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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 44 New Delhi October 19, 2019

Sheikh Abdullah, What Next?

Sunday 20 October 2019, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

In 1967, that is, fiftytwo years ago, N.C. visited the Kashmir Valley for a few days and held detailed discussions with a wide cross-section of opinion-makers and political personalities of all shades there. On his return he wrote a series of pieces on Kashmir in Mainstream. The following is the second instalment of the series ‘Special Report on Kashmir’ and was published in this journal’s October 21, 1967 issue. It is being reproducecd now that Kashmir is in the news once again. The first instalment of the series “Kashmir in Focus” was reproduced in Mainsream (September 28, 2019). The third and fourth instalments will be reproduced in the following issues.

Perhaps no other issue has persisted throughout the two decades since independence as a challenge to Indian statesmanship as the question of Kashmir. No other item has been discussed so often and so intensely at home, and none has provoked so many questions abroad, both among India’s friends and detractors, among allies and adversaries.

And at the centre of this issue stands the question of Sheikh Abdullah. At one time he was taken as the very symbol of secularism: his leadership together with the team that rallied round him was regarded as the advance guard of radicalism at the governmental level. But within six years of independence, he was imprisoned in a dramatic overthrow: was he selling out Kashmir to Pakistan? Atleast that was what the Indian public was made to beliee, and yet not a scrap of evidence was produced to prove the charge: and so he was detained and not tried. After a brief spell outside prison in 1958, he was again kept in detention. This time an elaborate conspiracy case was launched against him—lakhs of rupees were spent, and the case dragged on from year to year. And yet in 1964, the conspiracy case was dropped and Sheikh Abdullah was rleased and Jawaharlal Nehru himself played the host to him in New Delhi—no trace of the conspiracy could be seen anywhere.

In fact, his confidential talks with Nehru were sufficiently important for him to be entrusted by Nehru to go to Pakistan for arranging an Indo-Pak summit on Kashmir. And yet about a year later he was again detained. Once again after a protracted period of detention, today he is on the threshold of being released. An extraordinary record indeed of a government repeatedly shifting its position in one of the most important political cases baffling settlement for fifteen years.

And it is not only the government but the Opposition as well, particularly the Left Opposition, that has shifted its ground repea-tedly in its attitude towards Sheikh Abdullah. This could be seen from the fact that the very parties which endorsed his imprisonment since 1953 are insistent on his release today.

Barring Jana Sangh and those in the Left who coined the catchy but unreal slogan that Kashmir is not a dispute but a situation, practically every party from the Congress to the Communists, from Socialists to the Swatantra, are faced today with the question of what to do next with Sheikh Abdullah. This is a question which can no longer be shelved. With his impending release in the next few weeks, it is time that a sober and realistic approach towards Sheikh Sahib—that inevitably means towards the Kashmir tangle—is hammered out by all the secular forces together, an approach which harmonises the self-interest of the nation as a whole with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

Talking to leaders of different sectors of Kashmir opinion during a brief stay there recently, I could sense a common desire on the part of all—from Sri G.M. Sadiq to Sri Mirza Afzal Beg, from Syed Mir Qasim to Dr Karan Singh—that the present drift with regard to the overall settlement of the Kashmir question must end once and for all; that it must no longer be treated as a chronic case of stop-gap emergency. But the very first step towards any serious national effort in that direction has to be a well-thought-out approach towards Sheikh Abdullah with the earnest desire for a stable under-standing with him.

A senior Kashmir leader put it to me, there are two misconceptions about Sheikh Abdullah: that he has changed radically in his views during his long period of detention discarding many of his old views; and the contrary view that Sheikh Sahib has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing through all these years of political hibernation and so cannot be trusted. The first is based on wishful thinking and the second is based on blind prejudice. For there can be no political leader who does not reappraise political digits with the changing circumstances, while no leader can afford to totally disown his stand while kept in forced isolation from his movement.

What does Sheikh Abdullah want? Many interpretations have been put to many of his utterances during his brief spells of freedom in the last fourteen years. Quite often these utterances have been torn out of context or made under a barrage of calculated provocations; sometimes, it is to be admitted, Sheikh Abdullah’s words and deeds perplexed even some of his genuine friends.

In this context, a long session with Sri Mirza Afzal Beg amidst the warm hospitality of his Anantnag home was found to be rewarding. The prevailing police restrictions on him debarred his giving any press interview, but an off-the-record discussion could show how the mind of this close lieutenant of Sheikh Abdullah has been working. Sri Beg is recognised as being closest to Sheikh Sahib; while according to the current Srinagar assessment, he represents perhaps comparatively the extremist wing in the Sheikh camp, my own impression from this frank and friendly talk was that he can hardly be regarded as intractable. It is not unnatural to be bitter after the long years of detention and the upsetting experience suffered by his followers, but even then I could not see that the iron has entered into his soul. He talked without rancour and was eager to dispel many of the impressions—which he thought were miscon-ceptions—that are current about Sheikh Abdullah and his supporters in this country and abroad.

It is worth noting that Sheikh Abdullah’s camp is not monolithic in its views or activities. It is a huge conglomerate of protest—the common tie that binds them all is a rankling feeling that they have got a raw deal from the Government of India. Naturally, pro-Pak elements are to be found in his crowd, but one has to take note of the fact that very often it was Sheikh Abdullah and his closest lieutenants who had to combat pro-Pak elements even during his last period of freedom in 1964-65. Maulvi Farooq’s band could never be recounciled to Sheikh Abdullah’s and the showdown between the two was imminent had Shiekh Abdullah himself not been whisked off to detention to South India in the summer of 1965.

In the present round of tension also one could notice the difference between Sheikh Adbullah’s followers and the avowedly pro-Pak elements in the Valley. Mirza Afzal Beg defied the internment restrictions on him to boldly campaign for communal peace in his district—an action for which Sheikh Abdullah himself wrote to him commending it. In contrast, the pro-Pak elements today are going in for communal disturbance to bring grist to the propaganda that Hindus and Muslims cannot live in peace.

Meeting a number of others, I got the impression that Sheikh Abdullah himself represents what may be called the consensus in this protest camp. He is likely to work out his line of action by sensing the mood of the overwhelming section of his present followers. In this respect, the views of the Plebiscite Front assume great importance; since it is the Plebiscite Front which is the most organised body in the Sheikh’s camp. The Plebiscite Front was formed by Sri Mirza Afzal Beg in 1955 and he continues to be its Founder President. Without going into the controversy whether it is today the biggest political organisation in the Valley, one cannot escape the conclusion that it is an organisation whose views carry the most significant weight in Sheikh Abdullah’s camp.

This point is important since there was a tendency in the past to try to demarcate Sheikh Abdullah (who is formally not a member of the Plebiscite Front) and the Plebiscite Front itself. But it is doubtful whether anybody in Sheikh’s camp can deliver the goods without the consent of the Plebiscite Front. In recent times it is clear that Sheikh Abdullah has kept the closest contact with Sri Mirza Afzal Beg even in detention although they have not been allowed to be kept together. In fact, I found one of the minor irritants which has annoyed Sri Beg recently was that despite several appeals to the authorities, he was not allowed to have an interview with Sheikh Abdullah during his stay in the Medical Institute in New Delhi and he was removed from there only a few hours before Sheikh Sahib’s arrival.

While it is not possible to record Sri Beg’s views as an interview, one could get an idea of the mind of the Plebiscite Front by talking not only to him but to his other associates. One of the things which was of topical interest during my visit to Kashmir was Shiekh Abdullah’s letter to President Ayub correcting some of the points made about his talks with the latter in the recent biography of the Pakistan President. (Incidentally Sheikh Abdullah’s letters to President Ayub on this subject seemed to displease the pro-Pakistani camp in Kashmir and for sometime there was a feeling among them that Sheikh Sahib was letting them down. Some of these leaders could pacify their followers with the explanation that while Sheikh Abdullah has corrected President Ayub on some of the points, he has not touched specifically the point in President Ayub’s biography that ultimately the Kashmiris will have to find their place in Pakistan.)

No section of the Plebiscite Front claims that the idea of a confederation was ever suggested by Nehru. What Nehru seemed to have been bent upon was that Sheikh Abdullah should persuade President Ayub to agree to an Indo-Pak summit meeting where the question of Kashmir itself could be discussed; and it was to the credit of Nehru that he laid down no precondition for such a summit meeting: all proposals would be taken up and discussed threadbare in the light of the experiences of the two countries since the partition.

It was during the course of Shiekh Abdullah’s talks with President Ayub that many of the proposals which had come up—whether from the Security Council representatives or from eminent individuals from both countries—were referred to while no particular proposal was taken up as the agenda for the projected summit. Later on, I came to learn that the idea of a confederation between India and Pakistan with Kashmir figuring as a third partner was actually suggested by Acharya Vinoba Bhave but it was not pursued because Nehru did not seem to be in favour of it, and as President Ayub’s biography indicates, Pakistan was also opposed to it.

There is an impression in many quarters in this country that the idea of an independent Kashmir has all along been opposed by India. In fact, while many would concede that plebiscite was accepted by India in all seriousness at one stage—and later given up on the ground that Pakistan had not fulfilled her part of the pre-condition for such a plebiscite—the question of an independent Kashmir is ruled out as if it had never had the sanction of India. Against this, the Plebiscite Front people quote the following passage from Sir Gopalaswami Ayyangar’s speech in the Security Council on behalf of India on January 15, 1948:

“The question of the future status of Kashmir vis-a-vis her neighbours and the world at large, and a further question, namely, whether she should withdraw from her accession to India and either accede to Pakistan or remain independent, with a right to claim admission as a member of the United Nations—all this we have recognised to be a matter for unfettered decision by the people of Kashmir after normal life is restored to them.”

Since then much water has flown down the Jhelum and it will be naive to think that seasoned veterans in Sheikh Abdullah’s camp do not recognise the changing reality. What they emphasise today is that Nehru in his wisdom despite all that had happened from 1953 onwards, could keep an open mind in his last days; and they seem to have an implicit faith that if Nehru’s proposed summit with President Ayub had taken place—as it ws planned within a month of Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to Pakistan in May 1967—probably a way-out could have been found; at least a serious groping towards a way-out would have begun. The tragedy of Nehru’s passing away within two days of Sheikh Abdullah’s success in persuading President Ayub to agree to the summit, blighted all chances of any improvement of Indo-Pak relations vis-a-vis Kashmir.

Theoretically, Sheikh Abdullah’s followers, particularly the Plebiscite Front leaders, refuse to accept that the concept of an independent Kashmir is untenable. The argument that such a state placed at the crossroads of world-power politics would not be able to retain its independence does not convince them and they point to the example of smaller states such as Cambodia maintaining their independence despite being sandwiched between the Great Powers’ spheres of influence. Rather, they seem to feel that an independent Kashmir in the present context of power relations in this part of the world need not be subservient to the dictates of any foreign power. The fact that the present foreign policy of Pakistan has shown signs of asserting itself even in relation to America despite the massive dependence on American military aid is taken by some section of Kashmiri leaders as vindication of their points.

However, I did not find that Sri Mirza Afzal Beg or any of the other leaders in Sheikh Abdullah’s camp today have got an idee fixe about an independent state of Kashmir. What they are determined to have is that whatever be the settlement of Kashmir, it should have the sanction of the people of the Valley, and that no settlement will be lasting unless it is also based on an understanding between India and Pakistan. As one of the leaders put it to me, “Even if Sheikh Abdullah and his entire followings come to a total agreement with the Government of India and the Indian people, we must not forget that this state is placed geographicaclly in the closest proximity of Pakistan, and the mishandling of the Kashmiri leaders by India during these years, has provided political and propaganda ammunition for Pakistan to influence the people of this valley.”

They also point to the economic bonds that bind Kashmir to Pakistan. In this connection I was given to read a passage from an article written not very long ago by Sri N.C. Chatterji, MP who can by no means be accused of being pro-Pak:

“The geographical situation of the State was such that it would be bounded on all sides by the new Dominion of Pakistan. Its only access to the outside world by road lay through the Jhelum Valley road which ran through Pakistan, via Rawalpindi. The only rail line connecting the State with the outside world lay through Sialkot in Pakistan. Its postal and telegraphic services operated through areas that were certain to belong to the Dominion of Pakistan.

“The State was dependent for all its imported supplies like salt, sugar, petrol and other necessities of life on their safe and continued transit through areas that would form part of Pakistan.

“The tourist transit traffic which was a major source of income and revenue could only come via Rawalpindi. The only route available for the export of its valuable fruit was the Jhelum Valley route. Its timber could mainly be drifted down only in the Jhelum river which ran into Pakistan.”

The overall impression, I got was that Sheikh Abdullah’s trusted lieutenants today are not insistent on any particular formula or plan to be accepted before any rapprochement could be reached between them and the rest of Indian political opinion. They are making no pre-condition for any discussion, rather they are keen that Sheikh Abdullah himself should have the opportunity of meeting as many sections of Indian opinion as possible; and that the Prime Minister herself should take the initiative in having purposeful talks with him and follow the lead of his father in utilising Sheikh Abdullah’s services for a better understanding with Pakistan itself.

In this context I found an interesting reference from an article by Sheikh Abdullah in the American quarterly review, Foreign Affairs (April 1965) published only a few weeks before his arrest in 1965. After quoting two of Nehru’s speeches in 1952, reiterating India’s pledge that a settlement in Kashmir has to be in accordance with the will of the people of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah wrote:

“These words of the great departed leader inspire and fortify me, and I do indeed hope that his successors will rise to the occasion and by a great act of faith seek to resolve this question which has bedevilled the relations between India and Pakistan.”

But soon after, when he returned from his foreign tour, he was immediately detained. The reason for this—as could be made out from official statements at the time—was that he had during his tour hobnobbed not only with Pakistani diplomats but even had an unscheduled talk with Mr Chou En-lai at Algiers. When I raised this point, Sri Beg, who had accompanied Sheikh Abdullah, told me that a visit to Algeria was sanctioned by the passports New Delhi had granted them. While in Algiers, Premier Ben Bella without prior notice came to their hotel and urged them to meet the Chinese Premier; there was no prior appointment nor was the talk anything more than a courtesy call where Sheikh Abdullah said nothing that he had not said before the world. Sri Beg added that they had wanted on their return to report on their entire experience during the tour abroad to the Indian leaders; instead of that, they ere packed off to South India the moment they landed at Palam.

The repercussions of the Indo-Pak conflict in 1965 on all sectors of opinion in Kashmir can hardly be overlooked. There are two significant reactions which I could not fail to notice. On the one hand, the avowedly pro-Pakistani elements have suffered a setback—at least in their capacity to influence mass opinion in a decisive way. The propaganda that Pakistan can come and “liberate” the Kashmiris by force of arms has lost its efficacy considerably: the experience of the 1965 conflict has made people wiser. On the other hand, there is also the tendency to emphasise the danger of letting Indo-Pak animosity over Kashmir continue since it could spark off even a full-scale military showdown. Obviously, both these reactions represent different facets of the reality.

A groping towards realism is not absent in the Plebiscite Front circles. When the difficulties and dangers of holding a plebiscite are posed, they do not take the stand, plebiscite-or-nothing. Rather, they say that any proposal which takes into account the general will of the people of Kashmir can solve the present impasse. One of them even said that if there was a “free and fair” General Election in the Valley that could work. With regard to this year’s General Election, they say that even Gandhiji never accepted any election as reflecting popular will while political leaders were kept in prison; and with Sheikh Abdullah and his band in detention, they are not prepared to concede that this year’s General Election could reflect the true state of public opinion in Kashmir. It is interesting to note in this context that the Plebiscite Front leadership is more critical of the electoral performance of the Congress in Kashmir than in Jammu. Apart from Sheikh Sahib and his supporters being denied civil liberties to contest the General Election, they also point to the unusually large number of uncontested returns in the Valley constituencies as confirming their misgivings about fair and unfettered election campaign.

The Plebiscite Front leadership refute the charge that in case of any plebiscite being granted, they would willy nilly acquiesce in Kashmir going to Pakistan. One of their topmost leaders told me that once a mechanism was decided upon to determine the will of the Kashmiri people, they would immediately disband the Plebiscite Front and then “we shall get the leaders of Kashmir to put their heads together to advise the people”.

The impression is inescapable that if many of these leaders are embittered with India, they do not necessarily entertain rosy hopes about Pakistan. The neglect to which the Azad Kashmir area has been put—both with regard to political set-up and development programme—has not been overlooked by them. One has also to recall that when Sheikh Abdullah and his team went to Pakistan in the summer of 1964, he emphasised before the Kashmir leaders there too the need for demanding that the will of the Kashmiri people in that sector must also be heard; and following his visit, there was large-scale attack by the Pakistan Government upon the Azad Kashmir leadership.

Sri Mirza Afzal Beg’s people talk of a “phased programme” for settlement of the Kashmir problem. In this connection, they are particularly bitter on two counts. They complain that even the Delhi Agreement of 1952 has been allowed to be eroded. If some of the special facilities granted to Kashmir under that agreement has been abused by those in authority—the obvious reference is to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed’s badsahi—that was not the fault of the Kashmiri people, since such leaders, they say, were chosen by New Delhi itself. Secondly, they complain that Kashmir’s borders were so tightly sealed up—even before the 1965 conflict—that it brought economic ruin to a large section of the people including fruit-growers and carpet-weavers. The limited trade transactions permitted between East Pakistan and Assam or West Bengal has never been permitted across the Cease Fire line. “If this was done to keep out spies and mischief-mongers from across the border” one of them cynically asked, “has it at all worked? With all the sealing up of the border, infiltrators came.” The real defence of the frontier does not lie in keeping up a wall of hostility.

Normalisation of trade routes to Pakistan is dictated by the compulsions of Kashmir’s economy, and no doubt, the denial of this embitters those who are hard hit in the Valley and provide fruitful soil for Pakistani propa-ganda about India being callous about the hardships of the Kashmiri people.

(Mainstream, October 21, 1967)

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