Explaining Sheikh Abdullah

Only in the light of the present can past be better understood. The prevailing grim political situation in Kashmir is very much the result of follies committed in the past and in order to understand and find answer to the questions of why and how Kashmir reached this deadly dead-end one has to either master the past or rely on someone who is capable enough to get much out of the corpse of historical facts because history. After all, in the words of the British historian E.H. Carr, is “a continuous process of integration between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

The recently published book The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the state authored by a young Kashmiri historian, Altaf Hussain Para, is a better option that one can rely on to understand what went wrong in the past. This book is a serious contribution, in a lucid and free flowing prose sketches the history of modern Kashmir by thoroughly focusing on a person who was “at once the product as well as the creator of history” and dominated the political landscape for almost 50 years.

Unlike other authors, who Para believes have written history either in “watertight compartments” or produced “sympathetic narration of political events and personalities” this book is a dispassionate attempt to place the historical facts in perspective without serving any particular ideology or agenda. The best thing about the book is that its findings are not merely based on fetishized official documents rather he deftly draws from vast and rich resource base of Kashmiri, Urdu and English languages like private diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts of poetry and memoirs to analyze the important episodes of Kashmir history. Author’s ‘imaginative understanding’ with the subject is more subtle due to his ability to reach out to the people for more insights who have either worked closely with Sheikh Abdullah or have witnessed his ups and downs in and outside the power.

The book comprehensively documents the conditions of people post “sale deed” and explains how lack of democratic rights under the Dogra rule ultimately led to the emergence of political consciousness giving rise to a politically ambitious class who would later challenge the Dogra rule and fight for the dignity of the people of the state. Sheikh Abdullah was one of those astute and politically ambitious Kashmiris who set out to fight against the feudal autocracy and to establish a government that ensures dignity of common people. It was during the tumultuous decades of 1930s and 1940s  when Sheikh Abdullah and his close associates mobilized people by collecting the cultural fragments of past and constructed an ‘imagined community’ completely free of outside control which, surprisingly, Sheikh Abdullah declared “impractical” in one of his historic speeches.

Sheikh Abdullah remains a controversial figure or in the words of the author he was a “complex political leader” before and after his death. Although Para attributes the controversial and confusing character of Sheikh Abdullah to the lack of independent research on him but the fact is that Abdullah himself created confusion among masses due to his double speak and split personality.

Ask people about Sheikh Abdullah and they would say Kashmiri nationalist, staunchly secular, deeply religious, authoritarian, Indian etc. All these descriptions are true about him in different phases of his life. He, no doubt, was a Kashmiri nationalist who raised the national consciousness among Kashmiri masses and introduced a Naya Kashmir document that treated Kashmir as a sovereign nation but ended up acceding to India without bothering about the nationalistic sensibilities of his people. He was someone who heavily used Islamic imagery and symbols and weaved the Islamic concepts of just society to mobilize common masses against Dogra regime but then fiercely criticized Pakistan for its “Koranic outlook”. For around two decades he fought against Dogra’s populism and autocracy to carve out a dignified space for Kashmiri people but once he himself got the power he maneuvered to sideline competition and alienated his own close associates by his imperious conduct. He is the one who patronized the longest political battle for right to self-determination after 1953 but accepted the status quo by happily approving the accession. Moving a step ahead he dubbed the 22 year long struggle as “Siyasi Awaragardi” and preferred to become head of the government with the support of the party against which he himself had launched Tarki Mawalat.

The book comprehensively sheds light on Sheikh Abdullah’s life and highlights not only his political commitments and achievements but quite successfully brings to fore his failures and betrayals as well. One interesting theme that runs throughout the book is Sheikh Abdullah’s tendency to centralize power to become undisputed leader within party and state which Jawaharlal Nehru and even Mohammad Ali Jinnah perceptively realized after observing his politics. In the process, however, Sheikh Abdullah sacrificed his trusted colleagues and compatriots. Underlining Sheikh Abdullah predicament with his own self and its consequences, the author contends that, “(i)n order to assert his independence and neutralize the criticism against his movement, he hastily pushed himself to the Congress fold without achieving much in terms of widening social base of his movement.”

Quite interestingly, the author firmly believes that the decision to abandon the platform of Muslim Conference and establishing close contacts with Nehru and Congress (despite his promise to aggrieved members of erstwhile Muslim Conference members of maintaining equal distance from both Muslim League and Congress party) was not “motivated by any ideological uniformity but rather by mutual interests.” The transformation of Muslim Conference into National Conference and his propinquity with Nehru helped him to get rid of the influence of Punjabi Muslims and subdue and mollify the Pandits within state. Nehru on the other side got the much needed counterargument to Jinnah’s two-nation theory.

All along Sheikh Abdullah wasn’t shrewd enough to detect Nehru’s dishonesty. The promise of autonomy that attracted Abdullah towards Indian remains unfulfilled and because Nehru like Abdullah himself spoke one language in public discourse and another in private. The “innocence of a child” that Abdullah saw in Nehru’s demeanor in the very first meeting proved illusory. Nehru considered Kashmir vital for India’s security because of its geostrategic location and for this reason he considered Abdullah as an ‘asset’ and meticulously gained Abdulla’s trust. It was because of prior understanding with Nehru on Kashmir that Abdullah forthrightly and categorically rejected Jinnah’s offer that Para believes was “both magnanimous and pragmatic”. Jinnah reached out to Sheikh Abdullah by sending a delegation to Srinagar with an offer better than that of Congress. The offer was “autonomy with right to secession if Kashmir acceded to Pakistan, or the least the Kashmiri leaders could do was not to push for the accession with India, which means independence from both of the countries.”

Para, as a serious scholar, has diligently tried to process the historical facts to comprehensively shed light on Abdullah’s life, which was interspersed with compromises, to tell his readers why Kashmir is in turmoil today. In doing so Para, unlike the author of “Kashmir: Behind the Vale” neither considers the subject bigger than his mistakes, nor has he ended up producing another sympathetic biography.

Manzoor Ahmad is Doctoral candidate in Academy of International Studies Jamia Millia Islamia