Sheikh Abdullah: The controversial Bab of Kashmir

A new perspective on the life of a man who rose from obscurity to become one of Kashmir’s greatest leaders, only to become a casualty of his egomania.

Published : Apr 06, 2024 17:40 IST - 9 MINS READ

Sheikh Abdullah with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India.

Sheikh Abdullah with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

The light of history is pitiless, more so when the figures of history are open to interpretation, sometimes owing to their own incertitude and other times owing to the prejudice of those who represent them. What remains certain is that they are both the products as well as the creators of history. As Herbert Spencer rightly points out: “Before he can make his society, his society must make him.”

Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir
By Chitralekha Zutshi
Fourth Estate India
Pages: 376
Price: Rs.799

The battle lines in Sheikh Abdullah’s life shaped and were in turn shaped by his politics. Dwindling between religion and secularism, India and Pakistan and the exploited and exploiters, they haunted his own politics as also the politics of the subcontinent for generations to come.

Also Read | Jammu & Kashmir: Stories from a region in transition

Chitralekha Zutshi’s biography of Sheikh Abdullah, titled The Caged Lion of Kashmir, adds a new perspective to his life. Before Zutshi, numerous commentators like P.N. Bazaz, Ghulam Rasool Khan, Freda Bedi, Bilques Taseer, Nyla Ali Khan, Ajit Bhattacharya, and Altaf Hussain Parra have written about him. Zutshi borrows from them, contradicts them, and at times reinterprets them according to the new sources she has managed to procure and often according to her own understanding of the events surrounding Sheikh’s politics.

Early life

Zutshi gives a lucid introduction to Sheikh Abdullah’s early life. As a lower-middle class Muslim boy, he suffered discrimination because of his religious identity and was also greatly moved by the pitiable conditions of the working class in Kashmir; these invoked a sense of religious and class consciousness in him. Abdullah’s adolescence is presented as a mixture of anticipation and confusion, where he is trying to perceive the events happening locally in Kashmir through the events happening at a larger geopolitical level.

Having completed his education at Lahore and Aligarh, he came into contact with writings of Muhammad Iqbal, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Maulana Zafar Ali Khan. He returned to Kashmir equipped with a multitude of progressive ideas and became part of the reading room party, a small group of educated Muslim youth who would take on the Maharaja in their writings and speeches.

Abdullah “instinctively understood Kashmiris and what they needed”. Zutshi refers to the importance of sacred spaces like mosques and shrines in the Kashmiri consciousness and how Abdullah tried to use these for his political and revolutionary ends. Abdullah started his career from oblivion using Islam as a political idiom and in a few years became an undisputed leader of Kashmiris by appealing to their religious sensitivities. His “melodious multilingual oratory” struck the chords by giving voice to the voiceless, who had suffered under the yoke of exploitation and poverty for decades. Initially, taking on the role of a spiritual head with a political message, he drew masses into the religio-political fold that interwove Islamic rhetoric with Iqbal’s poetic vision of sacrifice, defiance and justice. Abdullah became the Bab (father) of Kashmiri masses.

According to Zutshi, “Abdullah tried to conjure up the Kashmir nation by deftly weaving together existent ideas about Kashmir in its own narrative tradition as an exceptional space (watan) with ideas borrowed from Indian nationalism.”

Heavily influenced by Nehru and largely led by his advisor P.N. Bazaz, Abdullah’s politics shuttled between him being a Kashmiri Muslim and an Indian nationalist. These deep divides within his personality grew stark and later played an enduring role in rendering Jammu and Kashmir into a battleground between India and Pakistan. These years are the most illustrative if examined from the perspective of the dissonance within Abdullah’s political personality, something that the author does impeccably.

Zutshi seems to have made up her mind regarding Abdullah’s inferiority complex and believes it compelled him to rub shoulders with Congress leaders. He would take on Nehru as his political and ideological guru to pacify his insecurities—a decision that would soon change the whole course of (All Jammu and Kashmir) Muslim Conference (MC) politics. The inferiority complex and the dissonance are a constant theme in the biography.

Zutshi often digresses from the main theme of her book to less important details like the execution of street control by the National Conference (NC) through G.M. Bakshi; first through street gangs like Jumakhers and Maisuma regiment and later through powerful organisations of enterprising classes. However, later these small details help the reader to understand the workings of the NC once in government and how these groups were used to silence political and ideological adversaries.

After the conversion of the MC to NC, Abdullah developed a strong pro-communist disposition which clearly reflected in his associations with communist leaders like B.P.L. Bedi, Freda Bedi, M.D. Taseer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The historical Naya Kashmir Manifesto was greatly inspired by a similar document drafted by Stalin for the Soviet Union. At the same time, Abdullah encouraged anti-communist factions in NC and closely stuck to his pseudo-religious persona. He would praise Jinnah and criticise him as being a “capitalist” in the same breath. He came to nationalism from the perspective of his homeland Kashmir, dreaming it as an auxiliary to, but at the same time something entirely distinct from, the nationalism of the Indian National Congress. With every passing moment his confusion only deepened.

After being convicted for the Quit Kashmir case, Abdullah was jailed for three-and-a-half years, disconnecting him from the momentous happenings in the outside world. During these years, Begum Abdullah came out of purdah to take on a political role and became Abdullah’s only trustworthy link to the NC machinery. After his release from jail, Abdullah was taken aback by the latest developments, including the partition of British India. He could not relate to the new state of affairs which had raised some serious political questions for the future of Kashmir. He went on to meet his close associates for clarifications and advice. Zutshi refers to such meetings between Abdullah and his associates such as Mufti Jalaluddin and Ghulam Ahmad Ashai where various political possibilities were discussed; but he was to act on his own.

Sheikh Abdullah, Prime Minister and one of the representatives of Jammu and Kashmir, being sworn in as a member of the Constituent Assembly of India at New Delhi, on June 16, 1949.

Sheikh Abdullah, Prime Minister and one of the representatives of Jammu and Kashmir, being sworn in as a member of the Constituent Assembly of India at New Delhi, on June 16, 1949. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Abdullah decided to join the dominion of India in 1947 as the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He had united a community searing under divisions and differences, but once in power, he amplified those divisions to consolidate his own political hegemony. Sheikh Abdullah became the party and the party became the state where anyone with an opinion against NC was shut down or shunned. There was a wave of corruption and nepotism throughout Jammu and Kashmir. Even though he is acknowledged for bringing in land reform policies, the book mentions widespread corruption in implementing the land reforms and their use against political and ideological adversaries.

Zutshi refers to rare archival files, interviews, and opinions of various Western officials, notably J. Wesley Adams, Loy Henderson, and Margeret Lee Weil, on the situation in Kashmir and a growing Western disdain for how things were being handled by Abdullah and his associates.

With the rising Praja Parishad agitations, besides the support of a very few individuals in the Valley, Abdullah was left alone. With his demand for a plebiscite, he also lost the support of his friends in Delhi, who accused Abdullah of meeting Western officials as a part of a conspiracy against India. Abdullah had outlived his usefulness to his trusted friend Nehru who by now had started to rely more on Karan Singh, D.P. Dhar, and Bakshi. Bakshi increased his correspondence with Nehru and appealed to him to take more interventionist steps in Kashmir, leading to Abdullah’s dismissal and incarceration.

Abdullah spent nearly two decades behind bars. In jail, with the help of Afzal Beg and Maulana Masoodi, he founded the All Jammu and Kashmir Plebiscite Front. The book has incisively dissected this phase of Abdullah’s life. Starting from the pirs and sacred spaces that played a significant role in maintaining Abdullah’s presence among the people of Kashmir while he was physically absent, to the letters of notable Kashmiri residents to the US Embassy for his release, Zutshi details it all.

After his release in 1968, Abdullah’s insecurity about losing his primacy rose immensely along with his dissonance and confusion. His relationship with New Delhi grew strained and he would go on to criticise Indian leaders in public while enjoying their proximity in closed spaces. When he was en route to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan, he heard the news of Nehru’s passing away. Zutshi constructs a picturesque image of a devasted Abdullaah with“none paying attention to the tall man, stooping over, crying uncontrollably at his friend’s body. Kashmir’s future [was] going up in flames.”

The years of compromise

Nehru’s death came as a jolt to the already worn-out Abdullah. The decades-long struggle came to an end, with Begum Abdullah convincing him to bury the hatchet so that they could live their lives peacefully. Abdullah approached Indira Gandhi through Beg and Puri with the idea of giving up the plebiscite. This finally led to what would be called the Indira-Abdullah Accord of 1975. Abdullah was given charge of the Pradesh Congress government in Kashmir as its Chief Minister but most of the decisions pertaining to the State would be taken by Centre. He would go on to lead one of the most corrupt and nepotistic, albeit toothless, administrations of his time. An article written in 1976 claimed that Abdullah suffered from “megalomania, a conspiracy complex and a dictator’s sense of insecurity”, which was actually evident in him dismissing his lifelong associates like Afzal Beigh from the party.

Also Read | No, Nehru did not mishandle Kashmir

Abdullah rose from obscurity to become one of the greatest leaders of Kashmir only to end up becoming a casualty of his egomania. His close associates either betrayed him or were ostracised by him for not towing his line of egocentric party politics. Kashmiris who would swear by their Bab were weary of his stupefying nebulosity; and the generations to come, vitriolic about his misadventures.

Viewing sovereignty in terms of personal relationships and not institutions, his image ended becoming that of an Indian proxy among Pakistan’s political elite and a Pakistan-funded disruptionist among Indian politicians—an irony quite succinctly portrayed in the biography.

Khawar Khan Achakzai is a doctor and researcher by profession with a specialisation in Internal Medicine. He is a student of Kashmir history, philosophy, and postcolonialism, with works published in various local and international magazines. He is the founder of Aagosh, a forum that is active against child sexual abuse in Kashmir.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment