Plebiscite, Kashmir And Sher-i-Kashmir

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah

5 December is the birth anniversary of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a mass leader who dominated the politics of Kashmir for over half a century before passing away in 1982. For 22 years between his ouster as Prime Minister in 1953 and return as Chief Minister in 1975, he remained a dominant symbol of the popular demand for UN-mandated plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir and, both from inside and outside the jail, inspired people’s long struggle for a referendum. Was the Sher-i-Kashmir or the Lion of Kashmir as he was popularly known, really serious about holding of plebiscite in Kashmir or did he actually play a spoilsport?

On 13 November 1974, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah mended fences with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and reached an accord with her for return to power, his close lieutenant and point-man, Mirza Mohammad Afzal Beg, who till then had led on his behalf a mass movement for a UN-mandated plebiscite under the banner of the Mahazi-i-Rai Shumari [Plebiscite Front], justified his leader’s ‘homecoming’ by dismissing the people’s two decade long struggle as “wandering in wilderness”. Such categorization of mass sacrifices of people left behind a bad taste; for it came from the very leadership people had blindly followed and jumped en-masse into the fire of hostile circumstances. Abdullah justified his political U-turn as a ‘change in the strategy while the goal remained the same’. However, on 24 February 1975, while he was taking oath as the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, his words, for many, sounded like the last post at the funeral of plebiscite in Kashmir.

Right from 1948, when the Security Council passed a resolution for holding a referendum in Jammu & Kashmir to determine its political future, the people of Kashmir have looked up to the United Nations for holding the promised plebiscite. For two decades, beginning 1955, the people of Kashmir ran an organized, vigorous and sustained mass movement for holding of a plebiscite. At one stage, it seemed so close to be happening that the Press Officer of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP), M. D. Capite, in a letter dated 25 April 1949 to M. L. Bhardwaj, Deputy Principal Information Officer, Government of India, asked if facilities like radio stations, community receiving sets, sounds trucks, printing of pamphlets and posters, and 16 mm and 35 mm film projectors were available for publicising the plebiscite in Kashmir. “The reason I am asking these questions is that I am trying to get an idea of what equipment – radio, films, printing – we must import from Lake Success to compliment the equipment and facilities that are already here,” Capite explained. In the subsequent years, however, a rigid stand of both India and Pakistan on the withdrawal of their armed forces from Jammu & Kashmir prior to holding of a referendum blocked the implementation of the UN resolution on plebiscite.

The movement for plebiscite was carried out under the patronage of Abdullah who had been ousted from power in 1953, and was now in and out of prison, while Beg, his lieutenant, assumed the leadership of the movement. In the process, many people were killed, thousands arrested and families destroyed. To the people’s credit, they stood firm behind their leadership despite trials and tribulations. Slogans like Rai Shumari foran karo (Hold plebiscite at once), Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha woh Kashmir hamara hai (Kashmir that we irrigated with our blood belongs to us) and Yeh mulk hamara hai iska faisla hum karaingay (This country is ours and we alone will decide its future) rent the Valley’s air during those years. The Plebiscite Front leadership successfully turned a massive public outburst over the theft of Holy Relic from the Hazratbal Shrine in December 1963 into a mass agitation for release of Abdullah from jail.

Officially, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah never associated himself with the demand of a plebiscite. Neither did he assume the leadership of the Plebiscite Front nor registered himself as its basic member. In contrast, when he assumed power again in 1975, the first thing he did after disbanding of the Plebiscite Front was to obtain membership of the revived National Conference and taking over as its President. Earlier, through 1930s-40s also, he had headed the Muslim Conference, the National Conference and the State People’s Convention. Out of power, he officially remained at an arm’s length from the Plebiscite Front while in power he was averse to holding of plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir. His Government came down heavily on those who pursued this goal during his rule, and even used against such people the draconian Public Safety Act, originally enacted by him to tackle timber smugglers.

One of the oft-repeated arguments to justify Abdullah changing course in 1975 is that the dismemberment of Pakistan in the Indo-Pak War of 1971 had convinced him about futility of pursuing estrangement with India. That, however, is an oversimplified view of facts. In pursuit of his politics, he had never countenanced Islamabad as a factor beyond having reconciled to her control over a part of the territory of Jammu & Kashmir. As Prime Minister, his official correspondence with the Government of India [for instance, letter dated 14 April 1950 addressed to Vishnu Sahay, Secretary for Kashmir Affairs, Ministry of States] is an indication of this, where he refers to the territory as ‘Azad Kashmir’ [Free Kashmir]’ and ‘Azad territory’ like Pakistan would call it. Other than the years of plebiscite movement when Pakistan qalmay, dirmay, sukhany [through written and spoken word and money] helped him in Kashmir, the country did not factor in his politics. Her dismemberment and turning into, what he called, “a moth-eaten and lame country” only offered him an excuse and an expressway for his outreach with India, the desire of which, however, had taken root earlier.

Before the fall of Dacca (as Dhaka was spelled then) when East Pakistan had revolted against Islamabad and India was supporting insurgency there, Abdullah had told Balraj Puri that he thought he should start the process of dialogue with India even if it took “its own time.” Puri, as a first step, suggested him to issue a statement in support of India’s Bangladesh policy. “India was at that time prepared to pay,” what Puri observes, “the maximum price for support to Bangladesh. Since Sheikh Sahib was the tallest Muslim leader of the subcontinent, his support was most valuable”, Puri wrote in the weekly Mainstream. Abdullah asked Puri to draft a statement for him on these lines which he did. However, on his advisor’s suggestion, he held back from issuing such a statement at the last minute.

Abdullah’s supporters also cite the Simla Agreement of 1972 between India and Pakistan as a reason for his looking towards New Delhi. They argue that the Agreement shut the doors on the demand for a plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir. However, what is missed here is that the Simla Agreement kept the Kashmir issue open for resolution through bilateral dialogue between the two south-Asian neighbours while in the Indira-Abdullah Accord, as Indira Gandhi informed the Parliament, Abdullah had accepted the finality of accession of Kashmir with India, and thus stamped the option of plebiscite out for all the times to come.

Was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah ever serious about the plebiscite as an instrument to resolve the Kashmir issue?

In his voluminous memoir of 73 chapters, he talks about everything under the sun related to Kashmir and its turbulent history but steers himself clear of discussing plebiscite or the long struggle of people for it. A study of Kashmir history throws up some interesting details. When the Security Council passed resolutions on Jammu & Kashmir, Abdullah had already moved into the corridors of power under the still existing shadow of Maharaja Hari Singh. A plebiscite in the Princely State would have undermined his authority as a vast majority of people outside the Valley of Kashmir – both Muslims and Hindus – did not accept him as their leader nor subscribed to his politics. Within the Valley also, a section of people did not like him for his pro-India stand. An impartial vote under the aegis of the United Nations was sure to be lost by India and he knew that very well. Further, Pakistan had raised objection to his being in power while a vote on the future of Jammu & Kashmir was taken, alleging that he was partial towards India. Abdullah apprehended that the Plebiscite Administrator might “turn out to be a parallel or over-riding authority” while he himself administered Kashmir. He thought if he was removed from the Government, it would be construed as “a victory of Pakistan” before the plebiscite was actually held.

Interestingly enough, at one stage in 1952, his close associate and representative in the Indian Parliament, Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi, had sold to Jawaharlal Nehru the idea of holding a plebiscite limited to the Kashmir Valley so that “all the evils associated with a plebiscite limited to the Valley could be satisfactorily avoided”. Abdullah was always confident of his wide support base in Kashmir while a referendum in the whole of Jammu & Kashmir would be altogether a different ball game. Masoodi made this suggestion in a meeting Nehru had convened in New Delhi on August 18, 1952 where, besides the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and others, D. P. Dhar was also present. Before the start of the meeting, Nehru called in Dhar to have a brief discussion on the proposed talks with the UN representative on Kashmir, Dr. Frank P. Graham. Dhar suggested that “the provision of a plebiscite limited to the Kashmir Valley should be dropped completely for very well known reasons and substituted by arrangements other than a plebiscite.”

While the United Nations was deliberating on the future of Kashmir through an impartial plebiscite, Abdullah announced convening of the Constituent Assembly to decide the issue of accession of Jammu & Kashmir. The move was vehemently opposed by the Anglo-American bloc in the United Nations. Nearer home, Iran also objected to it as an impediment in reaching to a peaceful settlement on Kashmir dispute. Concerned for “greater cause of uniting all Muslim and Asiatic countries together in a powerful unit’’, Iran was watching developments in Kashmir with unease. The Chairman of the Parliament of Iran and a prominent Shia cleric, Abul Qasim Kashani, sent various telegrams to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, urging them to resolve Kashmir dispute. In one of his long telegrams, Kashani appealed Abdullah to “make a bold and determined contribution by voluntarily withdrawing your proposal to proceed with the Constituent Assembly”. “This step”, he argued, “I am sure will help considerably in creation of congenial atmosphere so necessary for initiating negotiations for a peaceful and a satisfactory solution of this most important problem.” In his response dated August 15, 1951, Abdullah justified his decision to convene the Constituent Assembly to “take the initiative into their [people’s] own hands” as “a fair and just solution was not likely to be effected soon through the Security Council.” The Constituent Assembly “is the only way out of the present impasse”, he wrote to Kashani.

The decision to convene the Constituent Assembly was seen as a deliberate move to hamper efforts of the international community for holding a free and fair plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir. In October 1951, ahead of a meeting of the Security Council on Kashmir in Paris, where Abdullah was also to participate as a non-official member of the Indian delegation, he forwarded a draft of his proposed speech to the Government of India for approval wherefrom it returned with some changes. One of the changes made by New Delhi was to keep the provision of a plebiscite open. While Abdullah readily accepted other changes, he resented the commitment of the Indian Government to plebiscite. In a communication addressed to G. S. Bajpai, Secretary General, Ministry of External Affairs, on 30 October 1951, he objected to keeping the offer of a plebiscite open, arguing that “the pronouncement by the Constituent Assembly on the question of accession would lose its effect if an element of uncertainty is introduced in sharp terms again in regard to its finality.” Citing the argument of “My colleagues”, he impressed upon Bajpai that “a specific mention of the plebiscite offer would not be desirable as that is bound to have psychological reaction among the people here… I regret this part has been dropped in the final draft. The rest of the changes have been duly incorporated.”

Abdullah also did not take kindly the Indian representative Brajeshwar Dayal’s assurance to the Security Council that so far as the Government of India was concerned, the convening of the Constituent Assembly in Jammu & Kashmir was not to sabotage efforts of the Security Council to resolve the Kashmir issue or impede in any manner the Council’s way. Dayal’s assurance to the Security Council annoyed Abdullah to the extent that “I thought it useless to discuss the issue of accession in the Constituent Assembly because the country with which we wanted to ratify our decision to accede had on international level expressed her inability to accept the decision.” Quoting a Persian couplet, Abdullah lamented over India behaving like “my beloved who fulfills everybody’s wishes; drinks wine with me and offers prayers with the pious.”

If there was any doubt about Abdullah’s stand on the plebiscite, it was soon removed by a communication of his Government. On 19 January 1952, his Private Secretary, R. C. Raina, in a letter to D. P. Dhar, then in Paris, spilled the beans. Raina wrote: “The Consembly [J&K Constituent Assembly] has appropriately come into the picture now and there is no doubt that it will come in for a good deal of drubbing [at the Security Council]. This is all the more reason to stress its importance in order to play down the plebiscite.”

That gives an idea about the views of the Lion of Kashmir on plebiscite till 1953, when as the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir he was ousted from power and arrested. However, by 1955, when it appeared that neither the Government in Kashmir nor Prime Minister Nehru were inclined to set him free, much less reinstate to the position of power, his colleagues and supporters embarked on a new political strategy. On 9 August 1955, exactly two years after his arrest, they launched the Mahaz-i-Rai Shumari to fight for a popular plebiscite to decide if the Jammu & Kashmir should remain part of India, join Pakistan or become independent. In simple words, the Mahaz, questioning the accession of Jammu & Kashmir to India, declared holding of plebiscite as the core of its political struggle. The organization started functioning effectively from 1958.

For twenty years, during which the Mahaz-i-Rai Shumari spearheaded the movement for holding of plebiscite, people of Kashmir offered huge sacrifices. In between, Abdullah was released from jail in 1958, then re-arrested and freed again in 1964, again arrested and then released in 1968, then banished from the State and ultimately set free in 1972. As a caged bird, he observed through these years a smooth transition of power taking place in Jammu & Kashmir among his once junior colleagues (Bakshi, Shamsuddin, Sadiq and Qasim). The years in jail were not easy and long separation from his family ‘in trouble’ back home was one difficult aspect of it. However, he kept himself busy with different activities including gardening, playing badminton and raring poultry and sheep of which “some I brought with me on my release”. As a prisoner at sub-jail Kud in Jammu province, he once had a dream during which he entered a splendid palace, met a person, took him around and showed him the bathroom of the castle. “Pointing to the mirror, I told him that it has been brought from Switzerland. Passing through the corridor, I went inside several rooms. In one of the rooms, I saw golden chairs and thought it to be the Crown Chamber. As I was coming out of the room, my mother-in-law put a fine soft shawl on my shoulders”, Abdullah later wrote in his autobiography. Did the dream prove seeding of the event that ultimately unfolded itself on 24 February 1975?

Soon after his release in 1968, Abdullah convened a meeting of the State People’s Convention at Srinagar to which he invited prominent socialist leader of India, Jayaprakash Narain. Besides Narain, leaders of other political parties of India including the Indian National Congress, the Jan Sangh and the Communist Party of India also participated in the Convention that Abdullah described as “a beginning of a new era of accord with India and gave enough hint of a send-off to the fifteen years of struggle [the Plebiscite Movement].” What followed was a public meeting at Hazuri Bagh [now Iqbal Park] in Srinagar where Narain unraveled the plot. He dismissed the demand for a plebiscite as “redundant”. However, he was greeted with hostile slogans by people. Next day, he addressed a press conference where he openly termed plebiscite and return to the pre-1953 position as “impossible”. Significantly, he offered his services for a rapprochement between the leaders of Kashmir [read Abdullah] and the Government of India to reach a solution “within the constitutional framework of India”. In this connection, he underscored the role of the People’s Convention as “crucial.” This, according to Munshi Mohammad Ishaq, former Plebiscite Front leader, was “the voice of Abdullah’s heart”. Following the Convention, the Front decided to contest the State Assembly elections which it would boycott earlier. Abdullah wanted that “our party also participates in elections” and even tried very hard for it by sending from Delhi, where he was detained, “messengers and emissaries to convince sympathizers of the party to contest election.” Since none of his men was prepared to jump into the electoral fray, Abdullah sent his wife, Begum Akbar Jahan, to Srinagar for actively campaigning for an independent candidate, Shamim Ahmad Shamim to ensure the defeat of her husband’s bête noir, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad in the Parliamentary Elections of 1971.

The Indira-Abdullah Accord, “a milestone event” from the Indian point of view, was preceded by negotiations between G. Parthasarthi and Mirza Afzal Beg, the two emissaries of Mrs. Gandhi and Abdullah, respectively. The talks were held behind the back of the people of Kashmir and some veteran leaders of the Plebiscite Front including its senior Vice-President, Sofi Mohammad Akbar. In between signing of the Accord and oath taking, Beg convened a meeting of the leaders of Plebiscite Front at Mujahid Manzil where a pamphlet was distributed about the Accord. Akbar, a long time associate of Abdullah and his staunch follower, was taken aback. There were some murmurs and within 15 minutes or so, Malik Mohiuddin, an aide of Beg, took the pamphlets back from the participants but Akbar refused to part with the leaflet. Terming the Accord as a sellout and a fraud on the people, he got up in anger, hastily collected his bedding from an adjacent room allotted to him as the party’s senior Vice-President, and left for his native place, Sopore, never to look back.

Abdullah had assured people that he would take them into confidence before reaching an agreement with New Delhi and proceed further only if they approved of it. However, what they were informed about was that he had entered into an accord with Gandhi and was taking over as the next Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. The development was received in Kashmir with a feeling of shock and bewilderment. To show their rejection of the Accord, a complete and unprecedented shutdown was observed by people in the Valley on February 28, on a call given by the then President of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Ironically, however, a week after assuming power, Abdullah entered the Valley to a grand public reception. Days later, when a group of students led by Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi called on him at his private office to know reasons for his quitting the resistance movement, he lost his cool and had them chased away by his staff.

Known for drawing prickly caricature of leaders and coining pungent slogans, Kashmiris reacted to the ‘burial of plebiscite’ with a peppery catchphrase: Raishumaeri beren dabas¸Aelve Babas Mubarak [Congratulations to Potato Patron for locking plebiscite in a box]. Pertinently, Abdullah had at one point in time asked people of a rice deficient Kashmir to eat potatoes to pursue their dream of self-reliance. His detractors gave him the nickname of Aelve Bab. A powerful caricature by ace cartoonist Bashir Ahmad Bashir was published in the Srinagar Times in which a bowing Abdullah with his Qarraqul cap donning head in his hands was shown offering it to Indira Gandhi for coronation.

During his last years, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the Sher-i-Kashmir, was believed to be remorseful. Within two years, the ruling Congress Party, with whose support he had become the Chief Minister despite describing a few years ago its leadership and workers as “worms of a gutter” and calling for their social boycott, pulled the rug under his feet leaving no option for him but to quit the office. He felt betrayed as none of the promises made to him during the talks on the Accord or after its signing were met by the Government of India. He had to be contended with the designation of a Chief Minister, like any other of his counterparts in about two dozen states of India, compared to that of the Prime Minister that he held before his ouster from power earlier.

In spite of assurances contained in the Accord, New Delhi did not review any of the Central Laws extended to Jammu & Kashmir after 1953. Indira Gandhi tersely told him that “the hands of the clock cannot be turned back”. Before his demise, a hurt Abdullah is said to have dictated to his amanuensis some ‘revealing’ things for his memoirs, Aatash-e-Chinar (Fire of the Chinar) which, however, did not find space in the book that was released four years after his death on 8 September 1982. His supporters later sought to float the perception that he wanted to have the struggle for a plebiscite revived. A former leader of the Plebiscite Front, Hakim Mohammad Yusuf, claims that soon after the Accord, Abdullah had confided in Sofi Mohammad Akbar that New Delhi had betrayed him once again and that he (Akbar) must continue with his struggle for plebiscite. Akbar’s close associate, Advocate Mohiuddin Mandloo rejects this as a “travesty of facts” and recalls that the senior separatist leader never forgave Abdullah for ‘betraying people’s trust’ and fought till his death for the right of self determination of Kashmiris under the banner of the Mahaz-i-Azadi (Freedom Front) which was launched in 1977 with him as its President.

Khalid Bashir Ahmad is an author and columnist. His two recent books on Kashmir history namely, KASHMIR: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, and KASHMIR: A Walk Through History have generated a serious debate on the need for a relook on Kashmir’s ‘popular narrative’


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