By Muhammad Raafi
In 2010, Jammu & Kashmir got its first IAS topper. It was historic: Shah Faesal, the son of a teacher father, grew up in Sogam, a remote village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Its close proximity to the Line of Control (LoC) ensured that Sogam remained ravaged by militancy in the ’90s – it even claimed his father’s life in 2002. At the time, Faesal, an MBBS with a Masters degree in Urdu, termed his feat as the “breaking of the myth” of discrimination. In fact, hundreds of local aspirants were stirred into taking the UPSC examinations after Faesal’s success, heralding a significant surge of aspirants appearing from Kashmir every year.
Yet Faesal’s stint in the bureaucracy lasted a mere nine years. On January 9, Faesal, the managing director of the Jammu and Kashmir State Power Development Corporation announced his decision to quit the services as a sign of protest against the marginalisation of Indian Muslims. He termed his decision a “small defiance and protest against unabated killings in Kashmir, lack of reach-out and marginalisation of around 200 million Indian Muslims at the hands of Hindutva forces by reducing them to second-class citizens. A few days later, came another announcement: Faesal revealed that he’d decided to take the plunge into politics.
At first pass, Faesal’s decision mirrors one taken by a Delhi bureaucrat a few years ago. In 2012, Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian Revenue Services officer quit his job to campaign against corruption, a movement that galvanised the entire country and got them to listen to what he was saying. It also birthed the Aam Aadmi Party, which promised countless Indians a reimagining of the dynasty and Hindutva-led politics, and represented a new vertical of power in Delhi, away from the two major parties that controlled Indian politics.
It is, after all, no coincidence that Faesal admitted to being influenced by the style of politics pioneered by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Six years after the advent of AAP, another dissenting bureaucrat is looking to disrupt the very nature of politics in the troubled Valley. But will Faesal’s stint in politics end up being “an addition and not an alternative”? Will he live up his oath of “not dividing the J&K electorate further?” And more importantly, will he manage to be the voice of Kashmir’s aam aadmi?
It is, after all, no coincidence that Faesal admitted to being influenced by the style of politics pioneered by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
While Kejriwal concluded a long run of activism before AAP got its first shot at power in 2013, Faesal’s political innings are yet to begin. So far, he hasn’t announced allegiance to any existing political group in the state or an ideological platform. Instead, he has invited the public’s suggestions on how he should chart his course in politics. In a heartfelt Facebook post, before announcing his entry into the fray, Faesal spoke directly to Kashmiri citizens and acknowledged their anger over the region’s political situation. He openly claimed that he is “against blind-faith in individuals and uncritical followership” and asked Kashmiris to give him “six months” of time and trust.
It’s a leaf directly out of Kejriwal’s playbook. Just like Kejriwal, who had sought the opinion of the voters over the appointment of the new acting Chief Secretary of Delhi through social media, Faesal has also implied that public opinion would dictate his political decisions. In an interview, he said, “I would like to go back to the people, seek their views and then join mainstream politics. I have invited all the stakeholders including youngsters and will take their viewpoints and subsequently take a decision.”
At a time when political parties are habituated to raising religious issues to secure their vote banks, Kejriwal saw the youth as his party’s biggest vote bank and appealed to them with the promise of change. Faesal too, relies on the Kashmiri youth who have long dubbed him as a “poster boy”, to convince them that he’d give the state, perennially in a state of conflict, a makeover.
The legitimacy of Kashmir’s electoral politics has constantly been under the scanner, with successive governments failing to complete their six-year terms. In fact, Omar Abdullah was the only chief minister who completed his term (2009-2015), besides his father Farooq Abdullah (1996-2002). And Faesal, is aware of the challenges. He is critical of the ruling Indian government, holding it accountable for Kashmir’s political and social turmoil. Like Kejriwal, who wanted to “throw out” India’s corrupt political system, Faesal aims at attempting something similar in Kashmir.
Even though Faesal reiterates Kejriwal’s stance on corruption, transparency, and sincere governance, the political landscape of Kashmir, is a stark contrast to the rest of India.
The rising support and sympathy for militancy among the state’s youth has made it even more difficult to persuade the public to participate in democracy.
Since 2016, conducting free and fair elections in Kashmir has been nothing short of a challenge for the Indian government. The rising support and sympathy for militancy among the state’s youth has made it even more difficult to persuade the public to participate in democracy.
In a region where people see the army and State as the enemy, Faesal’s political future hinges on his ability to walk the talk. Haris Zargar, a journalist who has covered Kashmir politics for about a decade, echoes this sentiment. “What makes it difficult for Faesal to connect with the masses, especially with the youth, is the fact that political parties remain discredited in the public eye and more people now see a militant solution to the Kashmir conflict,” he said.
While Shah Abbas, a Kashmir-based journalist believes Faesal’s success will be determined by the stand he chooses to back, “If Faesal wants his footprints to be followed, he needs to talk about the Kashmir dispute freely without affiliating himself with the separatist camp. Only that can address the sentiments and the political problem faced by the masses.” For his part, the IAS topper made his intentions evident in a press conference, where he said that there was “little scope” of him putting his administrative skills and experience into practice if he joined the Hurriyat, given they do not “subscribe to electoral politics”.
Delhi goes to election in 2020 and surveys have favoured Kejriwal at the forefront in the race for the next probable CM. If Faesal manages to politicise the sentiments of the Kashmiris, he might just be able to emerge as a leader who speaks truth to power in an even bigger fashion than the AAP chief.