By Fahad Shah
[I]n the political arena of the Jammu and Kashmir, a little known family before 1930s which made it to the pages of history is the Abdullah’s of Kashmir. Starting from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who belonged to a shawl weaver family and became the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, to the current Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, his grandson, the family has been in the mainstream politics of the state over the years.
Born in 1905, Sheikh Abdullah emerged as the powerful political figure of the then princely state, Jammu and Kashmir, but after his political defeats in the following years to come his impression on people suffered vastly. He became the famous leader of people from 1930s. It was so, only till with his help, the princely state signed “the document of conditional accession” with India. A sea of people would follow his political ideas.
Sheikh was a six-feet-four-inch tall man who would start his speeches with verses from the Holy Quran and had a mesmerizing impact upon the people. He was called ‘Lion of Kashmir’. His followers would walk several miles to listen to him or just to catch one glimpse of him. It was his service to people before 1947 during which he fought with the Dogra rule and raised his voice for the betterment of Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh found his voice in 1929 when Sir Albion Banerji resigned from the office of prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir in protest against conditions there. “Banerji had issued a statement which went against the maharaja and the king’s loyal men who were Muslims issued a counter-statement. This provoked Sheikh and “he wrote a letter to Muslim Outlook in Lahore describing the reality of the conditions there. When it was published, he was overjoyed: ‘This was my first venture into politics which filled me with a strange rapturous feeling. I had finally found my voice’.”
Sheikh was the first President of Kashmir’s first political party, the Muslim Conference with Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas as General Secretary, and Molvi Abdul Rahim as Secretary which was formed on 16 October 1932. The name of the party was later changed to National Conference about which it is said that Sheikh did it under the influence of Jawaharlal Nehru. Sheikh became friends with Nehru in late 1940s. “…Abdullah also made the acquaintance of Jawahar Lal Nehru. They hit it off instantly. Both were impulsive and had strong views, but fortunately these were the same- a commitment to Hindu-Muslim harmony and to socialism. The National Conference grew closer to the Indian National Congress…”
Nehru and Sheikh spent a good time together. In 1946, Sheikh “was incarcerated once more after he asked the Dogra dynasty to ‘quit Kashmir’ and hand over power to the people. In the ensuing unrest more than twenty people died. The maharaja declared martial law and had the Sheikh sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for ‘sedition’. This particularly angered Jawaharlal Nehru, who dashed to the state in his friend’s defence. Nehru was prevented from entering by the maharaja’s men, who stopped him at the border and sent him back to British India.” Though Nehru had always come to rescue Sheikh to prove his friendship, it was in Nehru’s rule when he was dismissed and put in jail. As mentioned in Sheikh’s Biography, according to him, his dismissal and arrest in 1953 were engineered by the central government headed by Prime Minister Nehru.
When Sheikh accepted to become the Chief Minister of the state (which was now Indian-administered) many people in Kashmir stood against him and saw his taking over power as betrayal. It is said that it was only because of Sheikh’s help that India got control of Jammu and Kashmir, which was then a princely state. Remembering a meeting of 1947 in which Nehru gets angry on Mehr Chand Mahajan (the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir), in which Mahajan tells Nehru to send Indian troops to the state immediately, the Sheikh recalls the meeting as, “Jawaharlal lost his temper, ‘If you favour an agreement with Pakistan, leave at once.’ He stormed out of the room. I tried to soothe him by assuring him that the National Conference supported this decision. Jawaharlal shot back into the room where Mahajan was sitting and told him that Sheikh Abdullah supported the accession.”
“Whether or not Abdullah was India’s man, he certainly was not Pakistan’s. In April 1948 he described that country as ‘an unscrupulous and savage enemy’.” Sheikh never supported being with Pakistan. After the Indira-Sheikh accord and Sheikh becoming the Chief Minister on February 24, 1975, his impact started fading away from Kashmir. Though for some people Sheikh is still someone who did well for his people by bringing land reforms and education, but his son, Farooq Abdullah, is not even seen half of the image of his father .
Today people in the valley see the Abdullah family as representatives of the central government rather than as their representatives. There are some good words for Sheikh Abdullah, but followed by the Delhi motivated political shifts in his positions the reactions changed to negative from many people. Ghulam Mohammad, a shopkeeper in downtown believes Sheikh didn’t do anything well. “He raised many slogans due to which he ruined everything in waste. We saw him going to jail for the Kashmir cause but he returned as a free man and then accepted power on compromised accords.” The acceptance of power which people talk about is the Indira-Sheikh accord.
His son, Farooq Abdullah joined the political field of Jammu and Kashmir when he was appointed president of the National Conference in August, 1981. After his father’s death in 1982, he became the Chief Minister of the state. His only qualification in politics was that he was the son and heir of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah.
A young student of Baramulla, Hashim Habeeb, has a different opinion on the Abdullahs. He supports Sheikh’s work for society but says rest of his family had done no good to Kashmir. “Sheikh was good in my views because he built hospitals, university and Dargah (Hazratbal shrine). After Farooq came to power, he didn’t win on his own; he won because of his father’s impact. People thought he will do same as his father did, but he ruined everything.”
Habeeb says Farooq is responsible for forming the Special Task Force (STF)- the separate wing of government forces to neutralize the militants, in the valley and killing many people. “Farooq took over power and created STF; they killed thousands of boys. It was then people realised he is bad.”
National Conference party leader, Mohammad Yusuf Taing says that Farooq was an unsuccessful chief minister in early nineties when Kashmir had infiltration and war during that time. “When such situation was there, you know how much power does army and other forces have. Those days, at times civilian administration was not dominating as it should have been.”
Mostly well-educated aged people see Sheikh Abdullah as someone who betrayed his own people by playing an important role in facilitation of accession of state with India and then accords which weakened the independent status of the state. Old people, men and women who had seen Sheikh alive, listened to his speeches, and followed him in rallies still have good regards for him. They say we can’t talk negatively about him; he had been our only leader. The generation which was born after 80s see Sheikh as a failed politician. On the whole Abdullah family, people in Kashmir say that the family has been ruling the state but either by misleading or assistance of the central government, which is unacceptable to them with respect to the unresolved dispute.
Most of the people in the valley say apart from the land reforms there is nothing to Abdullah family’s credit. And with time the mischiefs outweigh whatever contribution they made in the form of land reforms. A professor in the law department of the Kashmir University, Dr. Showkat Hussain says Sheikh was the uncontested leader of Kashmir from 1931 to 1975. “After 1975 his graph of popularity declined sharply. Post Sheikh era has seen complete erosion of the National Conference mass base. And whosoever comes to power in Jammu and Kashmir from this family doesn’t come on account of his popularity but because of manipulations,” Hussain says.
On the current chief minister of the state, Omar Abdullah, who is the third generation of the Abdullah’s, there are a spectrum of views. Some people say he is a dynamic leader, while others say he has brought back the killings of innocents. A local resident of Srinagar, Mohammad Amin says Omar is well educated but he is the worst leader. “I think there is no worst leader like Omar. He has double standards. He talks one thing in Kashmir and different in outside Kashmir.”
The speech which showed people some new light in Omar Abdullah was in July, 2008, in the Lok Sabha of India when, despite being in opposition to the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) in the state, he supported the confidence motion against the UPA. The speech which started by, “I am a Muslim and I am an Indian and I see no distinction between the two” showed him walking in his grandfather’s shoes. It was due to his statements and direct or indirect support by several people at centre and state which bought Omar to the chief minister’s chair for full six year term.
Omar, even before completing half the term of his chief minister tenure started proving to be extremely different on ground. A. G. Noorani, a prominent lawyer and a commentator, writes that [Omar] Abdullah “needed prodding by the Centre even to order registration of a First Information Report… this testifies the gravity of Omar Abdullah’s lapses… (and) reveals the mindset that he will follow the tradition firmly established by his father, Farooq Abdullah…”
Taing, who has also authored the biography of Sheikh Abdullah, Aatish-e-Chinar (Flames), says despite being so young, Omar is proving as a successful chief minister. “I think Jammu and Kashmir is the most complex state. It has issues with Pakistan, India and China going on. In this complicated place Omar is proving as a successful chief minister. Omar is learning from his experiences but he is intelligent, hardworking and transparently sincere,” says Taing, who was recently appointed as Deputy Chairman of Legislative Council.
The Abdullah family in Jammu and Kashmir is seen much like the Gandhi family in India. But the views differ even while comparing the two families; the student, Hashim says, Gandhi family has brains, Abdullah’s have nothing. However, he admits Sheikh Abdullah was a people’s leader.
The Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah recalls his family’s and Nehru-Gandhi family friendship too. On December 5, the 106th birth anniversary of his grandfather, he narrated Sheikh’s friendly relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. Omar recalled Abdullah’s association with Indira Gandhi. The newspaper Pioneer reported the speech as, “Highlighting the generational consistency in the friendship between the Abdullah family and the Nehru-Gandhis, he recalled his father Farooq Abdullah’s engagement with Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to contextualise his current association with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her all-powerful son Rahul Gandhi.”
The friendship between the two leading political families in India and Kashmir has always been there- from Sheikh Abdullah-Jawaharlal Nehru to Omar Abdullah-Rahul Gandhi. Taing says that Nehru came on a private visit to Kashmir in 1942 and the friendship between him [Nehru] and Sheikh Sahib started from then. “Farooq and Rajiv Gandhi had an accord in 1988 and then the friendship continued. It was even during militancy that Gandhi family and Abdullah family remained friends. Now Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah are friends. This is a three generation friendship,” he says.
While talking about the public response to Sheikh Abdullah and his son, Taing says Sheikh was greatest among all of them. “A leader like Sheikh Sahib won’t come again in five centuries. He was a legend. Sheikh Sahib spent 22 years in jail. Omar and Farooq didn’t spend even a day. We can’t compare any of them with him. His is the status of Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Gaffar Khan of India.”
And Taing believes that political party fortunes always see ups and downs and the Kashmir politics changes with time but National Conference is still the largest party in Jammu and Kashmir, in all the three divisions. Though the core of the opinions and views of people from the valley is Sheikh’s progeny pursued Kashmir to be their fiefdom over which they can rule as long New Delhi is playing the role of the spine.