Rereading Sheikh Abdullah

  • Yasir Bashir
  • Publish Date: Apr 14 2017 9:40PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Apr 14 2017 9:40PM
Rereading Sheikh Abdullah

What revisiting some of his key decisions tells us about modern Kashmir’s most important political figure


Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s autobiography Aatish-i-Chinar was originally published in 1985, three years after his death. More than a political biography of one of Kashmir’s most important modern figures, the book is a treatise on the birth and evolution of our various struggles, many of them ongoing. 

Although the first comprehensive account of Sheikh’s long political life, Aatish-i-Chinar is not an autobiography in the strict sense of the word. It wasn’t a manuscript put together by Sheikh in his lifetime and published posthumously; the book is an interpretation of the late leader’s notes by its editor Mohammad Yusuf Tang, who admits to lacking knowledge of historical methodology. Unsurprisingly then, the book has its limitations, not least that a mass of indispensable facts is interspersed with quite a bit of fiction.  

Still, the book provides valuable insights into historical events that have shaped Kashmir’s modern history, not only through what it narrates but also what it doesn’t. It is purposely silent, or at best economical with the truth, about Sheikh’s many decisions that greatly damaged Kashmir’s polity. This article is focused on objectively analysing, with the help of well-referred sources, two such decisions – the renaming of Muslim Conference as National Conference in 1939, and Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947.


Dismantling Muslim Conference

The consciousness that arose against the oppressive Dogra Raj in early 20th century was eventually concretised in the form of All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, the princely state’s first known political organisation founded in 1932 under Sheikh’s presidency. Seven years later, the party was renamed as the National Conference. Sheikh claimed it was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, British India’s preeminent Muslim leader, who, on a visit to the valley in June1936, had suggested renaming the party. In Sheikh’s telling, Jinnah had declared that it was an obligation of Kashmir’s Muslim leadership to consider non-Muslims as a “wheel” of their political van.

While Jinnah had indeed asked the Muslim leadership to assure the state’s minorities that their rights would be safeguarded and include them in the struggle against the Dogra Raj, there was no suggestion of changing the name and constitution of the Muslim Conference. 

Sheikh further claimed that in 1937 he received a similar suggestion from Allama Iqbal about the formation of a united political front with non-Muslims as he had from Jawaharlal Nehru earlier. The claim is doubtful because Iqbal had adumbrated his idea of Pan-Islamism and a separate state for the subcontinent’s Muslims seven years previously, in his presidential address to the Muslim League’s Allahabad session in 1930. [4] More important, in 1933, the poet-philosopher appealed the “Muslims of Kashmir to beware of the forces that are working against them and to unite their ranks. The supreme need of the moment is a single party representing all Muslims in the state.” 

Moreover, Sheikh brought the resolution for renaming the Muslim Conference in June 1938, two months after Iqbal’s death. But he did refer to any letter – as he usually did – from the poet suggesting such a change. 

In his autobiography Kashmkash, Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, a former comrade of Sheikh’s and one of the founders of the Muslim Conference, writes that Sheikh gave two reasons for this change. One, that the Dogra Raj prime minister N Gopalaswami Ayyangar had promised that if they could form a common nationalist platform, the Raj would be forced to become a responsible government and even induct two ministers from the joint platform. Two, that some non-Muslims wanted to be part of the political movement against Dogra rule.[6]  Neither of these “reasons” stands scrutiny, though. Why would Ayyangar promise to essentially strengthen the political position of Muslims and thereby risk the very survival of the Raj. As for non-Muslims, they were hardly interested in challenging a regime under which they enjoyed political, economic and social power despite being a minority. 

Then, there is the agreement – rarely analysed by Kashmir’s historians -- between Sheikh Abdullah and Chaudhry Abbas on changing the name and character of Muslim Conference. It laid down that:

The ideology of the Indian National Congress would not be taken forward in Jammu and Kashmir by the National Conference.

The Muslim League, being the single representative organisation of the Indian Muslims, won’t be opposed at any cost in Jammu and Kashmir. This could be taken to mean that the League was free to propagate its ideas and programmes.

Sheikh and his loyalists agreed to these terms in order to facilitate a smooth transition of Muslim Conference to National Conference.

Kashmkash was published in 1950, and Sheikh did not counter its claims and allegations, at that time or in his autobiography which was written in the late 1970s. It’s difficult to understand why. The transformation of the Muslim Conference into National Conference caused disunity among the state’s Muslims, with the Muslims of Jammu region going with Abbas in the revived Muslim Conference and Sheikh garnering the support of a majority of the valley’s Muslims. This division had far-reaching consequences. During the Quit Kashmir movement, top leaders of both the Muslim Conference and the National Conference were jailed, except Sheikh, who was released at the behest of Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and MK Gandhi to facilitate the accession drama. It’s a strong argument that had leaders of the Muslim Conference been released as well, Sheikh would not have dared endorse the accession openly and the situation would have been different. Also, the Muslim Conference had already passed a resolution for making Kashmir a part of Pakistan on 19 July 1947. 


Acceding to India

Sheikh had several chances to reconsider his decision of joining the Indian Union during and after the Quit Kashmir movement. In 1946, Sheikh’s deputy Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad went to meet him in Baderwah jail to ask about the future course of action. Bakshi realised that Sheikh was not in favor of acceding to Pakistan; he wanted to enter the Dogra Maharaja’s government so that relations would be built with India. 

Soon after India gained independence, Sheikh sent a letter to National Conference leader Moti Ram Begara from Baderwah jail in which he ruled out any possibility of Kashmir joining Pakistan. After his release from jail on 29 September 1947, Sheikh held backstage talks with the Dogra prime minister Mehr Chand Mahajan about entering Maharaja’s government. But the talks broke down in the wake of the Poonch rebellion. 

Soon after Sheikh’s release, many other National Conference leaders and workers too were freed. To felicitate them, a public gathering was organised by the National Conference in the lawns of Pather Masjid, Srinagar. Addressing the gathering, Maulana Syed Masoodi said the party had committed to secularism in a United India, not a divided one. Now that Pakistan was a sovereign country, the party’s leadership must do a rethink, he added, apparently aware that the public mood was in favour of accession to Pakistan.

Sheikh rubbished this advice, remarking that since Masoodi had only just come out of jail, he did not know the “ground reality”. It was clear that Sheikh’s mind was set on joining India.

Around that time, a deputation of Muslim League arrived in Kashmir to hold talks with Sheikh and other Kashmiri leaders. Most of its members were of Kashmiri origin and it included Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din, Brigadier Habib-ur-Rehman, Dr Muhammad Din Taseer and Sheikh Sadiq Hassan. They had been sent by the Pakistani government to persuade Sheikh to accede to the new country. The delegation offered Sheikh full internal autonomy as well as the right to secede. Sheikh insisted that any discussion on accession could be held only after Kashmir was completely free from Dogra rule. He, however, promised to send Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq for further talks with the Pakistani government, and to arrangement for a meeting between Sheikh and Jinnah. 

Sadiq duly went to Pakistan and met Liyaqat Ali Khan and Raja Gazanfar Ali Khan. He was assured that Kashmir would have full internal autonomy if it acceded to Pakistan. Liyaqat Ali Khan also sent a letter to Sheikh through Sadiq, promising that Kashmir’s “interests” would get “supreme attention” when the country’s foreign policy is formulated. Sheikh, however, was more interested in becoming prime minister under the Maharaja, Munshi Isaaq writes in Nida-i-Haq. All this, of course, barely finds mention in Aatish-i-Chinar.

Then, there’s the note that Nehru sent Sheikh from Sonamarg in 1952, asking him to finalise Kashmir’s accession but ruling out any possibility of a plebiscite later (See, Selected Works of Jawahar Lal Nehru). It raises the question: why did Sheikh not say anything about this note while raising the slogan of self-determination for 22 years? Indeed, Sheikh never managed to counter the impression that he had traded Kashmir’s freedom, and the great sacrifices that went into achieving it, for crumbs from India. 

Yasir Bashir is a research scholar at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi