How a group of Muslim women is boosting BJP's image in Jammu and Kashmir

Reorganisation of J&K into UTs had sparked controversy

24-Dr-Hina-Bhat-with-Jammu-and-Kashmir-Lt-Governor-Manoj-Sinha On ground: Dr Hina Bhat with Jammu and Kashmir Lt Governor Manoj Sinha. Bhat says she has been treated with a lot of respect in the BJP | Umer Asif

IN A TIME MARKED by political discontent in Jammu and Kashmir, triggered by the loss of statehood and the abrogation of Article 370, the BJP is trying to reshape people’s perception of the party. Leading that change mechanism is a group of highly educated Muslim women―Farida Khan, Darakhshan Andrabi, Hina Bhat, Parvaz Chauhan and Rumisa Rafiq Wani. Their work stands out in comparison with the party’s male leaders in the Union territory, who are busy bickering and forming factions.

Farida Khan hails from Seloo in Sopore, Baramulla―once a hotbed of militancy. She is party secretary in Jammu and Kashmir and chairperson of the Block Development Council (BDC) in Sopore. She boasts a triple master's degree (political science, sociology and economics) and a PhD in economics. She began her political journey in 2013 and was elected BDC chairperson in 2019.

26-Darakhshan-Andrabi Batting for change: Darakhshan Andrabi says Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a strong leader who has changed things for good | Umer Asif

Khan has provided housing to underprivileged individuals through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and is now focusing on finishing the Rs4-crore Jal Jeevan project in Boripura. “It is an important project and will resolve the persistent water crisis in Sopore,” she said. After a drug addict killed his mother, she initiated various de-addiction programmes and set up a rehabilitation centre in Sopore. Recently, she got funds for a hospital worth Rs75 lakh in Botingoo. “I work in collaboration with government officials to address grievances expeditiously,” she said.

But working with the government comes with challenges. On March 30, 2021, Khan was on her way from Srinagar to a BDC meeting in Sopore when the chairman of the Sopore Municipal Council called her asking to attend a municipal council meeting. She reached the venue of the council meeting but “thought it would be better to attend the BDC meeting first as I was the host and drove away”. That last-minute decision saved her life. Minutes later, militants attacked the council venue―a councillor and a special police officer were killed and another councillor was injured. The militants escaped.

Farida Khan belives that focusing on the youth will bring change in the region | Courtesy BJP Farida Khan belives that focusing on the youth will bring change in the region | Courtesy BJP

But that incident has not deterred Khan from continuing her work. She believes that focusing on the youth will bring prosperity and change on ground, and credits the BJP for letting her work freely.

That is a sentiment shared by the other women leaders. Darakhshan Andrabi, for instance, became the first Kashmiri―along with Union Minister Jitendra Singh―to be appointed the BJP national executive in 2021. She joined politics at 19 and launched the Socialist Democratic Party, which contested several elections but failed to make an impression. Her political career got a boost after she merged her party with the BJP in 2013. In 2014, Andrabi locked horns with National Conference chief Omar Abdullah in the Sonawar assembly constituency, but lost. She was made chairperson of the education and women’s welfare committee in 2016.

In 2022, the Union government formed two waqf boards―one in Jammu and Kashmir, and one in Ladakh under the Central Waqf Act, 1995. Prior to this, all waqf properties were registered with the Jammu and Kashmir State Waqf Council and Muslim Specified Waqfs. Andrabi was made chairperson of the Waqf Board in Jammu and Kashmir. She made sweeping changes in managing the board’s 3,500 properties, including shrines, commercial complexes and schools. Under the new rules, mujavirs (caretakers) at all shrines were let go, and donations at the shrines were prohibited, evoking criticism from political parties. Andrabi defended the move saying mujavirs would often force people to donate.

“We have initiated reforms, and 80 per cent of the people have supported them,” said Andrabi. “I am not afraid of the opposition. Politicians raised a hue and cry, but that only motivated me. We disbanded all the committees, and only the Waqf Board remains.” The board is now working to build a hospital in Srinagar and improve the standard of schools under it.

Party troopers: Rumisa Rafiq Wani says the BJP provides a level-playing field, particularly to women. Party troopers: Rumisa Rafiq Wani says the BJP provides a level-playing field, particularly to women.

Andrabi, who holds a PhD in Urdu, recently visited Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq at his residence, following his release from the four-year-long house arrest. She also met other religious leaders released by the government and presented them with shawls. “Mirwaiz sahab is a dynamic leader, and we all respect him for his status,” she said. “I hope he will guide the youth in the right direction.” She said it was good that he returned to the mosque [Jamia Masjid]. “It is only possible due to peace,” she said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she said, is a strong leader who has changed things in Kashmir for good.

Another prominent face of the BJP in the region is Dr Hina Bhat. The dentist joined the BJP in 2014. She fought and lost her first election the same year from the Amira Kadal constituency in Srinagar. After the BJP came to power, she was made vice president of the state unit of the Mahila Morcha, the party’s women’s wing. Later, she became a member of the north zone of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). Modi, in his Mann Ki Baat address, praised her for reviving KVIC’s Pampore training centre in Kashmir after 25 years.

Bhat draws inspiration from her father, Mohammad Shafi Bhat, an MP and two-time MLA of the National Conference. In 2002, he quit the party over differences with its leadership and joined the Congress. He returned to the National Conference towards the end of his political career and died in 2016 after a prolonged illness. His daughter though is confident that she made the right decision by joining the BJP.

“As a woman and a Muslim, I am treated with a lot of respect in the party and I owe a lot to it,” said Bhat, a single mother with a 16-year-old son. Bhat is mindful of the discontent in the region, but her commitment to the BJP is unwavering. “Whatever I have achieved is because of the BJP and the support of the leadership, especially Prime Minister Modi,” she said.

Parvaz Chauhan says the BJP has implemented various schemes that have benefited all without bias. Parvaz Chauhan says the BJP has implemented various schemes that have benefited all without bias.

Parvaz Chauhan, president of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) Morcha in Jammu and Kashmir, would agree with Bhat. She rejects the perception that the BJP is anti-Muslim. “I have not encountered discrimination within the party,” she said. “The BJP has implemented various schemes, such as health cards and land for the landless, which have benefited all without bias.”

The BJP, she said, stands out as a more equitable option compared with other political parties. Chauhan, who belongs to the tribal Gujjar community in Jammu’s Poonch, believes parties like the National Conference, the Peoples Democratic Party and the Congress are nepotistic. “The BJP has a stronger connection with people, especially those at the lowest socioeconomic levels―a demography I deeply relate to,” she said.

Her father worked in the forest department, and she is now married to a policeman. “I didn’t study much, but my passion for social work kept me going even after my marriage,” said Chauhan. She is also fascinated by Modi's working style. “His dedication to nation-building has left a lasting impression on me,” she said. “The Modi government's proposal for 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and assemblies represents a significant stride towards gender equality.”

The reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir state into Union territories may have sparked controversy, she said, but it has also brought several benefits, including reservations for the Gujjar community in jobs and education. Regarding the anger among Gujjars over the ST status to Paharis in Jammu and Kashmir, Chauhan said it would not affect the reservations of the Gujjar community. “During the protests against granting ST status to Paharis, I stood firmly with my community, which temporarily led to a notice of anti-party activities,” she said. “The misunderstanding was swiftly resolved.”

Rumisa Rafiq Wani, too, believes that politics in Kashmir has long been controlled by a select few influential families. The BJP, she said, provides a level playing field, particularly to women. She became aware of the BJP's policies after the 2014 assembly elections, influenced in part by her husband’s involvement in politics. Wani, who won the local body elections in Khanabal in 2018, said initiatives by the Modi government, like the Fasal Bima Yojana and health cards, had significantly benefited poor people. “If the BJP were in power in Jammu and Kashmir, they would have efficiently supported the underprivileged during the 2014 floods,” she said.

But her support for the saffron party has many seeing red. Wani received threats for raising the Indian flag on the anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 and on Independence Day. “I did it out of patriotism,” she said. She believes the propaganda against the BJP would fail, and the party would surpass the 50-seat mark in the future 90-member assembly.

But first, it needs to announce the long-delayed elections.