Although the first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah viewed the accession of the State to India as a strategic and pragmatic necessity, and sought to justify it by deploying the rhetoric of socialism and secularism, he continued to harbor hopes for the creation of a sovereign Kashmir. In October 1949, the Constituent Assembly of India reinforced the stipulation that New Delhi’s jurisdiction in the state would remain limited to the categories of defense, foreign affairs, and communications, as underlined in the Instrument of Accession. This stipulation was provisional and its final status would be decided upon the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Subsequent to India acquiring the status of a Republic in 1950, this constitutional provision enabled the incorporation of Article 370 into the Indian Constitution, which ratified the autonomous status of J & K within the Indian Union. Article 370 stipulates that New Delhi can legislate on the subjects of defense, foreign affairs, and communications only in just and equitable consultation with the government of the state of J & K, and can intervene on other subjects only with the consent of the J & K Assembly.
At this point in times, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah made some controversial observations in an interview with the London Observer. He voiced his concern over the increased vulnerability and instability of J & K caught between two countries that were hostile towards each other. He expressed his solicitude over the political and economic hardships that the location of the state would cause its populace. The only viable option, according to him, was for J & K to have a neutral status vis-à-vis both India and Pakistan. However, because of the ruptured politics within the state given its diverse political, religious and ethnic affiliations, the sovereign and autonomous status of J & K would need to be acknowledged and guaranteed not just by India and Pakistan, but also by the UN and other world powers. Abdullah’s candid observations created a furor in New Delhi. His ‘politically incorrect’ views met with particular objection from India’s right-wing Deputy Prime Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel. Abdullah withdrew his remarks in an interview with The Hindu, a couple of months later (Dasgupta 1968: 194). In 1952, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah voiced his relentless hostility towards Hindutva majoritarianism in the stronghold of the right-wing Praja Parishad. He referred to the attempts of the Congress Party and the central government to enforce the complete integration of J & K into the Indian Union as juvenile, impractical and ludicrous (ibid.: 196). In March 1952 Abdullah stated that, “. . . neither the Indian Parliament nor any other Parliament outside the state has any jurisdiction over our state. . . . No country – neither India nor Pakistan – can put spokes in the wheel of our progress” (Delhi Radio, Indian Information Service). He further declared that “the existence of Kashmir did not depend on Indian money, trade, or defense forces, and he did not expect any strings to be attached to Indian aid. Threats and taunts would not intimidate him into servile submission (The Times, 26 April 1952).
Perhaps it was an irony of fate that, soon after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s talks with Nehru regarding the Kashmir imbroglio, Nehru died – on 27 May 1964. Prior to the change in Nehru’s stance toward Kashmir, the two stalwarts had shared a commonality of vision: they were tied by an umbilical cord of anti-despotic, socialist political beliefs. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah came from an unpretentious Muslim background, and was motivated to fight the structural inequities and state-sponsored injustices wrought by the peripheralization of Kashmiri Muslims who were quarantined in the alleyways of poverty, illiteracy and despondency, and who could not touch the corridors of economic and social prestige even with a bargepole. Nehru came from an elite background, had been groomed in the privileged hallways of Harrow and Cambridge, and was a proud personage, often arrogant or condescendingly superior in manner. His intellectual grooming exacerbated his patronizing tone and manner. Despite the fact that the two figures, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Nehru, occupied different rungs of the social and economic hierarchy, the rapport between them was of critical importance to the installation of a democratic regime in Kashmir when the tide of separatism in 1947 threatened to drown out the Indian presence in the state.
Subsequent to his talks with the Indian premier, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah travelled to Pakistan with Maulana Masoodi and Mirza Afzal Beg, in sanguineness and good cheer, to hold talks with the Pakistani President, General Ayub Khan. After a series of hopeful conversations with Ayub Khan, Abdullah felt confident that the talks were making headway. He visited Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and was exuberantly welcomed by a sea of people (ibid.: 240). During that period, Abdullah did not once waver on his demand for self-rule, but he required the cooperation of Pakistan in looking for a viable solution to the conflict that had caused Sheikh Abdullah addresses a mammoth gathering at the historic Lal Chowk in Srinagar, 1975 more corrosion than the two countries were willing to admit. The heartwarming response to Abdullah and his stance, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, was not well received either by New Delhi or its ward at the time, G.M. Sadiq.
Subsequent to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s death, even those who had vehemently condemned the political strategies which he had deployed during his three decades as the voice of Kashmiri self-determination assessed his politics applaudingly. An old associate of his who had migrated to Pakistan, Shahnawaz Khan Niazi, describes what he thought Abdullah symbolized:
“Sheikh Abdullah was a total idealist and his only interest was the best deal he could get for Kashmir and Kashmiris. His often repeated statement to me was that destiny had played an important role, that circumstances were such that they did not permit him to come to an understanding with Pakistan. Every small opportunity he got to make a point or establish the separate identity of Kashmiris he took.” (Quoted in Taseer 1986: 67)
Despite the furious opposition of his detractors and the relentless efforts of the governments of India and Pakistan to delimit Abdullah’s sphere of influence, and to dismantle the paradigmatic political and cultural structures built by him, his significance as the symbol of Kashmir’s unique cultural identity and its stentorian demand for self-determination remains indelible.