The Enigma of the Sheikh

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the most popular leader who dominated the political landscape of Kashmir for almost 50 years. There is a huge canvass of literature on the political life of Sheikh Abdullah which projects him as the symbol of resistance, archetype of progressive thinking and an embodiment of secularism in Kashmir.

However, this vast corpus of literature falls short on many fronts in explaining the paradoxical approach of Sheikh Abdullah towards many historical events that shaped modern Kashmir.

Undeniably, Sheikh Abdullah facilitated Kashmir’s accession with India and became its strong votary at different levels yet he patronized a moment under the banner of Plebiscite Front for twenty-two years using all his tactics and strategy to undo that accession. In 1949, Sheikh said in an interview to two foreign correspondents, Davidson and Ward Price, that he had visualized the possibility of an independent Kashmir.

Similarly, his meeting with Loy Henderson, US ambassador in Delhi, in 1950 had shown explicitly his distaste towards  accession with India. These turn of events projected Sheikh Abdullah as the most controversial political figure which the Para’s book, The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State lucidly brings to fore. It is precisely in this context that the book is a valuable addition to the existing literature.

Para’s book is perhaps the first academic book on Abdullah which tries to understand and engage with him academically and give us a critical view about him. The book gives insights about Sheikh’s complex figure and enigma that he was.

The book is divided into eleven chapters excluding Introduction and Conclusion. It examines the formation of modern Kashmir by Maharaja Gulab Singh, the agglomeration of different geographical units. It gives us information about the formation of Modern Kashmir, Sheikh’s early life, influences, politics, the formation of Reading Room Party, and the Muslim Conference.

In the succeeding Chapters, the author contests popular notion of the Sheikh joining politics accidentally and discusses the dominance of Sheikh in politics.  In pages 39-40 the author discusses in detail how Abdullah’s politics was influenced and shaped before 1931 episode. His meetings with philosopher-poet Iqbal.

It discusses how Sheikh organized his politics, especially the conversion of MC to NC and its impact on Kashmir. It further debates the notion of Sheikh’s NC’s Naya Kashmir manifesto and the Quit Kashmir Movement, its support and opposition in a detailed manner.

The book debates the political developments of the post-1947 era and the role of Abdullah as prime minister from 1947 to 1948. It re-looks and re-reads the idea of formation of Plebiscite Front and its role in politics of the state and deliberates on the twenty-two years of Abdullah’s political life.

The second last chapter discusses Kashmir accord of 1975. Here Para contests that Sheikh wanted dialogue before Bangladesh event which many political analysts say was reason behind 1975 according.

On page 226 author quotes political analyst Balraj Puri and writes that the Accord reached on Indira Gandhi’s lines, and last chapter on political developments that occurred till the death of Sheikh Abdullah in 1982 in a very critical method.

Despite having less access to archives on Kashmir, Para has written a very brilliant book based on archival sources, books, interviews and other literature. The book gives us new insights into the history of the world’s dangerous conflict (Kashmir) especially during the Sheikh’s era.

The author deserves applause for this scholarly work. Yet, there are few issues which have not been adequately addressed. The author writes that when Jinnah visited Kashmir he offered Abdullah a fair deal of autonomy with right to secession if Kashmir acceded to Pakistan.

Abdullah rejected this offer because he had a prior understanding with Nehru on Kashmir. This is what Para believes in, however, he doesn’t mention the reply that Abdullah gives to Jinnah. Abdullah replies to Jinnah that his whole progressive movement is against landlordism and feudalism. So how can he join hands with those against whom his principles stand diametrically opposite?

The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State has been successful in charting out multiple dimensions of the political life of Sheikh Abdullah.

Additionally, this book also references to Abdullah’s paradoxical approach to many significant historical events with profound details. Overall, this book is a good vade mecum for anyone who wants to understand the politics of Sheikh Abdullah beyond secular and nationalist prism.