How 2 Kashmiri Brothers Ran A 10-Day, Social-Media Campaign That Propelled Their Imprisoned Father To Parliament

Auqib Javeed
14 Jun 2024 15 min read  Share

A social-media campaign inviting resentful, frustrated youth who normally boycotted elections to vote. A budget of Rs 27,000. This is what it took two college-going siblings, helped by their family, social-media influencers and their father’s 11-year-old political party, to spearhead a successful election campaign for their father, imprisoned in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for 1,771 days on charges of terror financing. The campaign for Sheikh Abdul Rashid, or Engineer Rashid, ran not on issues of roads, water or electricity but as ‘revenge’ for his incarceration, his sons promising that their father would be a voice for hundreds of Kashmiri youth imprisoned in jails nationwide.

Young voters in north Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency take selfies with Abrar (white sweatshirt) and Asrar (purple t-shirt), sons of Sheikh Abdul Rashid alias ‘Engineer’ Rashid, during their successful Lok Sabha campaign for their father, imprisoned in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on charges of funding terrorism/ AUQIB JAVEED

Langate, Jammu and Kashmir: On 12 May 2024, 21-year-old arts student Asrar Rashid spent the night in tears, anxious about how he would deliver an election speech on behalf of a father incarcerated 800 km to the south in Delhi’s Tihar jail for more than 1,700 days on charges of funding terrorism.

The tension had been building ever since his elder brother Abrar floated the idea in the first week of May.

The next day, as the extended family formally decided they would run a parliamentary campaign for Asar’s father, Sheikh Abdul Rashid alias ‘Engineer’ Rashid, in the 2024 general elections, Asrar joined hands with his elder brother Abrar, 23, pursuing a masters in botany at the Islamia College of Science and Commerce, Srinagar, to become the face of one of India’s most unusual campaigns. 

The decision that Rashid, 59, would stand for elections had been taken by not just the family but the political party he launched in 2013—the Jammu and Kashmir Awami Ittehad Party—in anticipation of general elections, in a region that has not had an elected government for more than four years.

In an intense 10-day campaign, during which they travelled 4,000 km, held seven rallies and roadshows that drew thousands in 15 towns and villages in the Baramulla parliamentary constituency, the brothers accomplished what was seemingly unimaginable. 

They went from a late start, endured a disappointingly lukewarm response and turned the campaign around by adroit use of social media focussed on young voters. 

In the Baramulla constituency, voters aged 18 to 38 comprise 56% of the electorate. Most of these young people formerly boycotted elections, but turned out this time in thousands for Rashid.

“More young people have asserted their faith and embraced democracy in a big way,” said a J&K government press release issued on 27 May 2024. 

Rashid, a former two-time member of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) legislative assembly (MLA) from North Kashmir’s Langate assembly constituency, defeated former chief Minister Omar Abdullah of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC) and Peoples Conference (PC) chairman and former colleague Sajjad Gani Lone by a margin of more than 200,000 votes, garnering 472,481 votes. 

“We still can’t believe that we did it,” said Asrar.

Rashid contested elections while in Tihar prison, where he has been since 2019, following his arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which alleged he was involved in funding terrorism. 

The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been directly run from New Delhi since August 2019, when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi dismantled its statehood and semi-autonomous status, cracked down on free speech and imprisoned thousands. 

Rashid is the type of candidate the Modi government did not want: an independent voice and sometime advocate of self-determination, who in 2015 was physically attacked in the state assembly by members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The brothers pitched their father’s campaign as a vote against “oppression”, At meetings, whenever Abrar said, “Tihar ka badla (revenge against Tihar)...”, crowds would respond with, “Vote se (with the vote).”

 Engineer Rashid faces charges under section 13 (advocates, abets, advises or incites), 15 (terror act),17 (raising funds for terrorist act) ,18 ( conspiracy) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, and 120B (criminal conspiracy),121 (wage war), 121A (conspires to commit any of the offences), 124A (sedition) of The Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1870.

Before Rashid entered the electoral arena, the Baramulla constituency was regarded as a battle between the NC and the PC, both mainstream pro-India political parties in a region riven by rebellion, where thousands have died over the decades. 

With his late entry, which came after a special NIA court allowed him to contest elections on 27 April, Rashid turned Baramulla seat into a three-way contest.

Social Media Turned It Around

When Article 14 visited Mawar village in Langate tehsil, where Abrar and Asrar live, they were still receiving euphoric, smiling guests from across Kashmir who had come to commend them on their successful campaign for their father.

Each guest arrived with a garland for the siblings, who offered nunchai (pink tea) to them. 

None of this appeared possible when the siblings and Rashid’s party began their campaign on 8 May after getting permission from an NIA court, New Delhi on 27 April 2024.

At the first rally held that day by the brothers in Uri along the line of control or border with Pakistan, only a few dozen people showed up. 

“We were disappointed but didn’t lose hope,” said Abrar. He worked on the campaign while preparing for his first-semester exams, which he gave on 28 May. 

While driving home, Abrar decided to revive his fathers’s social media pages and reach-out to people. 

“This was the turning point,” said Abrar. “We got an overwhelming response through social media, especially from the youth.” 

On 12 May, when the party planned a rally in Bandipora district, the siblings posted the schedule and plans on their father’s social media pages on Facebook a day in advance. Abrar also announced schedules on the party’s Instagram and Twitter handles and Facebook page, many of which Kashmiri social-media influencers shared. 

A supporter garlands Abrar Rashid (in white sweatshirt) after he and his younger brother led an intense 10-day election campaign for his father in May 2024 in the Baramulla parliamentary constituency. Rashid, who has been in Delhi’s Tihar jail for more than 1,700 days on terror-funding charges, beat his nearest rival Omar Abdullah by 200,000 votes/ AUQIB JAVEED

The response was almost instantaneous.

“We were amazed to see a sea of people, mostly youth, chanting slogans with all their might,” said Abrar. “Women showered us with toffees and flowers, and people spontaneously distributed food and water.”

Engineer to reha karo (Free the engineer),” and “Cooker, cooker, pressure cooker,” they shouted, referring to Rashid’s election symbol.

This was the moment, the brothers said, they realised they could win. “I cried after the rally ended, feeling we were inching toward victory,” said Abrar.

Rs 27,000 On Campaign: Family

The next rally on 9 May in Kupwara district’s Lolab region, a lush area of forests and pastures, drew even more people and sparked a growing wave of support for Rashid.

The brothers also decided to hold a roadshow on 15 May 2024  in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, the home constituency of the NC’s Abdullah, a former chief minister. 

“We received an overwhelming response even in our opponent's stronghold—that was surprising,”  Abrar said. 

Abrar said he had to spend around Rs 27,000 on the campaign, as people voluntarily joined in with their own vehicles.

“My father had sent me Rs 12,000 from his earnings in jail to buy a phone, but I ended up using that money for the campaign,” said Abrar, who added that his father was chief librarian at Tihar.

Candidates are allowed to spend up to Rs 95 lakh on a Lok Sabha election campaign, according to the Election Commission of India, but most greatly exceed that limit. 

Asrar said they made no mention of “sadak, pani and bijli (road, water and electricity)”, seeking votes for their fathers release, so that he could raise a voice for hundreds of Kashmiri youth imprisoned in jails nationwide. 

“We were getting overwhelming responses,” said Asrar, who is pursuing an Arts degree at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Some lent their vehicles, others helped raise money. Those at rallies promised support and votes, he said.

“A number of (Kashmiri) youth are behind bars in different jails of the country, so when they (sons of Rashid) spoke about it, people could somehow relate,” said Anuradha Basin, managing editor of the Kashmir Times.

Why People Voted For Rashid

Voters said Rashid was helpful and served “his people”, whether speaking for Kashmiris or helping them.

Khair Mohammad Lone, 56, recalled how Rashid helped a 65-year-old woman called Jabeena Begum from the village of Bongam, Handwara, get a pacemaker to treat a worsening heart condition about 10 years ago.

“She was so poor that her family struggled to arrange even two meals a day,” said Khair Mohammad Lone. “But then Rashid saved her life and arranged everything.”

He said Begum was the first from their village to reach the polling station early on 20 May and cast her vote for Rashid.

On 6 June 2024, two days after ‘Engineer’ Rashid’s Lok Sabha election victory, people continued to flock to his home village of Mawar in north Kashmir. Rashid is popular for helping common folk and standing up for Kashmiri issues/ AUQIB JAVEED 

Rashid had helped many others, said Abdul Rashid Kaboo, also from Bongam, Handwara.

“We are proud of him and we will do everything to ensure his release,” said Kaboo.

Political observers said Rashid garnered “sympathy votes” due to his incarceration, one of the main reasons why 59% of voters, the highest since 1984, turned out and ensured Rashid's victory. 

“People thought Rashid was a better candidate than the other two candidates and since he was in jail, like Amritpal Singh (an imprisoned Punjabi secessionist), they both got sympathy votes,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a retired law professor and political commentator.

Noor Mohammad Baba, a retired professor of political science at the University of Kashmir,said New Delhi had undermined regional politicians, including Rashid, since 2019 and the vote for Rashid indicated disillusionment with the policies of the Modi government.

“The people have given a strong message by choosing Rashid that they aren’t going to appreciate the misuse of agencies in the case of putting politicians behind bars,” said Baba. 

Engineer To Politician

A civil engineer from Srinagar’s Government Polytechnic, Rashid’s first job was junior engineer in the J&K Projects Construction Corporation (JKPCC), a semi-government construction corporation.

Keen about his profession, his family said, Rashid worked there for 17 years, getting the sobriquet ‘Engineer’. 

Rashid learned the “art of doing the politics” from slain Hurriyat leader and founding president of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples’ Conference, Abdul Gani Lone, said Tahir Mohiuddin, editor of the daily Chattan. 

Lone, considered a moderate among Kashmiri separatists, was assassinated on 21 May 2002 in Eidgah, Srinagar by unknown gunmen. 

“Rashid was a worker of Abdul Gani Lone and worked with him for many years,” said Mohiuddin. 

Lone’s son Sajjad—whom Rashid defeated in the 2024 elections—took over the party. Sajjad fell out with Rashid after his father was killed, unable to agree with his brand of politics, said observers, which thrived on controversial or extreme political positions.

After becoming MLA, Rashid led numerous rallies in his hometown and confronted the Army and other security forces over alleged excesses, Mohiuddin said. 

“He also spoke about human-rights violations in the J&K assembly, which got him big publicity,” said Mohiuddin.

Another close associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Article 14 that Rashid consistently opposed the Army's alleged practice of forcing locals to work for minimum or no pay. Rashid, according to the associate, was himself once forced into such labour but revolted. 

“He often had heated arguments with security forces and led several rallies against them in Handwara,” said Mohiuddin. “That kind of politics made him popular among people”. 

Rashid was roughed-up by security forces on multiple occasions and was suspended five times from service by the government.

An Advocate Of ‘Self-Determination’

In 2008, Rashid resigned from the JKPCC and successfully contested Assembly elections from the Langate assembly constituency, kickstarting his political career. 

In 2014, Rashid won again. In the 2019 parliamentary elections for the Baramulla seat, Rashid got more than 100,000 votes but lost to the NC’s Akbar Lone. 

In the J&K assembly, Rashid frequently caused disruptions and protested against the government's decisions and policies. He often raised issues of alleged human rights abuses by the armed forces and advocated resolving the issue of Kashmir through the “right to self-determination”.

“His brand of politics was different from other politicians of Kashmir,” said Mohiuddin, the aide quoted earlier. “He was very connected with his people and he would talk about issues that would touch a nerve among people.” 

Rashid had no security and lived modestly before he was arrested. He wore a plain, pathan suit and engaged directly with the community, meeting farmers, students, youth and women on streets, in public transport and in shops.

On 7 October 2015, Rashid hosted a "beef party" at the MLA Hostel in Srinagar, just a day before the former J&K assembly was set to discuss a bill that aimed to repeal the law prohibiting bovine slaughter and beef sales in the region. The bill did not pass because of opposition from the BJP, which was a coalition partner of the PDP.

“He always remained in news due to his politics,” says Noor Mohammad Baba, a political science professor and Kashmiri political commentator. 

The next day he was attacked by BJP MLAs in the assembly. A week later, members of the Hindu extremist Hindu Sena threw ink on Rashid in New Delhi for organising the beef party. 

A Secessionist Or A Nationalist? 

On 9 August 2019, the NIA arrested Rashid after first summoning him to New Delhi. He had previously been questioned in the case related to “funding terrorism” in 2017, the first mainstream politician arrested by the NIA in the case.

According to the NIA chargesheet, Rashid was arrested for being a part of a “conspiracy” related to “secessionist and terrorist activities” in J&K, propagating the “ideology of separatism and secessionism” and providing “sustenance and cover to the members of various terrorist gangs and militants”.

“He has been very closely associated with various terrorist organisations,” reads the chargesheet. “In the year 2015, Rashid was arrested by Special Operations Group (SOG), Srinagar, for supporting militants.” 

Investigation has also “established” that during the summer unrest of 2016 Rashid “actively participated” in “anti-national activities along with other accused persons”, says the NIA chargesheet. 

“These protests were spearheaded by the (sic) Hurriyat leaders and funded by Pakistani agencies,” the chargesheet says.

The NIA's investigation alleged that Rashid had close ties with "hawala conduit" Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, a reference to a man accused of laundering foreign exchange, and was involved in “promoting secessionist ideology in the Valley and supporting terrorists and terrorist activities”.

On 27 April 2024, ‘Engineer’ Rashid was allowed to contest elections by a special NIA court in New Delhi. This photo was taken in Tihar Jail (where he is chief librarian, according to his sons) for use in his nomination form/ ABRAR RASHID

The NIA alleges that Rashid sought to legitimise the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of anti-India militant groups in the Kashmir Valley and owes allegiance to Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a UN-designated global terrorist

The NIA accuses Rashid of "glorifying terrorists", such as Afzal Guru and Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, both hanged in New Delhi's Tihar Jail—Guru on 9 February 2013, and Bhat on 11 February 1984. Both are buried within the Tihar Jail premises. 

“By glorifying the terrorists, accused Er. Rashid, along with other accused persons, not only gave impetus to terrorist activities, but also motivated and inspired the youth to join the ranks of terrorist organisations who have waged a war against the Government of India,” reads the chargesheet. 

The NIA accuses Rashid of “verbally” attacking the Indian Army, justifying the display of Pakistani flags by protesters in the Kashmir Valley and claims it has “established” that he has “receiving funds from places including but not limited to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UK etc”.

Rashid is part of a “well-calibrated strategy” evolved by the Pakistani establishment and secessionists to project terrorist acts and killings as 'political struggle', according to the NIA. 

‘A True Nationalist’

Rashid’s family denied the charges against him, saying he was a “true nationalist”. 

“He contested elections during periods of peak militancy and widespread election boycotts,” said Abrar. “How can he be a separatist?” 

Khursheed Ahmad, Rashid’s younger brother, said he wanted people to rise above “boycott politics”. 

“These allegations are vague and lack substance,” said Ahmad.

‘Engineer’ Rashid’s family after election results on 6 June 2024 at the family home in Mawar village, north Kashmir. From left: brother Khursheed Ahmad , younger son Asrar and older son Abrar/ AUQIB JAVEED

Abrar argued that if he was a secessionist and anti-national, he would not have persuaded more than 3,000 youth to take an oath not to attack security forces with stones during the summer unrest of 2010.

“The oath was taken in front of three interlocutors,” said Abrar. “He always chose non-violent means to address issues, that too within the ambit of Indian constitution.” 

In October 2010, New Delhi appointed a group of three interlocutors to hold a dialogue with the people of Kashmir after six months of unrest led to the death of 110 people, mostly in firing by security forces.

The interlocutors include the late journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, former information commissioner M M Ansari, and Radha Kumar, trustee of the Delhi Policy Group, a think tank.

Abrar said that if his father was “anti-national”, he would not have gone without a single police case between 2008, when he first contested elections, and 2019.

“Rashid saab contested elections when regional parties boycotted local bodies elections in 2018,” said his brother Ahmad. “Now they are labelling him a secessionist and separatist because they cannot accept defeat.” 

That Rashid excites extreme feelings was made evident when a controversy arose after the website The Print on 5 June 2024 ran a commentary that called him a “secessionist” and a “spokesman” of stone pelters. 

“Rashid’s victory, without doubt, will empower secessionists, and give Kashmir’s defeated Islamist movement a renewed sense of hope,” wrote journalist and security analyst Praveen Swami. 

The commentary was shared by former chief minister Abdullah on his X handle, but criticised him for “endorsing” it and not accepting defeat “gracefully”. 

Bhasin, the Kashmir Times editor, said some “liberal voices” in India viewed every independent voice in Kashmir with suspicion. 

“While these people have liberal views on other issues, when it comes to Kashmir, they have always seen it in a very ultra-nationalist perspective,” said Bhasin. “Even though there is a terror case against Rashid he hasn’t been convicted yet. The article was in very bad taste.” 

‘A Half Victory’

Legal experts said that Indian law does not explicitly prohibit undertrials from contesting elections. Under the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, only those who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to at least two years in prison are disqualified. 

Rashid’s counsel advocate Vikhyat Oberoi told Article 14 that they had approached the special NIA court in New Delhi, where Rashid is due to be tried, for interim bail so he could take oath as MP. The court will hear the bail plea on 18 June.

Oberoi said that Rashid could take oath, as he was an undertrial and not a convict. “We are first focusing on the oath-taking, then we will decide further,” he said. 

The family regarded the electoral triumph as a “half” victory. They said they worried if the head of the family and representative of thousands would be released.

“Let’s hope for the best,” said Abrar. 

(Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir.)

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