Mansoor Ahmed stretches on a plastic chair on the porch of a partially burnt house deserted by its Hindu owner, asserting, "Whatever SP [Superintendent of Police] sahib tells us to do, we will do."
It is a statement that rings warning bells in the minds of opposition candidates, independent observers and most commoners, as Jammu and Kashmir steps closer to the first phase of the assembly election.
Ahmed isn't a policeman. But he has weapons, and thus enormous clout in the Kashmir Valley.
While militant groups remain a threat to free and fair polls in the state, the challenge posed by a few thousand Ikhwans (militants-turned-counterinsurgents) isn't any less.
The renegades are a product of a mid-90s' shoddy strategy for short-term gains and Ahmed is one of them.
State election commission and senior police officers say they won't be allowed to disrupt the polls. However, opposition leaders and common people don't agree.
Liaqat Ali Khan, former chief of the Ikhwans and currently a candidate from the Anantnag constituency, has a solution: "Lock the renegades at least a day before the polls... and release them only after the polls are over."
Coming from Khan, a man who still commands a sizeable following among them, these words mean a lot. It points to the enormous influence and nuisance value these former militants have.
In recent years, Ikhwans have allegedly carried out many heinous crimes, including murder and extortion.
They became an organised force sometime in the mid-90s when a large number of militants belonging to the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon surrendered.
They were later inducted into state defence committees and made counterinsurgents. Kukka Parray, currently a legislator, is the most famous of them.
About a couple of years back, Javed Shah, who is contesting the polls on a National Conference ticket from Bandipora, engineered a split in the Ikhwan ranks and helped form the National Defence Force. While the Ikhwans work with the army, the NDF works with the police.
Khan, who stays in a government bungalow with ten guards on duty, is a candidate for the J&K Awami League of Parray. He says he stopped being a full time Ikhwan in 1996, when he became an active politician.
"I want this election to be free and fair. Let people reject me, I will accept it. But it should free and fair in all its spirit," he says.
He says while he was a renegade in 1996, National Conference leader, "including Farooq Abdullah", had asked him to "rig the elections" several times.
Khan says though he is no more an armed Ikhwan, "there is a lot that I can do, but I won't do it because I believe democracy is a must for a clean government in the state".
The NDF, and not the Ikhwans, are a threat to the elections, Khan says.
A few metres away from Khan's house, sitting on the porch of a partially burnt house, NDF members have a slightly different story to tell.
They claim that they are "part of the SOG" [Special
Operations Group], the anti-militancy wing of the state police.
They say they are not with the National Conference, but admit that they will do what the police tell them to.
Paid Rs3,500 per month, the NDF members seem to be a happy lot. Several of them now occupy houses vacated by Kashmiri pandits, who fled the state more than a decade ago.
There are several allegations against the NDF.
A few months back when the house of Mohammed Hussain Karpuri, a Peoples Democratic Party leader in Anantnag, was burnt down, he blamed the NDF for it.
One of NDF's senior commanders, Mohammed Ashraf Wani alias Masrat Bilal, was seen accompanying NC candidate Dr Mehboob Beg in Anantnag town on Thursday, Khan said.
The NDF members say Bilal is no more part of their group.
Jammu and Kashmir Elections 2002: The complete coverage
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