There aren’t many people alive today who had the privilege of seeing Mahatma Gandhi. There are fewer still who had the rarer privilege of receiving him at their home and walking by his side, with his loving hand on their shoulder. Begum Khalida Shah enjoys that unique honour, and she cherishes that day as a priceless family treasure.
Khalida Shah occupies a special and respected place in Kashmir. She is the daughter of Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah. Dr Farooq Abdullah, four-time Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, is her younger brother. Her husband, Ghulam Mohammed Shah, was also a Chief Minister (1984-86). Her son, Muzaffar Shah, is a prominent politician of the state. Politics runs in her veins with an in-depth knowledge of the history of Kashmir. She has always spoken fearlessly, be it her opposition to separatism and terrorism or to the Centre’s injustice to Jammu & Kashmir and the indignities her people have been subjected to.
Under the Chinar Tree at Khalida Shah's House
I am sitting with her under a chinar tree on the lawns of her house in Srinagar on a quiet sunny morning. The air is refreshing and cool. The first thing that strikes me as greatly admirable about her is how fit and healthy she still is. At 85, she stands straight and walks with agility. As she starts speaking in her soft voice, I am struck by how sharp her memory is. The events she recalls belong to the yester-era. But they are relevant even today for the troubled times in Kashmir, India, Pakistan and our entire subcontinent.
The reason is obvious. At the centre of these events was a man making epic efforts, at imminent risk to his own life, to douse the fires of communal violence and nationalistic rivalry that continue to blight South Asia even now.
Some of what Khalida Shah told me has been supplemented with information taken from an excellent account about Gandhiji’s visit to Kashmir in the book ‘From the pages of The Hindu: Mahatma Gandhi — The Last 200 Days’ by V. Ramamurthy. I have done so only in order to present a well-rounded picture of a journey indelible in the modern history of Kashmir.
'Let Kashmiri People Decide'
It was 2 August 1947, a Saturday. The Mahatma had arrived in Kashmir the previous day from Rawalpindi. India was just a fortnight away from the joy of attaining freedom from British rule — but also from the sorrow of being partitioned in a manner that brought bloodshed and misery on a horrendous scale. It was a critical moment in the history of Jammu & Kashmir, too, because the fate of the state was hanging in balance. What would Maharaja Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of a Muslim-majority princely state, decide? Would he accede to India or Pakistan, or stay independent?
There was a strong sentiment of uncertainty, anxiety and even anger among Kashmiris. Anger because their tallest leader had been jailed by the Maharaja. If Sheikh Abdullah and most of the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley had decided to cast their lot with Pakistan, there was very little either Hari Singh or the soon-to-be-independent India’s government in New Delhi could have done to prevent it. But they had not. Their hearts lay with the Indian freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were much-loved by fellow Kashmiris.
The Muslim League, which had got its demand accepted for the creation of a separate Muslim nation on the basis of the ‘two-nations’ theory, insisted on Kashmir joining Pakistan. The Indian National Congress, which had led the anti-British movement on a secular and democratic agenda, was clear that it was for the people of Kashmir to decide their own destiny.
Sheikh Abdullah, his party (the National Conference) and his people had refused to side with Pakistan and instead stood by the Congress for two reasons. First, the ‘two-nations’ theory went against the grain of the age-old tolerant and syncretic ethos of Kashmir. Second, the Congress, led by Gandhiji and Nehru, had consistently supported their struggle against the autocratic rule of the Dogra kings from Jammu.
The latter had put Sheikh Abdullah in jail precisely to prevent the people from exercising their right to choose their future.
'The Ruler Is a Servant of the People'
It was at this delicate moment that Gandhiji decided to visit Kashmir. He was not going there to plead Kashmiris to join India. Indeed, before his departure from Delhi, at his prayer meeting on 29 July, he had made his views on Kashmir unambiguously clear:
“I am not going to suggest to the Maharaja to accede to India and not to Pakistan. The real sovereigns of the State are the people. The ruler is a servant of the people. If he is not so, he is not the ruler. This is my firm belief, and that is why I became a rebel against the British – because the British claimed to be the rulers of India, and I refused to recognise them as such. In Kashmir, too, the power belongs to the public. Let them do as they want … I do not want to do anything in public when I am in Kashmir. I do not even want a public prayer; though I may have it, as prayer is part of my life.”
'Swaraj For Me Is When Hindus & Muslims Live In Peace'
His real purpose of visiting Kashmir, rather, was to appeal for peace, unity and friendship between Hindus and Muslims, and also between the two independent nations about to be born. The prospect of the imminent partition of India had triggered mass killings and forced displacement of millions of people in Punjab, Sindh, Jammu, Bihar, Bengal and elsewhere. This barbarism had to be stopped, else freedom would lose all meaning. This mission of peace and reconciliation had prompted him to decide to go to Noakhali (in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) on 15 August, instead of being in New Delhi to join the Independence Day celebrations.
Before he left for Noakhali in the east, there were also many Noakhalis in the west – hotspots of communal conflagration that demanded his healing presence. That is why en route to Kashmir, he went on a train journey from Delhi to Lahore and Rawalpindi, urging people to shed hatred and maintain calm. He also requested people to observe 15 August in a solemn manner. “It was a day of sorrow not because the British were leaving but because they were doing so after having this nation torn asunder.”
He had another special appeal to the public: “Observe fast on that day, pray and feel humble before God.” Why this appeal? Because “the times they were in then bore sad witness to brother fighting brother, to widespread shortages of food and clothing, and to the fact of the greatest leaders of the two countries challenged to shoulder burdens under which, without Almighty God’s grace, the strongest would break.”
Why Gandhi Loved 'Abide With Me'
Is this the reason why ‘Abide With Me’, the Christian hymn penned by Anglican Scotsman Henry Francis Lyte, was so dear to the Mahatma?
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”
So close was this hymn to his heart that he had included it in his all-religion prayer meetings. Because it was Gandhiji’s favourite, the tune of ‘Abide With Me’ was played at the Republic Day ‘Beating Retreat’ ceremony every year since 1950. Sadly, it was dropped this year. What a thoughtless decision by the Modi government.
How Sheikh Abdullah’s Supporters Welcomed Gandhi In 1947
Going back to the year 1947. From Rawalpindi, Gandhiji travelled by car to reach the Jammu & Kashmir state border at Kohala on the morning of 1 August. He was given a rousing welcome by the supporters of Sheikh Abdullah. As he proceeded to Srinagar, there was another grand reception for him at Baramulla. But this was spoilt by a small fracas as members of the rival Muslim Conference, a pro-Pakistan group that had broken away from the National Conference, were agitating against his arrival.
There were none of these protests when the Mahatma’s small entourage entered Srinagar in the evening. Khalida Shah recalls, “Tens of thousands of people stood on both sides of the road to welcome him joyously. My mother, whom I had accompanied, was the first to greet him with a garland on the outskirts of the city and wish him a pleasant stay in Kashmir. Arrangements for his stay had been made at Khorshed Bagh, the residence of Kishorilal Sethi, a well-respected businessman, near the aerodrome. He looked a little tired because of the journey, but there were surging crowds coming to have his ‘darshan’.
He told a group of them, ‘I have come to meet the people of Kashmir, and Begum Sheikh Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah is a satyagrahi. My intention is not to participate in any India vs. Pakistan debate. Pakistan will soon be a reality. Our two countries should live as brothers in peace.’”
The Mahatma had spoken glowingly of Sheikh Abdullah on many occasions. Why? Because “he is indeed the Lion of Kashmir. He has done a lot of good work, and the most remarkable thing is that he has won over all the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the course of it. He carries them all with him, and does nothing that will make them discontented.”
'No True Satyagrahi Can Ever be Defeated'
Gandhiji’s first prayer meeting in Kashmir was held on the evening of 2 August. A mammoth gathering comprising some 20,000 people attended the session. “At the prayer, my mother rendered verses from the Holy Quran,” recalls Khalida Shah. “There were also melodious recitations from the Bhagavad Gita, followed by some hymns from the sacred scripture of the Parsis.”
“Do you remember what he said in his address at the prayer meeting?” I asked her. “He did not speak on the occasion because it started raining,” she said. “There was only common prayer, and the meeting ended.”
The next afternoon, Gandhiji went to Mujahid Manzil, the headquarters of the National Conference. Again, he could not make a speech because the crowds were uncontrollable in their enthusiasm to get a glimpse of him. They were shouting ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai!’ and ‘Sheikh Abdullah Zindabad!’
Khalida Shah’s most cherished moment came when Gandhiji arrived at their ancestral residence in Soura, some eight kilometres from Lal Chowk. Her son Muzaffar Shah proudly showed me the photograph of that visit, in which the Mahatma can be seen walking with one hand on the shoulders of Begum Abdullah and the other on the shoulder of young Khalida. “He expressed sympathy and solidarity with our family, and with all the people of Jammu & Kashmir for my father’s imprisonment,” Khalida Shah reminisced. “He assured us that the persecution my father was suffering would not go in vain. “No true satyagrahi can ever be defeated,” he said.
“Why did Gandhiji say, ‘If I see a ray of hope, it is in Kashmir’?” I asked Khalida Shah. “The reason was obvious. Not one Kashmiri Pandit was touched in Srinagar or anywhere else when communal riots were raging in many parts of undivided India. Following my father’s instructions, three volunteers of National Conference stood outside every Kashmiri Pandit’s house.”
Gandhiji Didn't Like 'Taam Jhaam', Says Khalida Shah
What are her enduring impressions of the Mahatma? Without any pause, she replied: “I was a young girl then, and didn’t know much about politics. Yet, I can say he created two unforgettable impressions on me. First, he did not like taam jhaam — pomp and show. He did not like protocol. He gave the same respect to a common man as he did to any high representative of the Maharaja. Second, he respected all religions and spoke of love and peace for all. Because of this, Kashmiris saw him not as a politician but as a saint.”
She then made a remarkable comment. “Gandhiji looked very serious and worried. He must have foreseen what was coming.”
When independence came on 14-15 August, the Maharaja refused to accede to either India or Pakistan. Within two months, Pakistan-backed armed tribals invaded Kashmir. In a panic, Hari Singh fled from Srinagar to Jammu, where he signed the document of accession to India. The Indian army arrived in Kashmir. India and Pakistan started to fight, the first of several wars. The people of Kashmir assisted the Indian army with a warning to the attackers – “Hamlawar Khabardar Hum Kashmiri Hai Tayyaar” (Beware the attacker, We Kashmiris are ready).
Just a few months later, on 30 January 1948, Nathuram Godse killed the Mahatma.
“When the news of his assassination came, I was shattered,” said Khalida Shah. So were my parents and everyone in our family. Grief enveloped the entire Valley.”
Gandhi's India is Lost Today
Over seven decades have passed since those fateful developments, and still more fateful things have happened in Kashmir since then. “What has changed in Kashmir in all these years?” I asked Khalida Shah. “Why is the same Kashmir, which welcomed Mahatma Gandhi so respectfully, the same Kashmir that fought against the attackers from Pakistan, the same Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah that reposed its faith in India, why is that Kashmir so resentful towards New Delhi today?”
“My father placed his trust in secular and democratic India, in Mahatma Gandhi’s India,” she answered. “Sadly, the rulers in Delhi have behaved in a manner that has lost the trust of Kashmiri people.”
(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia. He has authored 'Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age'. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org)