing the face of a worried man.

“I’m on the road 18 hours a day, having decided to contest, there was no other way,” he says, “I never thought it would be a cakewalk, but this is really tough going and I am alone and lacking in resources.”

He has just come off a corner meeting in Sogam — freshly captured by the PDP in the Assembly polls — and is hurrying his driver on to the next meeting. It’s a custom-built Ambassador, doubly bullet-proofed and with the front seat slid right to the rear in order to afford the tall Sajjad reclining space. “I am surprised we can even move around here,” he says, leaning further back as his long caravan lurches single-file along the winding track, “This used to be a heavily infested area, nobody could get in.”

Every time Sajjad jumps out, he is gobbled by a cluster of personal guards and heavily armed policemen; every time he gets back in, he seems to sigh with relief.

There’s enough boisterous song and dance about him in little village gatherings — “Kashmir ka buland sitara, Sajjad hamara, Sajjad hamara (Kashmir’s bright star, our Sajjad, our Sajjad)” — but he is visibly wary of getting too close to the merrymaking. It’s tough to blame him; father Abdul Ghani Lone was gunned down amidst similar festivity at a rally in Srinagar in 2002 and the horror haunts the scion enough to show on his face.

But it’s also a memory he is trying to bring to count in his bid for Parliament. “Spare a thought for me,” he tells clusters that gather to greet him on the trail, “Omar Abdullah has his father to advise him, Mehbooba has the patronage of the Mufti, my father was killed, I have nobody but Allah and you, give me a chance and I will prove myself to you.”

His long-held rhetoric of rejection Sajjad has lost with his decision to contest elections, it’s emotion he is bringing into play now.

“My strategy has changed because of compulsions,” he says meeting after meeting, “but my beliefs have not. I want to go to Parliament to speak out for Kashmiris and their political rights, nothing else, I am still the same Sajjad, I am saying the same things I have always said, I have not taken this tough decision to go back on my people.” Applause and vociferous avowal of support.

But clustered at the back of the caravan, key workers worry about the future as Sajjad raises the pitch of his appeal, standing atop a four-wheel drive. “This is Lolab,” one of them says, “Kupwara-Lolab are his home patch, Baramulla is eight times this size and the adversaries are formidable.” Dilawar Mir, the PDP veteran, is in the fray and there is Shrief-ud-din Shariq of the National Conference, who carries all the resources, overt and covert, of representing the party in power.

“Had he (Sajjad) contested the Assembly, he would have ready ground here,” the aide says, “but he was confused then, and it may be too late now, it’s not enough to get the applause in Lolab and Kupwara.”

Sajjad himself sounds sanguine, even if he were to lose. “Look, I’ve tried to give new direction to my politics and my party with this, we are in a new phase and my decision has recharged my cadres,” he says, “The worst that could happen is that I will have thousands and thousands of votes to show for, that’s not something anyone among the boycotters can even claim, I am connected anew with my people.”

Almost as if he were happy to merely sow the seeds this time, the fruits will take longer to pluck. He missed a season of sowing, after all; Sajjad well realises he should have heard himself and gone for the Assembly. But he waited; now it’s democracy’s turn to make him wait.

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