Thursday, May 14, 2009

Uneasy lies the turban

He is probably the only Lok Sabha candidate whose mobile phone got stolen. But it’s something else that bothers Qamar Rabbani Chechi.

Pic: Ruhani Kaur

“Sorry, but that phone got stolen.”

Hardev Singh is apologetic about the trouble we have had to face in contacting Qamar Rabbani Chechi. Two days before, I had spoken to Chechi over his mobile phone.

“It would feel great to meet a fellow Kashmiri in a faraway place like Rajasthan,” he had told me then. Two days later, I try calling him over the same number, the moment I approach Dausa town, along with my colleague, Ruhani. The phone is switched off. Asking for Chechi’s election office in Dausa could be tricky, I know. And I am not wrong. Sitting on his haunches, with a hookah in his hand, the man who I asked directions to Chechi’s election office almost explodes. “Chechi, Pechi hum nahi jaante,” he says. My guess is correct. The man is from the rival Meena community.

Finally after contacting a friend who works in a local newspaper, I get hold of Chechi’s man, Hardev Singh, who tells me that Chechi’s phone had actually got stolen a day before during a public meeting. “If you really ask me, I am happy that I lost that phone,” Chechi told me later, as he wiped sweat from his brow. “I am not much of a politician, you see,” he smiled.

In Dausa, the electoral war is not between two political parties. It is a war which two rival castes are fighting. Dausa used to be a stronghold of the late Congress leader, Rajesh Pilot, a Gujjar. After his death, his son would win the seat in the last elections. But post-delimitation, the seat got reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates.

“The Gujjars couldn’t see themselves being ruled by Meenas,” says Hardev Singh. So the Gujjar leadership got hold of Qamar Rabbani Chechi, who is a Muslim Gujjar from far-flung Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir. There, the Gujjars have ST status.

Dev Narayan Bhagwan ki jai.” A group of Gujjar men have assembled at Khedla village, where Chechi is to address them. Chechi also raises his hands with others in invoking the Gujjar diety. That is not something which bothers him as a Muslim. What troubles him is the heat.

That afternoon, there are heat storms, and the temperature is above 40 degree Celsius. Back home, in Rajouri, it is less than half of that.

Just before I managed to catch hold of his new number, Chechi says he almost collapsed due to exhaustion. But this is Lok sabha election. And that means real hard work. More so, when your rival is a former minister in the the erstwhile Vasundhra Raje government, who then switched sides to Congress, and is now fighting independently after being denied a ticket by the Congress. Chechi’s main rival is Kirori Mal Meena, a veteran leader of his community.

“Kirori Mal is campaigning in a helicopter, but it is eventually Chechi sahab who is going to win,” says Subash Sharma, who has accompanied us from Chechi’s election office to Khedla. The support of other castes like the Brahmins is crucial for Chechi. Among the 13 lakh voters of Dausa, about 3 lakh are Meenas, while there are 2 lakh Gujjars. Brahmins have about the same votes while the Muslim votes are about 75 thousand. Sharma says all Brahmin voters will vote for Chechi because they want to thwart a Meena coming to power in Dausa. Sharma has begun to address me as “Sharma ji” after he repeatedly asked me my Gotra, and I reluctantly told him, and it turned out to be same as his. So I was “Sharma ji” now. “Same to same,” as he put it.

Chechi arrives in Khedla in a Tata Sumo, crammed between his supporters and a policeman. He is donning a traditional Rajasthani turban which he is visibly uncomfortable with. “You will have to vote for me to end ‘terrorism’,” Chechi tells the Gujjar Men, referring to the Meena ‘high-handedness.’ The men nod their heads in agreement. The smell of tobacco hangs thick in the heat – almost every man is either smoking a hookah or a beedi.

After a while I notice no one is listening to him. The men are all staring at Ruhani, whose eye is set on her lens. Nevertheless, Chechi goes on. “There are too many marriages on the voting day. But, please, makes sure you vote,” he tells them. “Otherwise not even a dog will care about us,” shouts Hardev Singh.

“My fighting elections from Rajasthan is an ode to secularism,” Chechi tells me, while sitting in our car, and after he has polished off a bottle of mineral water. “ Some people say that India only loves the land of Kashmir and not its people. But my candidature has proven them wrong,” he says.

But what about the heat? Chechi takes another swig from another bottle. “AC tez karo, bhai,” he tells our driver, and then turns towards me. “You know, in Rajouri, the moment the temperature touches 35-36, it rains. But here, there is no escape from heat,” he says while adjusting his turban.

Before addressing another meeting, Chechi makes a stopover at his house. He drinks more water, and takes off his turban for a while, closing his eyes under a whirling fan. He also changes his clothes before he leaves. “Do you mind if I sit in your car?” he asks, “you are coming with me, no?” We are.

At the next meeting, a group of boys are sitting on a parapet. Chechi looks at them, greeting them with a nod. “Cylinder dilwa dena jab jeetoge,” they shout. (Chechi’s election symbol is a gas cylinder).

It’s now time to make appearance at a community marriage of Saini caste. The phone keeps on ringing. “Ram Ram,” Chechi greets every caller. In between there is a call. It is from Rajouri. “Wale-Kum-As-Salam,” Chechi breaks into a grin.

For once, he looks relieved.

(This report first appeared in Open magazine)


Kakshi said...

Thanks for the post :)

Karan said...

Have you made progress since your last post on "The Last Man from Kashmir"?

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