How secular was Shiekh Abdullah?

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brown wooden wall mounted cabinet

Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah undoubtedly has been the tallest Muslim leader born in Kashmir over last several decades whose influence on political landscape was most profound and impactful. Born on December 5, 1905 at Soura village, a suburb of Srinagar City, into a lower middle-class family, his father, Shiekh Mohammad Ibrahim, is said to have been a textile merchant though, for some reasons, Abdullah used to be colloquially called ‘Gaade Kalle’ (head of a fish, alluding to some connection with the fisherman community). It is also to be noted that one of Abdullah’s forefathers, Pt Ragho Ram Kaul was a Kashmiri Pandit who converted to Islam in 1772, a fact Abdullah himself has acknowledged in his autobiography ‘Aatishe Chinar’ and in several public utterances.

Abdullah received his education at various State Govt run institutions in Srinagar for free till he passed his Intermediate(12th) from Punjab University in 1924. He graduated from Islamia College Lahore and later did his M.Sc. in Chemistry from Aligarh Muslim University in 1930 – with financial help from the Maharaja’s Govt. It was at Aligarh that Abdullah found his true calling – the institution known for producing either communists or communalists! His candidature for a lecturer’s post at the SP College Srinagar, was rejected in favour of a more meritorious Kashmiri Pandit candidate NN Kak, a Gold Medallist from Banaras Hindu University (against Abdullah’s third class in M.Sc.). This kindled the spark of communal hatred in Abdullah even though he was offered a teaching job in Islamia School, Srinagar, which he rejected.

Maharaja Hari Singh was away to London in November 1930 to participate in the First Round Table Conference. In his absence, Prime Minister George Edward Wakefield was heading the Government. Maharaja made an ‘Empire defying’ speech in the Conference, literally knocking the wind out of the British strategy. This patriotic speech of Maharaja Hari Singh offended the British and they started looking for opportunities to ‘put him in his place’. Abdullah’s firebrand views had come to the notice of the then J&K PM, George Edward Wakefield and he let it be known through his personal assistant, Khalifa Abdul Hakim, that he was ‘impressed’ with Abdullah, even though the Regency Council had taken a grim view of Sheikh Abdullah’s seditious utterances. With the tacit approval of Wakefield, it was then decided to stir communal strife in the state of J&K and use Shiekh Abdullah as the cat’s paw. A Lahore based organization, The Kashmir Conference, was activated by the British Indian Government under the direct control of the Governor General, Lord Irwin.

The British wanted to control of the sensitive Gilgit Baltistan area of Ladakh so that they could ‘keep an eye’ on Soviet Russia and China but Maharaja Hari Singh was not willing. To arm twist the Maharaja, British attacked his ‘Achilles heel’ – he was a Hindu Maharaja in a state with high Muslim population. The ‘witches’ cauldron’ began to stir and July 1931 saw the first well planned communal riot take place in J&K. It started as an attack on the Central Jail, Srinagar on July 13, 1931 by Muslim mobs, resulting in police firing that killed 22 of the rioters. Rioting spread across the state, leading to killing of hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs, forcible conversions to Islam, rape of Hindu and Sikh women and massive looting of Hindu properties. So widespread and sustained were the riots that the British were forced to send their own army to quell the riots (GS Raghavan: The Warning from Kashmir; KASHMIR POLITICS, WAILING SHADOWS IN KASHMIR and CRISIS IN KASHMIR, books by Satish Ganjoo). Abdullah was present when the British agent provocateur Abdul Qadir made his seditious speech at the Shahi Hamdan shrine, Srinagar; he was involved in ‘arranging’ the mobs that resisted the arrest, in inciting the mob that attacked Central Jail and finally looting of Hindu properties. He was arrested but let off due to pressure from the British.

On 16th October 1932, Kashmir's first political party, the Muslim Conference was born with tacit British support and Sheikh Abdullah as its nominated President. As expected, the party flag was Green with a White Crescent, clearly announcing its Islamic antecedents. It is interesting to note that right from the start, Abdullah made Hazratbal the epicentre of his political activities, particularly his public pronouncements on every Friday. Hazratbal was a very strategic choice –it was close to his village Soura, it enshrines the relic claimed to be having a connection with the Prophet. Every Muslim across Kashmir has reverence and an emotional connect with the shrine. Hazratbal also afforded the Quran quoting Abdullah a pulpit that Yousuf Shah, then Mirwaiz (chief priest) of Kashmir was denying him at Jama Masjid, Srinagar. The rivalry between Yousuf Shah and Abdullah was well known – each accused the other of betraying Muslim interests! Abdullah accused Yusuf Shah of being anti-Kashmiri (probably because of his Syed descent) and in cahoots with the Maharaja; Yusuf Shah accused Abdullah of selling out to Nehru and other Hindu leaders. While Abdullah called his followers ‘shers’(lions), followers of Yusuf Shah were derisively called ‘bakras’(goats). Fist fights and ‘kangri’ fights between the two rival Muslim factions were quite common even during my childhood(1960s). I believe these fights ended after the scions of the two families – Mirwaiz Farooq from the clan of Yousuf Shah and Farooq Abdullah from Shiekh’s clan, smoked the peace pipe in 1983 to defeat Congress backed GM Shah. The slogan coined then was,” Double Farooq Halle Kare, Gul Shahas falle kare” – meaning that with the deadly combination of Farooq Abdullah + Mirwaiz Farooq would make mincemeat of GM Shah (Farooq Abdullah’s brother-in-law)! Mirwaiz Yosuf Shah ran away to Pakistan once Pakistani ‘Qabailis’ failed to capture Srinagar in 1947; Shiekh Abdullah later deported his family to POK and propped up Yousuf Shah’s young nephew, Farooq Shah, as the new religious head (anointed as Mirwaiz in 1968 after the death of Yousef Shah). However, the rivalry between Abdulla and Mirwaiz clans persisted till 1983.

The war cry in every single public meeting of Shiekh Abdullah used to be “Nara-e-Takbir, Allah-u Akbar” (Allah is the Greatest!, Shout that Allah is the Greatest). Here was a much touted ‘secular’ leader of Kashmir openly, blatantly exploiting religion for his political ends. How could such a leader be labelled ‘secular’ in a state with multi-religious denominations? J&K, though a Muslim majority state, had almost 25% people belonging to other denominations. I recently saw a video released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), Govt of India, of the 1975 oath taking by Abdullah– the ceremony started with Allah-u-Akbar and those slogans continued right through the event. So, Abdullah remained lifelong what he started as – a Kashmiri Muslim leader, a saviour of Kashmiri Muslims’ interests. Yes, he changed the name of his political outfit from Muslim Conference to National Conference, presumably at the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1939 to gain wider acceptance among the Hindus and Sikhs of J&K but obviously this remained a facade – both communities, after some initial enthusiasm, felt the sheen dissolve in face of harsh realities.

The only time Shiekh rose above his narrow religious thinking was in October 1947, during the Qabaili + Pakistani Army attack. In 1947 there were many areas in Srinagar city and in the rural parts of the Valley where some Muslims were attracted towards Pakistan. Rumours about some Kashmiri Muslim clerics of the Maisuma locality (Srinagar) planning welcome committees for the Qabailis and joining with them in liberating Kashmir, were raging like wild fire in Srinagar. Apprehension was that if just a hundred or so Qabailis breached the defences of Srinagar, all Kashmiri Muslims, secular or otherwise, would bend to their coercion and the game would be over for the non-Muslims, in Srinagar and elsewhere! This is what had happened in the towns of Muzaffarabad, Poonch, Rajouri, Kotli, Mirpur, Uri, Handwara, Bandipore, Sopore and Baramulla. It is possible that Abdullah had heard about the ruthless and barbaric behaviour of the swarming hordes of Pathan tribals even towards Muslim men and, in particular, with women. He might have learned of the Baramulla gangrapes of Christian Missionary nuns and doctors.

There was a TOTAL POWER VACCUM in Jammu & Kashmir in the last week of October 1947. Maharaja had left Kashmir (October 25, 1947) on the advice of Mr VP Menon; Govt of India was yet to step in due to incomplete paperwork (signing of Instrument of Accession)! The Indian Army reached Srinagar Airport on 27th October and rushed to fight the Qabailis in the Badgam -Pattan-Baramulla corridor. The power vacuum could have been a perfect recipe for a communal carnage in Srinagar. What happened in Punjab from February 24, 1947 till the madness filled days of August 1947 could have been repeated in Kashmir. Three days – October 25-27, 1947 would have been enough for mass killings of hapless Pandits and other non-Muslims. One, therefore, must give Shiekh Abdullah his due credit for not allowing communal riots to break out in Srinagar in the last week of October 1947, no matter what his compulsions. Whatever Abdullah’s reasons, fact remains that there was no major breakdown of inter community harmony and trust during those critical days of October 1947. Had he not acted so decisively, Indian Army would have found an ethnically cleansed Kashmir on October 27th 1947. Kashmiri Pandit community in particular needs to be thankful to Shiekh Abdullah for rising above communal sentiments for those three fateful days of October 1947.

Having said that, one needs to burst yet another myth so assiduously planted by our ‘liberal’ media – Shiekh Abdullah had rejected the ‘Two Nation Theory’ of Pakistan and decided to join India because of his faith and commitment to ‘secularism’. Nothing could be farther from truth. Shiekh, a Machiavellian politician was simply weighing his options and waiting for the best bid! His emissaries were in touch with both Nehru and Jinnah. Abdullah secretly travelled to Lahore in the first week of October 1947 to negotiate with Jinnah but the shrewd Gujarati had seen through Shiekh’s double game. He simply refused to see Shiekh by saying that there is no need to see this man as ‘Kashmir is in my pocket’. Jinnah even declared that the coming Eid (October 1947), would be celebrated in Srinagar. Humiliated, Shiekh now had just one option left – joining his old friend Nehru, who was willing to bend over his back to accommodate him! Nehru gave him primacy over everyone else; he went out of his way to humiliate Maharaja Hari Singh, Shiekh’s bête noire. Nehru was ready to accept the accession of Jammu and Kashmir in India only after Maharaja Hari Singh transferred power to Sheikh Abdullah. Thus, it was very clear that instead of national interest, Nehru was giving priority to his personal friendship with Abdullah and his personal dislike for Maharaja Hari Singh. Such conditions were not imposed on any other state. Maharaja Hari Singh signed and executed the instrument of accession as per whims and wishes of Nehru, suffering humiliation of having to wait for Abdullah’s signature on the instrument of accession. Maharaja Hari Singh had merged the state with India without any condition — none could have been attached as conditional accession was not warranted by the 1947 Act of Independence passed by the British Parliament. However, the strings of plebiscite attached by the Indian government helped Abdullah gain total power. To please Abdullah, Nehru banished Maharaja Hari Singh from J&K for the rest of his life, post accession. In contrast, Nizam of Hyderabad, who defied Indian govt, forcing Police Action by Sardar Patel was made Rajpramukh (head of Govt)!

Shiekh started showing his well-hidden communal fangs once he gained absolute power in 1947. Aided and abetted by Mirza Afzal Beig, his long-term associate, Abdullah let it be known that he wished to see Kashmiri Hindu (Pandit) women work as housemaids in Muslim homes. The various steps he announced to marginalize Kashmiri Pandits in the valley included:

  • Snatching Land without Compensation: The Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950 was brought in to marginalize the land owning KP families. Transferring land without compensation was possible since the provisions of the Indian constitution did not apply in the state (J&K had its own constitution) and such laws were beyond the preview of courts. Had such a law been passed today, courts would have struck it down!
  • Declaring All Muslims Backward: Irrespective of their existing financial and social status, all Muslims in J&K were declared ‘backward’. 80% jobs and promotions were reserved for them. Specific laws were passed that allowed out of turn promotions to Muslims and even courts could do nothing about it. Pandits were posted to Jammu or Ladakh as a matter of policy. The idea obviously was to push Pandits out of the valley.
  • Taking J&K accession case to the UN: To build his own statesman image internationally Nehru took the J&K accession to the UN, on the advice of Shiekh. He sent Shiekh Abdullah to the UN as part of Indian delegation in 1948 and 1950; Shiekh used the opportunities to open up his channels to the Americans and the British besides drawing up a list of gifts for his children and other family members! The results were there for everyone to see - in 1953, Shiekh had to be rather unceremoniously dismissed as PM of J&K and imprisoned for anti-India activities!
  • Preventing recapture of POK Areas: Field commanders of the Indian Army are reported to have pleaded with Nehru during his visit to Baramulla in November 1947 to allow them just 2-3 days more to clear entire POK since they had the Pakistanis on the run. It is interesting to note that Shiekh Abdullah had no interest in clearing non-Kashmiri speaking areas beyond Baramulla from Pakistani occupation since he had no influence in Muzaffarabad and beyond. This was vote bank politics at its worst! Taking Kashmir accession issue to the UN provided no solutions – it only gave Pakistan a legal toehold in J&K.
  • Changing Demography of Kashmir: Post 1947-48 Qabaili raid, thousands of Hindus and Sikhs from Muzaffarabad and adjoining areas took refuge on the Indian side. Shiekh administration, in a very far-sighted move, encouraged all Hindu and Sikh refugees to move to Jammu instead of settling them in Kashmir province. I have lived in an area on the outskirts of Jammu City called Camp Gole Gujral – it was a Refugee Camp, full of 1947 survivors, mostly Sikhs from Muzaffarabad. I have heard horror stories from the survivors of 1947 Qabaili attack on Muzaffarabad. One Master Hakim Singh had killed his three daughters and wife with his own sword to save them from falling into Muslim hands. Thus the ‘secular’ Shiekh ensured that his Kashmir was purged of as many infidels as was possible! The plan for Ethnic Cleansing of Kashmir was always in Shiekh’s mind!

Dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 appears to have had a sobering effect on Shiekh. He decided to forgo his declared plank of ‘plebiscite for Kashmiris’ in favour of position and power as Chief Minister in 1975 so that he could make as much hay as possible in the time left to him. Also, he wanted to ensure that the power remained in the family, post his own demise. The years 1975-1982 were devoted towards ensuring financial wellbeing of his extended family and power consolidation. During these years, a book known probably as ‘Lal Kitab’ was in circulation in J&K in which details of Abdullah Family’s properties were listed – the book was duly banned! The ‘secular’ and ‘democratic’ Shiekh openly embraced nepotism. His son-in-law, Gul Shah (GM Shah) was already a powerful minister in his cabinet. In 1978, he threw his old comrade in arms, Mirza Afzal Beig, for 45 years his deputy, out of the party and government to prepare ground for coronation of his playboy son, Farooq, who was first made a Member Parliament in 1980 and in August 1981, crowned as President of National Conference. The eventful innings of Shiekh Abdullah came to an end on September 8, 1982, with his passing away and his beloved son Farooq sat on his throne, fulfilling the dreams of an indulgent father!

Shiekh Abdullah, in the ultimate analysis was many things to many people – a turncoat and traitor to his old Muslim Conference colleague Chaudhary Gulam Abbas (as per his book Kashmakash), an opportunist as per Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah, a Janus faced Muslim communalist to his political adversaries including Maharaja Hari Singh and Kashmiri Pandits, an unreliable ‘friend’ to Pt Nehru, a dynast and nepotist as per his comrade in arms, Mirza Afzal Beig but a messiah to the Muslims of Kashmir whom he empowered with one stroke! He was a Muslim communalist who had the tag of being ‘a secular democrat’ thrust on him by Nehru, his progeny and our ‘liberal, secular’ intellectuals and media!

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