Stepping in Sheikh’s secular shoes!

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It is the misfortune of some leaders that public perception, based on their recent actions and political positions, tends to overshadow their long history of engagement with an issue.

“For Islam the acceptance of social democracy in some suitable form and consistent with the legal principles of Islam is not a revolution but a return to the original purity of Islam,” writes Alama Iqbal in an undated letter addressed to Jinnah. Iqbal’s demand for a separate homeland for Muslims had social construct, but Iqbal died before Pakistan was born and Jinnah used Islam as a political instrument to secure the state.

As a consequence of partition when the entire Indian subcontinent was beleaguered with communal tensions, killings, plunder, loot and rape which had become a norm, the stalwart of Independence- Mahatma Gandhi- expressed his desire to die rather than witness such grotesque scenario. The basic proposition of partition that was propagated across was that the Hindus and Muslims could not co-exist, and yet, in the words of Gandhi, Kashmir became ‘a beacon of light in this benighted subcontinent’.

There was apparently no sign of post partition communal tension in the vale, even though over ninety percent constituted the Muslim population. The people of Kashmir were all-embracing, peacefully coexisting even in such turbulent times, validating secularism as an article of faith and identifying themselves as deeply rooted in the Sufi history of Kashmir. And the man who acted as a bulwark against communal forces and reinvigorated secularism, religious tolerance, was Sheikh Abdullah. Echoing with the socialist thinking of Iqbal, he was the stalwart of reforms, among others, like land to the tiller without compensation, a commitment whose implementation became the primary cause of emancipation of the persecuted and oppressed Kashmiris, who were tyrannized by the despotic Dogra rulers.

The Dogra regime persecuted the Muslim population economically as well as in matters concerning religion. For instance, Maharaja Hari Singh, to counter further conversions to Islam, passed a law which required a convert to abdicate his ancestral property. A poor weaver with a meager income of 6 to 8 rupees had to pay 5 rupees in tax to the Maharaja. Weavers were not allowed to change professions, lest the loss it would cause to Maharaja’s economy emanating from the famous and lucrative Shawl industry of Kashmir. The great famine of 1877 is estimated to have killed one-third of the population, with dead bodies lying unburied. Workers were exploited left, right and center. The proverbial ‘begair’ (forced labour) where locals were assigned the task to clear a high Burzil-pass poised at 13775 foot adduces the plight of Maharaja’s subjects.

It was Sheikh who emerged from the front to lead the beleaguered nation against the tyrannical rule, and formed the Muslim Conference, giving a voice and identity to the masses seeking an end to the atrocious Dogra rule.

When the public opinion across the undivided India was swayed by religious politics, it was against this backdrop, that Sheikh changed the name of Muslim Conference to National Conference, a manifestation of secularism and all-embracing, reverberating the roots of tolerance and secularism that emanated from the vale, as against the one adduced by the rise of communalism in the Jammu province where Muslims fleeing to the newly created Azad-Kashmir were slaughtered by right-wing Hindu militia empowered by Hari Singh and his Maharani- Tara Devi.

Azad Kashmir was not created as a consequence of invasion by Pukhtoon raiders-as touted by India, rather it was a consequence of Poonch uprising and the Pukhtoon invasion entailed the uprising.

Christopher Snedden, in his book, Kashmir: The Unwritten History, writes, that when Quit Kashmir campaign started on 20th May 1946 , to oust the despotic Dogra regime, Jinnah opposed the movement and brushed it aside as one being ‘engineered by malcontents’. This stance coupled with his lack of criticism of J&K’s unpopular ruler made Jinnah appear pro-Maharaja and made the Muslim League somewhat unpopular, by and large jettisoned chances of Kashmir going to Pakistan.

Though accession was by and large the prerogative of the Maharaja, Sheikh felt it would be deeply disconcerting the secular fabric in the vale if Kashmir aligned with Pakistan on the basis of religion. This can be discerned by the letter Sheikh wrote to Nehru in which he explicitly states that accession to India was because we saw two bright stars of hope and aspiration, namely Gandhiji and Nehru himself-the beacons of secularism in a sub-continent plagued with religious intolerance.

He had successfully acted a bulwark against communalism in his bastion-Kashmir, but was falling victim to Hindu revivalism in India, when the likes of Sardar Patel overtly discredited the loyalty of Indian Muslims , and pressed for full forcible integration to the Indian mainland, as against one of ‘a special-relationship’ which Sheikh sought. The rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism in India coupled with the insecurity among Muslims, Sheikh realized his folly.

It is alleged that a disenchanted Sheikh, as a guardian of 40 lacs of Kashmiris, then the Prime Minister of J&K, met a Pakistani emissary at Tangmarg, and also impelled him to press for greater independence which ironically was concurring with the stance of Sardar Ibrahim of Azad Kashmir, as he too had started to get disillusioned with Pakistan. In August 1953 Sheikh Abdullah was denuded of his office and incarcerated on charges of defecting to Pakistan. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was anointed as the new PM of J&K and the constituent assembly ratified the accession.

Sheikh’s hostility to India was an open secret now or was being propagated by Karan Singh, B.N Mullick (the then chief of intelligence). The people of Kashmir were overwhelmed by the freebies given by the Bakshi administration and the incarcerated Sheikh-phenomenon seemed to be on an ebb.

It was the theft of holy relic from the Hazratbal shrine and insinuations of Bakshi era corruption which had reached a crescendo by then, Nehru realized that Sheikh had to be freed.

In the book ‘Tragic Hero Of Kashmir’, Ajit Bhattacharyea writers that “A life replete with struggle for Azaadi ended in a compromise. In 1974 while again in detention a tired, ageing Sheikh made a deal with Indira Gandhi and accepted finality of accession and regained limited powers as Chief Minister”.

Legend’s in Kashmir assert Sheikh’s proximity to Pakistan in 1953 and also pre 1975 accord. Though Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been a strong proponent of Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan, he is said to have conveyed to Sheikh Abdullah his vulnerability and powerlessness post the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war. This coupled with Sheikh’s incarceration for more than two decades, I believe, led to the 1975 accord. Sheikh recalls in his biography ‘Flames of Chinar’, “During negotiations for the Kashmir Accord I had made it clear to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that our new political phase demanded free and fair elections. She was unwilling to give her consent, and for time I only wanted the congress party to elect me as a leader. I agreed to cooperate with the congress, but soon had to regret my decision.”

The 1975 accord dented his reputation. “When however his death was announced on September 1982”, writes Ajit Bhattacharjea, in ‘Tragic Hero Of Kashmir’, “the crowds remembered him as the Sher-e-Kashmir who had given a voice and identity to Kashmir’s. Weeping and chanting dirges, they lined the entire route to the site adjoining the Hazratbal Mosque where he was buried.”

Perhaps Sheikh Abdullah knew then what New Delhi later realized, that, the desire for Azaadi will not die with him.

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