Book Review: Why Sheikh Abdullah Could Never Come Around to Indian Nationalism

Abdullah’s estrangement with New Delhi almost led to the collapse of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India in 1953.

7 min read

In 1947, Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India took place amidst extraordinary circumstances as the tribal raiders from Pakistan swept through the Western part of the state, and India – upon the request of J&K’s embattled last monarch – sent its military to clear out the invading force. It did so on the condition that J&K must join India.

But Jawaharlal Nehru – the country’s first Prime Minister – had a foreboding that bringing a Muslim-majority region under the country’s administration at a time when the sub-continent was being sundered along religious lines, was going to be an exercise fraught with many dangers.

His apprehension could have only been assuaged by one man: Sheikh Abdullah, J&K’s most influential leader in 1947 whose political genius as a leader capable of taking on the State’s repressive Dogra monarchy, had led him to a considerable sway over Kashmiri Muslims.

A Turbulent Friendship

Nehru’s friendship with Abdullah had blossomed more than a decade before the events of 1947, and he recognised the importance of keeping Abdullah in good humour so that the accession holds together and outlives the Partition’s seismic aftermath. 

Subsequent events, however, proved that both leaders had overestimated the scope and promise of their mutual reliance on each other.

Abdullah’s estrangement with New Delhi almost led to the collapse of accession in 1953, prompting Nehru to pull a plug on him and consign him to jail.

This is where the conflict in Kashmir became more intractable. 

Rival Politics Over Religious Spaces

In her new biography on Abdullah, The Caged Lion of Kashmir historian Chitralekha Zutshi delivers the most exhaustive historical profile of J&K’s influential former leader whose name is synonymous with the troubles of the former State. 

The book offers fascinating insights into the early years of Abdullah as he became a recipient of political munificence from Mirwaiz (chief preacher), a senior religious cleric, and a political heavyweight in the region.

The Kashmiri Muslim diaspora in Punjab also supported Abdullah in his first political innings, captivated as they were at the prospect of a young Kashmiri political upstart who was rallying hundreds of people as he intoned verses from the Quran. 

But this unity didn’t last as the shadow of Punjabi Muslim politics deepened the existing political fault lines of Kashmir.

The rivalry between the Congress-aligned Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam and Ahmadiya groups – both of which were competing to bring Kashmiri Muslims into their sphere of influence – led to the growing rift between the two Mirwaizes of Srinagar.

Abdullah had embedded himself with the Mirwaiz associated with the Khanqah-e-Moula mosque of Srinagar at the expense of his rival who preached at the Jamia Masjid.


From 'Muslim Conference' to 'National Conference'

Both the preachers were also significant authoritative political figures with command over the Valley’s important religious spaces.

As Abdullah leveraged his control over shrines to assert political authority, religion, and politics became ever more intertwined causing the non-Muslim subjects in Kashmir to grow wary of his movement.

Facing a big uprising in 1931, the Dogra State begrudgingly unveiled a series of reforms including the right to a free press, the setting up of a legislature (with limited powers), and the freedom to establish political parties. Abdullah named his formation as 'Muslim Conference' (MC).

But beset by the allegations of being a "communalist”, he felt the pressure to open up MC to non-Muslims to endow it with a more representational character. Egging him on for this was his Pandit colleague Prem Nath Bazaz and of course, Nehru.

These efforts culminated in the change of MC to a more secular-sounding 'National Conference' (NC).

But as Zutshi argues, this emphasis on secularism only accentuated the disjuncture between what he was (a devout Muslim who roused his followers by articulating politics in the idiom of religion) and what he projected about himself (a secular nationalist), spawning an unresolved tension that reverberated through the decades to come.


A Blow to the Secular Fabric

Additionally, the Muslim League’s policy of non-interventionism with respect to the princely States (one of which was J&K), coupled with Nehru’s very adamant defence of Abdullah’s political movement (so long as it was oriented along the lines of the Indian National Congress), made Abdullah to slide hastily into Nehru’s orbit.

This element introduced yet another complication into the already complex political situation.

His Muslim colleagues from Jammu began deserting him, accusing him of subordinating the party to the INC. When the Lahore Resolution – calling for the creation of Pakistan – was introduced in 1940, Abdullah was busy feting Nehru in Kashmir.

Later, however, the non-Muslim members renounced the party also, annoyed over Abdullah’s constant invocation of his religion which they felt contravened the party’s avowedly secular ethos. 


The 'Naya Kashmir' program 

In 1943, the economic ravages triggered by the World War caused food shortages in J&K, and the Dogra regime roped in functionaries associated with the NC, which had won significant seats to the new legislature, in the hope of offsetting the food crises. However, allegations of corruption led people to grow further disillusioned with the party. 

Amid this depleting public goodwill, Abdullah rolled out the 'Naya Kashmir’ manifesto. Inspired by Joseph Stalin’s 1936 Constitution for the Soviet Union, the program spelled out a vision for J&K’s political and economic future. The key element of this manifesto was Abdullah’s land redistribution program.

As the Cabinet Mission announced the transfer of power to the Indian leadership with the directive that paramountcy would revert to the states, it led to the questions as to who had the power to decide: rulers or the subjects? It was probably to stake claim to this authority that Abdullah launched the 'Quit Kashmir’ campaign against the monarchy which in turn sent him to prison under sedition charges.

He was released at a time when Indian leaders needed him to bring the Kashmiris around to the viewpoint that accession with India was not just necessary but inevitable.

Recognising that India couldn’t make a persuasive case at the United Nations where the dispute was now lodged, Abdullah embarked on the process to define the relationship with the country under the aegis of Article 370.

But the unresolved nature of the dispute hung like a millstone around his neck, with the people in Kashmir turning more bitter towards him. To pacify the mounting resentment, Abdullah launched his most ambitious project yet: the historic land reforms of 1950 that created around a million new land proprietors in J&K overnight. 

The land redistribution, which put a cap on maximum land holdings and gave the excess land to tillers for free, naturally led the axe to fall mostly on the State’s Hindu residents who had been the principal recipients of the Dogra regime’s benediction. The Hindu "victims” of Abdullah organised under the banner of Praja Parishad (PP) to demand the complete integration of J&K with India, and the dissolution of Article 370. 


Deposed From Power

Abdullah further upped the ante by threatening to secede from the Indian Union. As pressure was brought to bear on Nehru from various quarters, he gave in, as a result of which Abdullah was removed from power and imprisoned. 

With Abdullah in jail and the NC in the grip of his putschists led by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, his associates set up a rival organisation Plebiscite Front (PF) to canvass support for Kashmir’s resolution under the auspices of a UN-backed referendum.

But as India began to smart under the international criticism for imprisoning Abdullah, Nehru ordered his release in 1958, only so that he could be rearrested under a more stringent legal mechanism. 

He was released for the second time in 1965 as the Nehru government grappled with renewed political unrest in the State in the aftermath of the disappearance of 'Moi-e-Muqaddas’ (The Holy Relic) from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar.

After his freedom, he decided to visit Pakistan with the hope of evolving a resolution for the Kashmir issue, adamant as he was for making Islamabad a party to the dispute. On the passport, however, he identified himself not as an 'Indian’ but as a 'Kashmiri Muslim,’ causing a furore in Delhi.

But Ayub Khan, the Pakistani President at that time, gave Abdullah a short shrift for his idea that J&K should be governed jointly as a confederation. He was still in Pakistan when Nehru passed away after which the Hindu hardliners in the Indian government closed in on him, and the latitude he had enjoyed in Delhi so far began to narrow.


Controversial Meet With the Chinese PM

Appalled over the dissolution of NC and its merger into the local unit of the Congress under the government headed by GM Sadiq, Abdullah set off for another global tour across Arab and European countries in 1965.

Still embittered with the Indian government, Abdullah didn’t foresee the consequences of his meeting with the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai at a state dinner in Algeria. The meeting sparked a national outrage in India where the memories of the 1962 defeat at the hands of Beijing hadn’t yet faded. He was again arrested upon his return, and flown to a lavish prison in Ooty in Tamil Nadu.

His release came three years later but soon afterwards, a succession of geo-political changes would completely reconfigure the political landscape across the entire South Asia. The hostility with China had warmed up India to the United States, and the liberation of Bangladesh had delivered a big setback to Pakistan, weakening it further in relation to India.

At his home turf in J&K, a new generation of Kashmiris had come of age, and had grown increasingly estranged from his memory. They were instead more receptive to radical philosophies on the back of which the Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami were beginning to entrench their influence. 

The Accord of 1975

Recognising that he was arriving at the twilight of his political career and worse, anchored on a weaker footing, Abdullah decided to sign a capitulatory deal with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. He dissolved the Plebiscite Front and revived the NC, paving the way for him to return to power – this time as a Chief Minister. 

Having patronised the movement that strove for the settlement of the Kashmir dispute for more than two decades, Abdullah was now making a daring about-face. "Kashmiris were further alienated when the negotiations (for the 1975 accord) themselves were carried out in complete secrecy,” Zutshi writes, “The seeds of Kashmir insurgency were sown at this very moment.”

Drawing from a range of primary sources, Zutshi’s biography of Abdullah is definitely a powerful read, especially because it puts into perspective the ethno-confessional politics of Kashmir that Abdullah had channeled in pursuit of his objectives, but which he wasn't able to reconcile either with the Muslim League's philosophy, and or with the Indian nationalism.

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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