Srinagar: Having won five of the six seats they contested in Kashmir in the District Development Council (DDC) elections, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M) has emerged as one of the top performers in the maiden poll outing of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a conglomerate of regional and national parties advocating for the return of Article 370.
The CPI(M) had altogether fielded eight candidates in Jammu & Kashmir. While it lost the two seats it contested in Jammu, the party managed to retain its stronghold in south Kashmir’s Kulgam region.
But the success of the CPI(M) is neither new nor a surprise for political observers in Kashmir as the Left party has been holding its fort in Kulgam — one of the most troubled regions in J&K — since 1996.
The entire credit for the party’s success, say observers, goes to its 71-year-old chief in J&K, Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, who has managed to nurture a communist constituency in the Muslim-majority region despite the presence of several competitors.
Finding his roots as a politician
Born to a farmer family at Tarigam village of Kulgam in 1949, Tarigami was always an eager student but it was during his college days at Anantnag Degree College that he got drawn towards activism.
In 1967, when he was 18, Tarigami and his friend Ghulam Nabi Malik, now J&K secretary of the CPI(M), organised a protest to demand an increase in intake capacity at Anantnag Degree College.
The two were then part of a local communist group called the Revolutionary Students and Youth Federation.
“We even went for a hunger strike for 36 hours at the DC’s (deputy commissioner’s) office. The government then had to raise the total intake of the college,” Malik told ThePrint.
After the successful campaign, the two took part in various farmer movements in J&K under farmer leader Abdul Qadir, but their political activism took a more solid shape when they joined the Democratic Conference, which was part of the CPI(M), in 1967.
Here, Tarigami and Malik grew close to communist leader Ram Pyaare Saraf and served as his understudies. When Saraf split from the CPI(M) to lend support to the Naxalite movement and joined the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), so did his proteges.
Thus began a phase of trial and tribulation for Malik and Tarigami, who, by then, saw a hero in Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar.
According to Malik, the height of their confrontation with the government — then led by National Conference founder Sheikh Abdullah — came right after the 1975 Indira-Sheikh Accord, under which Jammu and Kashmir was made a constituent unit of the Union of India.
“We opposed the accord and wanted people of J&K be given the right to self-determination. Our activism landed us in jail most of the time and, at other times, we had to go underground. We even thought of initiating an armed struggle and were arrested again,” Malik said.
More trouble followed in 1979, when the execution of former Pakistan PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led to riots in Kashmir, he added.
“Sheikh Abdullah, at that time, was confronting Marxists and the Jamaat-e-Islami, so the riots went on and we were blamed for it. Qurans were burnt by the authorities and the blame was pinned on us. Eventually, Tarigami sahab became among the first people to be booked under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA),” said Malik.
According to Kashmir-based political expert Sheikh Showkat Hussain, the NC government had an axe to grind with the Marxists, who at times were as vocal against him as the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor party.
“Sheikh Abdullah’s hatred against the communists wasn’t a secret. Communists accused him of hobnobbing with the US. And Abdullah, in a public speech at Ganderbal, had criticised the communists,” said Hussain.
However, Tarigami never held this against Sheikh Abdullah because the battle between the two was ideological and not personal, said Professor Yosuf Ganai, a long-time associate of the communist leader.
In the aftermath of the Bhutto episode, both Malik and Tarigami rejoined the CPI(M) and restarted their journey in Kulgam as mainstream politicians.
The 1970s also brought a challenging phase in Tarigami’s personal life as he lost his wife in childbirth in 1975.
‘A credible mainstream leader’
With a population of over 4.4 lakh people and spread over more than 1,000 square kilometres, Kulgam is one of the largest districts of J&K. The region’s loyalties are divided between various political groups and it is among the strongholds of the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu & Kashmir, socio-religious group banned for five years by the Union government in the aftermath of the February 2019 Pulwama terror attack, for allegedly supporting extremists.
“The region was a stronghold of the Jamaat and even elected candidates who belonged to the Jamaat but this was in the 1980s,” said Ganai. “The National Conference also emerged victorious from Kulgam in the assembly elections prior to the militancy (which began in the late 1980s) but all that changed with the eruption of insurgency and the separatist boycott of the electoral politics,” he added.
The years between 1989 and 1995 marked the most turbulent phase of insurgency in Kashmir, when no elections took place in the erstwhile state. Tarigami’s emergence as a mainstream politician came in the ensuing phase. In the 1996 assembly elections, NC General Secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar said, the party did not field anyone from Kulgam because it wanted to take along all “like-minded people who advocated more autonomy for J&K”. Since then, Tarigami has been able to build Kulgam as his fortress.
He won the seat that year, and then in 2002, 2008 and 2014.
Ganai described Tarigami as a “convinced Marxist, a voracious reader” and the “only credible mainstream leader” who developed a constituency purely on the basis of delivering good governance to the people.
Professor Ganai as well as a CPI(M) leader said the voters of the party are not necessarily Marxists. Most of the voters, they added, are “religious and socially conservative but they have voted Tarigami for his efforts to uplift the neglected population of rural Kashmir”.
“He is a Marxist leader of Muslims,” said Ganai. “He made the rural development departments instruments to solve the people’s problems, and that’s how he grew into what he is.”
Not everyone, however, agrees. Former PDP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Nazir Laway, who contested against Tarigami in 2008 and 2014 but lost, said it was due to the Jamaat’s boycott call that he has been able to retain his position. “The NC has also not put up a strong candidate against Tarigami. I am not sure if it is on purpose but that has been the case,” he added.
For Tarigami himself, his success in the past and now in the DDC polls is a result of his “dedication and sincerity” towards the people of Kulgam.
“The party has always been loyal to the people. We have always stood by the promises we made and, even after 2019 (when Article 370 was scrapped), we did not leave our people alone,” it said. “It has been a hard one-and -a-half years and we have struggled for our people.”