Jailed Engineer Rashid gathers steam in Baramulla, upends poll calculus of NC, PC

In the two weeks since his nomination was accepted by the ECI, the jailed former MLA has gathered the support of thousands of volunteers, with his son addressing rallies on his behalf

Published - May 17, 2024 03:18 am IST - BARAMULLA

People shout as Abrar Rashid, son of jailed Awami Ittehad Party chief Sheikh Abdul Rashid alias Engineer Rashid, addressing an election rally on behalf of his father in Soibug area of Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency going for polls on May 20 at Soibugh Budgam district central Kashmir on May 16, 2024.

People shout as Abrar Rashid, son of jailed Awami Ittehad Party chief Sheikh Abdul Rashid alias Engineer Rashid, addressing an election rally on behalf of his father in Soibug area of Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency going for polls on May 20 at Soibugh Budgam district central Kashmir on May 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

With over 20,000 local residents and several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) joining his campaign as volunteers in just two weeks, jailed Independent candidate?Abdul Rashid Sheikh, widely known as Engineer Rashid, has upended the poll calculus of two political bigwigs — National Conference (NC) candidate Omar Abdullah and J&K Peoples Conference (JKPC) candidate Sajad Lone — in the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency?where polls will be held on May 20.

Mr. Rashid, a former MLA, is using a ‘pressure cooker’ as his poll symbol and the steam of his electioneering has forced even his rivals, the NC and the Peoples Democratic Party, to acknowledge the challenge he poses.?“The contest is between Mr. Rashid and the NC,” said Mr. Abdullah, who till recently saw Mr. Lone as his main rival.

The street optics and high-pitched slogans of his campaign, such as “Jail ka badla, vote saay (Will revenge jailing Rashid with vote)“ and “Naa jukne-wala, na-bikne wala, Engineer?(Unflinching and unwavering, our Engineer)“, have become a war cry in north Kashmir. The momentum for Mr. Rashid’s Awami Ittehad Party (AIP) started to grow immediately after May 2, when Mr. Rashid’s nomination was accepted by the Election Commission.?

High-pitched campaign

It’s rare to see such a campaign where it is the people who pool their own money to offer Rooh Afza drinks and cooked yellow-rice for the volunteers supporting Mr. Rashid’s son Abrar Rashid, a covering candidate for his jailed father. Mr. Abrar Rashid hops from one Assembly segment to another, addressing a dozen rallies a day which also run live on social media platforms, unlike the three to seven rallies addressed by the NC and JKPC candidates.

Soibug is the native village of Syed Salahuddin, who heads Hizb ul Mujahideen and United Jehad Council across the Line of Control.

Soibug is the native village of Syed Salahuddin, who heads Hizb ul Mujahideen and United Jehad Council across the Line of Control. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Mr. Rashid’s high energy rallies have forced both Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Lone to match his pitch. Mr. Abdullah was seen squatting on a vehicle late at night to address poll rallies this week, amid pro-Abdullah and pro-NC songs in the ‘wanwun’ style usually heard in Kashmiri weddings. The optics of Mr. Lone’s rallies have also changed, with women supporters now offering milk and showering toffees on the electorate.??

Heartfelt narrative

More than such gimmicks, however, it is Mr. Rashid’s son’s narrative of the “harrowing experience” of his father being jailed and its impact on the family that has resonated among youth, with many relating their own stories with that of the incarcerated leader.??

“My father made a rare attempt to make commoners believe that being a public representative doesn’t earn a special status. He sent his children to government institutions to?make a point that lawmakers should be agents of positive change. While trying to change the system, my father became the victim of the system,” Mr. Abrar Rashid told?The Hindu.

The National Investigation Agency arrested Mr. Rashid just two days before the revocation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. He was later booked under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).?

“No one from 1.4 billion people has uttered a single word over my father’s illegal and politically motivated detention. My father has nominal assets and no?bank balances. He represented people in the Assembly for eleven long years without a break. Clean and pure as crystal water, the system could not find any excuse to book him through CBI in any corruption case,” Mr. Abrar Rashid said.

‘Pro-peace, pro-people, proactive’

Mr. Rashid has long been a firebrand leader from north Kashmir who would frequently rake up controversies as a legislator inside the Assembly as well as outside. Earning the epithet “one-man army”, Mr. Rashid’s humble background and street struggle against the security forces over civilian atrocities has earned him the faith of a significant section of voters. He stood third in the 2019 Parliament election, surprising observers by leading in six Assembly segments and bagging 1.01?lakh votes against 1.03 lakh votes for the JKPC and 1.33 lakh votes for the NC.

“His political belief is a durable resolution to the Kashmir problem. He used to raise his voice against human rights abuses by State and non-State actors. My father was invited by several former Prime Ministers to discuss?the Kashmir issue,” Mr. Rashid’s son?said.

Delivering heart-felt speeches on his father’s incarceration, Mr. Abrar Rashid said he was pained to see “the most pro-peace, pro-people and proactive politician in J&K being booked under the draconian UAPA, which is otherwise meant for terrorists”.?

“His only fault was that he didn’t allow his independence, impartiality and neutrality to be compromised because J&K is a place that has seen so much destruction due to dirty politics played from time to time by the stakeholders,” Mr. Rashid’s son added.

Message to Delhi

Mr. Rashid has managed to garner the support of smaller local influencers like former MLA Shoaib Lone, Irfan Hafeez Lone, who pleaded the Article 370 case before the Supreme Court last year, and many other lawyers and social media influencers.?

The PDP admits that Mr. Rashid has managed to strike a chord with the youth. “Mr. Rashid’s rise is a strong message to Delhi. The younger generation is connecting to the story of his imprisonment and fighting spirit. It’s like voters intend to ‘pelt’ their vote and not cast it. There is an anger epitomised by Mr. Rashid. Delhi needs to pick up the message,” senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar said.

There are 23 candidates in the Baramulla seat, which has an electorate of 17.47 lakh voters.?

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