A small number of Kashmiris have joined India's ruling party but most Kashmiris fear the threat it poses.
They visit Sufi shrines to seek blessings from Muslim saints, eat beef dishes from roadside stalls, and their posters have a green background instead of the traditional saffron - The Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has a very different face in Kashmir.
The party known for its aggressive stance on Kashmir, is adopting Islamic imagery in an attempt to woo locals in the restive region for India’s parliamentary elections.
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, the party has come to embody the fears of India’s minority Muslim population, nowhere more than the majority-Muslim region of Kashmir, where over 70,000 people have been killed in three decades of conflict.
Nationally the party is accused of inciting violence against Muslims, while in Kashmir, the party’s manifesto calls for the removal of Article 370 and the Article 35A; two constitutional clauses, which prevent Indian citizens who are not from Kashmir from settling in the area permanently and acquiring property.
The articles make sure that the demographic balance of the region remains the same. In Kashmir, however, the party is keen to stress that nothing will change the status-quo.
The man leading the BJP charge in Kashmir, is 42-year-old Khalid Jahangir, who joined the party in 2014, and is its candidate for the Srinagar constituency, which will vote on April 18.
“Campaigning is difficult because people do not welcome us,” he told TRT World.
“All mainstream parties in Kashmir are seen as sinister, it is not only BJP,” he rushed to add quickly after.
“When I go to people, mainstream politics is hated. People dislike us. There is a lot of anger,” he said.
There’s no escaping the fact that for many Kashmiri’s, the BJP is an anti-Muslim party. In order to counter that impression the BJP’s Kashmiri candidates have gone to great lengths to stress their Muslim heritage.
Jahangir visited the Sufi shrine, Charar-e-Sharief, in central Kashmir to seek the blessing of a saint before starting his campaign, and after campaigning ended on April 16, he was seen eating meat at a roadside stall in Lal Chowk, the commercial hub of the main city, where vendors are believed to sell beef.
To the same end, the party’s national platform is not spoken about, but instead conversations with the electorate revolve around issues of development, roads, jobs, and programmes for the poor.
There are a myriad reasons why Kashmiris would sign up for a party, which on the national level, incites against their state and religion.
But for those willing to explain their reasons for doing so to TRT World, personal vendettas and poverty featured prominently.
Muhammad Maqbool War joined the BJP in Kashmir in 1994 and was one of its first local candidates.
“The conflict broke out in Kashmir in the 1990s, and when it was at an early stage my father was killed by militants because he was a police sub-inspector” War explained, continuing:
“It created fear among us, it really affected me...I shifted to Delhi to save myself and my family.
“From there my BJP journey began,” he said.
War said that in 1996, the BJP sent him to Kashmir to fight the election in north Kashmiri hometown of Baramulla.
“I started an office in Baramulla. I fought elections in 1999, 2002, 2006, 2008 and many others. And today, this is my 11th election.”
“The agenda of BJP in Kashmir is development; to bring rail, tunnels to connect villages, to end poverty. We want development, only development,” War said.
“We don’t need any solution for Kashmir. There is no dispute, we only need to remove poverty”.
On the BJP’s promise to revoke the special laws protecting the state, War said the BJP would have made a move in their first term in office if they were serious about the threat.
Unlike most other parties, however, the BJP in Kashmir is adamant on stressing the importance of integration with India.
“Kashmir is the crown of India and people have accepted BJP in the region,” said Sofi Yusuf, a local BJP leader, who is contesting elections in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency.
A vast majority of Kashmiris are not buying that message.
Fewer than 100 people attended a BJP rally in Baramulla, which was attended by the BJP’s former deputy Chief Minister of the region, Nirmal Singh, as well as War. Baramulla has 1.3 million registered voters.
Those who did attend hid their faces to protect their identity from journalists.
The situation is similar across Kashmir - those campaigning for the BJP don’t want to flaunt their ties to the party.
“The BJP is hated more than any other party in Kashmir,” said one party workers at an election rally in Srinagar, continuing: “But I’m a poor man and I’ve been told that if we take part in the election and these rallies, we will be benefit so that’s why I am here."
The man refused to be photographed or even identified.
Regardless, the BJP still claims to have roughly 430,000 supporters in the region.
‘Forcing itself on Kashmir’
Despite the BJP’s self-aggrandising, academic Siddiq Wahid, said an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris were well aware of their agenda.
“I don’t think the BJP is gaining any ground. It is forcing itself on Kashmir. It was given a place, a foothold on Kashmir but now it is forcing itself,” Wahid said, adding:
“Whoever votes this time is going to be doubly cautious to keep the BJP out. The people know how much damage BJP can do without even being in power here.”
The academic put the BJP’s limited success in convincing a few Kashmiris to join its ranks was mainly due to its ability to provide money and power, but he said even that tactic has its limitations, arguing the party had not even kept its developmental promises in mainland India.
“In India itself, with a population of one billion they have been talking development and what we have seen in terms of development is zero,” he said
“When they have miserably failed in India, how are they going to succeed in Kashmir?”
With such negative feeling about the BJP so widespread, it will take a lot more than changing the colour of their flag from saffron to green, to convince more Kashmiris to join their cause.
“The saffron of the BJP turns green when it reaches Kashmir. I’m not sure whether the party truly believes it can fool voters when it makes a fool of itself like this. Why can’t they show their true colors while campaigning in the Valley?” The former Chief Minister of the region Omar Abdullah said on twitter.