A Forgotten Kashmiri Leader
10 December 2005
Karachi: SHEIKH Abdullah, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this month, has not been given his due in India, much less in Kashmir from where he hailed. He was once known as the Kashmiri Gandhi and Sher-i-Kashmir because he fought for freedom against the British and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. But for the Sheikh's concurrence - and this was Jawaharlal Nehru's pre-condition for integration with India - New Delhi would not have accepted the Maharaja's accession. Nor would the Kashmiris have organized themselves under the leadership of the Sheikh against the attack by tribesmen and irregular soldiers from Pakistan until the arrival of the Indian forces in Srinagar. Yet the Sheikh, a personal friend of Nehru, had to spend some 12 years in confinement because he became a suspect in the eyes of New Delhi. He reminded the Indian government of its promise to confine its rule to three subjects: defence, foreign affairs and communications. Jammu and Kashmir had joined the Indian Union on that understanding alone. Apparently, New Delhi was trying to encroach on the state's other powers. But this did not make any difference to the Sheikh's thinking on the accession. In fact, he gave it legal validity through the constitution which the state's constituent assembly adopted in 1952. Yet, he jealously guarded the autonomy his state enjoyed within the Indian Union. Unfortunately, the tale-carriers who talked about the Sheikh's 'revolt' against New Delhi influenced Nehru. After detaining the Sheikh at Kodaikanal in the south, Nehru went on the defensive. He wrote a letter in explanation to the state chief ministers, some of whom were personal friends of the Sheikh. The letter dated, August 22, 1953, said: 'The Kashmir government could not function and everything was disintegrating. Sheikh Abdullah's attitude became more and more bitter and he seemed to be bent on upsetting everything in Kashmir. Indeed, in the course of a conversation with a friend, he (the Sheikh) said that he would set fire to the state. I do not know what he meant by that. But it indicated the state of his mind which was almost functioning as if it were unbalanced. So we came to live under constant apprehension of an impending disaster. It was a very difficult and distressing situation. There was no way out. To allow things to continue as they were was to invite disaster and, in any event, that was a feeble way of meeting a situation. To take any steps to check it also meant inviting trouble. The choice, as often in our times, was one of the lesser evil.' It took Nehru some 12 year to realize that he had made a mistake. During that time, the Sheikh did not complain about his detention even once. Nor did he mince words against New Delhi while talking to some people who met him at Kodaikanal. Among them was Jayaprakash Narayan, a Gandhian. The Sheikh showed no bitterness even after his release. All that he told me - I met him within a few days of his release - was that 'Nehru was misled.' He recalled his friendship with him and it came as no surprise to me when the Sheikh stayed with Nehru after his release. In fact, it was the Sheikh who persuaded Nehru to have a dialogue with Pakistan to sort out the Kashmir problem. Nehru sent the Sheikh to Islamabad in May 1964 to talk to General Mohammad Ayub Khan, heading Pakistan then. The version I got from Ayub during my meeting with him in April 1972 was that: towards the end of his life Nehru had realized the logic of the situation and had shown anxiety to come to terms with Pakistan. The Sheikh did not comment on Ayub's version. The Sheikh confined himself to the remark that 'he was late' because Nehru died when the Sheikh was still in Islamabad. Pakistan's former information secretary Altaf Gouhar has said in his book that the Sheikh brought with him the proposal of a condominium which Ayub rejected. However, I did not get any confirmation about the proposal, either in India or Pakistan. But I can tell those who doubt the Sheikh that he never compromised with the state's identity. At the same time, he never expressed his doubt over the decision on the state's accession to India. That his stand had the backing of the people in Jammu and Kashmir is evident from the result of election as late as 1977. This was the only time when a free and fair election was held in the state after the accession. The Sheikh swept the polls and said that election was 'a referendum in favour of accession to India.' By then, the Janata government had come to power by ousting Indira Gandhi. He invited her to the state while she was in the wilderness and accorded her the reception befitting a head of state. He told me 'his daughter has come to her father's house.' This was his way of conveying that Nehru, even when he confined him for 12 years, remained his friend. A few years later, when Indira Gandhi became prime minister again, she offered him the state government, then run by Mir Qasim the Congress chief minister. The Sheikh reached an agreement with New Delhi on the powers that Srinagar could enjoy. However, he realized that he could not reconcile the aspirations of the Kashmiris to what the agreement had conceded. He also miscalculated the reaction of Islamabad which remained hostile to the Sheikh even after his visit to Pakistan. However, he would often complain that New Delhi was niggardly towards the state's economic development. Religious forces began to exploit the Kashmiris' growing alienation and unemployment of the youth. Secular to the core, the Sheikh did not allow any say to communal elements which were tainting the Sufi ethos of the state. After his death, they spoilt the movement which had a touch of idealism in the beginning and which had fired the youth to resort to the bullet when the ballot box failed to elect deserving candidates. The Sheikh's grandson, Omar Farooq, had a point when he said at the time of paying homage to his grandfather a few days ago that the Hurriyat could not evade responsibility for igniting violence in the state. While condemning the Hurriyat, Omar Farooq was only recalling his grandfather's principle. If means are vitiated, the ends are bound to be vitiated. This is what Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru preached. This is what is the ethos of the national struggle for independence. I wish the Kashmiris had understood the Sheikh and realized what he was up against. He was a proud Kashmiri who fought for the state's identity.