In Defence of Sheikh Abdullah - II

In the Narrative, Sheikh Abdullah’s bond with Nehru is made out as the reason why National Conference opposed Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth. The extent to which the idea of Pakistan was taken seriously by Jinnah in 1939 was a well-hidden secret. Jinnah had been corresponding with Mohammad Iqbal, but the latter’s idea of a consolidated Muslim state excluded Kashmir and was meant to be within India, not a separate country. The Pakistan scheme was finalized by the Muslim League leadership only in March 1940 and announced on March 23rd at Lahore. The National Conference had been formed one year prior.

Sheikh Abdullah was the undoubted leader of Kashmir’s Muslims within the State, but externally they too accepted Jinnah as the Qaid, and were taken in with the idea of Pakistan. Not so Sheikh Abdullah, whose economic and political programme of empowering the rural cultivator and the common man found no support in the elitist Muslim League with its programme of preserving feudal privilege. He knew that the only chance of success his programme had was if J&K remained with India.

The Narrative is therefore wrong in blaming Sheikh Abdullah for betraying a freedom struggle that began in 1931. Along with some of its other features it is fundamentally a mythmaking exercise. This freedom struggle, now referred to as the Resistance, is a product of the failed struggle launched in 1989 to join Pakistan, still a work in progress, whose historical antecedents are mostly bogus. The rest of this article explores how the idea of an independent J&K, arose and the course of its development. 

  It can be argued that the entire notion of an independent Kashmir arose fully formed in the mind of Sheikh Abdullah and that it was he who planted its seed in Kashmiri hearts.  Kashmiris, no doubt, had had enough of rule by outsiders, by Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras, and yearned to rule themselves, but that is very far from saying that the notion of an independent Kashmiri State existed before Sheikh Abdullah. Kashmiris wanted to be rid of the Dogras, but did they imagine they would be free of the British as well. Evidence that such an idea was prevalent has not come to my attention.

It was Maharaja Hari Singh in fact who harboured the idea of ruling an independent kingdom of J&K when the British left. He had the full support of his loyal Dogra subjects in this desire for a Dogra ruled Jammu and Kashmir. After World War 2 when the British finally decided to concede independence to India they proclaimed that all 562 Princely States would become independent with the lapse of paramountcy of the British Emperor over their Princely Rulers. The announcement was made by the Cabinet Mission, a team of Ministers sent by Britain to India in 1946 to negotiate a path to independence that would avoid the partition of India. The idea of an independent J&K was well accepted among Jammu’s Hindu subjects. Jammu city’s BJP cadres are descended from an organization that strenuously supported an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir ruled by the Dogras.

The Cabinet Mission Plan envisaging independent Princely States posed a grave and immediate threat to the Kashmiri Muslim struggle and to the Naya Kashmir programme that envisaged land to the tiller and a progressive socialist programme of governance. The Maharaja’s Dogra subjects may have happily accepted an independent J&K ruled by a Hindu Maharaja, but it spelt disaster for the demands that National Conference had been articulating. As an independent Maharaja, free of pressure from the British and from Nehru, Hari was not likely to concede anything to Kashmiris. It was against this background that Sheikh Abdullah issued his quit Kashmir call to the Maharaja. If J&K could be independent so could Kashmir, the Quit Kashmir carried the seeds of an independent Kashmir, under a democratic dispensation, and without the Maharaja.

Despite this Cabinet Mission Plan and later the Indian Independence Act of June 3rd, 1947 which envisaged independent Princely States, the Governor General Lord Mountbatten, did, in fact, persuade the Princes to accede either to India or to Pakistan. He succeeded with all except Hyderabad, Travancore and J&K. Hari Singh held out for independence till Pakistan tired of waiting, sent in the tribal invaders; whereupon the Maharaja acceded to India. India took the tribal invasion to the UN. Sheikh Abdullah saw an opening and quietly introduced the theme of independence in a different context. In 1948 during a visit to the UN he spoke privately about an independent J&K jointly guaranteed by India and Pakistan.  By then Sheikh Abdullah was Prime Minister and had evicted Hari Singh as Ruler.  He began tentatively to explore the motif he had introduced. He took it up within the National Conference, in the Constituent Assembly discussions, and even with the American Ambassador; going so far as to raise the possibility with Adlai Stevenson, the defeated Presidential candidate who was visiting Kashmir in 1952.

In any case, the decision to accede to India was taken by the Maharaja, not the National Conference. Knowing the sentiment of his people the Sheikh dithered over expressing public support to the union with India. Later after supporting accession to India he began his tentative exploration of the independence option, with the disastrous results that followed. It was always a doubtful affair. In 1947 Jammu’s Hindus were ready for an independent J&K if the Maharaja remained the sovereign. For Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference such independence meant the prolongation of their struggle for Kashmiri rights. In 1952 when the Sheikh began to explore the same idea, Jammu had turned resolutely against it. The Maharaja had held out for independence even when there was no real chance of India agreeing. Much the same mistake was made by Sheikh Abdullah.

The stakes Sheikh played for were well beyond the resources he could muster or the strength of the hand he was holding. His senior party colleagues had turned against him, but he persisted in the idea despite the Delhi agreement signed with Nehru in 1952. Nehru withdrew his support and tragedy followed. The ills that have beset Kashmir in the wake of the 1953 arrest are not because Sheikh Abdullah betrayed Kashmiris; they happened because Sher e Kashmir dreamed of more for Kashmir than he could possibly achieve.

Nor did Sheikh Abdullah support the idea of a plebiscite when it was first mooted. No doubt he used the forum of the Plebiscite Front after Mirza Afzal Beg set it up, but he never joined the organization. The Narrative accuses him of making Kashmiris believe that he supported a plebiscite but settled with Mrs Gandhi for nothing. Many things were imagined in the hurly-burly of events following the partition of India. Things were in a fluid state, and nothing was inscribed in stone. Eventually, the Sheikh reconciled with what was possible.

 The Narrative, however, prefers dead heroes such as Omar Mukhtar to living legends; the stuff of ballads and myth, to the fabric of reality. Omar Mukhtar’s heroism is fervently wished upon young Kashmiris by narrativists living in comfort off Central Government pensions. The deadly show provides grist to their mill.

Sheikh Abdullah was an authentic and original Kashmiri hero. He gave birth to the Kashmiri discourse, led it from up front and was responsible for all the good that it engendered, making tremendous personal sacrifices on the way to its fulfillment. Autonomy for J&K or Independence were late and incidental accretions to that discourse, not fundamental to his mission and to the party that he led in the service of his people. Purblind narrativists, unfortunately, are fixated on the accretions and confuse it for the whole discourse.

Let us remember that it was Maharaja Hari Singh who wanted autonomy after he was compelled to abandon the idea of Azadi. National Conference adapted to the idea and adopted it, even as the prospect of a plebiscite had begun to take hold in the Kashmiri mind. But autonomy or independence were not then, embedded in the Kashmiri psyche as they were to become later. Nevertheless, Sheikh Abdullah struggled over 25 years for those new ideas once they had been adopted and suffered repeated incarcerations for them, at the cost of his family and their welfare, not something the present lot of Hurriyet leaders can boast about.

It was only after the collapse of the idea of Pakistan in 1971 that Sheikh Abdullah finally reconciled to the fact that his aspirations for Kashmir were no longer feasible. It took courage and leadership of a high order to accept the changed situation and reconcile to it – which cannot be said of the present leadership of the so-called resistance, comfortably vegetating with its sterile bandhs. Let us remember that when in 1975 the Sheikh finally reconciled with Delhi SAS Geelani was already long compromised by his membership of the Legislative Assembly in the Assembly elections of 1972. Mirwaiz Farooq not only put up candidates for these elections he collaborated with Morarji Desai and the Janata Party against Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference in the 1977 elections. In 1977 Sheikh Abdullah still had the strength and the courage to fight the combined forces of the Government of India, the Congress, the Janata Dal, the Mirwaiz and the Jamaat e Islaami, and defeat them.

Sheikh Abdullah was the first Kashmiri to rule Kashmir after 700 years. Despite the intense disenchantment with India, he and his colleagues eschewed violence, not because they were cowards but because they were wise. He was above all a practical man of affairs and foresaw that violence would lead to destruction. It is natural and easy for passions to turn violent; constructively channelling that passion towards the public good is hard. The hallmark of a good leader is to know how to mould public opinion and direct it to the common welfare. By that standard Sheikh Abdullah stands taller than ever today, vindicated by history, and deserving of the adulation that Kashmiris showered on him till his dying day.

  (Concluded)

Birindar. R. Singh  is a retired IAS officer