Kashmirs hero

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

WHAT is lately being referred to as the first family of Jammu and Kashmir was not so until two generations ago. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah (1905-1982), the grandfather of Omar Abdullah, the present Chief Minister of the State, came from a humble background, led a difficult childhood, and moved ahead in his personal and political life by sheer hard work and pragmatism.

Ajit Bhattacharjea has done a commendable biography of the Sheikh which focusses on the political life of the towering leader, who led a mass movement in Kashmir in the 1930s and 1940s with a secular and progressive agenda. The Sheikh was the dominant political figure in the State for nearly half a century. His was an eventful political life: arrests, confinement, banishment, relegation to political wilderness, and rise to the prime ministership and chief ministership of the State. In all, he spent nearly 17 years in prison.

First, Maharaja Hari Singh arrested him for waging war against the state as he was engaged in a mass struggle against the feudal order. In 1953, when he was the Prime Minister of the State, he was arrested again on the charges of carrying out anti-national activities and conspiring for an independent Kashmir, which were never proved. In this case, which came to be called the Kashmir Conspiracy, it was alleged that Abdullah was on the verge of meeting a Pakistani spy in Tangmarg. In the earlier instance of arrest, by Hari Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru supported the Sheikhs cause and worked towards getting him released. In the latter instance, the Sheikh believed, Nehru was complicit in his arrest. He was incarcerated in the jails of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), Kodaikanal, Udhampur and Kud.

There were pacts such as the Delhi Agreement with Nehru and the Kashmir Accord with Indira Gandhi, which became reference points for negotiations on the extent of autonomy that the Sheikh had envisaged for the State at the time of accession. He remained at the administrative helm of the State from October 1947 to August 1953, first as the Head of Emergency Administration (until March 5, 1948) and later as Prime Minister.

On August 9, 1953, his government was dismissed and he was arrested. He was externed from Kashmir in 1971 and was allowed back only in 1972. He was again the Chief Minister of the State from 1977 until his death in 1982. He was, however, at the centre of political developments whether in or out of power. Called Sher-i-Kashmir affectionately, he stayed a secularist until the end.

The Sheikhs life was intertwined with the politics of the State for nearly half a century. He returned to Kashmir in 1930, after getting an M.Sc. degree in chemistry from Aligarh Muslim University. He wanted to go to England for higher studies and applied for a scholarship to the State government. He was denied the scholarship as he was 24 years old. He considered this yet another evidence of discrimination by the Maharaja. He then settled for a schoolteachers job.

The Sheikh played a pioneering role in mobilising opinion against the oppression and discrimination of the Dogra rulers in Kashmir in the earlier decades of the 20th century. Before the 1930s, the process of political mobilisation in Kashmir was driven by communal identities: Kashmiri Pandits, Hindu Dogras, Kashmiri Muslims, all had separate associations to put forward their demands. These community-based programmes laid emphasis on jobs, religious practices of individual communities, and dealing with religion-based discrimination.

There were several types of protest movements such as campaigns against the Dogra rulers by the Gilgit and Poonch principalities; protests by the shawl weavers and the landless labourers who were forced into beggary; conflict over religious places; and campaigns for increased participation of the Muslim community in the affairs of the state. All these spontaneous struggles eventually formalised into a long-drawn struggle against the oppressive rule of the Dogras. From 1930, educated Muslims started debating issues that adversely impacted their social and economic condition and sought to ameliorate it. As a result, the Reading Room Party, a cell in Fatehkadal in Srinagar, was set up by these people with the Sheikh as the secretary.

At a meeting in Jammu in June 1931, the Sheikh made his maiden speech explaining the reasons for the backwardness of the Muslim community. The dominant rhetoric of these meetings was religious as the community felt threatened by the Hindu ruler and by the sectarian mobilisation of the Pandit community in Kashmir and the Hindus in Jammu. The attention that these protest meetings received from Muslims outside the State led to increased repression by the State administration.

The Sheikhs contribution in changing the direction and character of the Muslim Conference, which was renamed National Conference, is well documented. The formation of the All India Jammu & Kashmir National Conference in June 1939 under the Sheikhs leadership led to a transformation in the thrust of the political movement against the Dogra rule. The Muslim Conference was later revived by Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas. He supported the Maharaja in not aligning with the Indian Union at the time of Partition.

The political sagacity of the Sheikh is evident in the manner in which he formalised the campaigns and programmes of the party for mass mobilisation. The Naya Kashmir Manifesto, as it became known, was adopted by the National Conference in August 1945.

It had an inclusive charter for social change with emphasis on equal rights for women, the right to education and the right to work, among other progressive measures.

The most radical measure was the abolition of landlordism and the distribution of land to the tiller. He argued that such a progressive agenda could be implemented only by overthrowing the feudal order. The Quit Kashmir slogan became a potent movement, which kept large sections of people from all faiths together during the prolonged struggle. The Sheikh had to struggle against supporters of the Muslim Conference in Kashmir, the Muslim League in the rest of India, and sectarian Hindu associations within and outside the State.

The affinity between the Sheikh and Nehru as well as between the National Conference and the Indian National Congress developed as the struggle against the Maharaja drew support from the latter. At the Karachi session of the All India States Peoples Conference in 1935, the Congress declared that it would support the freedom movement of the people of the princely states unlike the Muslim League, which supported the rulers of the these states, including the Maharaja of Kashmir. Mohammed Ali Jinnah condemned the Quit Kashmir movement, while Nehru supported it.

The Congress accepted the Sheikh as the true representative of the people of the princely state. Balraj Puri, the writer and human rights activist, points out that the Sheikh received loud applause when he declared at public meetings that Pakistan was an enemy of Kashmir as it had tried to enslave it through force, whereas India was its friend, and that the Indian Army had come to defend its freedom.

The Sheikh was treated like a hero by Nehru through the 1940s. He was considered a beacon of secular politics by Nehru and Gandhi in 1947. According to Bhattacharjea, Nehru and the Sheikh reinforced each others faith in the secular and progressive ideology. However, within five years, doubts about the Sheikhs loyalty to India were raised and Nehru increasingly gave in to the opinions of those opposed to the Sheikhs politics. As the Sheikh implemented land reforms, the landed class, both in Jammu and Kashmir, went against him.

It was easy to colour this event as communal since most of the landowning population was Hindu and the poor peasantry, who got the land, was Muslim. As anger against the distribution of land mounted, Nehru advised the Sheikh to avoid provoking Jammu and Dogra sentiments in decisions concerning the sequestration of excess land and Hari Singhs orchards (page 172).

The Sheikh was dismayed at the anti-Muslim riots that took place in Jammu in 1947-48. He held the Maharaja responsible for the murder of hundreds of Muslims. He often pointed out that while he and his party maintained communal harmony in Kashmir, the Maharaja and his wife incited communal violence in Jammu. The Sheikhs protests against the riots annoyed the Maharaja. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Home Minister, sympathised with the Maharaja and gave a communal turn to the statements made and the measures taken by the Sheikh.

According to B.N. Mullick, the intelligence chief, Sardar Patel did not trust the Sheikh and maintained that [Abdullahs] antipathy to the Maharaja was not really an antipathy to the ruler as such, but to the Dogras in general and with the Dogras he identified the rest of the majority community in India (page 185).

The mobilisation by Hindu hardliners against the special status of the State was spearheaded by the Praja Parishad and supported by the Jan Sangh. The agitation became a galvanising force against the Sheikh. As the Praja Parishad started its campaign against the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, Nehru described the agitation as a subversive movement of the most reactionary communal type.

In another note to the Home Ministry in January 1953, Nehru showed that he was aware that communal organisations like the Jan Sangh, RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and Akali Dal [would] create trouble in Delhi on the basis of the Jammu Parishad agitation (page 172). The demand for complete integration of the State with India by the Praja Parishad and the Jan Sangh was made on purely communal grounds.

The Sheikhs belief in a plebiscite and, pending that, the special status of the relationship of the State with India was further strengthened by the intensity of the agitation led by the Praja Parishad, the Jan Sangh and the RSS. In his much-quoted speech at Ransinghpura, he raised the issue of the hold of communal forces on politics in the country and the difficulty of the Muslim-majority State to function effectively under the increasingly communal atmosphere. Hence he advocated even more strongly the proposal for greater autonomy for the State.

His proposals varied from complete independence to United Nations trusteeship for 10 years to detailed district wise suggestions for separating an independent Kashmir from Jammu and Ladakh that would remain with India. Kashmir would consist of Uri, Titwal, Gurais, Zojila, Tragbal and the Jammu side of Ramban (Doda District) (page 174).

What disheartened the Sheikh was the lack of will on the part of Nehru to commit himself to his earlier promises of plebiscite and autonomy and his inability to contain the campaign launched by the Hindu hardliners. After 1950, as forces opposed to him and his progressive policies were consolidating their position, the Sheikh was reviled as anti-national, pro-Pakistan and even communal in the Indian Parliament and the press (page 170).

With the former Maharajas son, Karan Singh, as the Sadar-i-Riyasat and Sardar Patel as the Home Minister at the Centre, the Sheikh became a victim of conspiracies to oust him from his position of leadership. Mullick imported suspicion and a tinge of communalism into his interpretation of Abdullahs actions and speeches, eventually compiling the charges required to justify arresting the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir(page 185).

Bhattacharjea gives details of the Sheikhs arrest at midnight on August 9, 1953, in Gulmarg. He highlights the role played by Mullick and Sardar Patel in undermining the Sheikhs position with the central political leadership.

Nehru made it clear that he thought that the Sheikh was confused. He wrote to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, My fear is that Sheikh Sahib, in his present state of mind, is likely to do something or take some step, which might make things worse (page 174).

Subsequent correspondence between Nehru and the Sheikh indicates that Nehru had distanced himself from the Sheikh. In fact, the Sheikh was accused of delaying the implementation of the Delhi Agreement. The bias had reached such proportions that Nehru accepted the suggestion to dismiss the Sheikhs government on the pretext that he had lost the support of his Cabinet, and he was arrested on trumped-up charges. Commentators have termed this as the major rupture in the faith and trust that the Sheikh had placed in Nehru.

Political developments in India after Nehrus death, the creation of Bangladesh and the Simla Agreement made the Sheikh change his demand for a plebiscite to one on the extent of autonomy for the State. He found it difficult to deal with Indira Gandhi, who wanted to strengthen the Congress presence in the State.

On February 25, 1975, the Sheikh was sworn in as Chief Minister of the State, after a gap of nearly 22 years. Though from 1977 to 1980 he had some respite from Indira Gandhis continuous attacks, he realised that the new formation at the Centre was not favourable to his ideals of autonomy. The Hindutva elements of the Jan Sangh in the newly formed Janata Party revived the issue of closer integration with the Indian Union, while Home Minister Charan Singh even favoured abrogation of Article 370 (page 234).

Bhattacharjeas biography of the Sheikh emphasises his belief in secularism and his distrust of the two-nation theory. He had faith in Indian secularism, which was amply articulated in his speech to the Constituent Assembly. It was the short-sighted policies propagated and implemented by the Indian political class that alienated the Sheikh and made him at times difficult to deal with. On the whole, he stayed loyal to the democratic and secular tradition, which he espoused in his earlier years of political mobilisation.

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