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Imprisoned firebrand politician wins election in Indian Kashmir  

Baramulla, Indian-administered Kashmir  — On June 4, 2024, the Langate neighborhood in Kupwara district on the Indian side of Kashmir reverberated with chants of “Cooker, cooker, pressure cooker,” after the local election commission office declared election results for the three constituencies in the region. 

The results were part of the Indian general elections that ended June 1. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to secure an absolute majority in the voting but he retained office for a rare third term with the support of the Telugu Desam Party, or TDP, and Janata Dal United, or JDU. 

Kashmir Valley exit polls normally favor the oldest regional political party, the National Conference, or NC. In the recent election, however, imprisoned firebrand politician Sheikh Abdul Rashid, popularly known as “Engineer Rashid,” won a landslide victory.  

He defeated Omar Abdullah, former chief minister and vice president of the NC, and Sajad Ghani Lone, a separatist-turned-mainstream politician and founder of the People’s Conference, or PC, by over 200,000 votes. 

Rashid was arrested days before the government of India revoked the disputed Himalayan region’s semiautonomous status in August 2019. He was later charged in a terror-funding case and is currently imprisoned in New Delhi’s Tihar jail.  

He is also the founder of the Awami Ittehad Party, or AIP. 

“My father showed interest after being approached by his party members. He said that he would contest the election from the Baramulla parliamentary constituency if the AIP members thought he was a good fit for the position,” Abrar Rashid, son of Engineer Rashid, told VOA. “AIP had decided to contest the election in October last year,” he added. 

AIP started its campaign late after filing the party chief’s nomination papers on April 30. Despite low resources to cover his campaign expenses, the junior Rashid attracted a massive crowd in support of his father. 

“Initially, the response was moderate. But soon people, especially youth, began showing great interest in our campaigns. They [youth] spent their own money to support the election campaign. We faced a minor issue, as we couldn’t use our traditional party symbol, a cooking gas cylinder, because our party is not registered with the election commission,” Rashid said, adding that a pressure cooker was chosen as a new symbol, and it became popular among the masses in the region. 

Political analysts attribute Engineer Rashid’s landslide victory as an outcome of sympathy and resistance politics. 

“It was altogether a sympathy vote where people thought Engineer Rashid would be released soon after being elected as a member of parliament from north Kashmir,” Muzamil Maqbool, a political analyst and host of the podcast “Plain Talk,” told VOA. 

“Secondly, people, especially the youth, are sick and tired of the same old dynasty politicking. They didn’t see Omar Abdullah or Sajad Lone as suitable candidates to represent them in the Indian parliament,” Maqbool added. 

AIP disagreed, saying Rashid did not win because of sympathy votes but because of the party agenda, which includes the “unconditional release of all prisoners, the preservation of the culture and identity of Jammu and Kashmir, and ensuring full respect for human rights and freedom of expression of the local population.” 

“Engineer Rashid has already proven himself as an honest, humble, pro-poor and fearless leader. Despite being imprisoned in Tihar since 4 August 2019 for speaking up for the people of Kashmir he remains calm and committed to his duty,” AIP spokesperson Firdous Baba said. “Engineer Rashid left his office to represent the nation, inventing a style of politics that brought him suffering but gave hope to the people. His arrest was due to his true interpretation of Kashmir, and he has remained steadfast in his position despite the challenges.”

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Kashmiri political analyst and a prominent scholar of human rights and international law, also believes that sympathy worked for AIP and its founder. 

“I would say sympathy, as well as his continued identification with resistance politics, played a crucial part in his victory,” Hussain said. “People had a third option — a former chief minister, a proxy candidate and a person in jail,” he said, referring to Lone, who was covertly supported by Modi’s BJP, without mentioning his name. 

Rashid’s charisma was not confined to the north, as people from south and central Kashmir voluntarily campaigned for him — igniting the flame that led to his victory. 

“Engineer Rashid is the voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and I felt the need to support him,” Mudasir Thoker, a resident of south Kashmir’s Shopian district, told VOA. “I traveled from south to north continuously for 18 hours to extend my support. My message was clear that the youth of Jammu and Kashmir will support a leader who understands the struggles of the local population.” 

Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed South Asian neighboring countries control different parts of the Himalayan territory since their independence from British rule in 1947. A small portion is also under Chinese control.

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