Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah: A Fraught Relationship

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Once the reality of the coup d’état sunk in, it was clear that his political adversaries had voluntarily employed undemocratic stratagems to remove him from the position of pm. “At about 4.20 am,” he recounts, “I bade good-bye to my wife [Akbar Jehan] and children and moved under a military escort to Udhampur, about 175 miles from Gulmarg.” Subsequently, the Sheikh was held incommunicado in a house that belonged to the former maharaja of J&K and father of regent Karan Singh, Hari Singh.

He was further anguished and disheartened on hearing that his house in Srinagar had been sealed and his wife and children had been illegally evicted from the premises. The Sheikh gratefully writes, “Fortunately a Hindu, Madan Lal, came to my family’s rescue and in spite of the coercive measures of the government, he extended a hand of friendship to my wife and children by offering them a portion of his house.”

My understanding of the Sheikh’s arrest and the Kashmir Conspiracy Case became more coherent after reading the monograph by YD Gundevia. The Chicago Daily Tribune was unequivocal in its criticism of the Sheikh’s detention like other international commentators and political analysts. The editorial in the Tribune underlined that the Sheikh’s arrest was under the Nehru government’s Preventive Detention Act, which gave Indian authorities free rein to hold a suspect for a period of up to 10 years without either lodging formal charges or a formal warrant. The Sheikh, the editorial explained to its readers, had been “making himself unpopular by demanding that the people of Kashmir be permitted to decide their own future by a plebiscite.”

Gundevia was Nehru’s foreign secretary as well as special secretary on Kashmir affairs in the United Nations and the Commonwealth in the 1960s. Gundevia’s monograph is appended with The Testament of Sheikh Abdullah (1974). I quote portions of Gundevia’s astute observation about the Sheikh’s ouster and arrest in 1953. He observed that the pm of J&K [Sheikh Abdullah], at this stage, was contending with the rabidity “of Muslim communalism of the pro-Pakistan variety and Hindu communalism of the strongly entrenched Praja Parishad (now BJP) in Jammu.” The increasing communalisation of Indian politics was a juggernaut questioning the myth of secularism in India, the increasing religiosity in Pakistan was also just as damaging. Punitive measures taken against Muslim communalists were welcomed with quiet sighs of relief and approval in India, but any attempts to crack down on the divisive politics of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Praja Parishad met with strong denunciation.

BN Mullick, former Indian spymaster in his intransigence and determination to close the chapter of Kashmiri selfdetermination and autonomy, argued that without Akbar Jehan in the trial, the prosecution would be unable to corroborate the charge of seditious conspiracy against her, the Sheikh, and their political colleagues. He insisted that without the prosecution of Akbar Jehan, they would “miss one of the main connecting links with Pakistan and this would greatly weaken our case; but on this question Bakshi would not budge; and Pandit Nehru also agreed that the Sheikh should not be prosecuted.” Nehru was averse to detaining a leader against whom no substantive evidence could be garnered. The evidence fabricated by Mullick and his cohort was fragmented, contradictory, and could not hold water. India, a young nation-state in the late fifties and early sixties, sought the approval of the international community and could not brook the corrosive criticisms of world powers and intergovernmental organisations.

Sheikh’s nationalism was based on geography and history, not on religion. He clearly did not subscribe to the notion that a powerful global ideology, like pan-Islamism, communism, or fascism, could effectuate universal liberation. He advocated the creation of a political structure in which a popular politics of mass mobilisation would be integrated with institutional politics of governance.

A point that I have made in several forums, and most recently in my interview with Natana Delong-Bas for Oxford Islamic Studies Online, is that the foundation of Kashmiri nationalism was laid in 1931 and this nationalism recognised the heterogeneity of the nation. That it was not constructed around a common language, religion, culture or an ethnically pure majority. This process of Kashmiri nationalist self-imagining is conveniently ignored in the statist versions of the histories of India and Pakistan. Here, I also point out that there are some purportedly “subaltern” versions of the history of Kashmir which, in their ardent attempts to be deconstructionist, insidiously obliterate the process of nation-building in Kashmir in the early to mid-decades of the twentieth century, inadvertently feeding off statist and right-wing versions of history. In their attempt to romanticise militant resistance in Kashmir, such versions fail to take into account the tremendously difficult task of restoring the selfhood of degraded people and also the harsh fact of a political movement which does not highlight the issues of governance, social welfare and the resuscitation of democratic institutions ends up becoming obscurantist. In trying to espouse antiestablishment positions, some of us tend to ignore the dangers of obscurantism and the growth of a conflict economy, in which some State and well as non-State actors are heavily invested.