A prominent separatist leader in Indian Kashmir said he will run in the upcoming general elections. He will be the first senior separatist leader to take part in elections since 1989, when a separatist struggle erupted in India's only Muslim majority region.
Sajjad Gani Lone, the leader of the People's Conference, a separatist party in Indian Kashmir, said he is taking part in the upcoming polls so that he can carry the struggle of the Kashmiri people to parliament in New Delhi.
He made the announcement in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, on Saturday.
"I want to make it very clear that I have not changed my ideology. I still believe that a lasting solution is when you fulfill the aspirations of the people of Kashmir. It is a change of strategy, not that of ideology," he said.
Lone's announcement marks a major departure from the consistent refusal by separatist leaders and groups in Kashmir to take part in elections in the region since 1989, saying that participating in the polls would amount to accepting New Delhi's rule in Kashmir.
However, separatist leaders were taken by surprise last year when Kashmiris ignored their poll boycott call, and turned out in huge numbers to vote in state elections.
Several political analysts said Lone's decision is influenced by the high voter turnout in those elections, which many say signaled that separatists were out of step with ordinary people in the state.
However, separatists argue that people had simply voted for better governance, and did not endorse Indian rule. This time also, the main separatist alliance in Kashmir, the Hurriyat Conference has decided to stay away from the polls.
Lone said his decision to take part in elections does not alter his commitment to the aspirations of Kashmiris to decide their political future.
"I am going to represent Kashmir in India, not India in Kashmir," he said.
Political analysts say a victory for Lone in the upcoming elections could pave the way for other separatist leaders and groups to enter the electoral fray. This could be a gain for India, which has been urging separatist leaders to take part in mainstream politics.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir. Many want independence from India, while some groups favor its merger with Pakistan. Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan.