Lone journey

30Sajjad Damage control: Sajjad (in maroon jacket) near the Army bunker in Handwara | Umer Asif

From separatist to minister, Sajjad Gani Lone's story has been one of personal loss, rejection and courage

  • "Geelani sahib could have counselled me or reprimanded me. But, he was obsessed with throwing me out. And, looking back, I thank him for that"- Sajjad Gani Lone, Jammu and Kashmir social welfare minister

As Jammu and Kashmir's social welfare minister, Sajjad Gani Lone has to please his young followers, as well as the old-timers who worked with his father, separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone. And, till now, he has been equal to the task.

The road ahead, however, has a few bumps. For starters, Sajjad has not attended office since swearing in on April 4. He seems to be sulking about being given, in his words, an “insignificant ministry”. However, he is likely to assume office soon.

Another hurdle is his state's susceptibility to violence. On April 12, five civilians were killed in Handwara, Sajjad's hometown, when security forces opened fire on people protesting the molestation of a schoolgirl, allegedly by an Army man. It was a grim reminder of how quickly the state could descend into chaos. And, though not happy with his ministerial charge, Sajjad fulfilled his duties as an MLA, camping in Handwara and helping ease the tension.

The Handwara killings were Sajjad's first real test as a legislator. Protests broke out throughout the state and, as the situation was getting out of control, Sajjad intervened. He camped in Handwara and persuaded the municipal authorities to destroy a 20-year-old Army bunker in the town's main square. The demolition of the bunker, seen as a symbol of the Army's atrocities, restored calm to the town. Sajjad also asked the police not to book protesters under the notorious Public Safety Act. His deft handling of the situation won him praise and support.

“I was never comfortable with the idea of boycotting governance and presuming that people can survive in an administrative vacuum,” Sajjad tells THE WEEK. In the lawns of his posh Srinagar home, scores of people stream into a spacious tent to condole the death of Sajjad's father-in-law, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front founder Amanullah Khan. Sajjad married Khan's only child, Asma, and has twin boys, Emad and Adnan. The couple first met in England the 1980s while in college. Apparently, it was love at first sight. Sajjad majored in economics from Cardiff University and Asma has a master's in defence and strategic studies from a Pakistani university.

Their fathers were old friends; both studied in a Handwara school before Khan moved back to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and then to England.

In 2000, Sajjad, who was running a successful gold business in Dubai, asked Khan for Asma's hand in marriage and the two got hitched. The reception, in Rawalpindi, saw a rare gathering of political leaders and separatists from both sides of the Line of Control. More than a year later, on May 21, 2002, militants assassinated Abdul Lone in Srinagar, creating a stir in Kashmir. Bilal, Lone's elder son, replaced him in the Hurriyat Conference executive and Sajjad replaced Lone as chairman of the People's Conference. Their time with the separatists, however, was rough—Syed Ali Geelani and his supporters would constantly harass the brothers, especially Sajjad.

In 2004, Sajjad floated his own faction—Jammu and Kashmir People's Conference—and, in 2009, contested the Lok Sabha elections “to take the problems of the Kashmiri people to the Indian Parliament”. He lost. In the 2014 assembly elections, Sajjad supported the BJP and called Prime Minister Narendra Modi his “older brother”. He won the Handwara seat, defeating National Conference heavyweight Chowdhury Ramzan, and his party bagged the Kupwara seat as well. Today, along with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and former chief minister Omar Abdullah, Sajjad is considered one of the most articulate legislators in the state.

In Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's cabinet, Sajjad was given the insignificant animal husbandry ministry, possibly because the Peoples Democratic Party saw him as a long-term threat. Sajjad, however, rubbishes this notion. “Mufti sahib used to be very nice to me and went out of his way to make me feel comfortable,” he says. “I had an electoral understanding with the BJP and they decided what ministry I got, not the PDP.” Sajjad made the most of the opportunity, getting funds for projects to promote self-reliance among livestock farmers. A senior officer, who worked with him, says Sajjad never imposed his will on the departments under his ministry. Since he became minister, in March 2015, Kupwara's infrastructure, including roads and bridges, has been upgraded. He has also tried to start several hydel and solar power projects.

The scars of his time with the Hurriyat remain. “I certainly had major issues with the whole concept of that camp [separatists],” he says. “I used to be accused of being the cause of all the ills plaguing that camp.” However, he says those days were a blessing in disguise. The biggest threat to separatism, he says, is not Delhi, but separatists themselves. “Assuming I was wrong, Geelani sahib could have counselled me or reprimanded me,” he says. “But, he was obsessed with throwing me out. And, looking back, I thank him for that.”

Bilal, however, still supports the separatist cause and this is a sticking point between the brothers. The high wall that separates their homes is seen as a symbol of their ideological divide. However, in times of crisis, they do support each other. And, that is why Bilal went to Khan's funeral in Pakistan to represent the family.

His father remains his inspiration. “Dad was liberal to the core and an unwavering advocate of gender equality,” says Sajjad. “He was the son of an impoverished farmer and retained that identity till his death. Dad would narrate to us his travails and, as a kid, I would often cry silently in bed.”

School and college days, however, were full of cheer. “I liked school and bunked it only once,” he says, with a laugh. “Not for the love of the movie, but to experience the taste of bunking. We used to watch Doordarshan in the evenings. I must have seen almost all the movies that were released then.”

But, was he not drawn to the gun in the 1990s? “I supported the movement,” he says. “But I was never charmed by the gun. I always thought that it will do much more harm than good. My father's killing reinforced my belief that the gun is evil. And, in the hands of non-state actors, it is more evil.”

So, would he recommend the political path to other separatists? “No, mainstream politics is very difficult,” he says.

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