In Defence of Sheikh Abdullah - I

Political narratives are stories that purport to grow out of history, but are not usually historically accurate. They weave facts with imagination to create and sustain an emotional bond with ideas that may not be historically relevant, and with events not fully known. Kashmir’s narrative (hereafter called the Narrative) is the subject of this article. It is inextricably linked with the life and times of Sheikh Abdullah; what he did, and allegedly, what he should have done but failed to do.

In September 1982 when Sheikh Abdullah died having dominated Kashmir’s landscape for 50 years, Kashmiris gave him a send-off befitting his epic status. In 1986 the movie Lion of the desert Omar Mukhtar was screened at the Regal theatre in Srinagar. The power of the medium is such that the film undid in mere weeks the reputation of Kashmir’s first authentic hero in 700 years. Kashmiris revised their opinion of the great man and embarked on a search for new definitions of a hero, and for a new narrative.

  The Sheikh has fallen so far in public esteem that the site of his final resting place needed protection. What happened between 1982 and 1990 that required guards around his grave? For the answer we must look to the development of the Narrative, one that he himself had a part in creating.

 According to the Narrative Sheikh Abdullah was responsible for betraying the political movement for freedom that began in 1931, first by aligning with Nehru to convert the Muslim Conference into the secular National Conference, and later by leading Kashmir into an unwanted accession to India. Kashmir is supposed to have lost its independence when Akbar invaded the Valley in 1586. Instead of leading Kashmir to the freedom envisaged by the political struggle started with the National Conference, Sheikh Abdullah delivered Kashmir into the hands of India.

 The good that the Sheikh did lies buried with his bones, the evil he is supposed to have done lives on to haunt his memory and to mislead us all.

Misrepresenting historical facts is essential to narratives, which is what we see in the Narrative. The political movement that began in 1931when the Maharaja’s troops fired upon and killed 22 Kashmiri Muslims protesting outside Central Jail Srinagar, had three main goals. Primarily it was about Muslim representation, particularly that of Kashmir’s Muslims, in State employment. Second, it sought adequate Muslim representation in running State affairs through responsible government, and lastly it was about the rights of Kashmiri cultivators. The movement was about employment and about social and political rights. Independence, or Azaadi, for Kashmir or J&K was neither an objective of the movement, spearheaded by the Muslim Conference set up under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah in 1932, nor did anyone envisage what shape an independent India would take if the British left.

Some commentators revile Sheikh Abdullah for adorning what was primarily a Muslim struggle with secular garb  as a result of Nehru’s malign influence that steered the National Conference into channels it was never intended to take. Nonsense! National Conference never lost sight of its original goals. But opening its membership to all faiths enabled the party to broaden the movement and draw upon support from secular Hindus and Sikhs as well.

Though a few Kashmiri Pandits joined the movement it was generally opposed by the community because more jobs for Muslims meant fewer of them to go around for Pandits. The ruling Dogra classes for whom the programme meant loss of privilege and entitlement stayed away with only some progressive types joining when the Muslim Conference mutated, under Nehru’s advice into the National Conference, a non- denominational platform for the rights of all deprived communities.

Critics of the changes deliberately obscure the fact that the Muslim League, with which the re-born Muslim Conference aligned itself had no sympathy for the demands of Kashmir’s Muslims. The League stood for the feudal order and the privileges of the Princes. On the other hand, Nehru and Congress gave full and vocal support to the demands of Kashmir’s Muslims against the inclinations of a Hindu Maharaja and the inclinations of his mainly Hindu administration. It was the left bias of young Congressmen under Nehru that attracted Sheikh Abdullah. He had an aggressive agenda of agrarian reform and freedom from feudal domination that Congress supported, and to which the Muslim League was at best, indifferent. It was natural ideological compatibility that linked the two leaders.

As far as the original goals of the Muslim/National Conference are concerned it is no exaggeration to say that no other leader in the history of democratic rule has so completely fulfilled the agenda of the party he led than Sheikh Abdullah did in the five years that he was Prime Minister. The Sheikh did more for Kashmir and Kashmiris between 1948 and 1953 than anyone did before him or has done since. The change were truly revolutionary.

Within six months of taking over Sheikh Abdullah had rid Kashmir of Dogra hegemony. In March 1948 when the Sheikh became Prime Minister, Maharaja Hari Singh was still the sovereign; in August he was forced into exile. A Kashmiri Muslim now headed the government assisted by a cabinet of ministers in which Kashmiris dominated. In 1947 the Maharaja’s government was still dominated by Punjabis, Pandits and Dogras with Kashmiri Muslims few and far between. Under the National Conference government Kashmiri Muslims took over the important positions. Recruitment to government jobs took on a pronounced bias towards Kashmiri Muslims and they began to be employed in numbers that their percentage of the population warranted. The substitution of Dogra hegemony by that of Kashmiris was neither natural nor easy.

 Under the Maharaja Dogras feudals dominated, even in the valley, ruling through land grants, entitlements and appointments given by the Maharaja. The agrarian reform programme swept away those rights making the Kashmiri peasant owner of the land he cultivated. But Sheikh Abdullah did more than restore Kashmir to the Kashmiris, he set the stage for Kashmir’s present dominance over Jammu as well. In a sense he was the first Kashmiri after a thousand years to establish Kashmiri rule outside the borders of Kashmir. Before Sheikh Abdullah the elites of Jammu patronized Kashmiri clients. After him ambitious Dogras sought Kashmiri patronage.

 Kashmiri domination in J&K is nowadays taken for granted; as a fact of life as if it were, and in the natural order of things. Nothing could have been more difficult to achieve. It could never have happened but for Sheikh Abdullah and his special relationship with Nehru. In no other scenario would Kashmir or Kashmiri Muslims become the power they became shortly after the Sheikh took over. He introduced a system of Kashmiri preference that operates even today. It is no exaggeration to say that no other leader in the history of democratic rule has so completely fulfilled the agenda of the party he led than Sheikh Abdullah did in the five years that he was Prime Minister. He did more for Kashmir and Kashmiris between 1948 and 1953 than anyone did before him, or since. He fulfilled every scrap of the agenda Kashmir’s Muslims had set before themselves in the 1930s. And he did this in the face of violent agitations in Jammu.

  Why then do many Kashmiris revile Sheikh Abdullah and accuse him of betraying the movement that started in 1931. The Narrative is to blame. It has transmuted from being a story of Kashmiri struggle for political and economic rights into a story of a struggle for Independence, ignoring the vital battles the Sheikh won for Kashmir. It focuses on matters that were sub-liminal and peripheral, but which have now acquired an immediacy not warranted by the historical record.

According to the Narrative, the movement of 1931 was started to restore the freedom Kashmir lost with the disposal of Yusuf Shah Chak, and the dire straits Kashmiri find themselves in today is a consequence of Sheikh Abdullah’s betrayal of the movement by joining India. This is a travesty of the historical record. In 1931, and through the years leading to the Pakistan resolution there was no mention of independence in the Kashmiri discourse – nor was the Muslim Conference set up in 1932 to establish an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, there was no intention even to rid Kashmir of Dogra rule, let alone disassociate from India.

 The Narrative is a work of the imagination and starts with a bit of fiction. It relates that the last native ruler of independent Kashmir was Yusuf Shah Chak, displaced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1586; after that Kashmir has never been free. It is one of the many inaccuracies with which the Narrative is riddled. The Chaks were not Kashmiri, being migrants from the area around Gilgit. Their rule followed that of the Shahmiri descendants of Shah Mir who is said to have been an adventurer from Suwat, and not a native of Kashmir either. The last genuine Kashmiri to rule Kashmiri was in fact Kota Rani, daughter of Ramchand, who married first Rinchan Shah and then Shah Mir. The Shahmiris were as authentically Kashmiri as were the Dogras.

 It is not generally known that Akbar was invited to Kashmir by the Sunni religious leaders of the valley because of the intolerable impositions of the Shia Chaks, or that before the Mughal invasion Yusuf Shah Chak had visited Akbar’s court and reached an understanding with him. It was the violation of that understanding that made Akbar send his forces.

(To be concluded)