Member of the first constituent assembly in 1951, and of the first legislative assembly in 1957, 94-year-old Krishan Dev Sethi has seen it all. Sameed Kakroo talks to the man who stores up our political history in his person
In one of the lanes of the every busy Wazarat Road is a building, home to one of the political stalwarts of the state. In a room with blue-coloured walls which have several damp patches, Krishan Dev Sethi spends most of his time these days. A member of the first constituent assembly in 1951 and a member of the first legislative assembly as well in 1957, 94-year-old Sethi has seen it all. From independence to accession, from communal riots during partition to rise of militancy, from Sheikh Abdullah and formation of National Conference to Mehbooba Mufti and Peoples Democratic Party. He has been to jail numerous times and has even had to remain underground in a fight for survival. Here he is, taking a trip down memory lane with Greater Kashmir.
I was born in 1925 in Mirpur, which is now part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and I spent my childhood there. During that time, Maharaja Gulab Sigh invaded Mirpur, but had to deal with stiff resistance from the local populace. I was in school those days, around 14-15 years of age, but could not be a mute spectator to the oppression that I saw. As a result, I along with many of my friends, neighbours, relatives and others, was thrown into jail. It was the era of the ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement.
Mirpur was an economically backward area back then. There was severe repression from the Dogra rulers and the area had a very anti-Dogra sentiment as the people were fed up of feudalism, landlordism and moneylenders. As a result, we all were a part of the resistance and National Conference, led by Raja Mohammad Akbar Khan, Maulana Abdullah, Haji Abdur Rehman and Haji Wahab-ud-Din, was fighting for the people. This was my first interaction with politics.
Shifting to Jammu
While I was in Mirpur jail, partition happened. When the forces came and laid siege around the area, they came in and broke open the jail. Some among the forces were my comrades. Because of me, the non-Muslims inmates were not harmed. They tried really hard that I would stay there, in Azad Kashmir. Even Major Syed Ali Ahmed Shah, an old friend who later served as president of Azad Kashmir, asked me to stay, but I declined.
Then in 1947, I shifted to Jammu. It was a scary period. Communal riots were going on. People were being killed mercilessly. Here, Muslims suffered, while on the other side of the border, non-muslims bore the brunt. At that time, the need of the hour was to bring around normalcy and that is what we tried.
The basis of everything was partition, communal riots, accession, Maharaja’s anti-Muslim policy, feudalism and landlordism. In all of this, I was very proud of the Kashmiri people as there were no communal riots there. Their role, that is appreciable, has been undermined.
I attended the National Conference’s first session in Baramulla, in 1940. That is where my political journey began. At that time, National Conference was the strongest political group and their ideology matched with mine. It only made sense to join them.
Then after I shifted to Jammu, Sheikh Abdullah appointed me as the rehabilitation officer for the people of Rajouri and Poonch. I tried to bring around normalcy there, just like my colleagues were trying in other parts of the state.
After this, we started the Jammu chapter of National Conference in 1949. I was the provincial general secretary, while Sardar Budh Singh Sahab was the provincial president. That is how I formally joined the state politics. Later, in 1951, I was elected as the member of the first constituent assembly. During that time we played the role of the opposition as well, due to the lack of any real opposition.
After that, Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed and Ghulam Muhammad Bakshi took over. During Bakshi’s tenure, corruption across the state and repression, mostly in Kashmir, was at its peak. This is when, I, along with Muhammad Sadiq, Mir Qasim, D P Dhar, Girdhari Lal Dogra, formed the Democratic National Conference, which became the first opposition party to have 21 members in the legislative assembly in 1957. Our aim was to give the people a secular and democratic party as the opposition.
While we were trying to make a real change, some of our friends and colleagues, could not resist the lust for power. On the pretext of uniting secular forces, some of them, including Muhammad Saqib, Mir Qasim, Master Dogra, among others, rejoined Bakshi and the National Conference. This is when I joined the communist party. I always had an inkling towards communism so it made sense.
The communist party started to fight for the people, including the Chambb refugees, the farmers, the peasants, the workers, the employees. We wanted to make a change and we worked towards it. Then, Muhammad Sadiq, in order to get into the good books of Government of India, got us arrested during the Indo-China war. We were batting for talks and negotiations and wanted the war mongering to stop. But the GoI did not like that and Sadiq, who was a friend, a colleague, got us arrested to showcase his loyalty. We remained in jail for around two-and-a-half-years, from 1964-1967. In the meantime, the communist party, CPI, got divided into CPI and CPI (M). I was the founding member of CPI (M). After sometime, the same thing happened again. Even the CPI (M) became pro-establishment like the CPI. Then they issued warrants and we had to remain underground for around 6-7 years, almost till the emergency period. Finally, all this took a toll and I quit mainstream politics. I still work for the people, the peasants, the workers. Marxism-Leninism is still my faith.
I travelled to a lot of foreign places, including the Soviet Union, China, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and others. I met some tall leaders, including Mao Zedong, Leonid Melnikov and some others as well.
The successive central governments never handled Kashmir properly. They all messed it up. They did not work for the betterment of the people.
Not only the governments, but the Muslim League, Congress as well as the British government, all are responsible for the Kashmir issue. They said that the people will decide, whether to join India or Pakistan, but they all conspired and said that the kings, nawabs, rulers will decide about their province, and not the people. This is what caused the basic problem. During this time, apart from Kashmir, the western districts of Jammu, including Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, etc, were also in revolt against the Maharaja. The forces of the king tried to repress and suppress the people of these areas. Meanwhile, the Maharaja of J&K decided to form an independent country. We all know what happened after that. A lot of people say that the Maharaja wanted an independent country, but let me tell them that the Maharaja did not want real independence. He wanted a feudal system. He wanted to rule. How is that independence? I am an advocate of a democratic, secular, federal, peaceful Jammu and Kashmir, which has the right of self determination.
Later, when the Kabalis raided, these people, politicians and the king, got an excuse to join India. That is how accession happened. It was the golden chance these people wanted and they grabbed it with both hands. The instrument of accession was signed on three subjects, including foreign affairs, communication and defence.
Now let us understand this, the other states that joined India, merged into the country. J&K did not merge. Even though we had four nominated members in the constituent assembly of India, including Sheikh Abdullah, Mirza Afzal Beig, Molvi Sayeed and Pandit Motilal Begda, but the accession was signed on the basis that except foreign affairs, communication and defence, it will be the Jammu and Kashmir constituent assembly’s prerogative and right to decide what all we take in from the Indian constitution. That is how Article 370 came into being in the Indian constitution.
Then in 1952, the Delhi agreement was signed. It was not only between Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, it was between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the government of India. In the meanwhile, under Sheikh Sahab, corruption started to brew. The Indian government also started expansions and slowly and steadily increased their grip on Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and orders and accounts, etc. This is what led to a rift between Sheikh Abdullah and them. The expansionism was the real cause.
Then the government of India got in Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, then Muhammad Sadiq, then Mir Qasim, and you know the rest. Among these, Sadiq was the one who betrayed the people of Kashmir. In his time, the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was changed into the post of chief minister, the President into Governor, jurisdiction of order and accounts, jurisdiction of election commission, etc. This was considered as interference of the government of India by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. This brewed up resentment. And I guess, everyone knows the rest.
Mainly, the policies of the central government are responsible for the Kashmir turmoil.
Solution to Kashmir Issue
In my opinion, Jammu and Kashmir state, as it was in 1947, should be brought together. The state is a mini-India or a mini-Pakistan, as there are people of diverse religions, culture, languages, ethnicities. The people across the state, including Dogras, Kashmiris, the people of Mirpur-Poonch, Ladakh and GIlgit-Baltistan, need to come together and decide on what to do. Then Jammu and Kashmir can even remain independent, if everyone comes to that conclusion.
Plus, only negotiations can solve this issue. The governments of India and Pakistan, as well the Indian government and the militants need to negotiate. All these talks need to involve the people, from all five regional communities, of Jammu and Kashmir.
Youth Picking up Arms
I am not one for armed struggle as somewhere a part of the arms struggle in Kashmir has been merged with fundamentalism. I have my reservations towards all this. Since day one I have believed that fighting won’t help. Only talks can. Let us all sit and talk and find a solution.