Ascendancy of Sheikh Abdullah, accession and aftermath

Pradeep Gupta
Belonging to a family of shawl weavers and traders, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah secured a post graduate degree from the Aligarh Muslim University in 1930. Such attainment of higher education was rare amongst Kashmiri youth in those times. But the Sheikh was not destined for academic pursuits. He was a mass leader and an adroit orator who had his audience spellbound by his masterly recitation of the holy Quran. He was deeply disturbed by the plight of his people who were mired in poverty and ignorance. The saga of Sheikh Abdullah is a fascinating story of a man who devoted his entire life time for securing social, economic and political justice for his people. During the long struggle spanning half a country, the Sheikh remained imprisoned for 15 years, 7 months and 5 days. A feat later replicated by Nelson Mandela who incarcerated in jails for 27 years during his fight against apartheid in South Africa. Both were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.
When only a teenager the Sheikh was filled with anger when a Food Inspector slapped his elder brother without any rhyme or reason simply to brow beat the residents of their locality. This incident ignited a spark in young Abdullah that raged into a fire that would be doused only after democratic governance was instituted in the State. He initially formed a Group called the Reading Room Party to ponder over the problems of the people. But made his first foray into agitational politics in the aftermath of death of 22 persons killed in police firing near Central Jail Srinagar on 13 July 1931. The Sheikh was arrested and imprisoned for 21 days. He founded the Muslim conference on 16 October, 1932 which returned as a front runner in the elections to the Praja Sabha constituted by the Maharaja in 1934 based on a limited franchise.
The Sheikh first met Nehru in 1937 and the two took to each other instantly. There was complete confluence of hearts and the friendship flourished despite ups and downs till Nehru’s death in 1964. At the instance of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, the poet, and Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah converted the Muslim conference to all J&K National conference in 1939 welcoming all communities to its fold. Subsequently, at Nehru’s behest, the new party was mainstreamed by being admitted as a member of the all India States People’s Conference, of which later Sheikh even became the President. Nehru personally selected a panel of lawyers to defend the Sheikh when he was arrested during the ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement in 1946. The Sheikh was invited to Delhi after his release in September, 1947 and personally received by Prime Minister Nehru at the Delhi Airport disregarding protocol and lodged in his own house as a special guest.
In the mean while news trickled in that hoards of tribal from NWFP supported by Pak regulars had entered Kashmir via Muzaffarabad on 22nd October, 1947. The Maharaja’s army lead by Brig Rajinder Singh fought valiantly and delayed the advance of the raiders by four crucial days giving enough time for dispatch of indian troops to the valley. Many brave soldiers including Brig Rajinder Singh, ‘the savior of Kashmir’, made the supreme sacrifice. A force of volunteers raised by Sheikh Abdullah also put up resistance to the advancing invaders and many of them including Mohammad Maqbool Sher Wani perished in the fray. The raiders indulged in loot, plunder and rape sparing none. The cruelties of raiders created hatred for Pakistan in the valley.
The Sheikh was averse to joining Pakistan as that would mean assimilation and domination like the one countenanced subsequently by the Bangladeshis in East Pakistan. There was, however, always a craving in him for self rule. Initially to the Maharaja also independence appeared to be an attractive option. In fact from 15th August, 1947 to 26th October, 1947, when it acceded to India, Jammu & Kashmir was in law an independent State! The India independence Act, 1947, however, did not give the rulers of princely States the option of independence. In any case Pakistan’s invasion of J&K settled the issue. The Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 26th October 1947. Sheikh Abdullah, who was also present at Nehru’s residence on the fateful day, endorsed accession to India thereby providing a veneer of popular support to the merger.  Lord Mountbatten accepted the Instrument of Accession on 27th October, 1947. On the same day Indian troops were airlifted to Srinagar to hound the raiders out of the Valley. As per prior understanding Sheikh Abdullah was made the head of emergency administration and subsequently Prime Minister on 5th March, 1948. While there was communal frenzy all over the country in the aftermath of partition, the valley remained relatively free of violence largely due to the efforts of Sheikh Abdullah.
Nehru visited Srinagar soon after the raiders were pushed out of the Valley. A mammoth rally was held at LaL Chowk in his honour. Amidst thunderous applause from the public, Nehru and Sheikh raised clasped hands signifying solidarity between the two leaders and their people. The State’s Constituent Assembly, elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage, formally ratified the accession on 6th February, 1954.
Immediately after taking over the reins of government, Sheikh Abdullah initiated several revolutionary reforms already spelt out in the NC manifesto ‘Naya Kashmir’. The Big landed Estates Abolition Act or Khatma Chakdari, as it was called, was enacted in 1950 abolishing Jagirdari and absentee landlordism. Land was transferred to tillers without payment of any compensation. The very first mutation under the law was attested in Sheikh’s presence at Jhiri, Jammu, as a tribute to the kissan martyr Baba Jitto. The implementation of the law followed by ‘Grow More Food Programme’ gave a big boost to agricultural production. Laws were also enacted for liquidation of rural debts and restitution of mortgages. Public Health and Education became top priorities of the government. In all these pioneering initiatives the Sheikh was ably assisted by Mirza Afzal Beg who remained faithful to his leader even when the former was in wilderness from 1953 to 1975. But his contribution has largely remained unacknowledged. All these reforms were very much ahead of times and perhaps even the envy of Socialists, who promised the same but were not able to deliver. The red flag of the National Conference with the plough was perhaps symbolic of the ideology of the party that had sworn to work for the upliftment of peasants and workers. If Nehru was architect of modern India, Sheikh was founder of modern Jammu & Kashmir.
The big landlords and other capitalist forces and disgruntled elements were upset by these reforms. They found an eager rallying point in Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and were even able to influence the close advisors of Nehru. There was mistrust in the air. The agitation launched by Praja Parishad in Jammu in the aftermath of the death of Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee at Srinagar on 23 June, 1953 hastened the process of Sheikh’s ouster. The Sheikh was dismissed and arrested on 8th / 9th August, 1953 while holidaying at Gulmarg. This action was precipitated by a memorandum signed by three of his ministerial colleague’s expressing lack of confidence in Sheikh’s leadership! No opportunity was afforded to the Sheikh to prove his majority on the floor of the House. The ‘Kashmir Conspiracy Case’ lodged against the Sheikh was subsequently withdrawn. It would take another 22 years to turn the clock back and restore the status quo ante. By then much water had flown in river Jhelam and so had alienation grown among the people. The valley of flowers would be in flames no sooner the Sheikh departed from the scene.
History tells us that such phases are cyclic in the evolution of societies and Nations. Northern Ireland is an example where politics finally triumphed over violence. Can we hope that bonhomie of 1947 will return? Is it not time, as Nund Reshi said, ‘to break the sword and fashion it to a sickle’ and reap benefits of peace, harmony, co-existence and development and let paradise return to Kashmir?
(The author is former civil servant)


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