Who's Sajjad Lone? And why is BJP banking on him?

Politics of a former ‘separatist’ whose father-in-law is a most wanted Pakistani terrorist

Aasha Khosa | December 2, 2014



Photo: Maqbool Sahil

Sajjad Ghani Lone’s first brush with fame was through his marriage. Then a 33-year-old wannabe businessman, he was marrying a Pakistani woman named Asma Khan in Islamabad in November 2000. No wonder, he immediately became the cynosure of the Indian and Pakistani media. His wedding was touted as a major Indo-Pak social interaction post Kargil; reception attended by the political glitterati of Islamabad. In fact, both New Delhi and Islamabad had relaxed norms for the trans-border movement of the baraat – though it was a hard time for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis wanting to visit each other. The Kargil war had taken a heavy toll on the bilateral relationship and a strict visa regime was in place.

Sajjad’s father Abdul Ghani Lone was the happiest man, for his newfound relevance in bringing down temperatures between New Delhi and Islamabad. For the first time, he was being singled out for track II diplomacy by both the regimes. More importantly, he was being trusted by them.

Sajjad’s bride was the daughter of a man who was once India’s most wanted terrorist – Amanullah Khan, the founder of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Khan has been virtually hiding in Pakistan, as he is wanted by India and the UK for murder of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham in 1984. Mhatre was abducted and killed by the ‘Kashmir Liberation Army’, a pseudonym for JKLF. Khan quickly flew to Pakistan to escape jail. He, however, has since lost control of the JKLF and is reduced to a poor shadow of a firebrand radical that he was once. Khan lives as a political recluse in Rawalpindi sans the official patronage that many other militant groups like Hizbul Mujahideen enjoy from Islamabad, particularly the Pakistani army.

During the wedding reception in a swank Islamabad hotel, Sajjad, for some reason, looked hassled. Next day, he could not hold himself back, and told me, in an interview: “This is my wedding and not the meeting of my father’s political party.” The young groom was angry that his wedding had been turned into a political game by his father and others.

That was when I first noticed Sajjad. A graduate from a UK university, Sajjad was a struggling businessman but he surely came across as a young man with a mind of his own. He was ready to take a bold stand even if it meant speaking on record against his political stalwart father.

It is the same Sajjad Lone, now 47, whom the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is befriending in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley for a possible tie-up for government formation, depending on the election results. He had been only briefly in the separatist conglomerate, All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), to attract the tag of an ex-separatist from the Indian media now. The fact is that soon after his father Abdul Ghani Lone’s assassination by the pro-Pakistani terrorists in 2001, Sajjad and his elder brother Bilal were roped into the APHC. Both brothers initially questioned the role of key Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Lone’s killing. But soon they were counseled into silence and submission before the omnipotent Hurriyat. Lone had been killed ostensibly for his bold position against mercenaries creeping into Kashmir’s “freedom movement” and his active efforts to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio through talks.

However, to be fair to him, Sajjad soon left the APHC even as Bilal stayed on. Sajjad went on to claim his father’s political legacy and tried to revive his father’s party, the Peoples’ Conference, which had some support in pockets of north Kashmir. Sooon after embarking on a solo political journey, Sajjad made it clear that he believed in the electoral system. He first contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Baramulla, though he finished a poor third. In the process, he again emerged as someone who dared to swim against the tide and take a stand.

Why is BJP courting Sajjad?
Is Sajjad a real force to reckon with in the valley for the BJP to court him? Going by political observers, Sajjad’s party, the Peoples’ Conference, may win two assembly seats from north Kashmir – at the most. As for the BJP, unless a lot of Muslims have a change of heart and decide to give the saffron party a landslide victory in Jammu and Kashmir, it is likely to finish second, after Mufti Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP). However, one thing is sure: a coalition government is emerging as the most likely scenario, and the BJP will surely be a part of it.

So, why is BJP courting Sajjad? Will he be able to help BJP realise its dream of ruling the only Muslim majority state of India?

The answer lies in the BJP’s hidden agenda and long-term strategy for Kashmir. Right now, the saffron party has gone upfront about creating a space for itself in Kashmir – it has unleashed a multi-crore media blitzkrieg to woo Kashmiri voters; has deputed its highups for the campaign and even opened, for the first time, a full-fledged office in Srinagar’s Rajbagh (interestingly very close to the building housing Hurriyat Conference). This is in stark contrast to the BJP’s near neglect of Kashmir in the past. BJP sources say the ‘Mission 44 plus – the tag line of BJP’s campaign for Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections – is centred around winning maximum seats in Jammu and Ladakh regions which account for 41 seats, and mobilising displaced Kashmir pundits to vote for the party en block to win at least four seats in the Kashmir valley.


State BJP leaders too were intrigued by Sajjad’s sudden meeting with Pm Narendra Modi and the proximity to their highups. Many admit that they had no clue to Sajjad-Modi meeting and its high octane media coverage. A senior leader said it was purely an RSS operation. RSS leaders Indresh Kumar and Ram Madhav as well as BJP leader from Himachal JP Nadda had been in touch with Sajjad for a long time. It may be recalled that Sajjad had first publically met Ram Madhav in Srinagar before meeting Modi. “We were told that Lone had wished to meet the Prime Minister and the BJP leaders granted him that,’’ a senior leader from Kashmir told Governance Now. He says Sajjad’s association with the BJP would come handy in organising rallies for the national leaders to campaign in the Valley during elections.

The BJP’s target of 44 seats (out of 87) is certainly a tall order by any reckoning and therefore Sajjad may not be the magic formula as he is only expected to win one or two assembly seats.

So, why Sajjad? Analysts say the BJP’s long-standing agenda is to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution that gives special status to J&K, like the power to draft its own laws; have a separate constitution and even a flag. Incidentally, making use of these powers, the political class of J&K has bestowed many privileges upon itself, including a six-year term for the assembly. It may be noted that Lone senior had once advocated abrogation of Article 370. But will Sajjad take that position too?

Again, key Kashmiri leader Dr Jitendra Singh, minister of state with the prime minister’s office, had ignited a controversy through his remarks that BJP was already in talks with Kashmiris on Article 370. Was Singh referring to Sajjad and many other Kashmiri youth, who  may be in touch in with  the RSS and BJP for a long-term Kashmir strategy?

Also, unlike the Congress’s middle path on Kashmir, the BJP is clear that it would encourage ‘pro-India’ forces as against pandering to the vocal pro-Pakistani lobby that also masquerades as ‘independent Kashmir’ elements. The party envisages massive political engineering to help newer political forces emerge in the Kashmir Valley. A clear-minded leader like Sajjad would be a good beginning in that direction.


 

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