IN MARCH 2006, just as winter was coming to an end, a 40-year-old man spent hours looking at the Pir Panjal range in Gulmarg town of strife-torn Kashmir. The mountains and the snow belonged to him, he felt. There were times when for three days in a row, he did not leave his hut at Highlands Park Hotel, where he stayed for around 80 days. That solitary tourist, Sajad Gani Lone, leader of the People’s Conference, was at work, keeping a promise made to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would prepare a document on Kashmir.
Earlier that year, Lone, then still a part of the separatist spectrum though he was out of the Hurriyat Conference, had met Singh in the national capital as part of the Centre’s exercise to hold consultations with various outfits in the state. Singh had suggested that he stay back overnight in Delhi so they could discuss Kashmir later in the day. Lone responded that he would return to the state and send a detailed document, to which the Prime Minister replied that several leaders had made assurances to send such documents, but nobody did. Sajad Lone, however, kept his word. He finished writing ‘Achievable Nationhood’, a 266-page document, at his rented hut in Gulmarg, giving shape to his thoughts on the state’s future. It outlined an ‘eclectic’ plan for a boundaryless Jammu & Kashmir Economic Union, a united trade zone with India and Pakistan in charge of the defence and foreign affairs of their respective portions of Kashmir.
“It was a point for starting a discussion. It was out of the box. When I released it, the Prime Minister’s Office refused to acknowledge the document. We sent it through registered post. The national media did not pick it up, though the local media did,” says Lone. According to him, when Singh went to Jammu & Kashmir four months later, he was not aware of its existence.
At that time, Lone’s wife Asma Khan, daughter of Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front founder Amanullah Khan of Pakistan, was at her home across the border, along with their two sons. She was refused a visa to return home, while Lone’s own passport had expired. Asma Khan had to stay in Pakistan for three years before she could return. Their sons studied in Islamabad till then. Lone believes he was paying the price for writing ‘Achievable Nationhood’. He found himself in the “middle of nowhere”, unacceptable to either side in the political maze of the state. He got a new passport only after the Narendra Modi Government came to power in Delhi in 2014.
By then, his political life had made several somersaults—from basking in the legacy of his father, separatist leader and founder of People’s Conference Abdul Gani Lone, to joining hands with the BJP, Lone had come a long way. In 2008, at the peak of the Amarnath land row, Lone supported the boycott of elections, participating in an agitation opposite the BJP. After that he had a change of mind. In 2009, seven years after his father was killed in Srinagar, Lone took the plunge into electoral politics, fighting for the Baramulla Lok Sabha seat, and snipping his umbilical cord with separatist politics. Five years later, he moved further away from it, aligning with the BJP and singing Modi’s praises. Sajad Lone had moved out of his father’s shadow to pursue his own political path in the state.
“In Jammu & Kashmir all lines—moderate, hardline, liberal— are blurred,” says Lone, who has been “through it all”. When he lost the 2009 election, coming a distant third, Lone became a butt of jokes. He did not contest the 2014 General Election, but entered the fray for the Assembly elections that November from Handwara, his father’s home turf, and defeated sitting minister Chaudhary Mohammad Ramzan of the National Conference.
In Jammu & Kashmir all lines—moderate, hardline, liberal— are blurred. I have been through it all” - Sajad Lone, president, People’s Conference
Today, Lone is a busy man. The spotlight is on him as he positions himself as the chief ministerial candidate of a third force, asserting he has the numbers to form a government, countering the claims of the opposition parties—the PDP, National Conference and Congress—that they have a majority. A new player in the political landscape of the state, Lone has pegged his survival on a “new brand” of politics. “Kashmiris are human beings. All their aspirations are not confined to politics. Why don’t we cater to activities that votes have the power to help achieve—schools, hospitals, roads? Let us talk of positives in our brand of politics. Let us not be copy cats,” he says. When Lone met Modi in November 2014 before the state elections, he had suggested a six-lane expressway from Srinagar to Kupwara, a medical college and university and expanding the scope for tourism in particularly the inaccessible areas of the Bangus and Lolaab valleys.
Lone believes that economic liberalisation and development are the best ways of taking people beyond the realm of ideologies. “In a conflict situation, people attribute all failures to a cause. One has to minimise those failures,” he says, emphasising that dialogue with Pakistan is different from reaching out to people.
For the BJP, Lone is the best bet to make inroads into the Muslim-dominated Valley. Handwara falls in Kupwara district entrenched in the north-eastern part. Along with Jammu and Anantnag, Kupwara accounts for one-third of the total poor in the state. It is from here that Lone has begun his tightrope walk— balancing his past and present, working for the aspirations of the Valley’s people and also closely with India’s ruling party.
Sauve and articulate, Cardiff-educated Lone speaks Kashmiri in the local dialect. Among the state’s four young leaders— Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, Mirwaiz Farooq and Sajad Lone—only Mufti and Lone converse in native Kashmiri, says Kashmiri journalist Parvez Majeed, who is also from Handwara. “Sajad is raw, yet very charismatic. Allying with the BJP is the most dangerous decision of his political life, and he has to survive this decision,” says Majeed. He recalls seeing Lone around a week after his father was killed in Srinagar in 2002, as a young man, wearing a brown kurta-pyjama and a turban, mingling with people at a massive gathering in Kupwara. A less familiar face than his elder brother Bilal Gani Lone at that time, Sajad Lone seemed at home, affable and unassuming.
Lone recalls the day his father’s body was being taken for burial as the turning point in his life towards politics. “I made a statement that a television camera picked up…. The Divisional Commissioner advised me against going for the burial. I asked him to give security. He did not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” Just before leaving, Lone heard the news that he had been appointed chairman of the People’s Conference. He went for the burial; it was at the same place where his father was killed. Standing amidst the large crowd, he felt “something sharp” nudge his back. There were three people threatening him to withdraw his statement and stay away from politics, he says. “I kept quiet and left.”
The reality is that only people with security will be able to fight elections in the state of changelessness, says Sajad Lone
That night, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called him up and expressed his condolences. “‘Kaayarta mat dikhana (don’t show any cowardice),’ he advised me,” says Lone. The state government had given him a guard who was a retired band master. The Centre intervened to ensure he was given adequate security.
“The reality is that only people with security will be able to fight elections in the state of changelessness,” says Lone. After he took over the reins of the People’s Conference, he would often stay at a party worker’s house in a village in Kupwara, interact with them much like his father, who knew each worker by name. In 2004, he floated his own faction of the People’s Conference, while Bilal remained with the Mirwaiz Umer Farooq-led moderate faction of the Hurriyat. “The Hurriyat Conference found me moderate. I found them outdated,” says the younger Lone.
Under him, the People’s Conference moved beyond his father’s legacy electorally, winning two seats—Kupwara and Handwara— in the 2014 Assembly polls. In the tumultuous political terrain of the Valley, Lone lost some old friends, made some new ones. Kashmiri politician Engineer Rasheed, who was with People’s Conference, says Sajad Lone has made complete U-turns. While in 2006, Lone was preparing to fight elections, in 2008 he asked people to boycott it. However, Rasheed fought the election as an independent from Langate and won. “Sajad is very hard-working. My only submission is that he’s the son of Abdul Gani Lone who wanted a resolution of Kashmir, so while joining hands with BJP, he should talk of the aspirations of Kashmiri people and resolution of the issue. That’s the most important thing,” says Rasheed.
Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani split the Hurriyat after accusing Sajad Lone of fielding proxies in the 2002 Assembly elections. In 2004, when Lone floated his own faction of People’s Conference, he fell out with his brother, who represents the JKPC in the Hurriyat Conference. Two years later, however, Bilal took care of his ailing son in his absence and that put an end to the estrangement between the brothers. Politically, though, they still do not see eye to eye. Bilal believes he is carrying forward his father’s legacy, while Sajad describes his political roadmap as an evolution. Abdul Gani Lone had entered politics in 1967 as a Congressman, and after a brief tryst with the National Conference, founded the People’s Conference in 1979. In the early 1990s he envisaged the idea of Hurriyat Conference, a common platform for various separatist outfits.
Sajad Lone insists he was always critical of the Hurriyat and separatist politics. In 1990, when he had just returned from England, he was arrested during a raid while visiting someone in a nearby house. Lone recalls how a tall constable at the BSF detention centre felt that he was innocent. “In his Haryanvi accent he told me I don’t look like a terrorist. He called me his brother. One night he touched my head through the jail bars and gave me four chapaatis and some chicken saying that he had noticed I was not eating the prison food properly.” The DIG gave instructions to everyone not to beat Lone. When he was leaving, the DIG told him “understand what they would have done to you if you were in Pakistan”.
Nine years later, during a trip to Pakistan, he met Asma Khan. Their wedding in Islamabad, a lavish affair attended by people from both sides of the border, was seen as a “meeting of two Kashmirs”, he says. When a reception was held in Srinagar, people came from Pakistan to attend it.
Today, he sees the emergence of a “third force” in the state as the beginning of the end of dynastic politics of the NC and PDP. “This third force in Kashmir was not a gift from my father. It was the result of a struggle. I am one person in the state who has seen all sides of it. I have been imprisoned, called a ‘loser’, ‘loner’, ‘joker’. When I entered politics, I started from zero, looking across the political spectrum—separatism and mainstream. I had to earn my place.”
The People’s Conference is not the first party in the state to have aligned with the BJP. Both the NC and PDP have been allies of the saffron party. Asked if he foresees the disintegration of the PDP, with which the BJP recently snapped ties, Lone says, “In politics you cannot write off anyone. Both PDP and NC, political rivals, are getting together to keep me out. They have been with the BJP in the past and I won’t be surprised if they get back together. But what will they tell the people?”