Sajad Lone was once a staunch separatist opposed to Indian presence in Kashmir. He is now the BJP’s face in the Valley.
New Delhi: BJP general secretary Ram Madhav drew flak for his remarks that the National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Congress had acted on instructions “from across the border” in their bid to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir.
While he withdrew his statement, following a Twitter spat with Omar Abdullah, Madhav appeared to have followed his party’s playbook in dealing with developments in the Valley that don’t toe its political line — of branding opponents as being anti-national and acting at the behest of Pakistan.
But the BJP’s staunchest ally in the militancy-hit state is a separatist-turned-politician who once positioned himself as being completely anti-India, has boycotted elections and was married in Pakistan to the daughter of the late Amanullah Khan, the founder of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a militant organisation based out of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Much before the BJP endorsed him, Sajad Gani Lone was also the darling of the Valley — at the height of 2008 Amarnath Shrine Board land row, he supported boycott of elections. This after he had put forth and championed a controversial 2006 plan to unify Kashmir and give it a measure of autonomy.
Now, however, Lone has been eyeing the chief minister’s chair in J&K with BJP backing. His People’s Conference party, claiming the support of all BJP MLAs and 18 breakaway legislators, staked claim to form the government before the governor dissolved the state assembly on 21 November.
From separatist to mainstream
Lone is the son of Abdul Gani Lone, the former Congress leader who turned into a frontline separatist leader. The older Lone was allegedly killed in Srinagar by ISI-backed militants on 21 May 2002.
Once a seasoned mainstream politician, who was first elected to the J&K Assembly as a Congress MLA in 1967, Abdul Gani Lone was arrested for alleged anti-India activities in 1990. He was also a founder-member of the separatist conglomerate the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC). He also opposed foreign militants in the valley.
After his father was gunned down, Lone remained with the Hurriyat for a while but in 2004, revived the People’s Conference party that the older Lone had launched in 1978. He also parted ways with his elder brother Bilal, who continues to be part of the Hurriyat Conference.
Soon charges that he had been co-opted by the Indian security establishment began floating around.
Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani accused Lone of fielding proxy candidates in assembly elections but he hit back, accusing Geelani and the other hardliners of being responsible for his father’s assassination. He also denied the charge that he had fielded proxy candidates.
In 2006, Lone put forward a controversial plan, titled Achievable Nationhood, to unify the divided territory of Kashmir and give it autonomy. The 268-page “vision document” attempted to achieve an economically single boundary-less Jammu and Kashmir Economic Union with India and Pakistan jointly managing defence and foreign affairs of their respective portions of Kashmir.
In 2008, at the height of the Amarnath Shrine Board land row, Lone believed that the protests were a mass uprising against Indian rule and decided to boycott the Assembly elections.
But by the 2009 general elections, he would become the first frontline separatist leader to plunge into mainstream politics. Contesting as an Independent from the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency, he lost to National Conference’s Sharifuddin Shariq.
Lone had then claimed that he wanted to take the “freedom struggle” to the Parliament.
“He raised a lot of expectations, particularly among youth in Kashmir, before he plunged into mainstream politics,” former Reuter’s journalist and commentator Sheikh Mushtaq told ThePrint.
“During the 2008 Amarnath Land row, he had positioned himself as being completely anti-India. He was the main spokesperson for separatists. He was a darling in Kashmir.”
Mushtaq said Lone’s foray into mainstream politics is all the more significant given his background.
“He has taken a complete U-turn from his ideology. For the Muftis and Abdullahs, mainstream politics has been their domain from the word go but for Sajad, it has been a dramatic reversal of position. By doing this, he has cut himself really small,” the political commentator said.
The tilt towards BJP
After the 2014 general elections, Lone had a controversial meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where he referred to the PM as his elder brother.
“I came as a Kashmiri to meet the Prime Minister and I was pleasantly surprised with his down-to-earth personality, his vision about bringing in investments into the state,” PTI quoted him as having said then.
The purpose of the meeting soon became clear — the People’s Conference fielded candidates in the 2014 J&K Assembly elections, winning two seats, including Lone himself. He was made a minister from the BJP quota in the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led PDP-BJP government, a job he was given again when Mufti’s daughter Mehbooba became chief minister a few months after his death.
“When he announced his decision to contest, he said it was a change of strategy and not ideology. But such dramatic reversal of position will not be forgotten in the troubled history of Kashmir,” Mushtaq recalls.
After the BJP pulled out of the alliance with the PDP on 19 June and the state slipped into Governor’s Rule, Lone again hit headlines.
Walking hand-in-hand with the BJP, he began eyeing the chief minister’s chair under a BJP government. His significance grew further after his party contested the urban local body polls, where he was joined by former National Conference spokesperson Junaid Azim Mattu.
Mattu went on to win and was recently anointed the mayor of Srinagar.
Before the governor dissolved the assembly, Lone had been looking to form the government with BJP backing. Many believe that the BJP was attempting to wean away legislators from the other mainstream parties to form the government with Lone at the helm.