A dishevelled look and a tired face give Sajjad Lone the appearance of a man in deep distress. Even then, his chiselled features and a tall frame stand out to make him look more like a film star than a man whose decision to contest Parliamentary elections from a separatist platform has caused a stir in the country.
For the first time in his political career, the 42-year-old Sajjad tells party workers that he needs votes and they should, “in the name of azadi tell people that ballot and not boycott is the answer to make our voice heard in heartless India.”
The transformation from a chain-smoking, English-speaking urbane man to a professional orator who speaks in fluent Kashmiri to invoke the name of Islam, self respect and identity to seek votes so that he can make the voice of the oppressed be heard in the Indian Parliament is hard to believe.
Deep down in his heart, he knows he has a lot of explaining to do to his people to whom he has up till now been advocating the futility of elections.
At Rajwar, a village in the interiors of Kashmir valley, there are a few hundred who have come to listen to him. From young smooth faces to wizened old men, they listen with intense concentration and not even rain deters them from raising their hands and voicing their approval for their leader’s stand to use India’s democratic route to fashion an independent state.
But the rhetoric of azadi is not the predominant theme; it is that of solving day-to-day problems before addressing the larger cause.
I watch this intimate interaction between the leader and his followers from as close as it can get. I am sitting just behind Sajjad, having been forced to do so as I am a poas, (guest) and can’t be made to stand.
I am a guest from India, whom Sajjad introduces as “was a Pandit and a native of Kashmir,” and then with a smile corrects it to “is a Pandit” to his associates.
I could sense an air of suspicion permeating the air once the word Kashmiri Pandit is uttered. But Sajjad’s genuine warmth makes everyone welcome me as one of their own.
Yes, what am I doing here: A Pandit, an outsider in his own land and now a poas in the heart of militant Kashmir?
My roots and a sense of belonging have brought me here, of wanting to make sense of what is happening in Kashmir today,
where a die-hard separatist accepts that he was wrong in boycotting the elections and is now joining the mainstream in seeking election to the Indian Parliament.
Before boarding the plane in Delhi for Srinagar, I meet a Kashmiri travelling with his teenage daughter. On knowing my errand, he becomes wistful and talks of his Pandit friends and how these past two decades have ravaged Kashmir. He is thirsting for peace and is happy that Sajjad is fighting elections as it means a major blow to separatism. He has seen his friends die, has seen enough suffering and is now tired of empty slogans and is keen to get on with life. There is sadness and a grievance to his tone when he says that despite wanting his daughter to study in Delhi, he is too scared to leave her there. “We are all suspects in India and we are too frightened to send our children for studies or even jobs outside Kashmir.”
This is a lament of most here. In fact, a lot of them have withdrawn their children from colleges, fearing they would be picked up by the cops and blamed for terrorist’s acts without verifying their involvement. “India only owns our leaders, not us,” is the common refrain.
Having been crushed between the gun of the militants and that of the army, they are willing to forgive and forget and move on with life and even compromise on their deep desire of attaining azadi one day. The price in terms of the dead without
getting anything concrete in return is not worth it.
It is this desire to now live a life of aman and shanti that saw a huge turnout in the Assembly polls and of Sajjad accepting the new reality of Kashmir and showing great courage in deciding to fight the elections.
Sajjad, a graduate from Cardiff University, a failed businessman by his own admission, lives in Kashmir without his wife and two children. They are Pakistani citizens and India refuses to give them visas. He lost his father, the founder of the separatist movement, to the gun of the militants, and is now trying to make sense of a new world order, post 26/11.
Azadi may still be his goal, but even he finds it difficult to explain this dichotomy of having agreed to swear by the Indian constitution and talk of freedom in the same breath.
He respects the “maturity of the Indian people” which gives him faith that the voice of “Kashmiris if articulated properly will find many takers.”
He wants to become that voice even if that means climbing down a bit. “Before we seek resolution to the problem, a trust has to develop between Kashmir and India. If we come half way down, India should also meet us half way down.”
For him the presence of the Indian army in the state represents that lack of trust. “Can India hold on to Kashmir without its Army? The day they can do that would mean that we both could trust each other.”
I ask him what would be my place in his scheme of things? Isn’t mobilising people in religious terms a deterrent to someone like me joining in his initiative?
His answer: “There have been mistakes made. Hindus were killed and Muslims in much larger numbers. Who hasn’t suffered here? A new beginning can be made, but where are the jobs here? Where are the big industries? Who would want to settle
I am left grappling with my own problem of being a poas in my own homeland.
There are a few thousand Hindus here who never left this place. Among them is a woman doctor, who braved the threat of the militants and can still be found sitting in her medical superintendent’s chair in her clinic, known as Rattan Rani Hospital.
Dr Jagat Mohini was one of the most celebrated physicians of Srinagar and unlike most, decided to stay on and attended to her patients.
The hospital is in the heart of Srinagar and when I went to meet her, she greeted me with a Namaskar but her memory is fading now and she can barely hear.
She is in her nineties, is being looked after by her Muslim neighbours, and still prefers to sit in the chair from where she treated patients all her life.
In her smile and faint attempt to recognise a stranger, it seemed to me as if life was mocking at my need to seek my roots.