Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – On a rainy afternoon this month, Hina Bhat was planning her election campaign and talking to visitors who had made their way across the muddy lane which led up to her house in the neighbourhood of Raj Bagh in Srinagar.
Bhat, 35, is one of the first two Kashmiri Muslim women to run as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in state elections for Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which kick off on November 25. The BJP, the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is making an audacious bid for power in the Muslim-majority state, which has been wracked by a movement for independence for the past two decades.
The BJP has vowed to win over 44 seats out of 87 in the state assembly. Bhat, a dental surgeon, will contest from the Amirakadal constituency in Srinagar, one of the worst hit areas in the September floods. It is also where her father, Muhammad Shafi Bhat, has won several elections for the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (NC) since the 1990s. She is now seeking to defeat her father’s old party.
In a conversation with Al Jazeera’s Betwa Sharma, Bhat talked about her controversial decision to stand for a party linked to a Hindutva, advocating for Hindu nationalism, ideology and opposing her father’s party, her views on Kashmir’s independence, running for elections in the aftermath of the floods and BJP’s plans for the state.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to run for the Bharatiya Janata Party from Kashmir?
Hina Bhat: Everyone said that we have seen the failure of the government, failure of the administration, failure to reach people whether its National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party [PDP] or Congress. I decided in March that I would contest as an independent. Then slowly I got very impressed with Narendra Modi’s policies towards Jammu and Kashmir. He is so misunderstood in the valley. But I think people will agree with my decision with time when we try to bring change.
Al Jazeera: Which are Modi’s policies that impressed you?
Bhat: He was the first prime minister who answered the question of how will you handle the Jammu and Kashmir issue. And he said it would be with jamuriyat, insaniyat, kashmiriyat that is secularism, humanity, and kashmiriyat [the ethno-national and social consciousness and cultural values of the Kashmiri people]. He wants peace and he wants development in the state. If he is saying and doing it in other parts of the country then why not Kashmir? Why should a Kashmiri always complain and sulk? Why should a Kashmiri always die? Why should a Kashmiri mother lose kids and cry with pain? Why does a Kashmiri have a degree and no job? We have nothing in Kashmir. It is a green dead space. I want to rebuild Kashmir with BJP.
|Bhat, 35, is the first Muslim Kashmiri woman to run as a candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections [Betwa Sharma/Al Jazeera]|
Al Jazeera: BJP is associated with a Hindutva agenda. Does that bother you as a Muslim Kashmiri woman?
Bhat: We Kashmiris are very broadminded people. I would simply say that NC had an alliance with Congress, which is not a Muslim party. We should be happy and proud of BJP. At least, they are following their religion with dedication. There is nothing wrong with being a Hindu. Nobody is taking your rights as a Muslim. Nobody is forcing you to leave your religion. People in India follow different religions. So this Hindutva and anti-Muslim talk is from other political parties. I don’t believe in that and the majority of Kashmiris don’t believe in that. It is just a few fanatical people around. The majority of people want change. So if Modi’s vision towards Kashmir is sincere, then everybody should vote [for us].
Al Jazeera: BJP has a set a goal of winning more than 44 seats in Jammu and Kashmir. Why do you think BJP will gain ground in the largely Muslim electorate of Kashmir?
Bhat: We are fed up with the present government. We are fed up with leaders and their fake promises and their high level corruption. Not even a leaf moves without corruption in Kashmir. Everybody wants change, everybody wants peace and everybody wants rehabilitation. If they could not give relief without nepotism to flood-hit victims, then how will they form a government again? Before, the choice other than National Conference used to be PDP. They have tasted the NC, PDP, Congress, now they can try change with BJP.
Al Jazeera: The BJP government has been criticised for being tightfisted about the relief package – 745 crore rupees ($120m) – for the floods, which the prime minister announced in October.
Bhat: The first day of the flood, when the prime minister came, he gave 100 crore rupees ($16m). Then the transport minister came and he gave some funds. Then, we got the tourism minster, then we got the health minister, then we got the power minister. We got ministers from all the departments. If we put it together and distribute it, I think no one should be complaining. But there is so much corruption and mismanagement that the funds are not being utilised [effectively]. Leave behind corruption, nepotism, and discrimination and everyone would get their [fair] share.
Al Jazeera: Do Kashmiris want independence?
Bhat: We want autonomy. Today, I met a boy while I was campaigning door-to-door. He asked if I was going to touch 370 [an article in the Indian constitution which grants special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir]. I said no. He said if you remove AFSPA [1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act which grants special powers to the Indian army in terms of law enforcement] then I’m with you. I said that if they touch 370 then I will quit BJP and AFSPA is for our own safety.
|‘I think people will agree with my decision with time when we try to bring change,’ Hina Bhat said of her decision to run for the BJP in Indian-administered Kashmir [EPA]|
He said that [AFSPA] is not for our safety and asked who would rebuild houses if there are no people left. I was looking at this very young boy. I still said that [AFSPA] is for our safety because anyone can come up and attack us. Pakistan is just waiting to occupy [Kashmir], India is not ready to leave because of its own political issues, and in between a Kashmiri is dying. No doubt, because of the forces here, lots have been killed. There has been human rights violations. Lots of women have been raped. Lots of youth killed.
Al Jazeera: Doesn’t that make your task even harder – fighting an election and standing as a candidate for the BJP?
Bhat: No. We were part of India, we are part of India and we cannot forget that. Don’t ever forget that we are the crown of India but we wanted a separate territory with our own laws, our own everything. But it is not happening, we have got nothing out of this jihad till now except that we have lost our kids, husbands, and brothers. We have just been at a loss. We want to live a normal life, to live in a democracy, elections should happen otherwise anyone can come and take advantage of us. The issue of autonomy will go forward with talks, not with guns. It will not go without contesting elections. It has to move forward with peace.
Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: @betwasharma