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Revisiting and Challenging Historical and Political Narratives

My maternal grandmother, Akbar Jehan, and her children were subjected to deprivation in my maternal grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s long absence after his ouster and arrest in 1953. They were condemned to isolation, but Akbar Jehan did not cringe. I still see vestiges of the distrust of statist versions of history and criminalization of progressive politics in Mother, which she must have imbibed in her inclement and agitated childhood. But Akbar Jehan was the powerful trooper, the silent force that kept the flag flying while anti-colonial and anti-feudal freedom fighters like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Mirza Afzal Beg, and other soldiers of the Plebiscite Front were shunted from one jail to the other, from one solitary confinement to the other. 

There is a historical value in revisiting and challenging narratives about the political personages of pre- and post- 1947 Jammu and Kashmir and the movement for political self-determination. I continue to employ oral testimonies and I rely on written sources, works authored or coauthored by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, to add layers of understanding to the tumultuous events that molded the history of Jammu and Kashmir.

The early part of Akbar Jehan’s life with the Sheikh, even as the consort of the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was constrained by hardship, uncertainty, political duplicity, and constant attempts to curb freedom. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s ouster 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.

For the benefit of students of politics and history, I reproduce the speech that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was scheduled to make on Eid in Srinagar on August 1953 but was unable to, because of the arbitrary dismissal of his government and his incarceration:

“This uncertainty and suspense not only tells on the minds and nerves of the people, but also affects activities of the government in all directions. Almost all measures for raising the economic standards of the people carry a stamp of unreality in face of the over-riding uncertainty. Efficiency in administration suffers as the civil servants get mixed in opposite groups of power and vested interest. It becomes difficult to plan and delay occurs in the implementation various nation-building schemes, which must all wait for an over-all solution. The prevalent uncertainty encourages corruption, and the unscrupulous make hay while the drift lingers on. . . . The accession of Kashmir to India, otherwise complete in all other respects, possesses one essential disqualification. It is an accession accepted provisionally being subject to subsequent ratification by the people and, therefore, lacking finality and, as such, a major contribution to the uncertainty itself. It is also true that Pakistan has come to occupy the position of a party directly and vitally concerned with this issue. It is important to bear this fact in mind when we propose, in our eagerness to end the uncertainty, to settle the issue of accession quickly. Added to it is the fact that the Kashmir problem continues to be a favorite topic on the agenda of the Security Council to be discussed when and as necessary and a matter of international dispute. Then there is the suggestion that the accession should be finalized by a vote of the Constituent Assembly. The question is, are decisions of the Constituent Assembly binding on India, Pakistan, and the UN? The Government of India, as a principal party to the dispute, itself does not consider a decision of the Constituent Assembly on the accession issue binding on it. The is clear from the extracts quoted here from Shri B. N. Rau’s statements in the Security Council as leader of the Indian delegation in March 1951: “I shall now turn to the matter which appears to have caused some concern to certain members of the Council, viz., the proposal to convene a Constituent Assembly of Kashmir. As I have already said, Kashmir is, at present, a unit of the Indian Federation and has to be governed accordingly. When we were drafting the Constitution of India, we had to consider the various units of the Indian Federation. It was decided that the framing of the constitutions would be entrusted to a Constituent Assembly for the unit concerned. . . . Honorable members will please note that the machinery of the Constituent Assembly was not devised only for Kashmir, but for other similar units of the Indian Federation as well. Provision was made in the Indian Constitution for a Constituent Assembly for settling the details of the Indian Constitution. Will that Assembly decide the question of accession? My government’s view is that while the Constituent Assembly may, if it so desires, express an opinion on this question, but it can take no decision in it. . . . Even in a Federation, every state has the right to make its own constitution in its proper sphere and to set-up a special body for that purpose. India cannot, therefore, prevent Kashmir, which at present is a unit of the Indian Federation, from exercising a similar right, which, indeed, is expressly recognized in the Constitution of India. . . . The Constituent Assembly cannot be physically prevented from expressing its opinion on this question, if it so chooses. But this opinion will not bind my government or prejudice the position of the Council” (29/ 3/ 51).

Another fact which needs mention is that nearly one-third of the state’s area is unrepresented in the Constituent Assembly. I think I should refer to the Delhi Agreements. These Agreements were endorsed both by the Indian Parliament and the state Constituent Assembly, and we are committed to them. No doubt these Agreements are an attempt to define clearly the position of the state in India in regard to certain matters. Assuming that our Constitution would provide appropriate provision with regard to these matters and that these matters are clearly stated therein, the question is would we, thereby, succeed in finalizing accession, the basic relationship. If this basic relationship itself is subject to ratification and, therefore, provisional, the character of the Delhi Agreements, which flow from such relationship, must be temporary and interim and, hence, hardly contributing to a settlement of the state’s future. So, the uncertainty continues, and the people grind and suffer.

. . . There is growing awareness among the people of the state that a satisfactory and lasting solution of the Kashmir problem is possible only if both India and Pakistan examine this problem from the interest of the good of the people of the state as a whole. The state of Jammu and Kashmir is so situated geographically that it depends for its economy on a free flow of trade to both countries. For ages, Kashmiri arts and crafts have found markets in India. At the same time, the rivers and roads of Kashmir stretch into Pakistan, while our only road to India remains blocked for nearly three months a year. Kashmir’s railhead used to be Rawalpindi and the traders in the Valley would use Karachi as the sea-port for overseas trade. These circumstances lend overwhelming weight to the aspirations of the people of the state to secure the goodwill of both India and Pakistan for their betterment and prosperity. They aspire that somehow the dispute should be settled in a manner as to allow them opportunities for national development based on the Indo-Pak accord. The National Conference organization opposes pro-merger sentiments of those cultural and ethnological groups whose sympathies and loyalties run outside their own state and the only result of whose activities would be to destroy the basic structure of the state. I know of occasions when I have tried to satisfy the legitimate demands of Muslims or reassure their minds about the future, when my friends have condemned me as a communalist and a turncoat. . . . It becomes necessary that I should satisfy them to the same extent that a non-Muslim is satisfied that his future hopes and aspirations are safe in India. Unfortunately, apart from the disastrous effects which the pro-merger agitation in Jammu produced in Kashmir amidst the present growing fears and dissatisfactions, the Muslim middle class in Kashmir has been greatly perturbed to see that while the present relationship of the state with India has opened new opportunities for their Hindu and Sikh brother to ameliorate their lot, the have been assigned the position of a frog in the well.

. . . What the Muslim intelligentsia in Kashmir is a definite and concrete stake in India. So the minds of the people of Kashmir have moved from fear to frustration and from frustration to near-disillusionment, which I have tried to explain in my recent speeches. While the National Conference stands committed to the support it gave to the Instrument of Accession and the Delhi Agreements, the fact remains  that the present situation of suspense has primarily to be resolved: 1) Will public opinion in India, more particularly overwhelming majorities of the people of Jammu and Ladakh, accept the present relationship based on the Instrument of Accession and Delhi Agreements as final and not to be altered in due course by coercion or otherwise; 2) Would such relationship not be subject to change because of international factors; 3) Would all sections of the state’s people derive equal benefit from such a relationship, irrespective of caste or creed? Would it be possible under this relationship to overcome the difficulties presented by geography or nature which stand in the way of all-round economic prosperity of the state?”

I confess that every time I read one of his speeches or interviews, my eyes well up, because history is a harsh judge!

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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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