Sheikh Abdulla and the World’s Largest Democracy: The First Betrayal


A weekly column by
Danish Wani

Danish studies political science at Delhi University

He can be contacted at

Although Accession vide Article 370 which conferred a “Special Status” on Jammu & Kashmir had received approval both from Patel and Shyama Prasad Mukerjee, a new situation was to develop as the Abdullah government in the State launched the New Kashmir Manifesto, bed-rocked, among extraordinarily progressive pronouncements—equal status of women in education and employment being but one— on the promise of giving land to those who tilled it. Thus, disregarding Clause 6 of the Instrument of Accession (“Nothing in this Instrument shall empower the Dominion Legislature to make any law for this State authorizing the compulsory acquisition of land for any purpose,” and should land be thus needed, “I will at their request acquire the land”), Abdullah declared a maximum land ceiling of 22.75 acres, set up a Land Reforms Commission, and set about distributing surplus land thus acquired to those who actually were tillers on the soil. Abdullah was to rub home the point that such land reforms would never have been possible in a feudal Pakistan.

In the wake of his election as leader of the state assembly in 1951, Sheikh Abdullah had set up a working committee on a draft constitution. It was evident that the degree of autonomy envisaged by Nehru was not what the National Conference wanted. Of particular irritation to the Indian side were enabling clauses within Abdullah’s proposal that any constitutional settlement was provisional upon a referendum and eventual re-unification of Kashmir. Indeed, Abdullah was thinking of independence and a Kashmir, in “association” with India and Pakistan, a “bridge between two states” .

As Perry Anderson further points out, Delhi was becoming uneasy about the regime it had set up in Srinagar. In power, Abdullah’s main achievement had been an agrarian reform putting to shame Congress’s record of inaction on the land. But its political condition of possibility was confessional: the expropriated landlords were Hindu, the peasants who benefited Muslim. The National Conference could proclaim itself secular, but its policies on the land and in government employment catered to the interests of its base, which had always been in Muslim-majority areas, above all the Valley of Kashmir. Jammu, which after ethnic cleansing by Dogra forces in 1947 now had a Hindu majority, was on the receiving end of Abdullah’s system, subjected to an unfamiliar repression. Enraged by this reversal, the newly founded Jana Sangh in India joined forces with the local Hindu party, the Praja Parishad, in a violent campaign against Abdullah, who was charged with heading not only a communal Muslim but a communist regime in Srinagar. In the summer of 1953, the Indian leader of this agitation, S.P. Mookerjee, was arrested crossing the border into Jammu, and promptly expired in a Kashmiri jail.

nehru_sheikh_abdullah_20081201Ramchandra Guha in his seminal work, “India After Gandhi” puts it as: “The popular movement led by Dr Mukherjee planted the seed of independence in Sheikh Abdullah’s mind; the outcry following his death seems only to have nurtured it”. He further mentions, sensing this, Nehru wrote two long emotional letters recalling their old-friendship & India’s ties to Kashmir. He asked Abdullah to come down to Delhi & meet him. The Sheikh didn’t oblige. Then Nehru sent Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (the most senior member of the cabinet) to Srinagar, but that didn’t help either. The Sheikh now seemed convinced of two things; that he had the support of the United States & that ‘even Nehru could not subdue Hindu communal forces in India’. On 10th July, 1953 he addressed party workers at Mujahid Manzil, the headquarter of the National Conference in Srinagar;

After outlining Kashmir’s & his own grievances against the government of India, he said “a time will, therefore, come when I will bid them good-bye’.

The sheikh’s turnabout greatly alarmed the Prime Minister Nehru. By now the government of Kashmir was divided within itself, its members (as Nehru observed), liable ‘to pull in different directions & proclaim entirely different policies’. This was in good part the work of the government of India’s Intelligence Bureau. Officers of the Bureau had been working within the National conference, dividing the leadership & confusing the ranks. Some leaders, such as G.M. Sadiq, were left-wing anti-Americans; they disapproved of the Sheikh’s talks with Stevenson. Others, like Bakshi Gulam Mohammad, had ambitions of ruling Kashmir themselves.

However, A.G.Noorani notes (Frontline, Volume 27 – Issue 02: Jan. 16-29, 2010), that It was not Sheikh Abdullah but Maharaja Hari Singh who first threatened secession in a letter to Patel, but Patel did not reprimand him as he did the Sheikh when he spoke of independence. As early as on January 31, 1948, Hari Singh wrote;

“Sometimes I feel that I should withdraw the accession that I have made to the Indian Union. The Union only provisionally accepted the accession and if the Union cannot recover back our territory and is going eventually to agree to the decision of the Security Council which may result in handing us over to Pakistan then there is no point in sticking to the accession of the State to the Indian Union. For the time being it may be possible to have better terms from Pakistan, but that is immaterial because eventually it would mean an end of the dynasty and end of the Hindus and Sikhs in the State. There is an alternative possible for me and that is to withdraw the accession and that may kill the reference to the UNO because the Indian Union will have no right to continue the proceedings before the Council if the accession is withdrawn. The result may be a return to the position the State held before the accession. The difficulty in that situation, however, will be that the Indian troops cannot be maintained in the State except as volunteers to help the State”, (Durga Das; page 162).

In the nick of time, there was an open rift within the National Conference between the pro-India & pro-independence groups. The latter were led by the Sheikh’s close associate Mirza Afzal Beg. The former were in close touch with the Sadr-i-Riyasat, Karan Singh. It was rumored that Sheikh Abdullah would declare independence on 21 August- the day of the great ID festival-following which he would seek the protection of the United Nations against ‘Indian aggression’. Two weeks before that date, Sheikh dismissed a member of his Cabinet. This gave the others in the pro-india faction an excuse to move against him. Led by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, they wrote the Sheikh a letter accusing him of encouraging sectarianism & corruption. A copy was also sent to Karan Singh. He, in turn, dismissed Abdullah & invited Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed to form a government in his place.

The Sheikh was served his walking papers in the early hours of the morning. When he was woken up & handed the letter of dismissal, the Sheikh flew into a rage;

“Who is the Sadr-i-riyasat to dismiss me?”

He shouted, “I made that chit of a boy sadr-i-riyasat”.

The police told him that he was not just dismissed, but also placed under arrest. He was given two hours to say his prayers & pack his belongings before being taken off to jail. The way the Sheikh was humiliated in the dead of the night, is widely believed as an impending insult to the entire Kashmir by the people over there. Karan Singh later recalled that this done because ‘Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad made it clear that he could not undertake to run the government if the Sheikh & the Beg were left free to propagate their view.

Then it was widely believed that the arrest of the Sheikh was masterminded by Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. Kidwai was a left-leaning member of the Cabinet & a close friend of Nehru’s. In Delhi, it was thought that his desire to humiliate the Abdullah had its roots in the fact that Abdullah was currying favor with the Americans. However, for Kashmiri people, it was a plain, if misguided, act of revenge. Back in 1947 Kidwai’s brother had been murdered by a Kashmir in the hill station of Mussoorie. Deposing the Sheikh was a way of settling accounts. According to the Chief of Intelligence, it was Nehru who sanctioned the arrest of his friend Sheikh Abdullah. His one-time friend behind bars, Nehru installed the next notable down in the National Conference, Bakshi Gulam Mohammed, in his place. Having secured the region, Nehru – the prime mover – made short work of all three. The maharajah was soon deposed, the promise of a referendum ditched & lastly the arrest of the Sheikh. It conveyed an overt lesson of the designs of the center to a large faction of people who have ever since remained pro-independence. Three months later, Bakshi Gulam Mohammad himself attending prayers n the Jama Masjid. This was a way of claiming legitimacy, for the mosque, built by shah Jahan in the seventeenth century, was the subcontinents grandest & most revered. The kepeprs of the shrine sensible of the Baskhsi’s proximity to the ruler of Delhi received him respectfully enough. But, as a Police Report noted, “The Muslim who had congregated there, including some Kashmiris, were talking against Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in whispering tones. They said that “He had become the Prime Minister of Kashmir after putting his “Guru”, Sheikh Abdullah. The Sheikh languished in jail for 11 years till April 8, 1964, bar an interlude of three months, from January 6 to April 29, 1958. The ‘Lion of Kashmir’ Sheikh Abdullah, who according to Dr Joseph Korbel rose like a morning star, but fell like a meteor”

In 1956, the National Conference, led by a Congress favorite, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, adopted a constitution without any reference to a referendum and pushed ahead with the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union under that Article 370 which has remained the lynchpin of India’s defense of its governance in Kashmir. India had come to believe that it had fulfilled its pledge to ascertain the “will of the people” through state elections rather than referendum. But intervention from New Delhi, working through its influence on the National Conference, fudged the NC’s distinction from the state Congress party and Congress ideology even as it eroded the basis of Article 370. The NC leaders it used were often corrupt, dictatorial, conscious of their political dependence on New Delhi, and hence willing to accept and assist the growing interventions of central government. This pattern – so catastrophic after 1987 – has a long pedigree.

Brutal and corrupt, Bakshi’s regime – widely known as BBC: the Bakshi Brothers Corporation – depended entirely on the Indian security apparatus. Bakshi?s reputation had become a liability to Delhi, and he was summarily ousted in turn, to be replaced after a short interval by another National Conference inefficient leader, this time a renegade communist, G.M. Sadiq, whose no less repressive regime proceeded to wind up the party altogether, dissolving it into Congress.
Abdullah, meanwhile, sat in an Indian prison for 11 years, eventually on charges of treason, with two brief intermissions in 1958 and 1964. During the second of these, he held talks with Nehru in Delhi and Ayub Khan in Rawalpindi, just before Nehru died, but was then rearrested for having had the temerity to meet Zhou Enlai in Algiers. A troubled Nehru had supposedly been willing to contemplate some loosening of the Indian grip on the Valley; much sentimentality has been expended on this lost opportunity for a better settlement in Kashmir, tragically frustrated by Nehru?s death.

Sheikh Abdullah was released from prison in 1968, and for a time the Plebiscite Front was allowed to operate unhindered, despite Indian concerns that it remained a secessionist party, challenging the premise of Kashmir’s integration into India. On his return to Srinagar, Abdullah was widely acclaimed, and his party’s membership grew. To contain Abdullah and to keep in check his political vision of Kashmir, Indira Gandhi pressured him to form an electoral pact with her state Congress party in the run-up to the 1972 elections. His refusal led to renewed detention in 1971 and designation of the Plebiscite Front as an illegal organization. Congress won the elections, but in 1975, following discussions with Mrs. Gandhi, Abdullah was released and put in charge of a Congress state government to ensure that he cooperated closely with New Delhi.

Synoptically, the cards played by the Mukherjee during the accession period heightened the tensions in the valley & pushed them to the communal ambiance. As Ramachandra Guha points out, “Dr Mokherjee had been a lifelong constitutionalist, comfortable in a suit & tie, sipping a glass of whisky. During the entire nationalist movement, he never resorted to Satyagraha or spent a single night in jail & the same man thought of offering Satyagraha especially when it came to the Kashmir issue”. When he died in Srinagar jail and his body was brought back to Calcutta & his ashes back to Delhi, the Sangh & Parishad Protestors vowed that that would kill the Abdullah if he came to the Capital & raising the slogans “Kashmir Hamara Hai”. These unnecessary communal slogans scratched the Sheikh & he realized “their” intentions & was alarmed. On the other hand Nehru ditched the Sheikh & ordered his unconstitutional dismissal which is widely viewed by the Kashmiri as another personal betrayal that describes the subsequent politics of Kashmir, first betrayal being the capture of king Yusuf Shah in 1856 by the Mughal King Akbar. Pertinent to mention, that in 1953 both Central governments & the Bakshi faction believed that the Sheikh has lost both legitimacy as well as representation among the masses due to his inept corrupt & sectarian outlook. Ironically, Sheikh was again brought to the limelight after more than 18 years by the same authorities on the ground that he is the true representative of the people & any decision changing the relations between Indian & Kashmir should not be without his consent. What is still haunting is that Sheikh was not in a position to get what he wanted, but he got what was given to him. But the question that crop up is what compelled arch-rivals to come to the negotiations.

(Inputs from Ramachandra Guha, A.G. Noorani, Badri Raina, Perry Anderson, Aliastiar Lamb, Sumit Gangully, ICR Report & some Police Records)



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