Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral in Srinagar in September 1982. Indira Gandhi had been deeply anguished at the Sheikh’s arrest in 1953.
SHEIKH ABDULLAH said at the second session of the Jammu and Kashmir State People’s Convention on June 8, 1970: “The final break in our relations came in 1953 when Pandit Jawaharlal suggested that I should get the accession ratified by the Kashmir Constituent Assembly. This change in his attitude baffled me for he had himself opposed it in the past… I strongly advised him against such a step. This led to my removal from the premiership of the State and long imprisonment without trial.”
New Delhi began moves to bring the rebel to heel. Srinagar began groping for an accord that would confer finality. The Hindu reported on April 27, 1953, that the Sheikh was planning to bring about a federal polity comprising five units – the Valley, Jammu, Ladakh, Poonch and Gilgit – in an “Autonomous Federated Unit of the Republic of India”.
Incidentally, even at the convention in 1970, he scolded a member, Ali Shah, for advocating accession to Pakistan. “He must be prepared to concede the same right to his Hindu neighbour if he believes his salvation lies in joining with India.” There must be no partition: “Kashmir is homeland of us all, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or Buddhists.”
While Jawaharlal Nehru kept pressing Abdullah to “implement” the Delhi Agreement (that is, ratify the accession), Abdullah began consultations on possible solutions transparently. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, D.P. Dhar and G.M. Sadiq kept Nehru informed behind the Sheikh’s back, though their leader himself kept Nehru in the know.
On May 18, 1953, members of the working committee of the National Conference (N.C.) appointed an eight-member committee to explore avenues of a settlement. Its members were Sheikh Abdullah, G.M. Sadiq, Maulana Mohamed Saeed Masoodi, Sardar Budh Singh, Mirza Mohammed Afzal Beg, Pandit Girdharilal Dogra, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and Pandit Shamlal Saraf.
Nehru, who was in Kashmir from May 23 to 25, was fully informed about the deliberations. Here is an extract from the minutes of the committee’s final session held on June 9, 1953. “As a result of the discussions held in the course of various meetings, the following proposals only emerge as possible alternatives for an honourable and peaceful solution of [the] Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan:
(a) Overall plebiscite with conditions as detailed in the minutes of the meeting dated 4th June, 1953 [this, apparently, was a reference to Maulana Masoodi’s suggestion that the choice of independence be offered in the plebiscite]; (b) Independence of the whole State; (c) Independence of the whole State with joint control of foreign affairs; (d) Dixon Plan with independence for the plebiscite area (region-wise disposition of the State).
“Bakshi Saheb was emphatically of the opinion that the proposal (d) above should be put up as first and the only practicable, advantageous and honourable solution of the dispute. Maulana Saeed, however, opined that the order of preference as given above should be adhered to.”
What G.M. Sadiq then said is worth recalling: “If an agency consisting of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Soviet Russia and China could be created to supervise and conduct the plebiscite, I would suggest that we should immediately ask for an overall plebiscite. Failing this, we may ask for a supervision commission representing all the Members of the Security Council for ensuring free and fair plebiscite in the State.” He was close to the Communist Party of India (CPI) and wanted the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to be represented on the commission. Most of the leaders of the N.C. were pro-Left.
KARAN SINGH, AS Sadar-i-Riyasat, administering the oath of office to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir after the elections of 1957.
In June 1953, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad visited Kashmir and was apprised of these developments. Early in July 1953, Nehru was informed about the decision (see Sheikh-Sadiq Correspondence: August-October, 1956, published by Mridula Sarabhai, New Delhi).
Nehru read the minutes and was greatly disturbed by the Sheikh’s attitude. If Bakshi and Sadiq did not worry him with their “emphatic” support for plebiscite, it was because he knew they were dissimulating and playing for time.
An angry correspondence with the Sheikh followed. Sheikh Abdullah’s wanton rudeness to Azad in Srinagar did not help.
A letter which Azad wrote to Abdullah on July 9, 1953, reveals that the Sheikh’s fears were not unfounded after all. He offered to make Article 370 permanent, as if it was not meant to be so, until replaced by a final accord. The Sheikh’s reply of July 16 pointed out that any final settlement required both a Union-Kashmir accord on autonomy and an India-Pakistan accord on the State’s future. “I hope you are not unaware of the fact that even after Delhi Agreement responsible spokesmen of the Government of India declared that their ultimate objective was to secure complete merger of State with India and that they waited for appropriate time and conditions to bring that about. These statements reveal that Delhi Agreements could not provide a basis to finalise relationship between India and Kashmir; but that they provided temporary arrangements to finalise accession. The only difference between the Government of India and different elements in the country on the issue is whether to bring about the merger of the State with India now or after some time…
“I am very happy to hear from you that the Government of India is willing to declare that the special position given to Kashmir will be made permanent and that the Government of India will be bound by it without any conditions. If such a declaration had been made at an appropriate time, it would undoubtedly have strengthened our hands and unified various organisations and public opinion in the State.” (Kashmir’s Special Status; All J&K National Conference, 1975; pages 22-24). In July 1953, it was too late and too little: “You would appreciate that without such [the people’s] support, this declaration would not suffice to dispel the fears that have arisen in the minds of the people of Kashmir.”
Since Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947, the Sheikh had tried valiantly to win over the people to his way of thinking – accession to India; but he failed. The Maharaja, his friends in New Delhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, the Intelligence Bureau’s B.N. Mullik, and the Sangh Parivar did everything that would weaken his hands. Their opposition to autonomy strengthened separatism. For reasons of his own, Nehru pressed him to ignore the people (for whom he had scant respect anyway: “soft and addicted to easy living”) and, in effect, serve as New Delhi’s man. This Sheikh Saheb stoutly refused to do. It was from the people that he had drawn sustenance all his life.
The facts totally belie the charges, so common in our political culture – personal ambition and foreign inspiration. He was driven to take the stand he took in 1953. The entire chain of events was indigenous and open throughout. Since Adlai Stevenson visited Srinagar in 1953, it was convenient to name him as agent provocateur. In a letter to his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit on October 3, 1953, Nehru wrote: “As for Adlai Stevenson, I do not think that he is to blame in any way” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 24, page 388). But the damage was done. It created a rift between the Sheikh and the Left, which was never healed though Hiren Mukherjee and Harkishan Singh Surjeet did their best to heal it. In domestic politics, Nehru emerged stronger after the crisis. Internationally, Indian prestige suffered.Fateful step
Kashmir has still not forgiven New Delhi for what it did on August 9, 1953. Impetuous as he was, Nehru had panicked. He knew that Sheikh Abdullah was stoutly opposed to accession to Pakistan. He had no place there. Nehru could have settled with both the Sheikh and Pakistan on a basis other than plebiscite. He would panic, likewise, in 1959 when China asserted that “there existed a boundary dispute”. He thought it meant reopening the entire boundary. In reality, it meant giving up the Aksai Chin alone, not the McMahon Line. Popularity and power meant more to him than hagiographers admit. In the result, he sacrificed the national interest. With greater courage, he could have led and retained power, settled Kashmir and the boundary dispute and remained Prime Minister. It is a terrible legacy that he bequeathed to India.
Tragically, on July 31, 1953, Nehru took the fateful step. Mullik wrote in his memoirs My Years with Nehru: “On 31 July Mehra [D.W. Mehra, Mullik’s Deputy] and I met the Prime Minister… he came to the point that there was no other alternative but to remove Sheikh Abdullah and install Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed in his place…. he warned that we must be prepared for the worst, because the Sheikh undoubtedly had a large following in the Valley.” Mehra should “assume control” of the State police, even become Chief Executive if need be (page 42).
On the same day, July 31, he prepared a statement which M.O. Mathai recorded. It contained his written instructions for the Sheikh’s dismissal, outlining the very steps that were taken later: “A brief memorandum might be prepared and placed before the [State] Cabinet.” The Head of the State should ask for the resignation of those who disagreed. “If the resignations are not forthcoming, he should have an order ready for the dismissal of the government.” Also, “such assistance as may be considered necessary for the maintenance of law and order should be available” – from Delhi, of course.
Hence, the alert to the Army. “It will be desirable to prepare the ground for this… with prominent members of the Executive of the Party” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 23; pages 302-4).
MAY 28, 1964: Sheikh Abdullah broke down at Jawaharlal Nehru's funeral. His dreams lay shattered.
Ajit Prasad Jain carried the memo and other papers to Srinagar. Sheikh Saheb was arrested at Gulmarg on August 9. Karan Singh’s order of dismissal cited, astonishingly, discord in the Cabinet as ground for the dismissal – a ground whose absurdity faction-ridden Cabinets galore have since demonstrated at the Centre and in the States.
The aftermath was described in detail in the Report on Kashmir by Sadiq Ali and Madhu Limaye (A Praja Socialist Party Publication; February 1954). They had spent a fortnight in Kashmir from September 25, 1953. People had not reconciled themselves to the change despite brutal repression. “Bakshi’s own house was attacked.” He was “nervous and wanted to step down”. Sadiq dissuaded him (My Life; Mir Qasim; page70).Indira Gandhi disapproved
To one and all, Nehru flatly denied that he was responsible for the Sheikh’s dismissal, let alone his arrest. He told the President on August 9: “We did not wish to interfere in any way with these internal happenings... The Sadar-i-Riyasat [Karan Singh] has acted on his own responsibility in this matter.” Parliament was given the same line on August 10: “Our advice was neither sought nor given.” So were the Chief Ministers on August 22, with a defence of the arrest as well (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 23, pages 309 and 312).
Nehru’s letter to Indira Gandhi on August 9 was no more candid. She wrote from Zurich on August 10: “It is a heart-breaking thing to happen… I am filled with a terrible and deeply penetrating sadness… It is like cutting a part of oneself” (Two alone, Two Together edited by Sonia Gandhi; page 546).
She clearly disapproved of her father’s action. She said as much when this writer met her in December 1967. Her opinion is significant for she was well aware of the background. Now for the document that has come to light. It not only vindicates her judgment but exposes the callousness and cynicism of those who dismissed the Sheikh. The writer is indebted to that fine institution, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, for providing him a copy at his request. It is a note by Nehru’s Private Secretary, M.O. Mathai, dated September 12, 1953, addressed to “Indiraji”. It was marked “Top Secret and Confidential”. He emphasised, “I have typed this myself.” Indira wanted to meet Sheikh Saheb in prison, soon after her return from Europe. She would not have thought of this if any of the wild charges levelled against him had a particle of truth. Predictably, Mathai dissuaded her and enlisted V.K. Krishna Menon’s help.
Mathai began: “I have given considerable thought to your proposal to meet Sheikh Abdullah.” He then proceeded to dissuade her, in four foolscap pages: “You said that in whatever you talk to Sheikh Abdullah, he will trust you… it implies that you trust him too.” What followed fully exposed the falsity of the charges: “I do not believe that Sheikh Abdullah deliberately intended to switch on his band-wagon to Pakistan. Any person accusing him of that is not only doing him an injustice but is also spoiling our own cause. However, it is a patent fact that the speeches and activities of Sheikh Abdullah during the past few months have had the effect, direct and indirect, of encouraging the pro-Pakistani elements among the Muslim population of the State. It was Sheikh Abdullah’s activities, assisted by those of Afzal Beg, that made the dormant pro-Pakistani elements highly vocal and encouraged them to function in the open freely.”
Undesirables “infiltrated” – a charge Nehru himself never made. Nehru was not “influenced” by others. “It is in the context of sheer self-interest and self-preservation, which are bound up with certain basic principles we have proclaimed, that we have to view and deal with the Kashmir question” – raison d’etat.
He listed the objections – “embarrassment” to the present regime in Kashmir (“your meeting might even unnerve them”); the press will discover; the Sheikh’s reaction and “the attitude of Begum Abdullah”. Fundamentally, “you should consult PM [Prime Minister Nehru] about your idea of meeting Sheikh Abdullah secretly. If he agrees with your proposal, then in order to have any worth-while talk with Sheikh Abdullah, you should have a very clear idea as to what the Government of India’s intentions are in regard to Kashmir – policy in regard to both the immediate present and the long-term one.” She could not play a lone hand opposed to Nehru’s line. What could she offer? Sheikh Abdullah was indeed “an acquisition from the political point of view” – an admission that he represented the people. But would he forgive “us” now? Krishna Menon called him a Trotsky.
Mathai, who had recorded Nehru’s orders on 31 July, wrote: “It will be psychologically wrong for Sheikh Abdullah to be reinstated in Government until the Kashmir problem is finally solved in all its aspects – including the international aspect.” This is precisely the advice Karan Singh offered to Nehru on January 11, 1956, and was snubbed by him the very same day: “You say that it would be desirable to keep him in detention till it is found possible to declare that the Kashmir dispute is finally closed… In fact, so long as Sheikh Abdullah is in prison, the dispute will not be finally closed. It is only when he has been released and we have faced the consequences of that release and survived them, that it will be possible for the situation to develop towards a final end” (Karan Singh; Jammu & Kashmir 1940-64: Select Correspondence; page 187).Harsh treatment in jail
Nehru’s strategy of wearing out his prisoner did not work. It required the upheaval of the Bangladesh war and the Shimla Pact to persuade the Sheikh to yield in the accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975. To imprison the man was bad enough. Worse still, he was subjected to harsh treatment.
Nehru even opposed permission for interviews (September 1). Sheikh Abdullah asserted his right to attend the Constituent Assembly’s meetings. Nehru told Bakshi on October 2: “This is a matter entirely in the discretion of Kashmir Government… and would not be proper for me to intervene in any way. I would suggest, however, that all detenue members of Constituent Assembly should be given opportunity to send any written memorandum should they so desire it.” It was a devious way of disapproving any permission to Abdullah to attend the meetings. He declined to respond to a message from Abdullah, “but I sent [him] a message in regard to it”.
Finally, Sheikh Abdullah wrote to him on March 18, 1955, asking to be informed what sins he had committed. Nehru’s reply of April 8 harked back to his Note of August 25, 1952: “You had decided to pursue a line of action which appeared to me to be very harmful for the future of Jammu and Kashmir” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 28, page 35). He was being punished for taking Nehru at his word and asking him to fulfil the pledges he had made publicly and repeatedly to the people of Kashmir. To Rajaji, Nehru belatedly alleged, on February 4, 1955, that the Sheikh had “talked of blood and thunder and setting fire to the Kashmir Valley and so on”. Nehru never confronted the Sheikh with this charge publicly or in private, to seek his explanation. It was mean to write “he is living in very great comfort with all kinds of facilities” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 36, page 324). Evidently, Nehru’s famed passion for practising economy in household expenses extended with equal ardour to practising economy with truth.
Soon Nehru had a problem with Bakshi and Karan Singh. They resented his joint communique with Prime Minister Mohammad Ali of Pakistan on August 20, 1953, promising, once again, plebiscite in Kashmir. Bakshi resigned. Nehru sent A.P. Jain to explain his calculations, which he laid bare in a letter to Karan Singh on August 21: “But for some kind of an agreement between us and Pakistan, the matter would inevitably have been raised in the UN [United Nations] immediately and they might well have sent down their representative to Kashmir. All this again would have kept the agitation and made it glow. It is all these considerations that made us agree to the statement that has been issued” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 23, page 346). Jain corroborates this (Kashmir, page 73). Nehru simply wanted to buy time. He settled neither with the Sheikh nor with Pakistan.
The record brings out two features in bold relief. Nehru knew that it was the Sheikh who represented the people’s feelings, not Bakshi & Co., and that the people would protest. Hence the precautions on which he insisted. Secondly, Nehru and his associates acted covertly; the Sheikh was transparency itself. The letters he wrote to Masoodi, the N.C.’s general secretary then in Delhi, on August 6 and 8, 1953, said: “There is nothing to worry about.” Indeed, only a few days before the coup, Bakshi said at Mujahid Manzil in Srinagar that while every Muslim had five articles of faith he had six, the sixth being his loyalty to Sheikh Saheb. On August 4, Sadiq and Bakshi voiced reservations on their own proposals to the eight-man committee, evidently emboldened by Nehru’s decision of July 31. The Sheikh thereupon convened a meeting of the working committee and general council of the N.C. on August 24 and 29, respectively, and rejected their pleas for postponement of the meetings. He did not suspect a conspiracy. The draft of a speech he was to deliver to an Id congregation on August 21 was also made available to the Centre. He affirmed the Delhi accord and criticised Pakistan, but pleaded for a settlement to ensure finality. He was arrested on August 9.
On January 6, 1958, the Sheikh was released from jail. On April 11, 1958, he wrote to Nehru: “In spite of all that has happened since August 1953, I still believe that the key of the solution lies in your hands and I appeal to you not to be deceived by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and his other supporters in pursuing a policy which, in the end, is bound to prove disastrous for all.” He was re-arrested on April 29, 1958, by D.W. Mehra, then Inspector-General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir.
On May 17, 1958, the government ordered the prosecution of 25 persons for the offence of conspiracy to overthrow the state by use of force. The Sheikh was not cited as one of the accused. On October 23, 1958, however, a police complaint was filed and he was also included among the persons accused of conspiracy. The specific charge against Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues was that they, from August 9, 1953, to April 29, 1958, “conspired to overawe by means of criminal force and show of criminal force the legally and constitutionally established Government of Jammu and Kashmir and facilitating the wrongful annexation of the Jammu and Kashmir State by Pakistan….”
Mullik was asked to build up the case. Nehru’s approval was implicit. The date chosen, August 9, 1953, implies a conspiracy hatched in prison and none before that date. Not for the last time, a police officer gave false information and was accepted as a partner in decision-making. Mullik replicated this role on China, with equal disaster.
Later, in the Sessions Court, the charge of waging war was also added. In January 1962, the accused were committed to stand trial in the Sessions Court. Proceedings in the Session Court began only on September 9, 1962, and went on calculatedly at a snail’s pace.
The case was necessary to rebut international criticism of imprisonment without trial. It was withdrawn and Sheikh Abdullah, Beg and others were released on April 8, 1964. The friends of old met. Nehru invited Sheikh Saheb to be his guest. With Nehru’s approval, he went to Pakistan on May 24, 1964, and met President Ayub Khan. At Rawalpindi, on May 26, he announced that Ayub Khan had accepted Nehru’s invitation to visit Delhi for talks in June. The next day, on May 27, Jawaharlal Nehru breathed his last. Sheikh Saheb sobbed inconsolably at his funeral. His dreams lay shattered.
Meanwhile, Bakshi and Sadiq had fallen out. On October 11, 1964, the Sheikh condemned Bakshi’s arrest before he could move a motion of no-confidence against Sadiq in the Assembly.
The boulder that was thoughtlessly let loose from the top of a hill on August 9, 1953, wreaked havoc and continues to roll. It will be stopped only by a Union-Kashmir accord based on the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and an India-Pakistan accord based on the solid Manmohan Singh-Musharaff consensus. There must be full restoration of Article 370. Its “erosion” had begun in Nehru’s days. Also, New Delhi must give up the business of Ministry-making in Srinagar – whether through the Congress or the intelligence services or both.
One man kept his head in all these years – Rajaji, the wisest of them all. Mullik records: “When some months later, I met Sri Rajagopalachari at Madras (he was then the Chief Minister), he asked me why it had become necessary to arrest Sheikh Abdullah. I narrated to him all the circumstances which had led to his arrest. Rajaji said that the Sheikh should have been given a third alternative of autonomy or even semi-independence and the door should not have been shut against him. He apprehended that continued uncertainty and unrest would prevail in the valley” (Mullik, page 47). It still does.
Rajaji played a significant role in 1964. The Sheikh called on him in Chennai for advice. Rajaji remained an advocate of conciliation until his death. Now, 55 years later, there is no sign that any lessons have been learnt from the tragic chain of events that were begun on August 9, 1953. As the poet said, Kuch aise bhi manzar hai twarikh ki nazron mein/Lamhon ne khata kithi sadion ne saza pai (There are some happenings in the eyes of history/When moments lapsed in sin and centuries bore the punishment).
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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