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Kashmir Evoked a Lot More International Attention in the 1950s Than It Does Now

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Despite the diatribe, “quiet diplomacy,” negotiations, has the political landscape of Kashmir, the nuclear flashpoint in South Asia, changed at all since 1953? How seriously do the Governments of India and Pakistan take current regional political actors, state and non-state, in Kashmir? So, I thought I’d revisit a long forgotten chapter of history, which, at the time, garnered tremendous international attention and condemnation of the arrogance of nation-states.

The irony of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in post-Partition India, an “Indian Muslim,” being put behind bars for voicing and advocating the right of self-determination “by the very Indians who won admiration and sympathy in the world in attaining their own” (Extracts from Commentary by Edward R. Murrow, 1 May 1958), wasn’t lost on the world community.

The rearrest of the Sheikh created a constituency for his and his spouse Akbar Jehan’s politics in those parts of the world that had lent moral support to India’s glorious struggle for freedom in 1947. An acclaimed American commentator profoundly noted, “It is ironic that the Lion of Kashmir who fought so long for freedom has been jailed again by a freedom-loving state. The Lion exemplifies the spirit of Thoreau, who said, ‘I was not born to be forced.’ And Norman Corwin once wrote, ‘Freedom isn’t something to be won and then forgotten. It must be renewed like soil after yielding good crops’” (Murrow, in broadcast over CBS Radio Network, May 1, 1958).

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s release in January 1958, after an ignoble incarceration of four and a half years, was welcomed by the populace of Kashmir with an unbounded ebullience, which was marvelously delineated in the Time, January 20, 1958:

At week’s end Sheikh Abdullah, wearing a long black funeral-black achkan over loose white pajamas, held on to the windshield of his jeep and waved to crowds lining the road and jamming the towns along the way as he rode to the capital at the head of a 30-car caravan. Srinagar welcomed him with a frightening din. When the Sheikh appeared on the balcony of a Moslem shrine, people prostrated themselves in a heap below, crying vows that they would lay down their lives for him.

On April 22, 1958, the Special Correspondent of The Times of London wrote:

. . ., one’s impression on returning to the valley of Kashmir for the first time since Sheikh Abdullah was released is that he is still a power to be reckoned with. Alone, his principal colleagues and supporters all in gaol [sic], his every movement under police observation, his very presence is enough to deprive the present Kashmir Government of all peace of mind. Yet one cannot imprison a man indefinitely because he is admired and loved; nor presumably maintain in office a Government if it is unable to make itself either.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had been arrested for “his political leaning which runs counter to the Government of India in Kashmir. . . . Sheikh Abdullah was never known for resorting to or even calling for violence; all that he had called for was that the people of Kashmir should be given their just right and that they should not be oppressed” (Al-Zaman, May 7, 1958). Perhaps Nehru had forgotten his categorization of political arrests as criminal, which buttressed the conviction of those struggling for their political freedom.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did not desist from trying to find a solution to the Kashmir conflict which would be in accordance with “the freedom struggle of Kashmir and the independence movement of the Indian people” (Abdullah, “The Kashmiri Viewpoint,” 41). He sought to find a practical solution to the deadlock that would enable preservation of peace in the Indian subcontinent, while maintaining the honor of everyone concerned.

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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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