Granddaughter’s defence

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Akbar Jehan presenting a bouquet to her husband Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah after the announcement of his release on April 8, 1964. Abdullah's daughter, Khalida Shah, and son, Farooq Abdullah, are also seen. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mahatma Gandhi flanked by Akbar Jahan and Khallida in Srinagar. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU

A lyrical account of the personality of Akbar Jehan and her role in the socio-political struggle in Kashmir.

NYLA ALI KHAN’S latest book, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, is a valuable addition to the history of Kashmir, coming as it does at a crucial juncture of the region’s politics. The book is not just a biography of Begum Akbar Jehan; but the author situates her grandmother’s story in the context of the political turbulence that saw the awakening of Kashmiri society. Notwithstanding the fact that the author has made every effort to defend Akbar Jehan and her illustrious husband Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the Prime Minister of Kashmir, it takes the lid off the life of a woman who dominated the political scene of the region for many decades.

The biographical sketch is heavily laden with theoretical expressions of political thinkers. However, Nyla Ali Khan brings out the essential elements of her grandmother’s personality. She describes her grandmother as a woman who emerged as a symbol of resilience and resistance at a time when she was subjected to tyrannical treatment by the government. Akbar Jehan’s political journey began with that of Sheikh Abdullah, who was the first to raise the banner of revolt against the Dogra monarchy. But today the share of women in the political space of Jammu and Kashmir is negligible. Only two women were elected to the 87-member State Assembly in 2008. Akbar Jehan’s appearance on the political scene in a male-dominated society speaks about her grit and competence. The book breaks the myth that Akbar Jehan was married to Lawrence of Arabia before her marriage to Sheikh Abdullah and provides important details about how she virtually replaced Sheikh Abdullah in leading the people during his incarceration. The book can be described as an authentic account of the subject’s personality as the author was witness to some of the important events during her childhood.

The author has enriched the content with the accounts by her mother, maternal uncle and a cousin. What is missing is an account by Akbar Jehan’s son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah, the former and current Chief Minister of the State respectively. The two are important inheritors of the political legacy that Akbar Jehan shaped. According to the author, Akbar Jehan was on the side of Farooq when it came to the question of stepping into the shoes of Sheikh Abdullah, both as a political leader and as the head of the government, in 1982. Farooq’s insight into his mother’s life would have added credence and flavour to the story of Akbar Jehan, which the author is trying to project more as a piece of history rather than as a biography.

The book is an effort to reconstruct the historical perils the State has seen since the time of the first rebellion aimed at winning political freedom for the people. The author bestows a central place to Akbar Jehan by revolving the socio-political struggle around her and Sheikh Abdullah. “The deprivation that Akbar Jehan and her children were subjected to in the Sheikh’s long absence and isolation that they were condemned to might have discouraged, even distressed some, but Akbar Jehan did not cringe,” she writes. Akbar Jehan was the powerful trooper, the silent force that kept the flag flying, while the leaders of the Plebiscite Front, such as Sheikh Abdullah and Mirza Afzal Beg, were shunted from one jail to another.

The author probably owes it to her grandmother to counter the narrative that has dominated the political sphere. Sheikh Abdullah and his family have been seen by many Kashmiris as a tool of distraction as far as the movement for political rights is concerned. Sheikh’s incarceration and the years he spent in political wilderness is not taken into account in today’s political discourse in Kashmir. Instead, he is seen as a “traitor”. The adieu he bid to resistance politics in 1975 by entering into an accord with Indira Gandhi is used the final yardstick for measuring his sincerity towards Kashmir. However, the author defends him saying, “I am of the firm opinion that in 1975 the Sheikh was faced with a choice that any statesman would dread having to face.” At the same time, she admits that Sheikh Abdullah committed political hara-kiri.

While Nyla Ali Khan is all praise for her grandmother, she fails to counter the public perceptions about Akbar Jehan. B.N. Mullick, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, in his book My Y ears with Nehru-Kashmir , projects Akbar Jehan as the main “beneficiary” of funds that flowed from Paksitan to the Plebiscite Front from 1954. Nyla Ali Khan tries to defend Akbar Jehan by saying that it was a conspiracy hatched by the Government of India to defame her. Similarly, in his book My years with Sheikh Abdullah, Ghulam Ahmad, who served as Principal Secretary to Sheikh Abdullah when he came to power in 1977, accuses Akbar Jehan of forcing her husband to allow corruption, nepotism and favouritism. On this, too, Nyla Ali Khan is silent.

Nevertheless, The Life of a Kashmir Woman not only opens a window to the unheard side of Akbar Jehan but inspires a debate on the personalities who shaped the struggle for women’s empowerment. Akbar Jehan’s role as a path-breaker for women in Kashmir society, at a time when women did not even dare look out of their windows into the streets, is clear. The lyrical style of the author has added to the brilliance of this account.