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regular-article-logo Sunday, 23 June 2024

Sopore: On turf of deceased separatist hardliner Geelani, support pours in for jailed Engineer

Kashmir's Baramulla constituency, of which Sopore is a part, had clocked a 59 per cent turnout — the highest since militancy broke out. It was 44.36 per cent in the Sopore Assembly segment, against 4.3 per cent in 2019. Many of those voting had been known boycotters; many had last voted in 1987

Muzaffar Raina (Dooru) Sopore Published 21.05.24, 06:09 AM
Abdul Karim Pandit, caretaker of the Dooru mosque in Sopore, on his way to cast his vote.

Abdul Karim Pandit, caretaker of the Dooru mosque in Sopore, on his way to cast his vote. Picture by Muzaffar Raina

Hordes of supporters of the late Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Hurriyat hardliner with a passion for poll boycotts and stones, came out to vote on his home turf Sopore on Monday.

They voted for jailed Kashmiri politician Sheikh Abdul Rashid aka Engineer Rashid, the “New Geelani” for many of them.

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Baramulla parliamentary constituency, of which Sopore is a part, had clocked a 59 per cent turnout by 8pm — the highest since militancy broke out in 1989. It was 44.36 per cent in the Sopore Assembly segment, against 4.3 per cent in 2019. Many of those voting had been known boycotters; many had last voted in 1987.

Geelani had for three decades been the fulcrum of boycott politics, with Sopore earning the sobriquet of “Chhota Pakistan”. Though he never picked up arms, he remained the foremost supporter of militants and stone-throwers.

But he went into a shell after the 2019 changes, particularly with the authorities hounding his family in terror-linked cases. He died in 2021.

He had not always been a poll boycotter. Sopore had elected Geelani thrice to the Assembly — in 1972, 1977 and 1987. When pro-azadi sentiments gripped Kashmir in 1989, Geelani quit pro-India politics and joined the separatist bandwagon.

The Telegraph visited Sopore town and several of the nearly three dozen villages dotting the Zainageer area, where Geelani’s Jamaat-e-Islami has a strong presence.

People, including many Jamaatis, poured out to vote on Monday. On their lips was “Engineer”, a two-time former MLA and leader of the Awami Ittehad Party, lodged in Tihar jail since his arrest on terror charges on August 9, 2019.

Abdul Karim Pandit, 70, a labourer turned caretaker of the main mosque in Dooru, Geelani’s home village, said security forces had broken his teeth and labelled him a militant after he refused to vote nearly two decades ago.

“But today I’m voting for Engineer. In the Assembly, he used to speak about Kashmir and he has suffered a lot,” he said.

Bashir Ahmad, who said he last voted in 1987, said Engineer was the “New Geelani” for at least some Geelani supporters. “He will talk about the Kashmir issue (in Parliament)…. Maybe our vote can free him.”

Some hardcore Geelani supporters dismissed the comparison. “Participation in polls is no answer. It’s obviously a surrender. We should continue to boycott elections,” a middle-aged man said, requesting anonymity.

But last week, even the banned Jamaat said it was willing to contest polls if the ban was lifted.

At Gond Brath and Brath Kalan villages, once a militancy hub, the enthusiasm seemed even starker. Around 50 per cent votes had been cast by 4pm at Gond Brath.

“Dozens of youths from these two villages picked up arms and died fighting the security forces. But today you have so many Jamaatis voting,” a National Conference activist quipped.

A villager said the voting reflected anti-BJP sentiments: “People here don’t want the BJP (or its proxies) to win.”

Mohammad Akbar Mir, 85, rejected the stereotype of Sopore being a Jamaati hub.

“I know many people were ashamed (to vote) but I always voted,” the Sheikh Abdullah admirer said. “The NC was always strong here (but people were not free enough to talk).”

Engineer is up against Omar Abdullah (NC) and Sajjad Lone (People’s Conference, seen as BJP-friendly).

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