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A rebel in new clothes

A separatist leader who always slammed Indian elections as a farce is running in the polls. He says he still supports freedom for Kashmir, reports Peerzada Ashiq.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 19:38 IST
Peerzada Ashiq

For sixty years, Mir Abdul Salam's separatist-leaning family never dabbed ink on their index finger in any election, dismissing elections as a farce.

On Tuesday, the 60-year-old was out on the streets in a rugged expanse in the Rajouri district, asking people for votes.

Salam, formerly a close associate of top separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is running as an independent candidate. He says his decision to take part in the same democratic process he rubbished for years is not opportunism.

Salam now sees the democratic process as the only means to "liberate" Kashmir from India.

"Election na ladna, jung mein bhagne ka barabar hai (Not to fight elections is like deserting a war," said Salam.

Salam's decision has come at a time when a separatist boycott campaign is catching on in the Valley. But Salam's take on the elections is different from that of his one-time idol Geelani.

"My only aim is to raise the Kashmir issue from the floor of the assembly," said Salam. "The government of India has been asking us to prove our mandate to start a dialogue with New Delhi. Let me give it a try."

Salam is busy reaching out to people in upper reaches of Rajouri district, once a militancy hub and a transit point for dreaded militants in the Jammu region.

"There is a change in the world scenario. Democratic institutions are the only institutions to resolve issues," said Salam, who said he had also advised Geelani and separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah to similarly participate in the elections.

But his decision to contest elections has created a gulf between him and Geelani. "We are no more on talking terms," he said.

An hour after sunrise on Tuesday, Salam was in Mangote village, his supporters raising the slogan: "Vote for resolution of Kashmir through democratic institutions."

But Salam said he won't shy away from joining separatist ranks again if the democratic institutions fail to deliver.

Salam's ideology, like many others in Rajouri, has been shaped by wars and bloodbath.

He was a college student at a Poonch college in 1965 when a war broke out between India and Pakistan.

He witnessed bloodshed in Poonch, where hundreds of Muslims and Hindus died in rioting, forcing mass migration of both the communities across the Line of Control. His experience left him bitter.

"I never had faith in Indian democratic institutions. Elections were always rigged in J&K. But the 2002 polls changed my perception. The polls were fair," said Mir. "I hope the government of India will repeat it again."

But Mir, who lost three relatives during the insurgency, supports the new peaceful agitation in Kashmir.

"What guns couldn't achieve in the last 20 years, the recent agitation has," he said, referring to unprecedented street protests this summer in Kashmir.

"Guns have played its role. Let people take over now.