Others might have fled to the high security zones of Srinagar, but not Sakina Itoo, J&K’s 31-year-old tourism minister. Despite the fact that militants killed her father Wali Mohd Itoo and her uncle Abdul Razzak Itoo; despite the four attempts made on her life within a span of ten days recently; despite the terror that still lurks.
Meeting her means going to South Kashmir’s Noorabad constituency, a three hour drive from Srinagar down narrowing roads and past innumerable BSF minesweepers. Yet it’s worth it: in an exclusive to Hindustan Times she spoke to Aditya Sinha about near death and a forfeited personal life:
How did you enter politics?
It was circumstance. When militants killed my father I was doing the third year of my MBBS from GMC, Bhopal. The National Conference was deciding candidates for the 1996 elections, and many from Daddy's constituency (Noorabad) said they needed someone from the family.
I'm the second of five sisters, and I had no desire to be in politics; I just thought I would become a doctor. But my family said I should leave my MBBS and join politics.
I asked Mummy to do it as I thought it wasn’t a good idea till I finished my MBBS. But no one else in the family was willing.
Why didn't Mummy want to contest?
Mummy is a housewife, and having no experience outside the home, she didn't agree. I asked my elder sister who was working, but she didn't agree either. Then Mummy chose me and others also urged me to jump in.
Were there any problems while campaigning for the 1996 elections?
Absolutely none. I didn't know the area well because we weren't staying here. When I was told there are 136 villages in the constituency I wasn't sure of myself and wondered if people would accept me. But I had no problems. I covered the 136 villages. There was no road connectivity at all, and in some places I travelled by foot.
Did you become a minister right away?
I took oath as minister before doing so as an MLA. I was the only woman who had been elected. I was made deputy minister for education. After that I was minister of state for social welfare and after that I was in the works ministry. I have been tourism minister for the past year or so.
Why are militants targeting you again and again this time?
I have no idea, but there must be some planning behind it. In 1996 they might have thought I was a new girl, and were unsure if I would win or not. But this time they are afraid of me, of what I’ll achieve if I win. So they won't let me continue under any circumstances.
But there's definite planning. At this time everyone, no matter from which party, is a target for the militants. In the mine blast, the road I took was the same that a different candidate crossed five minutes before, and nothing happened to him. But my car was made a target.
What did it feel like during the attack?
I returned from campaigning and had to cross the bridge to town, and the car stopped. There were around 200 youth accompanying me. They got out and started to push my car. Then we heard a grenade blast. Suddenly my driver got the car off the bridge and stood it on one side. Then began a continuous stream of firing. I didn't fear for myself: I was thinking that nothing should happen to the youngsters. Because they're poor boys. Their mothers would be waiting for them.
In the incident with the mine blast, again these boys were with me. They got down from their vehicles and lay down on the ground. I told my PSOs to tell them not to lie around but to get back into the vehicles because there was firing from all sides.
I had lost all hope of surviving the first attack. Because the firing was continuous for a long time, and the militants were so close. We were surrounded from all sides. Thank God more forces came and we got out.
Are these attacks because nearby Kulgam and Shopian are militancy-affected?
My constituency has the most militancy, and it is the most far-flung. Everyone knows that after Musharraf's promise to end infiltration a lot of militants have come here from Pakistan. But why am I alone made a target? Why is my house attacked? This very house where we are now has been attacked five-six times in the past year. Why am I repeatedly attacked?
What effect have the attacks had on your campaigning?
Though there isn't a village I haven't been to these past six years, I wanted to go and tell everyone how much destruction there was, and how much development has taken place. But there are problems — if I go, I can't give my programme in advance. If I want to go somewhere, securitymen say don't go today, go day after, or better yet, don't go at all.
Is the anti-incumbency factor working against you?
There are 55,000 voters. I can't say all are satisfied. Unfortunately people only see shortcomings, not the work that’s been done. I can say with certainty that nobody has done as much as I have during the past six years. But the destruction of 12 years can't be fixed in just six.
How have the attacks effected Mummy and your sisters?
She wonders why all this is happening to her daughter. When I go out, she feels very bad and tries to dissuade me, saying there’s no need for so much campaigning, you've done a lot of work. Even if you don't go they'll vote for you.
First Daddy's death, then the killing of his brother Abdul Razak, and now almost daily attacks on our house. It seems that's all we've seen in last 12 years. We feel bad sometimes. I tell Mummy it would have been better to stay out of politics. The sisters also sometimes think that would have been better. Didi was a doctor and our fruit business was going well.
Has your personal life suffered after entering politics?
Personal life is completely over. There is nothing. No time for myself. Whatever you do is for the people. And after that if people are not happy then it feels futile. But that's part of politics.
Do you regret it?
I feel very bad because at this age, one should enjoy; what have I got myself into? (laughs) If one has to enter politics, one should do so at 40 or 50, but not at this age. This is an age for… my friends often call up and say they did this or went there, and enjoyed themselves so much. Naturally I feel awful that they do so much and I'm unable to do anything. I shouldn't have come into politics at this age; it should have been 10-12 years later.
Does this mean you'll leave politics in the near future?
There's no question of quitting. And my people won't let me leave. And it's not good since they put their trust in me. As long as I'm around, I'll be in politics, working for people, Inshallah.