Sheikh Abdullah remains a prominent yet most unaccomplished leader of Jammu and Kashmir. His struggle for the rights of Kashmiris crafted a strong sense of the Kashmiri identity. But its yearnings remain unfulfilled.
The so-called lion of Kashmir enjoyed massive support. However, he wilfully commandeered a bitter and blood-spattered struggle for his personal and trifling interests of power and greed that he nurtured till his death. His failure to understand the sociopolitical and historical processes that caused the Kashmiri struggle and consistent disregard for public sentiments continue to haunt Kashmiris and the rest of the region without fail. The Kashmir problem, which was born out of Abdullah’s duplicity, persists to provoke an unending cycle of deaths and destruction and a looming threat of a nuclear war that could usher over a billion people into a massive environmental and humanitarian disaster.
On his 112th birthday, which was observed this past Tuesday, Abdullah remains a source of conflict, discord and disagreement, not only among his compatriots but also across the region between India and Pakistan, and beyond. Farooq Abdullah, the former chief minister and the heir to his father’s political empire that was built on the basis of massive public sacrifice, heaped lavish but mostly ill-founded tributes. “His life was a valiant story of selfless leadership. He fought for the political rights and dignity of his people till his last breath. He chose prison over power for his people and it is this sense of sacrifice and courage that needs to be instilled in our youths.”
Contrast this with the statement from Dr Qasim Faktoo, a pro-freedom ideologue and a scholar languishing in prison for over two decades. He issued a statement from his prison cell at the Srinagar Central Jail blaming Abdullah for “betraying the exemplary sacrifices of [the] Kashmiri people for the lust of power” for which he “deceived his own people and pushed the entire Subcontinent into the perils of war”. “But what is astonishing is the fact that pro-India politicians haven’t learnt [a] lesson from the failed life of Sheikh Abdullah,” Faktoo added.
The quest and struggle for Kashmir’s identity has followed a perfidious trajectory – consuming its restive youth from almost every generation since 1931, when the largest organised protest against the tyrannical Dogra regime was quashed through mass murder, killing over two dozen civilians and injuring hundreds. The outcome of these sacrifices was a shameful surrender at the royal durbar of Hari Singh, the blood-thirsty autocrat whose ancestors were lowly chieftains who assumed the throne through deceit and betrayal. The Muslim elite who went to the royal court supposedly representing the people’s aspirations included Sheikh Abdullah, Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas and Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah. Abbas would later lead the Muslim conference that espoused an accession with Pakistan while Shah became the president of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
This treachery by the Kashmiri leadership would become a boilerplate for the following generations of the political and religious elite who continue to betray public aspirations and their trust while realising their sacrifices for money and power. This is, however, not confined to the pro-India leadership, as Faktoo claims. While Abdullah remains unsurpassed in his greed, the subsequent generations of Kashmiri leaders – regardless of whether they are pro-India, pro-Pakistan or votaries of pro-independence – have amassed disproportionate wealth and influence while common Kashmiris continue to perish or languish in jails.
Sheikh Abdullah initiated some revolutionary political interventions with life-changing consequences for the people. His party – the National Conference (NC) – abolished the jagirdari system, delivering thousands of Kashmiri Muslim peasants from the stranglehold of the landlords, who disproportionately belonged to the minority Hindu community. Kashmiris, who were oppressed by occupation and destitution for many centuries, were suddenly empowered as Abdullah granted them rights to the land that they’d been cultivating for generations like bonded labourers.
Earlier, in 1944, the NC had adopted a progressive manifesto called ‘Naya Kashmir’, which had called for a secular and democratic monarchy, rejecting the respective narratives of India and Pakistan. It called for universal franchise; equality for the citizenry irrespective of race, gender or religion; an independent judiciary; and freedom of speech, assembly and organisation. The document, which is believed to be the handiwork of the Punjabi communists, was quite an achievement to have been adopted as a guiding political treatise.
Sheikh Abdullah’s negatives weigh heavily on his otherwise progressive ideals. Abdullah assumed charge of the emergency administration from the fugitive Maharaja Hari Singh, who had no authority – de jure or de facto – according to Sharif Bokhari, a former judge at the Lahore High Court.
With the termination of paramountcy of the British Crown, the ruling Dogras had lost their rights that they had gained from the infamous Treaty of Amritsar, which had validated the sale of Jammu and Kashmir to the Dogras. Abdullah, in his lust for power, assumed emergency powers illegally and immorally, validating a crumbling regime that was not only illegitimate but also unpopular. His actions also amounted to providing a false alibi to the Indian narrative and its quest to subjugate Kashmiris against their will – a struggle that continues to date, with devastating consequences.
After assuming power, Sheikh Abdullah turned into a ruthless dictator who mauled his own defenceless people and former colleagues because he was unwilling to accept any challenge to his authority. He banished his former colleagues – Yusuf Shah and Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas – to AJK while Prem Nath Bazaz, an influential left-leaning thinker was forced into exile in Delhi. Besides, he operated ruthless gangs of thugs to stamp out any local opposition.
In such an atmosphere of dread, which resembled today’s North Korea, Abdullah was mass-mourned and his loss caused unprecedented hysteria. Less than a decade later, history resurrected him as a traitor and a coward, so much so that even after 35 years of his death, his grave remains under constant guard for fear of public reprisals.