‘Vote against jail’: How two Modi critics won India election from prison

In Kashmir and Punjab, candidates jailed for being alleged national security threats have won. What does that say?

Kashmiri lawmaker Sheikh Abdul Rashid, locally known as Engineer Rashid
Kashmiri politician Abdul Rashid Sheikh has been a controversial figure since first winning 2008 assembly elections from his home town of Langate as an independent candidate [File: Rouf Bhat/AFP]

New Delhi, India – On the afternoon of June 4, a crowd of several hundred young men gathered in front of a two-storey house in Mawar village, with a clear view of the Pir Panjal mountains in the background, in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Kupwara district.

Some of those in the crowd raised a man over their shoulders who shouted, “Tihar ka jawab [the answer to Tihar jail]”, to which the crowd replied, “Vote se [the vote],” as women peeked through windows and children scaled the brick boundary wall around the house for a glimpse of the action.

The crowd was celebrating the victory of jailed engineer-turned-politician Abdul Rashid Sheikh, also known as “Engineer Rashid,” who won the Baramulla seat in Kashmir, securing nearly half a million votes. He defeated candidates from both major pro-India political parties in the disputed region – former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, and Sajjad Gani Lone, a separatist turned mainstream politician from the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference.

An independent candidate beating opponents from major parties is rare enough – only seven of the 543 candidates elected winners in India’s just-concluded national vote ran as independents.  But Rashid did something ever rarer: he contested and won from Delhi’s Tihar jail, which is approximately 850km (528 miles) away.

The 58-year-old politician was arrested after New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s special status and statehood on August 5, 2019. He faces charges of “terror funding” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terror law declared “draconian” by several rights groups. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) charged Rashid in March 2022 with allegedly instigating Jammu and Kashmir police personnel against the Indian Army. He was also accused of receiving funds from Pakistan. He has denied the charges.

Rashid is not alone.

Some 485km (300 miles) away in Khadoor Sahib in the northwestern state of Punjab, voters elected 31-year-old Amritpal Singh, who has advocated for a separate Sikh homeland, to parliament.

Singh, like Rashid, contested from jail – in his case, a high-security prison in Assam, in the northeast corner of India. Singh, who is facing 12 criminal charges, was arrested by the Punjab police in April 2023 and charged under the National Security Act (NSA), which allows those considered a threat to national security to be detained without charge for up to a year. On June 4, as the results of India’s election were announced, Singh won by 400,000 votes.

The shock wins for Rashid and Singh represent a sharp message to mainstream Indian opposition parties, even as they suggest that people’s trust in the institutions of the Indian state has taken a hit in Punjab and Indian-administered Kashmir, regions that have witnessed anger against the ruling government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, say analysts.

“The space for mainstream parties is crucial. They serve as a bridge to national integration,” said Asim Ali, a political commentator. But in both Baramulla and Khadoor Sahib, voters concluded that these parties – many of which had been past alliance partners of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – were not trustworthy, he said. “People do not regard them as autonomous parties or credible choices. So, if there is no legitimate alternative in democracy, persons on the fringes gain political space,” Ali said.

Jammu and Kashmir lawmaker Sheikh Rashid Engineer
Abdul Rashid Sheikh, third from right, demonstrates against the killing of seven civilians in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir on December 16, 2018, before being detained [Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

Vote as revenge for jail term

India has long considered a rebellion against New Delhi’s rule in Indian-administered Kashmir as a form of terrorism and has deployed millions of its soldiers in the region for decades. New Delhi claims the region as an integral part of the country.

Rashid worked as a construction engineer before he quit his job in 2008 and joined politics, winning that year’s assembly elections from the Langate seat in his hometown as an independent candidate and again in 2014, as a candidate of Awami Ittehad Party, which he formed a year earlier.

Regarded by his supporters as a “common man” who leads a low-profile life, Rashid has routinely demanded accountability for alleged rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and abductions, by India’s security forces in Kashmir. At the same time, he dissuaded youth from his constituency from throwing stones at Indian forces in 2010 during a period of heightened civil unrest in the region.

Kashmir witnessed a much higher turnout of voters this year than it has in the previous two decades with many concluding that casting their vote against the BJP was their only way to be heard by New Delhi.

Those sentiments appear to have crystallised in Rashid’s favour in Baramulla.

Tariq Ahmad, 35, a resident of Pattan in the Baramulla district, had never voted before. This time, he voted for Rashid.

“He is in jail, and we feel that this is the only way we can show our solidarity and support for him, through our democratic right,” Ahmad said.

Rashid’s two sons – Abrar Rashid, 23, and Asrar Rashid, 19 – appealed to voters to avenge their father’s arrest by going out to vote. They drew large crowds, particularly young people in northern Kashmir, an area prone to armed unrest.

Abrar said his father’s victory is also for other Kashmiris imprisoned in other parts of India.

“It is very tough for families whose kin are in jail. He can be the voice of those innocent people who are languishing in jail for no reason. He is in jail, and no one can understand the miseries of being jailed better than us. My father can be their voice,” Abrar told Al Jazeera.

Abrar said people came forward to campaign for his father. “It was all voluntary and spontaneous. I just paid 27,000 rupees [$322] for petrol,” he said.

Rashid has petitioned a Delhi court for interim bail to take his oath as a member of parliament.

Abrar Rashid, son of Sheikh Abdul Rashid alias Engineer Rashid
Abrar Rashid, son of Abdul Rashid Sheikh, says people came forward to campaign for his father [File: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

Win for ‘democracy’, not ‘separatism’

According to analyst Siddiq Wahid, Rashid’s supporters turned out essentially to vote in a referendum against the August 2019 removal of Kashmir’s special status and the months-long crackdown that followed, when even the internet was suspended.

“Rashid’s election means that Kashmir’s voice and its aspiration for political justice for all its peoples are alive and well,” Wahid said.

Kashmir-based political analysts told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity that Rashid’s victory should not be read as a “separatist victory” but rather as a victory for democracy in Kashmir.

They argued that the large voter turnout was also due to an absence of threats from armed groups as well as pro-vote messaging from the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which enjoys substantial support in the region. Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir remains banned, but one of its leaders recently met Home Minister Amit Shah.

In the Khadoor Sahab constituency of the northern state of Punjab, too, it was a democratic vote that has brought Sikh leader Amritpal Singh a win and a seat in India’s parliament.

On June 8, Singh’s parents distributed sweets to guards and jail staff at the high-security prison in Assam where he is being held to celebrate their son’s victory.

“We are very happy. Now we just want Amritpal to be released, so that he can take an oath,” Tarsem Singh, Amritpal’s father, told Al Jazeera.

Some experts view Singh’s victory with concern. Last year, Singh was accused of supporting the Khalistani separatist cause. But his supporters said the young Sikh leader simply advocates for religious adherence and tackling drug usage among Punjabi youth.

Sikhs are a religious minority in India who make up about 58 percent of Punjab’s population. The border state witnessed an armed separatist movement during the 1980s. In recent years, the state, known as India’s bread basket, has found itself in the grip of a drug crisis.

Singh is not the only candidate linked to Sikh separatism who won in Punjab.

Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, the son of one of the assassins of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, won as an independent from Faridkot as the state’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) suffered a massive defeat.

amritpal singh
Amritpal Singh, who has advocated for a breakaway Sikh state, won a seat in parliament in India’s recent national elections [File: Prabhjot Gill/AP Photo]

Shamshair Singh Warriach, a journalist and political analyst based in Punjab, ruled out that the vote was for “secessionism”. “People voted for Amritpal because he is now involved in democratic politics,” he said, adding that they support Singh only for his anti-drug activism.

But Singh’s win also comes at a time when the Modi government has been engaged in both domestic and international sparring over Sikh separatism.

‘Counter-assertion’

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s government has intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders with alleged links to the Khalistan movement.

As Punjab farmers took to the streets in recent years to protest against Modi government laws, sections of the BJP and its supporters suggested that the protesters were in many cases Khalistan sympathisers.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government and United States prosecutors have accused Indian intelligence agencies of involvement in assassination plots against Sikh leaders on their soil. New Delhi has denied the allegations, though it has agreed to probe the US allegations.

According to Aditya Menon, political editor of the Quint, a Delhi-based news website, Singh and Khalsa appear to be beneficiaries of broader dissatisfaction with mainstream parties in Punjab.

More broadly, he argued, Rashid, Singh and Khalsa have not won in a vacuum.

“We must also note that in the recent decade, there has been a rise of hardline Hindu nationalism and radicalism with the ascent of the BJP, so it’s only natural that there would be a counter-assertion,” he said.

 

Kashmir National Conference party leader Omar Abdullah
Jammu and Kashmir National Conference party leader and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah lost a parliamentary election to jailed independent candidate Abdul Rashid Sheikh [File: Dar Yasin/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera