Lahore is near and Delhi is far off

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

Ayub Khan withPrime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Ayub Khan withPrime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf's decision to meet with pro-accession politicians from Jammu and Kashmir has been hailed as a historic departure from Pakistan's traditional position.

It is indeed a departure - but not quite so radical as many imagine. In fact, politicians from Jammu and Kashmir have reached across the Line of Control before, with consequences that are interesting to consider in the context of the ongoing dialogue process.

In 1949, facing an erosion of his support at home, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah told the United States that he wanted an independent Kashmir that could seek "American and British aid". Abdullah then lobbied Pakistan for support, the historian Victoria Schofield has recorded, arguing that the new state would "naturally be closer to Pakistan, firstly because of a common religion and secondly because Lahore is near and Delhi is far off."

New Delhi's suspicions about Sheikh Abdullah's conduct led to the deterioration of his relationship with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. After years in jail, though, Abdullah left with Nehru's support for his first - and only - visit to Pakistan, hoping to persuade its military ruler to open negotiations. A crowd estimated at 500,000 greeted Abdullah on his arrival in Rawalpindi in May 1964; one commentator hailed him as the "leopard of Kashmir, who had finally changed his spots".

Then Field-Marshall - later President - Ayub Khan and Sheikh Abdullah, however, found little common ground. In his memoirs, Ayub Khan charged Abdullah and Mirza Afzal Beg, another Kashmiri leader, with bringing him an "absurd proposal of confederation between India, Pakistan and Kashmir." "I told him plainly," Ayub Khan later wrote, "that we would have nothing to do with it." Khan did agree, however, to meet Nehru. The meeting never took place, for on May 27, 1964, India's first Prime Minister passed away.

Sheikh Abdullah and Pakistan's then Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto flew back to New Delhi together. On the flight, according to the account by the scholar Stanley Wolpert, Abdullah dramatically changed tack. He suggested that Bhutto press India to hold a plebiscite in all of Jammu and Kashmir, but then settle for a partition of the State along the Chenab river, dividing the Hindu and Buddhist-majority regions of Jammu and Kashmir from its Muslim-majority areas.

No coherent explanation has ever been offered for just why Abdullah, who was committed to both socialism and secularism, demanded that the logic of a partition that he had opposed be replicated in Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah did not discuss the affair in his autobiography, The Flames of the Chinar. One possibility is that he had despaired that any other arrangement could be arrived at - and was willing to abandon principle for what he perceived to be a pragmatic solution.

Sheikh Abdullah's son Farooq Abdullah also visited Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the wake of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. At one rally, the one-time National Liberation Front terrorist Hashim Qureshi wrote of him, "he lifted a gun in his hand along with Maqbool Butt (Shaheed) [martyr], Ashraf Qureshi, Abdul Khaliq Ansari and Amanullah Khan, [and] administered the oath that he would fight for the freedom and sovereignty of Kashmir till his last breath."

Sheikh Abdullah, of course, completed such a deal, with fateful consequences for Jammu and Kashmir's political history. Farooq Abdullah has always denied Qureshi's version of events, dismissing the few public accounts that exist of the event as propaganda. However, it is possible that the National Conference, battered by its agreement in New Delhi, hoped to win new credentials as a spokesperson for the ethnic-Kashmiri chauvinist tendencies represented by the National Liberation Front.

Everything from independence to partition, then, has been discussed in the past: the new ideas now being discussed are variations on well-known themes.

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