Page last updated at 08:18 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 09:18 UK

Separatist breaks ranks in Kashmir poll

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

Sajad Lone
I will tell the Indian parliamentarians that Kashmiri people do not want to stay with them
Sajad Lone

Much of the attention during parliamentary elections in Indian-administered Kashmir will be focused on the Kupwara-Baramullah constituency.

That is because this otherwise little-known polling battleground is where Sajad Lone, who heads a faction of the People's Conference party, is contesting.

Mr Lone is the first prominent separatist leader to take part in Indian elections since a revolt against Indian rule broke out in Kashmir in 1989.

Sajad is the youngest son of Abdul Gani Lone, the founding leader of the separatist alliance, the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

He has not exactly been active on the separatist front, having lived outside Kashmir for most of the 1990s - the most difficult period in Indian-administered Kashmir's recent history.

But he recently dominated headlines with his outburst against Pakistan over the assassination of his father in 2002.

Boycott call

By his own admission, Sajad Lone is "not a typical separatist".

Protest in Indian-administered Kashmir
Mr Lone believes the separatism cause is best served in parliament

But he came to be known as a separatist leader after he spoke out forcefully for the cause of freedom from Indian rule during debates on Indian TV channels last year.

He did so after hundreds of thousands of people participated in anti-India marches in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley.

Mr Lone also joined other separatists in calling for a boycott of elections to the state assembly held in November and December last year.

The boycott call failed as people turned out in large numbers to cast their ballots.

Mr Lone says this was the reason for his about-turn.

"After the failure of my boycott call, I am left with no [other] option to make my voice credible. People ask me who I represent after 75% of people in my area participated in the polls."

Observers differ as to whether Sajad Lone's decision to stand for the election is a setback to the separatist movement.

Critics have been forceful in their condemnation.

The prominent separatist leader and head of the Muslim League, Mushtaqul Islam, recently said that Mr Lone had "always been a tool in the hands of Indian agencies".

He accused Mr Lone of "clandestinely participating" in previous elections and only now had removed the mask from his face.

'Changed strategy'

But such criticisms do not appear to worry Mr Lone, who at a recent press conference indicated that he would use the "separatist plank" during his poll campaign.

"I have changed my strategy, not my ideology," he said.

JKLF activists in Indian-administered Kashmir
The separatist camp is split over whether to take part in elections

While he does not believe in the Indian constitution, he said that he would take an oath of allegiance to it "with a heavy heart" and would continue to articulate the "sentiments and aspirations of Kashmiri people in the Indian parliament".

"I will tell the Indian parliamentarians that Kashmiri people do not want to stay with them. I'll tell them to find a solution which would satisfy the people of Kashmir."

Mr Lone played down his decision to join the battle. "Sajad is too small to deal a blow to separatism," he said.

Mr Lone has his support base mostly in the frontier district of Kupwara.

A well-known journalist, Tahir Mohiuddin, who comes from the same district, says Mr Lone has come under immense pressure from his supporters to join electoral politics.

Sajad Lone and supporters in Srinagar
Analysts say that Mr Lone will lose his support unless he stands

They voted in 2002 as also in 2008 and felt "powerless" without their own representative, Mr Mohiuddin said.

"If Sajad were to stay out of elections any longer, his supporters would most likely break away."

Mr Mohiuddin says that if Mr Lone wins, other separatists may be encouraged to rethink their strategy.

At least one faction of the APHC - in addition to the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) has so far not called for a polls boycott. Neither has so far commented on Mr Lone's decision to participate.

But Mr Mohiuddin says that if Sajad Lone loses "he'll simply be consumed" and his political career will be finished.

With so much at stake, political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba says Mr Lone's plunge into electoral politics reflects the changing nature of Kashmiri separatism.

"It may not be a blow to the cause of separatism, but it is a setback to separatist leadership," he says.

Prof Baba says that "instead of winning anyone over, the separatist leadership is losing people".

He also argues that Sajad Lone remains very much a separatist.

"He does not accept the status quo and has offered a blueprint - or Vision Document - for resolving the Kashmir dispute."

The results of the vote will provide some indication as to whether the Kashmiri people agree with Mr Lone's strategy of fighting for separatism within the Indian parliament.

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