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Lone crusader to pariah

- Die-hard loyalist dumped repeatedly by NC

The lone candidate who dared to join the parliamentary poll fray at the beginning of militancy in Srinagar is a lonely man.

Mohammad Shafi Bhatt, a one-time MP and two-time MLA, is crippled by his ailments. Since he suffered a stroke a few years ago, the 66-year-old has largely been bed-ridden and can move only with support.

But that isn’t what is bothering him. Rather, the apathy from the party that he nurtured with his blood and sweat — the National Conference — and from mainstream politicians is haunting him more.

“It is as if I don’t existů the party asked me jump into fire (during the 1989 elections) when nobody daredů I did it because my family has always been fierce loyalists of Sheikh sahab (NC founder Sheikh Abdullah),” Bhatt told The Telegraph at his Tulsi Bagh home.

“All these years nobody from the party visited my home, expect once when my brother died. They all have abandoned me.”

Once an NC strongman and a die-hard loyalist, Bhatt repeatedly broke into tears as he spoke. He was the only candidate who joined the fray in 1989 in Srinagar in the face of a militant boycott call and won uncontested.

“The party had asked Rather sahab (finance minister Abdul Rahim Rather) and Sagar sahab (rural development minister Ali Mohammad Sagar) to contest from Srinagar but they all refused. All his ailments are because of the way he was treated,” Bhatt’s wife Aamina Begum said.

The decision to contest was no mean one. Militancy had just started in Srinagar and the city was under siege from pro-aazaadi processions.

Farooq Abdullah then headed a government in alliance with the Congress. Two months after the polls, he resigned in protest against then Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s decision to re-appoint Jagmohan as governor.

The Assembly was soon dissolved and mainstream politicians left for Jammu and other places. But Bhatt stayed back. “Who remained in the mainstream camp here other than me?” he asked.

“All others deserted this place. Every day you would find statements in newspapers (from pro-India politicians) that they are no longer associated with it. It was I who kept the flag of NC aloft.”

A law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University and a former High Court Bar Association president, Bhatt had joined the NC during his school days in the 1960s. He was drawn by the politics of its founder, Sheikh Abdullah.

Aamina recalled how the family had to shift from their Rajbagh residence to the high-security VVIP enclave, Gupkar Road, after Bhatt decided to contest.

Daughter Hina Shafi, a dental surgeon, said the family had got scared after militants abducted Mufti’s daughter in December 1989. “I, my brother and sister had to leave our school in Srinagar and shift to Delhi for schooling. We were treated like traitors here and even our relatives abandoned us,” she said.

When things in Jammu and Kashmir started settling years later, it was men like Bhatt who helped the NC and other mainstream parties to contest the 1996 Assembly elections. “I acted as a bridge between people and NC during these years,” he said.

Bhatt contested the city-centre Amira Kadal constituency and won but in the 2002 elections he was dumped. The Congress offered him a ticket. He contested “with a heavy heart” and again won in a low-turnout election in Srinagar. It was after 27 years that the Congress had won the seat.

Bhatt was tipped to be a minister but he soon enraged the Congress with his statements. “I was and am a Sheikh loyalist... I could never be comfortable in the Congress and despite being part of it I was with NC,” he said.

In the 2008 elections, Omar Abdullah dumped him again for his little-known acquaintance, Nasir Sogami. “I had just suffered a stroke but filed my nomination as an Independent. Farooq Abdullah came to my home pleading I should withdraw so that Nasir wins. I agreed and, in fact, sent my daughter Hina to campaign for him everywhere and he won,” Bhatt said.

Over the past six years, he has turned a pariah for the party but has not given up. “I have decided to field my daughter, Hina, in Assembly elections this year. This party has failed to help the people. My daughter will,” he said.

Hina, 34, finds politics a “dirty profession” but is ready to bite the bullet. “There is so much frustration among the people here because of corruption and rights abuses. Sometimes I think I should pick up arms to fight them. But you have to go into the system and clean it,” she said.