Freedom Files: END OF AN ERA

Sheikh Abdullah after spending years in jail went back to his nationalist roots in the mid 70s realising that an all conquering Indira Gandhi would brook no nonsense from him

Freedom Files: END OF AN ERA
Freedom Files: END OF AN ERA

Sarvodaya leader Jayaprakash Narayan met Sheikh Abdullah several times during his incarceration at Kodaikanal since May 1965.

At the kernel of the dialogue remained a Kashmir settlement and of course, Sheikh’s rehabilitation. Isn’t it curious that Sheikh who spent many years in jail and out of power for toying with the idea of an autonomous Kashmir died as chief minister of the state years later. Despite his so-called secessionist intentions, he remained taller than any other leader who walked the Kashmir canvas. He might have spoken out of turn and dropped dark hints at seceding from the Indian Union, but he actually never practiced what he preached.

Battle they say is a great redeemer, Sher-e-Kashmir exemplified this. In and out of jail and power, he remained a nationalist. The crucible of ground level politics is where heroes are forged, this overtakes fate and destiny, for man realises that there is no courage without fear. Sheikh Abdullah returned to power with the 1975 Indira-Abdullah accord. Abdul Majid Zargar writing in Kashmir Watch captures the drama of his return:

“Two people who played a key role in the eventual rehabilitation of Sheikh Abdullah in mainstream politics were D.P. Dhar & P.N. Haksar. In an earlier note dated 28th December 1974, Dhar told the Prime Minster Indira Gandhi that Abdullah wanted an election in March 1975 as the mechanism for becoming Chief Minister ( M.J.Akbar Behind the vale-page 186). But Abdullah was not allowed this luxury. He was, instead offered to head a Congress supported Ministry for which Syed Mir Qasim was persuaded to resign to pave way for him. Indira Gandhi had two possible reasons to do this. One to Keep Abdullah continuously on tenterhooks and second not to allow him to gain much popularity, by winning an election, to the detriment of Congress interests in the State . Abdullah was finally sworn in as Chief Minster of the State on 25th Feberuary 1975 but not before some hiccups. Indira Gandhi’s statement in Parliament of 24th Feburuary that relations between Kashmir & Indian Union would continue as before, was broadcast by All India Radio repeatedly till the swearing Ceremony was scheduled to begin in Jammu. This caused widespread demonstrations and anger in Srinagar condemning Indira-Sheikh accord. Sheikh was livid with rage and did not turn up for swearing ceremony.”

 “In his opinion, New-Delhi had belittled his position by giving an impression that he had sold Kashmir for the chair of a Chief Minster. Indira instructed Mir Qasim, the outgoing Chief Minster, to placate and persuade Abdullah to take the oath and in case of his failure to turn-up within half an hour, to himself substitute for Abdullah and take the oath. The decision was conveyed to Abdullah who took the hint and as they say-rest is history. For Abdullah the plebiscite phase was finally over. He accepted the ratification of accession by the J&K Assembly under Bakshi. He even conceded the right of being called as Wazir-i-Azam, when Indira told him that the clock cannot move backwards. The slogan “Rai Shumari Fowran Karaon” was buried for ever and the political struggle spanning between 1953-75, was referred to as political maundering (Siyasi Awargardgi) insulting the sacrifices of countless people who had gifted their life and treasure for the cause. Pakistan too was shocked with Sheikh’s somersault and Prime Minster Bhutoo gave a call for Hartal which was widely observed in the valley. The Indira-Sheikh accord, generally viewed as a sell-out of Kashmir caused by Abdullah did restore the power chair to him but it brought him at par with ordinary politicians like Sadiq and Mir Qasim. It is worth mentioning here that Abdullah never disputed the contents of the accord during his lifetime. He assumed power, enjoyed it and then passed it on to his son solely because of the accord. That being so it does not behoove of his inheritors to say now that nothing was settled in 1975 accord. That right vests with people who were not part of the accord.”

Was the Delhi controlled remote management of Kashmir responsible for the fissures that appeared every once in a while in Kashmir till 1989 when it was probably too late and Pakistan’s ingenious ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy began to work like clockwork?

Prima facie it seems like the Delhi management of Kashmir affairs cost India dearly in the long run. All the evidence provided so far points in that direction. The remarkable part of Kashmir’s ill-fated destiny is that the Sheikh-Nehru bond allowed it to keep its head above the morass of mediocre intrigue on both sides of the chain, but once doubts crept into that relationship, it was the end. From the time Sheikh was arrested, the decline and demise of Kashmir began in an uncontrollable manner. Bakshi and his team on instructions of Delhi steadied the turmoil ridden atmosphere somewhat, but corruption—Bakshi Brothers Corporation or (BBC set it back rapidly) and the disappearance of the Moe-e-Muqaddas (Holy Relic) in the early 1960s sent everything into a tailspin all over again.

A series of events and poor governance on the part of Kashmir’s administrators led to unrest which was exploited to the hilt by Pakistan after years of trying. Every time, Pakistan’s well thought of and well orchestrated plans, be it 1947 or 1965 failed was primarily due to the fact that local inhabitants did not support the raiders, Kabalis or tribesmen. That has changed after 1989-90. “And that is the single biggest reason for the death of unique and secular bond called ‘Kashmiriyat’, a strange ethos which underpinned Hindu-Muslim faith in one another.''

Immediately after independence, when Sadiq was sent to Pakistan representing Sheikh and the National Conference to conduct a dialogue about the future of the state, which fortunately remained suspended in mid air, Pakistan almost succeeded in convincing the National Conference leadership to join it. What was the plan that was put together in Room 21 of Bristol Hotel in Karachi on February 20, 1948? Titled ‘Formula for Minority Charter’, it agreed that the main point of contact between the two Dominions is that both agree to let the plebiscite decide the ultimate issue in Kashmir. The plan which was to be put up for Sheikh Abdullah’s approval went something like this :

*To allow the Maharaja to remain strictly as a constitutional monarch ;

*To allow Sheikh Abdullah to be premier with restrictions on certain important issues involved;

*A deputy premier to be appointed by the Pakistan government from amongst the other native leaders of Pakistan controlled Kashmir.

*To create an interim Cabinet. The Cabinet would consist in addition to the prime minister and deputy prime minister, other ministers, equal number to be elected by each Dominion. The Cabinet would function temporarily for ordinary day to day routine administration only allowing the unsettled population to return to their respective places in Kashmir, giving them reasonable time;

*The moot difference of the withdrawal of troops was to be adjusted by allowing the troops of either side viz. of the Indian government and of the raiders, to withdraw upto a particular limit, which was to be fixed by common consent, and thereby not allow the absolute and entire withdrawal which was the none of contention at that point in time; and

*No Indian troops were to be maintained in Poonch.

Sheikh played truant and when Sadiq landed for his assent in Delhi, he went off to Simla. Sheikh was never convinced about connecting with Pakistan.

Present day Kashmir and its travails have been the subject line of several other treatises in recent times and as mentioned earlier, I don’t want to walk the path again. When Sheikh and JP Babu met in Kodaikanal, they are reported to have come to some sort of agreement. For starters, Sheikh was once again willing to talk to the Government of India. A government which had jailed him for talking and thinking independence. Sheikh himself could have been boxed in, or he knew that he could not tango with Pakistan. He was further strait-jacketed because Americans, who he reckoned could have been the only people to act as guarantors for his ‘eastern Switzerland’ scheme, aligned themselves with Pakistan owing to Cold War compulsions.

Kruschev-Bulganin’s support for Kashmir’s position vis-à-vis India and the subsequent Russian veto in the United Nations only deepened and widened the divide between Sheikh and the Americans. The failure of Operation Gibraltar, Pakistan’s plan to hustle India out of Kashmir and the subsequent bloody nose it got in the 1965 war may have once again convinced Sheikh that India was Kashmir’s only friend in an ever-dynamic world order.

The 1971 vivisection of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh by giving them a bloody nose like never before may have convinced Abdullah that it was pointless to protest anymore.

But even before that, the message that he sent through JP Babu amounted to the following :

*Pakistan should be persuaded to the idea of autonomy within Indian Union;

*Region Jammu of state predominantly populated by Hindu Dogras and Rajputs and clamouring for abolition of special status for state and total merger with Indian Union should not be allowed to create difficulties once autonomy idea was put through; and

*New Delhi should give Sheikh a solemn assurance that autonomy once granted would not be curtailed.

JP Babu group consisting of CD Deshmukh and PS Lokanathan discussed the result of Narayan’s talks with Abdullah at a seminar in the capital subsequently. But it was clear that Sheikh’s pet peeves regarding Kashmir were completely intact. Even at the time of his arrest thirteen years earlier, the split in National Conference took place over the same issues. Would Sheikh have been able to carry his old/new idea with the people of Kashmir. He spoke to his supporters Mirza Afzal Beg, Maulana Sayeed and Mohiuddin Karra to find out the ground realities. After all, the people of Kashmir had been fed on a slogan of right of self-determination.

But the road was littered with imponderables In October 1957, BN Mullick and company filed a case (known as the Kud Conspiracy Case) against Mirza Afzal Beg, Begum Abdullah and nine others on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. Sheikh, though detained, was also charged. But nothing was ever proved. YD Gundevia, Commonwealth secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs wrote: “Nehru was not party to Abdullah’s arrest and he had certainly not authorised it, he had been poisoned and silenced into acquiescence—once the coup was a fait accompli— though this is bad enough. Secondly, I find it extremely hard to believe—no matter who says it now—that Nehru was ever convinced, at any stage, that Sheikh Abdullah was a communalist and was conspiring against India in league with Pakistan and the pro Pakistan elements in Kashmir”.

Anyway, Sheikh survived the conspiracy case to be released briefly on January 8, 1958. Once again nothing was conclusively proved against him. The reception that Sheikh got in Kashmir stunned everyone, the cavalcade stretched for a mile. Triumphant he went to Hazratbal accompanied by his supporters including Mridula Sarabhai.

In a trademark speech which showed that he had not lost his prowess as an orator, he said, “Accession of Kashmir is not to be decided by rhetoric of Krishna Menon (referring to his marathon filibustering in the UN) or by gun and bullets. Kashmir does not belong to Krishna Menon or Nehru or Bakshi. It cannot be disposed off by India or Pakistan, USA or USSR. The people who alone can decide its future are the people of Kashmir—four million men, women and children, Muslims and Hindus who inhabit this land.”

He then began travelling across the state where he was greeted by large crowds where he reminded Pandit Nehru to stand by his promise to let the people of Kashmir decide their future. But in February, a group of Razakars were reportedly provoked into attacking a NC office in what was described as an IB operation and in the aftermath’s events, Sheikh was re-arrested on April 30, 1958. Kashmir grappled with crisis after crisis till the theft of the Holy Relic in December 1963 sent the Valley into a prolonged spell of agitation and disturbances.

By April 1964, Sheikh was freed again. The yo-yo game played out by political managers in Delhi was taking its toll on Kashmir’s polity. Sheikh Abdullah met Pandit Nehru, then visited Acharya Vinobha Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan in Wardha and finally went to Madras to meet C Rajagopalachari. Ajit Bhattacharjea writes: “He returned with a proposal, probably suggested by Rajaji, for a confederation among India, Pakistan and Kashmir—the nearest thing to his dream for an independent Kashmir. Nehru was not sure it would work, but agreed to allow Abdullah to visit Pakistan to sound out President Ayub Khan’s reactions”

After revisiting the Valley on May 24, he left for a tumultuous welcome in Pakistan along with his colleagues Mirza Afzal Beg, Maulana Masoodi, his son Dr Farooq Abdullah, Mubarak Shah, Sheikh Abdul Rashid, Comrade Mohammed Shafi, Pir Abdul Gani and Naqshbandi. The welcome dissipated quickly as Bhattacharjea says, when: “He committed the sin of stressing the need to retain India’s secular character”. Moreover, as Muhammad Yusuf Saraf Ghulam Abbas Khan threw in a new floater—China. He said that India and Pakistan were no longer the only parties to the Kashmir dispute and that China was also a party that could not be ignored.

After all the interactions, Sheikh then decided to go to Azad Kashmir on May 27 from where he was to go to other places in Pakistan including Dacca. His procession, accompanied by international press to Muzzafarabad, took eons as the capital of Azad Kashmir according to Yusuf Shah turned into a sea of humanity. But at 2.30 pm, another page passed into history. the most important player in the Kashmir imbroglio after Sheikh Abdullah died. Pandit Nehru had passed away in Delhi at the age of seventy-four.

 Around the same time, according to Yusuf Shah, Prabodh Chandra, speaker of the east Punjab Legislative Assembly arrived in Wagah to meet Aga Shorish Kashmiri, his close friend, to deliver a missive from Pandit Nehru to Sheikh Abdullah and “that it pertained to the negotiations on Kashmir which the latter was conducting with President Ayub”. He too heard of Panditji’s demise and returned home, the contents of the missive never known to history.

By then Sheikh rushed back to attend Nehru’s funeral and wept inconsolably. The following years, in February, Sheikh and his wife travelled to Mecca and then onwards to other Islamic countries. Meanwhile, on March 27, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto announced that China had invited Sheikh to their country. On March 31, he met Chou En Lai in Algiers and all hell broke loose. Because it appeared that Pakistan had facilitated the meeting with the Chinese premier. India still smarting under the defeat at the hands of the Chinese saw an uproar.

Chou en Lai reiterated China’s support for Kashmiris’ right of self-determination. A few days later King Faisal of Saudi Arabia did the same during his meeting with Sheikh. This wasn’t the end of the latest fracas involving Sheikh Abdullah. In a shocking revelation in parliament, Lakshmi Menon, minister of state for external affairs said that Sheikh, his wife and Mirza Afzal Beg had described themselves in their applications for passports as Kashmiri Muslims and not Indian nationals. There was pressure on Sheikh to set up a government in exile as India spoke of cancelling his passport. But what did Sheikh do, he returned to India on May 8, 1965, where he was once again arrested.

Trouble once again raised its head on the Kashmir horizon. With Pandit Nehru having died, and Sheikh rearrested, Pakistan moved with alacrity to seize the initiative. It launched Operation Gibraltar, trained saboteurs were to hit Srinagar. A full scale war followed between India and Pakistan, where the former first turned out the infiltrators and then launched an assault capturing the strategic Haji Pir.

Meanwhile, Mridula Sarabhai carried on her crusade. In a letter to Foreign Minister Swaran Singh on March 13, 1965, she wrote through her situation report after travelling on both sides of Kashmir that: “People have controlled their emotions and bitterness, and their expectations that a situation would be created that would bring people and the government into violent conflict has been foiled?..The general feeling in Delhi is that Bakshi and his group are politically finished is wrong. The BBC (Bakshi Brothers Corporation) is a deeply entrenched force in every section and government which is using every opportunity towards its object of discrediting the government on the one side and working as agents provocateur, the only objective being that Bakshi or a government of their choice should come into power.

“The Plebiscite Front leadership led by Mirza Beg has always held that the government should take steps against those who vitiate law and order and adopt coercive means, irrespective of the party they belonged to, but the government should use the normal law for this purpose and not the DIR which is unfortunately closing the door for finding out the truth and pinning down responsibilities of misdeeds. The Sadiq ministry which claims to be democratic should stop use of force, stop repression and persecution of the people, otherwise Kashmir would become a victim of a major crisis”.

 The Plebiscite Front was started in 1954 by Mirza Afzal Beg, revenue minister in Sheikh Abdullah’s government, in collaboration with reportedly some pro-Pakistan elements. In the beginning when its aims were not very clear, the Front attracted a few disgruntled political workers like Abdul Gani Goni MLA and some members of the State Praja Socialist Party—latter only directly.

However, when its sponsor Beg’s views began to emerge, these elements started withdrawing from the party. Even Goni left the Front, denouncing it following Beg’s attitude to the state’s Constitution making. The Front came into existence on August 9, 1954, on the anniversary of Sheikh’s first arrest.

Finally, Sarabhai went on to highlight the bruising rule of the Sadiq ministry by saying, “The Plebiscite Front workers who belong to the pre-1947 period of the National Conference, have played a very important role in the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Sher-e-Kashmir and Jawaharlalji. In 1942, when the Congress was banned in the rest of India, Sheikh Saheb kept the Congress flag flying in Kashmir and the organisation functioning from there.

   “Up to 1953, their association with the Congress was very close. If from 1953, there has been a break, it is not because of their doing, but because of the attitude of the Congress towards them. That does not mean that one does not feel concerned for the Congress organization. There would not have been any resistance to the Congress Unit in Kashmir had it come in the normal way. But unfortunately this did not happen.

“In fact, on January 26, 1965, Congress was brought in abruptly and dramatically in Kashmir with provocative declarations such as Sheikh Abdullah’s influence in Kashmir has dwindled; people of Kashmir are eagerly awaiting the Congress and Congress is coming as a symbol of integration.”

The Congress’ entry saw the slow death of NC as both sadiq and Syed Mir Qasim joined it. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death saw Indira Gandhi take centrestage. An ill Sheikh was brought to Delhi for treatment and interned in a bungalow in Delhi in July 1967. He was finally released from his last detention on January 2, 1968.

By August, 1965, Sarabhai was expelled from J&K under the Public Security Act. It was now a political face off between the Plebiscite Front and the Mir Qasim led Congress.

After the historic Simla Agreement in 1972, the decks were once again cleared for Sheikh’s return to power. But, it was the events of 1971 and the dismemberment of Pakistan with the virtual plucking out of East Pakistan or Bangladesh by Indian intelligence and military operations that proved detrimental to Kashmir’s future destiny. It convinced the Pakistan establishment that retribution for the 1971 vanquishing had to be exacted at any cost in the Valley.

At the same time, it convinced Sheikh Abdullah and his advisers chiefly Mirza Afzal Beg, boss of the Plebiscite Front that accession was no longer an issue, but the structure of the internal autonomy was. It was clear that Bangladesh had weakened Sheikh’s resolve as he saw what India could do militarily. Moreover, India’s gains on the western front had weakened the so-called Pakistan military machine. Adding to this, on May 18, 1974, Indira Gandhi had displayed her bold intent by exploding a nuclear device in Pokhran. This was India’s finest hour. And building on her aggressive mien, in May 1975, she annexed the protectorate of Sikkim. This was a different India, confident of itself and Sheikh Abdullah after being lodged in jails around the country probably did not want to tangle with what were obviously gale force conditions.

On February 25, 1975 after the Indira-Sheikh accord, Sheikh Abdullah returned to power in Kashmir. Subsequently, in probably the fairest polls ever in the state in March 1977, Sheikh and his National Conference won forty seats in the Valley, seven in Jammu to total forty-seven out of the seventy-five seat Assembly. The Congress was decimated winning all ten of its seats in Jammu, while the Janata party won thirteen seats, two in the Valley and eleven in Jammu. But for seven years, Sheikh battled the Centre—first Janata and then a revitalised Congress under Indira Gandhi. On September 8, 1982, an ailing Sheikh passed away and an era ended in Kashmir.

Ajit Bhattacharjea writes in Kashmir—the Wounded Valley: “With him died something of Kashmir. The tradition of Kashmiriyat, the unique, common, eclectic, secular culture of the Valley, suffered a setback. He had withstood Pakistani attempts to infuse religion into Kashmiri politics, he had resisted Indian efforts to swamp its distinct personality. With Nehru and Abdullah both gone, Kashmir’s fate was on auto pilot. The bond that the two shared was also broken and with that the crown jewel atop India’s head lay in ruins”.