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Women's bill holds the key to Kashmir by-polls

By Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar
Last updated on: September 11, 2004 19:38 IST
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After its defeat on the floor of the state legislature, the controversial Women's Rights Bill is slated to become a major election issue in Jammu and Kashmir as the two principal alliance partners in the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led coalition government -- the Congress and the People's Democratic Party -- brace for by-elections in four assembly seats.

The Congress, which played a major role in defeating the bill on the floor of the legislative assembly, has decided to convert it into a poll plank in the Jammu region. Mounting opposition had forced the party to retreat from supporting the bill in the upper house though party MLAs had initially supported it in the lower house.

The Congress strategy became clear when its rank and file in Jammu organised a commendation meeting for Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma who had played a lead role in getting the bill defeated on the floor of the house.

For the Congress, opposition to the bill will come in handy during the poll campaign for two assembly seats that go to polls in Jammu next month. The seats were vacated by senior Congress MLAs Chowdhary Lal Singh and Madan Lal Sharma after their election to Parliament.

The bill's defeat came as a rude jolt to the PDP's expectations and strained relations between the two coalition partners.

The PDP is preparing to use local sentiments that favoured the bill's passage to back its candidates in the two assembly seats of Batmaloo and Pahalgam in the Valley. The Batamaloo seat fell vacant due to the death of senior National Conference leader Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Shah, who was also the leader of the opposition in the state assembly. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti resigned the Pahalgam seat after winning a parliamentary seat from Anantnag constituency in south Kashmir.

The Congress has already taken the position that it had opposed the bill as it was strongly "gender biased" against women. Refusing to be cornered because it could not pass the bill, the PDP has stated that it would revive the bill in the next session of the state legislature.

"The two alliance partners are bent upon keeping the issue somehow alive and deriving political mileage from the resulting public sentiment," a political observer noted. "Ironically, the sentiments against the bill in the Jammu region will be used by the Congress to further the electoral prospects of its candidates in forthcoming assembly by-elections while the PDP will use pro-bill sentiments in the valley to the advantage of its candidates in the elections."

Electoral compulsions apart, the two major alliance partners in the fragile coalition had moved further apart after acrimonious debates over the controversial bill. 

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Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar