The Forgotten Art of Diplomatic Overtures and Dialogue

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s letter to Chaudhary Noor Hussain, (Chairman of Defense Committee for Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah), which the Sheikh, first Muslim Prime Minister of post-Independence Jammu and Kashmir, wrote while in incarceration in 1960, is particularly relevant in the wake of the failed Indo-Pak National Security Advisors talks and would be of interest to serious students of the history and politics of South Asia. Needless to say, the letter was duly censored by the Superintendent of the Special Jail.
Preface to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s letter to Chaudhry Noor Hussain (Chairman of Defense Committee, For Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and His Colleagues, United Kingdom), written from the Special Jail, Jammu, on 25th January, 1960:

Nyla Ali Khan

I understand the compulsions, the geopolitical realities, and the context within which certain political decisions were made in 1947. Unfortunately, those compulsions and political realities often get overlooked in official historiographies of India and Pakistan. Even his staunchest critics would be hard-pressed to deny that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the architect of the economic and political emancipation of Kashmir. By evoking the moral consciousness of a nation, he appealed to the best in human nature.

History has borne witness to the inability of several stalwarts to achieve their ideals, because they took rigid and inflexible stands. In order to achieve the larger objective, they have had to make compromises, sometimes unpalatable ones.

Introduction: In August 1955, a group comprising eight legislators from the Constituent Assembly initiated a political movement called the J & K Plebiscite Front. The first president of this organization was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s trusted colleague, Mirza Afzal Beg. Beg spearheaded this movement during his probationary period. The credo of the Plebiscite Front was “self-determination through a plebiscite under UN auspices, withdrawal of the armed forces of both nations from Kashmir, and restoration of civil liberties and free elections” (Dasgupta 1968: 227–28). The “seditious” goals of this organization unleashed state-sponsored violence against its members and supporters, creating a repressive atmosphere that was meant to insidiously gnaw at any semblance of autonomy that Jammu and Kashmir retained. In 1956 the Constituent Assembly validated a draft constitution for the state, built on the premise that the state of J & K was and, indubitably, would remain an integral part of the Union of India. This unambiguous premise assigned the political inclinations of the people of Kashmir to an obscure position. In fact Nehru unabashedly declared that the legality of the accession of Kashmir to India was now a moot issue. This undemocratic approach did not go unchallenged, and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah wrote protest letters from prison to his former ally Nehru, and to his former trusted political comrade G.M. Sadiq, the pro-communist speaker of the Assembly. Despite his incarceration, Abdullah’s larger-than-life political status and clout, reified by his die-hard supporters, kept alive the issues of self-determination and special status. When the draft constitution was placed before the house, Mirza Afzal Beg moved a motion of adjournment for exactly two weeks, in order to enable Abdullah to be present. The Assembly was presided over by Sadiq who ruled the motion out of order. Subsequently, Beg and his followers protested and boycotted the proceedings (Dasgupta 2002: 97). The large-scale repressive measures deployed by the government of India paved the way for it to firmly entrench the state’s new constitution on 26 January 1957.

This development was followed by a resolution of the UN Security Council, which reiterated that the final status of J & K would be settled in accordance with the wishes of the people of the state as expressed in a democratic plebiscite. In effect, the convening of a Constituent Assembly as recommended by the general council of the All Jammu & Kashmir National Conference would not determine, in any way, shape or form, the political future of the state. The course of the political destiny of J & K would be charted by the voice of its people raised at a democratic forum under the auspices of the UN (ibid.: 408). The resolution affirmed that the Kashmir issue was still pending final settlement and, despite claims to the contrary by Nehru’s Congress government, was under consideration by the Security Council. The reiteration of earlier UN resolutions regarding the Kashmir issue made explicit the disputed status of the state. However, the UN was unable to retard or prevent certain political developments in J & K.

Conclusion: I would like to believe that my opinions have evolved during the course of my research. And, in all honesty, I find Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s politics relevant even today. He, like the rest of us, had his flaws and shortcomings, but that doesn’t take away from his commitment to Kashmir. I believe, without a shred of doubt, that in civilized societies, political dissent is not curbed and national integrity is not maintained by military interventions. I have said this earlier on other public platforms. I reiterate that the more military officials get involved in issues of politics, governance, and national interest, the more blurred the line between national interest and hawkish national security becomes.
I discuss this issue in the classes that I teach and I wrote about this in my article on “Military Interventions in Democratic Spaces” as well. Instead of deterring the growth of democracy and depoliticizing the people, the goal should be to empower the populace of Jammu and Kashmir sufficiently to induce satisfaction with the Kashmir constituency’s role within current geopolitical realities such that a dis-empowered populace does not succumb to ministrations of destructive political ideologies. In addition to addressing the political aspect of democracy, it is important to take cognizance of its economic aspect as well, which is exactly what Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a man far ahead of his time, did. The dominant perception of Kashmir as just an insurgent state within the Indian Union and not as a political unit with legitimate regional aspirations might benefit security hawks but will not do any long term good.
The welfare of the people of the state can be guaranteed by securing the goodwill of the political establishments of both India and Pakistan, and by the display of military discipline and efficiency at the borders. Thanks to my research and productive interactions with people who understand Kashmir, I make these assertions with an earned confidence.

I have brought up this idea in my presentation at a couple of conferences, and I reinforce that perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political, and cultural interests among the people of the region.

25th January, 1960

“My Dear Chaudhry Sahib (Chairman of Defense Committee, For Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and His Colleagues, United Kingdom),


I have received your letter of January, 1960, which was brought here by Mr. Abdul Rahman. He also had an interview with me and Beg Sahib, the other day. We have thus had a broad account of your organization in the United Kingdom. Naturally, all of us are grateful for your solicitude for the cause of Kashmiris, and for what the organization is reported to be doing to sponsor that cause. In fact it is a common cause and, as you rightly say, all of us must march in step.

You are aware of our people’s struggle for freedom carried on through the last three decades. Destiny left it to me to spear-head that struggle through suffering and sacrifices, in which particularly people of the Valley, Poonch and Mirpur, had the major share. It has been my proud privilege to suffer with my people and for them. Nothing can be a nobler and higher aim of human life than a dedication to the cause of emancipation of an enslaved and down-trodden people. When a cause is noble and great it calls for commensurate sacrifices, and those wedded to it have to offer them ungrudgingly. Ever since 1931, when the national movement was launched, our ideal has been a right of self-determination for the people of the State, and to that end I am contributing my humble bit. The present is just a stage in that struggle.

This right of self-determination of a people is no new slogan, much less is it a novel demand. It is a universally recognized right, and is the anchor-sheet of the United Nations’ Charter. Every civilized nation in the world endorses it unreservedly for every subjugated people. In fact, its denial in word or deed has always led to devastating wars and manslaughter of millions. Its sanctity and gravity cannot, therefore, be exaggerated. Yet, Kashmiri people are today suffering incalculable hardships for the achievement of this right, otherwise conceded to every nation. But as a soldier in struggle for a noble cause, I have no grouse against the suffering. Every objective has a price to be to be paid for.

With the dawn of freedom in this subcontinent, unfortunately the question of Kashmir was hung on, and for the last twelve years it has bedeviled the Indo-Pakistan relations. In the process of wrangling, the State has got artificially partitioned, which has crippled the social and economic life, and also paralyzed the political advancement on either side of the cease-fire line. Thus economically, politically, and socially it is a disrupted State whose development in any sphere has been rendered impossible.

In 1947, soon after the two Sovereign Independent States—India and Pakistan were born, Gandhiji had unequivocally declared that, “The Princes being the creation of British Imperialism, and the British having quit India, the people on the States were their own masters and the Kashmiris must therefore decide, without any coercion, without any coercion or show of it, from within or without, to which Dominion it should belong.” It was his political heir, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, who during the crisis of 1947, carried on a relentless campaign for focusing the world attention on the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir. Without mincing words, he unreservedly endorsed the stand that it is the people of the State of Kashmir alone who can in a free and impartial plebiscite decide their future affiliations with India or Pakistan. He completely ruled out even Maharaja’s authority to take a decision on the accession issue. On 2nd November, 1947, he declared, “We have declared that the fate of Kashmir is ultimately to be decided by the people. The pledge we have given, and the Maharaja has supported it, not only to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it. We are prepared when peace and law and order have been established to have referendum held under international auspices like the United Nations.”

Coming as these words did from a world statesman of the stature of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmiris have always had full faith in his respect for his promise. He has not only reiterated this promise after the accession question arose, but has personally contributed tangibly to the Kashmir struggle for the right of self-determination of its people during our movement against Maharaja. It was the reflection of his policy, as the distinguished Prime Minister of India, that late Shri Gopala Swami Ayyinger told the Security Council on 15th January, 1948, that, ‘Whether it (Kashmir State) should withdraw from its 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 recognized to be a matter for the unfettered decision by the people of Kashmir after normal life is restored to them.’ This commitment has during the last twelve years been reiterated almost innumerable times, and on 7th August, 1952, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, bluntly told the Indian Parliament, ‘With all deference to this Parliament, I would like to say that the ultimate decision will be made in the hearts of men and women of Kashmir and not in the Parliament or at United Nations. First of all, let me say clearly that we accept the basic proposition that the future of Kashmir is going to be decided finally by the goodwill and pleasure of its people . . . .’

Enunciating her Kashmir policy regarding accession, the Government of India presented a While Paper to the Parliament in 1948, in which it declared, ‘The question of accession is to be decided finally in a free plebiscite, on this there is no dispute. There will be no victimization of any native of the State, whatever his political view may be and no Kashmiri will be deprived of the right to vote.’

When the Kashmir accession issue went to the Security Council, India reiterated her plebiscite pledge, and Pakistan fell in line. Thus not only both the countries of India and Pakistan but the world organization as well held that the only solution to the problem was to concede the right of self-determination to the people of Jammu and Kashmir State through an impartial plebiscite to be held under United Nations auspices.

Unfortunately, India and Pakistan got bogged down into minor details of plebiscite arrangements. And this has led to the miseries of 4 million people of the State. For the last twelve years the gulf between India and Pakistan has widened, and in the process the people of Kashmir have been crushed in every conceivable manner. As you rightly say, ‘The Kashmiri people are left bereft of all human dignity, democracy, and the much spoken of basic human rights.’ And what is their ‘Crime’ —other than the demand for the right of self-determination—a right repeatedly promised to them, and to the world at large, both by India and Pakistan. They are barely asking for the implementation of these promises. In return—and how tragic it is—they have received bullets and ruthless repression, long sordid years of incarceration and other inhuman tortures. I, as the spearhead of their movement, have been under detention for nearly seven years now (excluding a brief period of four months in early 1958), and a large number of my colleagues are going through years of incarceration. It is difficult to describe what suffering our people outside are facing. But, as I have said, no objective can be achieved without paying the price.

Whatever our lot in this tragic struggle may be, we should never harbor any bitterness. Fortunately, there is none in my mind against anyone. Bitterness contaminates the cause, warps the mind, and distorts the vision. Those who espouse a noble cause must avoid bitterness at any cost. We owe it to our conscience and to the cause. Moreover, against whom should one be bitter? After all we are a part and parcel of the subcontinent. Our peace and prosperity is inextricable wedded with the peace and prosperity of the millions in India and Pakistan. In spite of the physical delineation of the boundaries, we all live in one zone. Our hopes, aspirations, fears, and dangers are the same. In the happiness and prosperity of India and Pakistan lies the peace and prosperity of the people of our State. It would not be too much to say that, God forbid, if India and Pakistan go down, Kashmir cannot survive.

You would appreciate, I hope, that as long as Indo-Pakistan relations remain strained, not only will the solution of the Kashmir question recede further and further into the background, but even the peace in the subcontinent hang by a thin thread. Such a situation is obviously fraught with disastrous consequences not only for India and Pakistan but even for the whole of Asia. Kashmir is a tiny speck which may be wiped out of existence any moment.

Thus we must look at this question in the broad perspective and urge a settlement accordingly. In the friendly relations of India and Pakistan lies the future of our State. We want a lasting and peaceful settlement of the question, reflecting the wishes of the people. Therein lies honor, peace, and progress for all concerned.

As for the case going on against us, the commitment proceedings have taken too long, and the end is not yet in sight. It may be two or three months hence when the trail actually begins.

My colleagues end you their best regards. We are all well. Convey my regards to your colleagues.

Yours sincerely,

(signed) Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah”

(Censored—Signed Boota Singh Superintendent, Special Jail, Jammu.)


Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at