This biography of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah is partly based on the protagonist’s autobiography, Aatish-e-Chinar (Flames of the Chinar) and partly on the author’s own experience.
Shiekh Abdullah is born in a family of shawl weavers living in Saura. Abdullah has himself mentioned in his memoirs that one of his ancestors had converted to Islam during Afghan rule, hence the appellation ‘Sheikh’, which indicated a convert, rather than a noble or a prince. Religion leaves an early impress on him and he grows up as a devout Muslim. He attains his degrees from Lahore and Aligarh. He begins to lead protest processions against Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir. Despite an M.Sc. degree, he can get a job only as a school teacher. He tries it for a short while, but gets “drawn into the stirrings of political activities in Srinagar.” He begins giving speeches in the state and within two years, he becomes a political leader. Meanwhile he gets married to Akbar Jahan, daughter of Michael Harry Nedou, son of a prosperous Austrian hotelier. Michael himself had married a Kashmiri Gujar girl.
Here a very interesting description is given about Akbar Jahan, who after schooling in a convent, falls in love with Colonel T.E. Lawrence, famous as Lawrence of Arabia. At her father’s insistence she gets married to Lawrence but soon the latter is recalled to London where his espionage activities get disclosed in the press. Akbar Jahan’s father insists on Lawrence granting divorce to his daughter. Four years later, Akbar Jahan marries Sheikh Abdullah, providing him with “the firm support that Abdullah needed.”
Here the author describes the entry of Pathan lashkars under ‘Operation Gulmarg’ into Kashmir. They are from the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan and armed by Pakistan to enter into Jammu & Kashmir. Though portrayed as fellow-Muslims intending to free Kashmir from the oppressive rule of a Hindu maharaja, they plunder all who cross their path. The planners of the ‘tribal operation’ had calculated that Srinagar would fall in a day, integrating Kashmir with Pakistan, but that does not happen. The man whose charismatic leadership strengthens this unique de-linking of nationalism from religious intolerance — an inflammable mixture still haunting India and the world — is Sheikh Abdullah, says the author. His commitment to secularism, socialism and campaign for azaadi (freedom from oppression of the maharaja) motivates the people to rebuff the appeal of religious politics sweeping the subcontinent. The foundations of the transformation are laid by changing the name of the party Abdullah leads in the struggle for popular rule against the maharaja — from the Muslim Conference to Kashmir National Conference, which is thrown open to all communities. The historic date for this is June 11, 1939. Promising among other reforms, land to the tiller without compensation, makes him known as the Sher-e-Kashmir.
Sheikh rises to become the Prime Minister of the State (at that time Kashmir had not been integrated with British India) but also becomes the target of communal forces let loose by the decision to Partition British India. After Independence, in May 1951, Abdullah delivers a historic address at the inaugural session of the Kashmir Constituent Assembly, stressing the advantages of “an autonomous link with India, notwithstanding the status of Muslims as a minority in the country.” He rejects joining Pakistan outright. A very important point made here by the author is: “It was Nehru’s recognition of Kashmir’s desire for self-determination that had persuaded Abdullah to link its faith with India’s.” Could it be the reason for the Kashmiris insisting on separate statehood even now?
Abdullah demands the special autonomous status promised when the state agrees to accede. “He had countered Muslim communalism in the Valley but was falling victim to Hindu revivalism in India,” points out the author. Sardar Patel appoints B.W. Mullick, the Director of IB, to spy on Abdullah, who speaks of self-determination and expresses concern on “advance of Hindu communalism in India.” The campaign against him heightens when Syama Prasad Mookerjee, president of the Jana Sangh, dies of heart failure on June 12, 1953 in Srinagar. A few weeks later, framed by Mullick, Abdullah is stripped of the Prime Minister’s office and detained on unproven charges of complicity with Pakistan. Nehru brings in Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed as Chief Minister of the State. Meanwhile Nehru realises that he does not have long to live and he gets Abdullah released. Nehru dies on May 24, 1964 and by 1974, a on May 24, 1964 and by 1974, a tired, ageing Sheikh enters into a deal with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to accept the finality of accession to India.
The Lion of Kashmir dies in 1982 leaving behind the Kashmiris to weep for him. An era ends: an era in which men with the vision of Nehru and Sheikh tried to understand each other and reconcile ethnic differences. Abdullah has recalled his vital contribution in his memoirs: “One can say without fear of contradiction that the two-nation theory suffered its first severe defeat in Kashmir. Kashmir played a vital part in keeping the torch of secularism lit in India.”
On reading the Appendix in the book in which Sheikh Abdullah’s speech to the Constituent Assembly is recorded, it seems that this Lion of Kashmir had genuine intentions and was wrongly misunderstood by Indian leaders. This book must be read by historians and political analysts.
(Roli Books Pvt Ltd, M-75 Greater Kailash-II Market, New Delhi-110048.)