July, Kashmir, a Family Coup: Did Indira's Ouster of Farooq Trigger Bloodshed?

Would the state have been spared three decades of horrific bloodshed if Farooq had continued as chief minister?

7 min read
Hindi Female

(This is part one of a four-part 'July' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part two here, part three here, and part four here.)

“I am satisfied that you have lost the confidence of the majority of the MLAs in the Legislative Assembly. I, therefore, regret to inform you that I have dismissed you from the chief ministership of the state and dissolved the council of ministers headed by you.”

2 July 1984. A letter personally handed over by Governor Jagmohan to chief minister Farooq Abdullah.

Many are convinced this decision by prime minister Indira Gandhi to let her advisors plot and execute a successful coup against a young, flamboyant, and immensely popular leader who had won a thumping majority in the 1983 elections triggered emotions and events for which Jammu & Kashmir continues to pay a price. More of that later. On the face of it, here is what happened during that fateful week.

The National Conference headed by Farooq Abdullah had won 46 out of 78 seats in the 1983 assembly elections, having inherited the mantle from his father Sheikh Abdullah.

However, there was a bitter feud within the First Family of J&K as Farooq’s brother-in-law G M Shah became his sworn enemy and floated his own version of the National Conference, without much political success though. In contrast, Farooq and his British wife Molly were adored by a large section of Kashmiris.


The Events of Late June and Early July

On the eve of Eid on 28 June, a group of ten “rebel” MLAs gathered at the Centaur Hotel. Farooq, it seems, had no clue about the palace coup being planned and played golf as usual on Eid. On 1 July, Farooq went on his motorcycle to “raid” and arrest illegal timber smugglers. By late at night on 1 July, Farooq’s estranged brother-in-law Shah had managed to get the signatures of 12 NC MLAs withdrawing support to Farooq. On the morning of 2 July when Farooq and his wife Molly were having tea, Governor Jagmohan called and asked Farooq to come immediately to Raj Bhavan.

The rest is a tragic unfolding of history. Syed Mir Qasim, a leader of the then Janata Party, turned out to be quite prophetic when he remarked soon after the coup: “Farooq represented those forces for whom Kashmir's merger with India was not negotiable. But this hijacking of the people's government will reverse the process of normalisation."

According to most credible accounts of those days, Rajiv Gandhi was closely involved in the entire process via his strategic advisor Arun Nehru. In any case, Indira Gandhi was assassinated a few months after this and Rajiv became the prime minister of India.

The reasons given by Team Indira & Rajiv for the unceremonious ouster of Farooq Abdullah was that his government was failing to curb pro-Pakistan and separatist activities in the state. During an India-West Indies one-day cricket match in 1983, a section of the crowd shouted anti-India slogans and even made pro-Pakistan chants as they cheered West Indies thrashing India. Seven people from the crowd were arrested by Jammu & Kashmir police.

In February 1984, an Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre was kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists while returning home from the Indian consulate in Birmingham. One of the demands made by the kidnappers was the immediate release of the seven arrested after the cricket match. But their key demand was the release of separatist Maqbool Bhat who had been sentenced to death and was awaiting his hanging at Tihar jail in Delhi. Tragically, the kidnappers shot and killed Mhatre. Within days of Mhatre being killed in the U. K, Maqbool Bhat was hanged to death in Delhi.


The Gandhis' Blunder

Did the ouster of Farooq Abdullah trigger emotions that further alienated Kashmiris from the Republic of India? Conversely, would the state have been spared three decades of horrific bloodshed, terrorism, and armed forces in virtually every nook and corner of the valley if Farooq had continued as chief minister?

The authors have no expertise in an issue as fraught and complex as Kashmir. But like most ordinary Indians, they know that this folly of Indira Gandhi in 1984 was compounded in 1987 by her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 when he was prime minister. Somehow, Farooq Abdullah was persuaded to form an alliance with the Congress to contest the 1987 assembly elections.

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry now knows that those elections were ruthlessly and cynically rigged. The alliance did win and Farooq did become chief minister again. But vast swathes of ordinary Kashmiris lost faith in the democratic process and became even more emotionally alienated from mainland India. Quite a few picked up the gun and went to neighbouring Pakistan for indoctrination and training in armed Jihad against India.

A college-educated preacher called Syed Mohamed Yousuf Shah had contested the 1987 assembly elections and felt he lost only because the elections were rigged. He went over to Pakistan, became Syed Sallahuddin, and joined the dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen that he continues to lead even though most security institutions including the US State Department have listed him as a global terrorist. The election manager of Syed in 1987 was a young man called Yasin Malik who went on to head the JKLF and has on record admitted to gunning down Indian Air Force personnel in 1990. Both were arrested and jailed soon after the 1987 assembly elections. For reasons not clearly known, both were released in 1989-the year when Kashmiri separatism and terrorism sponsored from across the border began to explode in the valley.

The lead author had the opportunity to gain personal insights into the Kashmiri minds during the 1990s. Sometime in the mid-1990s, Yasin Malik gave his first-ever television interview to the lead author. In that two-hour interview, Malik recalled his role as an election agent for Syed Yousuf (later Syed Sallahuddin) in 1987. According to him, the actual counting showed Yousuf winning the seat. Even as Malik and associates were celebrating the victory on the streets, it was “officially” declared that the National Conference candidate had defeated Yousuf.

During the subsequent street protests, both were arrested by the police and Malik claims he was brutally tortured in custody. In that pathbreaking interview, Malik admitted that the Muslim United Front would have won a maximum of 14 out of 78 seats if free and fair elections were organised; meaning Farooq would have anyway become the chief minister with Yousuf as an opposition MLA. But Rajiv and Farooq closed that door by rigging the elections.

The lead author was also closely involved in organising the first-ever opinion poll that CVoter conducted for the magazine The Week prior to the 1996 assembly elections. During that poll, 82% of respondents in the Kashmir valley expressed apprehensions that the elections would again be rigged like in 1987. The lead author spent about a month in the valley while the opinion poll was being conducted. One memorable interaction he had was with hard-line pro-Pakistan separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani who nonchalantly pronounced that Shariat law must be imposed in Kashmir. He cited democracy as the reason. His logic: in a democracy, whatever the majority wants gets done and a majority of valley Muslims wanted Sharia.


A Capitulating State

In many ways, the authors are convinced Kashmir was going to face troubled times even if Farooq had not been ousted in 1984 and if the 1987 assembly elections had not been rigged. By 1989, the mighty Soviet Union army had been vanquished and humiliated by Mujahideen fighters backed by America through Pakistan and had withdrawn in ignominy from Afghanistan.

Thousands of armed fighters then sought fresh pastures to continue their Jihad. Many found fertile goods in Kashmir. While Jihad was inevitable, the actions of New Delhi in 1984 and 1987 provided reasons or excuses for the likes of Yasin Malik to declare de facto war on India. For almost three decades after that, India and Kashmir have seen not only terrorism but abject acts of surrender by the Indian state.

The first was the kidnapping of Rubiqa Syed, daughter of the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Syed by JKLF militants. The State surrendered and conceded the demands of the militants. Nothing was then done to help them even as Kashmiri pandits were systematically targeted, raped, and killed. It doesn’t now matter who was really to blame, but about 500,000 Kashmiri pandits lost their homes in the valley and became refugees in India.

Thousands of Kashmiri Muslims have been killed in the war between Indian security forces and terrorists. The State again surrendered when terrorists threatened to blow up and destroy the revered Charar-E-Sharif shrine in the valley. The State once again surrendered when terrorists hijacked IC 814 travelling from Kathmandu to Delhi in 1999. Successive prime ministers were V P Singh, P V Narashima Rao, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For many Indians, it was a cringeworthy moment when prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh personally welcomed and met Yasin Malik.

Kashmir, by traditional standards at least, has been relatively quiet and peaceful since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019 and the state carved up into two union territories J&K and Ladakh. Besides, the dogs of war unleashed by Pakistan to torment India are now devouring that very country. Will this fragile peace last? After three horrific decades where hundreds of Indian security personnel and tens of thousands of Kashmiris have lost their lives, the authors do not have any answers or solutions. All they can do is pray that peace holds.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. 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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Topics:  Indira Gandhi   Farooq Abdullah 

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