August 9, 1953: a Defining Moment in the History of Kashmir

The ouster of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and my maternal grandfather, on August 9, 1953, at the behest of the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his subsequent arrest, was an event that alienated the Kashmiri masses and cast his next of kin as personae non grata. The Sheikh’s vociferous protests against, what he perceived as, endeavors to erode the constitutional autonomy of the state and undemocratically legitimize its integration into the Indian Union earned him the disapprobation of some of his former allies.

The Sheikh’s testimony regarding his arrest in 1953 and the plight of his persecuted wife and children might benefit the reader: On the chilly night of August 9, 1953, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Akbar Jehan, and their children were staying at the government guest house in Gulmarg while on a tour of that part of the Valley. They had been accompanied by the Sheikh’s secretary and a couple of other staff members as well. In the wee hours of the morning, the Sheikh was woken by his alarmed secretary who tremulously told him that the guest house had been surrounded by “armed military police.” On hearing this, the Sheikh sat bolt upright and strode out of his bedroom, only to find a police superintendent brandishing his baton in the living room. The Sheikh maintained his composure and calmly asked the police superintendent why he had swaggered into the guest house where the head of government was staying with his wife and offspring. The police superintendent did not reply. Instead, he produced a warrant for the Sheikh’s arrest and menacingly pointed toward the well-equipped police cordon around the guest house.

Realizing that he had been deceived by those who had sworn allegiance to him and also by those who had claimed to cherish their ideological commonalities with him, the Sheikh prepared to go into incarceration. Dejected but not defeated, he asked the police superintendent to allow him time to say his morning prayers, to which the swaggering official readily agreed. Soon after the Sheikh had said his prayers, the aid-de-camp of Karan Singh, Regent of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, delivered a letter to him from the Regent, in which he had, ironically, commiserated with the Sheikh.[1] The letter also brought to the Sheikh’s notice that he had been, without prior notification or consultation, dismissed as head of government by the Regent. The rationale provided by the Regent for the Sheikh’s arbitrary dismissal was that his colleagues in the legislative assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, Shyam Lal Saraf, and Girdhar Lal Dogra, had lost confidence in his leadership.

Once the reality of the coup d’état sunk in, it was plain as day that his political adversaries had employed wantonly undemocratic stratagems to remove him from the position of Prime Minister. “At about 4:20 a. m.,” the Sheikh recounts, “I bade good-bye to my wife [Akbar Jehan] and children and moved under a military escort to Udhampur, about 175 miles from Gulmarg.” Subsequently, the Sheikh was held incommunicado in a house that belonged to the former Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir and father of Regent Karan Singh, Hari Singh.

He was further anguished and disheartened on hearing that his house in Srinagar had been sealed, and Akbar Jehan and their children had been illegally evicted from the premises. The family was rendered fatherless and destitute. The autocratic and despotic regime of the newly appointed Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, had instilled such fear into the hearts of the populace that people were afraid to be associated with Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh. In a situation of hopelessness, the Akbar Jehan and her progeny were provided with a place to stay by Khwaja Ali Shah, brother-in-law of the Sheikh’s older daughter, Khalida. But this arrangement hurt Akbar Jehan’s pride, because she did not want to have to accept succor from her daughter’s in-laws which she considered an abomination. The Sheikh gratefully writes that, “fortunately a Hindu, Madan Lal, came to my family’s rescue and in spite of the coercive measures of the government, he extended a hand of friendship to my wife and children by offering them a portion of his house.” The Sheikh’s seemingly interminable incarceration took a heavy toll on his flesh and blood. The government, in a rare show of benevolence, offered an allowance to Akbar Jehan, but she adamantly refused to take it. Within a few months, the jail administrators decided that the Sheikh could not be held incommunicado indefinitely. He was allowed to meet with Akbar Jehan and his children after several months of seclusion, and, he notes, “I could get authentic information about events in Kashmir” (Abdullah and Gundevia, Testament, 47).

The attempted political, social, and economic marginalization of Akbar Jehan and her children during the politically tumultuous and ruthlessly arbitrary post-1953 era placed her in the unenviable position of being virtually disowned by her near and dear ones. Her brothers, George Nedou aka Mohammad Akram, Harry Nedou aka Ghulam Qadir, and Benji Nedou aka Shamsuddin, did not have the wherewithal or clout to help her. Also, Akbar Jehan’s brothers, two of whom later became enterprising hoteliers, did not want to provoke the wrath of the government of India and the government installed by it in the State, which was led by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. They, like a lot of other people at the time, did not have the courage to overtly espouse the putatively wilting political cause of struggling for the autonomous status of Kashmir and for the right of the people of Kashmir to determine their own political future. Akbar Jehan’s next of kin, excluding her mother, did not offer her a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on during the traumatic period that Akbar Jehan’s younger daughter and my mother, Suraiya, still recalls with anguish.

The historicization of the staggering events of the fifties and the sixties has been swept under the carpet for so long that, other than serious scholars, very few people engage with the politico historical perspectives and narratives of that era, let alone contextualize them.

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 nylakhan@aol.com.

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