On February 9, a quiet meeting was underway in North Kashmir’s Nawgam village. As the Valley rang with strike calls to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru – hanged four years ago for his involvement in the attack on Parliament in 2001 that left nine people and five terrorists dead – about 30 villagers gathered in the house of a member of the Shiv Sena Hindustan. It was a gathering of office-bearers of the right-wing Hindu outfit who were visiting the village on a recruitment drive.
In a corner of a room in the house, supporters had unfurled two saffron flags bearing the party’s logo – a roaring tiger inscribed on a map of India. The host served plates of fried chicken, tea and biscuits.
As the meeting began, one of the villagers asked about the party constitution. It is not against any community and functions within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, he was told. Next, they asked what the organisation would do for the sacrifices made by the villagers. They will be reciprocated, they were assured.
It was a carefully scripted show. The party’s Kashmir president, Abdul Khaliq Bhat, and Bandipora district president Mohammad Yusuf Shugnoo were out to woo the villagers. Bhat spoke of political mistrust between the public and mainstream parties in Kashmir, and about the lack of amenities in Nawgam.

Talking development

The pitch had been planned at a party meeting in Srinagar earlier that week. About a dozen members had crowded into an airless room in a building guarded by paramilitary personnel. This was Bhat’s government-provided accommodation.
Shugnoo had then said that the village had no medical facilities, water or roads. A hospital there had been defunct since its construction over a decade ago, and drinking water had to be brought from a well more than a kilometre away, he elaborated. The party would pitch for development work, he added.
“If our problems are solved by the Shiv Sena [Hindustan], we will stay with it, or else we will leave it,” he said pragmatically.
Ghulam Mohammad Dar, a young worker who joined the outfit on February 2, put it differently. “We want an end to the zulm we are facing,” he said, using a word that often describes any kind of injustice in the Valley. Dar had his own definition for it, though – widespread corruption, unemployment, and lack of amenities.
The room had filled with smoke from a hookah the workers took turns to smoke. They spoke of their reasons for joining the party and the barrage of threats they had received from Kashmiris online because of the perception that the outfit is anti-Muslim.

The other Shiv Sena

This Punjab-based, self-professedly hardcore right-wing Hindu party claims to be an offshoot of the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena. It shot to prominence after it launched a Dharam Oudh Morcha in 2005, prompting the state government to prepare a compensation package for Hindu victims of militancy in Punjab.
According to its national president, Pawan Gupta, they split from the Shiv Sena because the Thackerays – Uddhav Thackeray, who heads the party, and his late father Bal Thackeray before him – were too focused on Maharashtra, leaving little scope for expansion.
“The Mumbai-based Shiv Sena is powerful, yet they couldn’t step into the Valley,” Gupta said proudly. “Even if they have a government in the country, we have set ideological foot in the Valley,” he added, referring to the Shiv Sena being a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance that is in power at the Centre.
According to Gupta, the Shiv Sena Hindustan is currently active in 18 states and has had a presence in Jammu for over seven years. It entered the Kashmir Valley a little over a year ago, and on February 2, it claimed to have recruited 200 members there, all of them from Nawgam. On February 9, they said at least 200 more had joined the party in Kashmir.
But on the face of it, Nawgam seemed largely indifferent to the outfit’s overtures, though a few residents had gathered for the meeting.
It was on Bhat’s proposal that the party made its foray into the Valley. “How will somebody from the Valley want to join Shiv Sena [Hindustan]?” had been Gupta’s initial thought. But after a year of discussions, they concluded that Bhat’s ideology fit in with the party’s.
Gupta does not shy away from saying that he heads a “Hinduvadi” party. “How can we turn away from our organisation and it’s base?” he asked. But he does not see why Muslims cannot be a part of it. “If the Muslim community has a problem and it is wrongly tackled, as a political party, we will raise that issue so that injustice is not done to anyone.”

India, not Pakistan

The Shiv Sena Hindustan strikes a careful balance in the Valley. On the one hand, it shows sympathy for Kashmiris who have faced injustices, and even for separatists. On the other, it asserts its nationalist credentials.
Not long before the outfit announced its sudden success with recruitments, national vice-president Rajesh Kesari made a trip to the Valley. During his visit, he asserted that Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani – whose death in an encounter with security forces in July had led to months of unrest in Kashmir – had become a militant after his older brother, Khalid Wani, was killed in April 2015.
“Burhan Wani is not a terrorist, this government is,” Kesari told the Kashmiri press in December. He said Khalid Wani was a civilian but the Army had called him an overground worker for the militant group. The government’s announcement in December of compensation for Khalid Wani’s death hinted at differences between the establishment, he alleged.

“An FIR should be lodged against the government and the chief minister who killed such innocent people,” Kesari said. He also demanded compensation of Rs 50 lakhs for all those killed in the unrest. “Whoever has died here will be called shaheed [martyr],” he added.
But in stark contrast to his approach, Bhat and his supporters have made a point of displaying their pro-India credentials. Before joining the Shiv Sena Hindustan, Bhat had approached another Jammu-based regional party but that did not work out for him. In 2008, he contested the Assembly elections on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket from Chadoora in Budgam and lost. He, along with some others in the party, have also aided security forces in counter-insurgency operations in the past.
“Grief led me to join hands with the forces to avenge my brother’s death,” said Bhat, whose brother was killed by militants.
The other members cited similar reasons for helping the security forces tackle militancy in the 1990s – grief and a desire to avenge the death of family members. Among them was Ghulam Muhammad, a party worker from Nawgam. In 1991, his brother was killed for allegedly working with the Army. A year later, militants killed his nephew on suspicion of being an informer. Muhammad said he had worked for the security forces for seven years in the 1990s. “It’s only natural that we will join a pro-India party,” he added.
According to him, his faith does not come in the way of this nationalist sentiment. “Whether they call god Shiva and we Allah, it doesn’t matter,” he explained. “Our nation is India. We are not Pakistanis.”
Supporters in Srinagar echoed him. “We are all Indians,” they chanted, when asked what they thought of integration with India.
Most of Bhat’s supporters in the Valley are drawn from the Shia community. He pointed out that Shia Muslims in Pakistan face attacks on a daily basis. “We do not want to be with those who bomb everyone,” he said.

Another shade of saffron

With its political ambitions in Kashmir growing, the Shiv Sena Hindustan sees itself in competition with another saffron party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in a ruling alliance with the People’s Democratic Party since the Assembly elections in 2014. Since then, fears of a “saffron agenda” have grown in Kashmir.
But the Shiv Sena Hindustan’s national president, Pawan Gupta, was quick to point out that unlike the BJP, his party does not work on the condition that it will join hands only with Hindus. He also said that while the BJP speaks of bringing Kashmiris into the national mainstream, the Shiv Sena Hindustan has actually done this. “Now people who join the Shiv Sena [Hindustan], who can be more national mainstream than them?” he asked.
While the Shiv Sena Hindustan may claim to have done more in the Valley than the BJP, the national party has devoted considerable energy to making inroads in Kashmir. In December 2015, its newly elected state president, Sat Sharma, declared that they would not “play second fiddle” to its ally, the Peoples Democratic Party.
Veer Saraf, the BJP’s organising secretary for South Kashmir, has also claimed that people still have faith in the BJP despite discontent with the ruling alliance and over last year’s unrest. “It [BJP] is the first party, which started its political activities publicly after the unrest, not in the rooms... on the roads of Srinagar,” he said.
On January 11, the BJP held a torch rally in Srinagar celebrating the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekanada. And on Republic Day, it held a procession during which pro-India slogans were raised, and carried the national flag to Pampore to “commemorate the martyrs of the EDI [encounter].” The three-day gunbattle at the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute last year had left five soldiers and three foreign terrorists dead.
The Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha's Republic Day programme in Kashmir. Image Credit: Aijaz Hussain (BJYM vice-president) /Facebook
The Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha's Republic Day programme in Kashmir. Image Credit: Aijaz Hussain (BJYM vice-president) /Facebook
“We will do many more programmes of such kind in Kashmir,” Saraf said. The party plans to organise two to three programmes in the Valley every month. “We are working on that and we will do it [again] on certain occasions,” he added.
For now, both the Shiv Sena Hindustan and the BJP are eyeing the panchayat elections, scheduled for March.

Perils of the mainstream

But in Kashmir, being part of mainstream parties, especially saffron organisations, still comes with risks. Between 2011 and 2014, militants killed at least 10 sarpanches in the Valley, leading to large-scale resignations by panchayat members. During last year’s unrest too, public anger was directed at security forces as well as mainstream parties. Then too, several sarpanches and panchayat office holders had resigned from the political parties they belonged to – or from the panchayats, though this form of resignation was largely symbolic as their terms had expired before the violence began.
The state police anticipate another round of unrest this spring.
The Shiv Sena Hindustan is clearly worried. Bhat, who has been allotted a personal security officer and secure accommodation, complained about the lack of security.
On the face of it, the BJP is unfazed. “[We have] not worked against the interests of Kashmir,” Saraf said. But he admitted, “There may have been an incident or two but the whole of Kashmir was burning.” The party, he said, has a plan to “safeguard our people”, but refused to divulge details.