On Thursday, hundreds of BJP workers gathered at Sher-e-Kashmir Park in the heart of Srinagar city to participate in the party convention, the first of its kind in Kashmir Valley. BJP national vice-president and in-charge for Jammu and Kashmir, Avinash Rai Khanna was flanked by the party’s state general secretary Ashok Kaul on the stage.
Rows of neat red chairs were arranged for the attendees and the function was going on smoothly. Khanna was addressing the convention when a strange commotion broke out.
A group of news photographers arrived to cover the proceedings. As the camera shutters started rolling, the faces of the BJP workers rolled down straight into their pheran, a Kashmiri cloak used in winters to keep warm. Some of the workers hid their faces using leaflets of the party. Dozens of ‘party workers’ even fled the park after photojournalists started taking pictures.
The spectacle made everyone break into fits of laughter.
While in Jammu, participation in BJP rallies has been huge, in Kashmir, the party is still an outcast, despite claiming to have “huge” support among the people. In Kashmir, backing BJP remains a taboo. Even the party's workers hardly talk in the open about their affiliation with the BJP.
"If these pictures appear on social media, we will face a social boycott," said Manzoor, 34, who only gave his first name. "Already there is a lot of anger against the BJP in Kashmir. We do not want to risk our lives," he added as he ran out of the park.
Thursday’s incident, however, is not an isolated one. Even during previous such rallies and conventions, whenever the press would arrive at the venue, the workers would hide their faces and start running around.
"It was clearly embarrassing for them. There have been instances when I encountered people reluctant to be photographed as if they have done something wrong," said Basit Zargar, a freelance photographer who was present at the venue.
The BJP had emerged as the second largest party in the 2014 Assembly polls after winning 25 seats from Jammu for the first time in the electoral history of the state. It was part of the coalition government with the PDP, which didn't last long.
Though the dates for the upcoming Assembly polls are yet to be announced, the Hindu right-wing party has said that it will contest all 87 Assembly seats in the state, ruling out any pre-poll alliance in the state. In the upcoming Lok Sabha election too, the party has decided to field its own candidates on all the six parliamentary seats from Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
The state BJP has already sent a list of prospective candidates from the Valley for the approval of the party high command, said BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur.
The BJP, however, has denied Thursday's incident.
“Yes, people are afraid sometimes but then threat perception is part of politics,” says Thakur, adding, “We are hopeful of a breakthrough in Kashmir this time.”
For years, the BJP has remained on the fringes in mainstream politics of the Kashmir valley. Notwithstanding the tall promises of its leaders, it has failed to win even one seat in Kashmir.
The party did manage to make inroads in the Muslim majority Valley by putting up candidates for the Panchayat and local bodies elections and winning many seats of Sarpanchs, Panchs and municipal corporators.
"These are the same people who are going tell Kashmiri voters to vote for the BJP. When they can’t show their own face to people, with what face will they approach others?" says Ajaz Ahmad Wani, a political commentator in Srinagar said.
"It is an embarrassing situation for the party,” he adds.