The BJP’s “proxies” in the Kashmir Lok Sabha elections

Altaf Bukhari (centre) at the launch of the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, at his residence, in Srinagar, on 8 March 2020. A senior BJP leader in Kashmir said, on condition of anonymity, that the party was surreptitiously supporting the Apni Party and the Sajjad Gani Lone-led People’s Conference in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP / Getty Images
Elections 2024
13 May, 2024

The Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency votes on 13 May, as part of the fourth phase of the 2024 general election—the first since the Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave limited autonomy to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party claims that peace has returned to the Kashmir Valley, even as several reports show that it is clamping down on civil liberties in the region.

The BJP is not contesting any of the three Lok Sabha seats in the Kashmir division. However, during a Jammu rally, in April, the union home minister, Amit Shah, asked the electorate not to vote for the Congress or the two major Kashmiri parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. If the voters heeded his advice, they would be left with only two major options: Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, in the constituencies of Srinagar and Anantnag–Rajouri, and Sajjad Gani Lone, the People’s Conference candidate in Baramulla. Both parties are accused of being BJP proxies.

On 5 August 2019, Shah announced that, apart from revoking the state’s autonomous status, the government was bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. The decision was announced amid a brutal communications blockade, increased militarisation and widespread discontent in the valley. Even the most senior political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir, such as the NC’s Farooq Abdullah and the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, both former chief ministers, were placed under house arrest for several months. There was a vacuum of political leadership in Kashmir, which different factions have since been trying to fill.

About a year after the abrogation, seven political parties—the Congress, the NC, the PDP, the People’s Conference, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Awami National Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement—signed the second Gupkar Declaration, pledging to fight together to restore Article 370 and other constitutional provisions. The Congress denied membership of the subsequent People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, while the PC and the JKPM pulled out of the PAGD over the next couple of years. Javaid Mustafa Mir, the JKPM president, then joined AP.

Meanwhile, about forty politicians from the PDP, the NC and other groups founded the Apni Party in March 2020. Altaf Bukhari, a former finance minister of the state who had been expelled from the PDP a year earlier, was its first president. Ever since its launch, the AP has been considered a front of the BJP. It promptly declared that restoring Article 370 was nowhere on its agenda. In fact, that month itself, an AP delegation met Modi.

A senior AP leader and former state cabinet minister told me, on condition of anonymity, that the party had been created on the directions of Ajit Doval, the national security advisor. “Doval was managing things from Delhi,” the leader said, “and negotiating with Ghulam Hassan Mir, Altaf Bukhari, Dilawar Mir and Zaffar Manhas.” They added that Doval met with party members many times before its launch, especially in January 2020, and was “helping” them quit their respective parties. “We held many meetings with the prime minister and home minister before launching the party, and Doval was our master to facilitate these meetings,” the leader said, adding that the aim behind cultivating the party was “to start a political process” in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the AP leader said, the BJP seemed to be using the new political faction only to serve its own aims. They described the formation as Doval’s idea of a “Road Opening Party”—an advance group that ensures a road is safe for the movement of security forces. When elections to the union territory’s district development councils were first held, in late 2020, the PAGD won 110 of the 280 seats. The BJP won 75 seats, while the AP got just 12. Eighteen months later, the delimitation commission altered the composition of Bukhari’s assembly stronghold of Amira Kadal. “When the DDC election took place, they broke our legs, and they ridiculed the Apni Party after the delimitation process,” the senior leader said. “We were put on a ventilator. And, in the parliamentary election, they took us from the ventilator and placed us on the mortuary for the final rites. Now the question is whether they will bury us or burn us.”

The senior AP leader told me that, earlier this year, Bukhari held three meetings with Modi and Shah, who promised him that his party would be the senior partner in a future coalition government, once assembly elections are restored. The party, the leader said, was initially planning to contest all three Kashmir seats but, after a final meeting with Shah, in April, Bukhari decided to support the Sajjad Lone in Baramulla. “It created confusion, among all 34 working committee members.” The same month, Bukhari told the press, “I openly declare that I stand with the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. There is no denying this fact.” The Caravan sent questions to Doval, the union home ministry and the prime minister’s office about these interactions but did not receive any response.

Bukhari seems to enjoy a certain heft in the valley. A former stone-pelter told me that, after their family was harassed, Bukhari told them to join his party if they wanted to change their life. The harassment stopped once the youth joined the party—they said that several other AP members had similar stories. The AP leadership did not respond to questions either.

Lone has a similar political trajectory. His father, Abdul Gani Lone, a separatist leader, had founded the PC in 1978. AS Dulat, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, writes in Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years that, in the early 2000s, Abdul Gani Lone decided that Sajjad would carry forward his legacy. “He would hint this and say, ‘You guys should look after him,’” Dulat writes. “Perhaps he had a premonition of the threat to him, and worried.” Abdul Gani was assassinated in 2002, and Sajjad took over the party.

In the beginning of his political career, Sajjad Lone advocated for an independent Kashmir. However, he gradually became pro-India and, in 2014, the PC joined the BJP–PDP coalition. After a meeting that year, Lone said that “Modi was so large hearted that it was tough to say whether I was meeting PM of India or my elder brother.” After the DDC polls, the PC left the PAGD over the allocation of seats. Lone told me in an interview published in August 2021 that, while he opposed the revocation of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, he did not regret his alliance with the BJP. “I did a lot of good work,” he said. “We were all in the government. There is not a single party in J&K which has not allied with BJP at one point or the another.”

A senior BJP leader in Kashmir told me, on condition of anonymity, that the party was surreptitiously supporting the PC and the AP. “We don’t have a base in Kashmir and we won’t win, so it would create embarrassment for the party nationally,” they said. “We have been told to remain silent and support PC and Apni Party.” The BJP leader added that they had been campaigning for the AP in south Kashmir for the past two weeks and confirmed that the party had asked Bukhari to support Lone as well.

The AP has said that it is open to aligning with “like-minded parties.” However, it has officially denied that it is already in alliance with the BJP. Ghulam Hassan Mir, the party’s vice-president, told me that one cannot say that an “Apni Party candidate is a BJP candidate.” He said that there were differences of opinion between the two parties but that both were opposed to dynastic politics. “What option do they have other than to support us?” He drew a parallel between the BJP’s support for the AP and the support received by the PAGD parties from the Uddhav Thackeray faction of the Shiv Sena—another Hindutva party with no base in Kashmir. (In 2013, the Indian Express reported that, according to an army inquiry, Mir was involved with a secret intelligence unit set up by the chief of army staff at the time, the future BJP minister VK Singh.)

The synergy between the narratives of the AP and the BJP is hard to miss. “There is peace—why wouldn’t there be?” Mir told me. “You are seeing that strikes are not happening, stone-throwing is not happening. Schools are running, hospitals are running. The government machinery is fine.” He said that, while people allege that peace is being maintained through violence, this was the case earlier too. “At the time, there was the pressure of the other gun,” he said, referring to the armed insurgency. “This government has lessened that other pressure. When that pressure was reduced, it’s an obvious thing that normalcy will come.” Mir did not comment on the human-rights violations the security forces have allegedly committed as part of this “normalcy.” Meanwhile, when I asked about curbs on press freedom, he said that similar complaints were being raised throughout India. “Why are you making Jammu and Kashmir an example?”

AP has fielded Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a former cabinet minister in the BJP–PDP alliance, in Srinagar. Aga Ruhullah Mehdi and Waheed Parra, are the NC and PDP candidates in Srinagar, respectively.

Both Mehdi and Parra accused the state machinery of obstructing their campaigns. “The silence in the graveyard can’t be treated as normalcy or peace,” Mehdi told me, calling the lieutenant-governor, Manoj Sinha, the “viceroy” of Kashmir. “We do not know him, we have not elected him, and we have not voted for this institution of lieutenant-governor,” he said. “Anything that is imposed against the will of the people is dictatorship.” On 12 May, a day before the Srinagar election, the PDP and the AP complained on social media about the Jammu and Kashmir police detaining and harassing party workers. Both police and the Election Commission of India have denied the allegations. The police said in a statement that “speculative statements against individual officers pose security risks.” Pandurang Pole, the chief electoral officer of Jammu and Kashmir, reportedly added that if any mistakes were made, they would be corrected.

Mehdi, too, called the AP a BJP proxy. “My question is for those proxies: are you so far from the sentiments of Jammu and Kashmir, so far from reality, so far from your own people that you are working as a proxy for the party that has waged war against the people of Kashmir?” Parra, meanwhile, levelled several accusations against Bukhari in the media. “I spent three years in jail for charges that were never proven against me, yet he remains free even after the recovery of RDX and arms from his vehicle in Delhi,” he said. “Where did he accumulate wealth of ten thousand crore rupees? … People of Kashmir will hold him accountable for every single rupee.”