In Politics There are No Permanent Friends or Foes

Part 1

Raised in Kashmir in the 1970s and the 1980s, I instinctively knew that my parents would protect me from the shackles of restrictive traditions and from the pigeonholes of modernity. My own wariness of statism, perhaps, stems from my Mother’s fraught childhood and youth. Her father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, reigned as Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 to 1953. In this article, I attempt to historicize the fraught relationship between two elected Prime Ministers, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, which ended up deepening the trust deficit between the people of Kashmir and the rest of India. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, to friends as well as foes, symbolized Kashmiri nationalism, and his long incarceration was a clear indication that Prime Minister Nehru’s government would not allow a powerful regional leader to blossom.

When the pledge to hold a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir was not kept by the governments of India and Pakistan, his advocacy of the right of self-determination for the state led to his imprisonment. He was shuttled from one jail to another until 1972 and remained out of power until 1975. Despite tremendous changes in the world order, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did not lose faith in the international system which was premised on Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, post-World War 1. The Sheikh, I argue, sought self-determination for Jammu and Kashmir as a territorial unit, not as a Muslim nation. He wanted Kashmir to be an international polity. I posit that he perceived the evolution of Kashmiri nationalism in world-historical terms, as opposed to a domestic and local issue.

After the rumblings and subsequent explosion of armed insurgency and counter insurgency in Kashmir in 1989, a few of those organizations that advocated armed resistance to secure the right of self-determination for the people of Kashmir, in accordance with the United Nations Resolutions of 21 April and 3 June 1948, of 14 March 1950 and 30 March 1951, blamed the nationalist leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, for having, purportedly, succumbed to pressures brought on by the government of India in 1975. He had given the clarion call for Kashmiri nationalism. After 1975, the allegation leveled against the Sheikh was that he had, purportedly, capitulated to the insistence of the government of India to relinquish the struggle for autonomy or self-determination. It was a heart-rending period for Mother to see reductive readings of her father’s ideology and the attempted erasure of the political and sociocultural edifice of which he had been the primary architect. In one of those few and far between moments of unburdening herself, Mother recalled that the Sheikh had remained clear headed about his political ideology during his time in internment and even until he breathed his last.

It would be relevant to mention that the partition of India in 1947 into the dominions of India and Pakistan along religious lines enabled divisive forces of violence and brutality to rip the common anti-colonial, cultural legacy to pieces.[1] Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, on the contrary, was ambivalent about the partition because he did not agree with the rationale of the two-nation theory. He was equally ambivalent about acceding to India, because he felt that if that choice was made, Pakistan would always create juggernauts in the political and economic progress of Kashmir. Was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah willing to concede the necessity of political compromise and accommodation? Did the Sheikh draw attention to the political, cultural, and territorial compromises that the autonomy model might entail? He did categorically declare that ‘Neither the friendship of Pandit Nehru or of Congress nor their support of our freedom movement would have any influence upon our decision if we felt that the interests of four million Kashmiris lay in our accession to Pakistan’ (quoted in Brecher 1953: 35). The decision to accede to either India or Pakistan placed Maharaja Hari Singh in a dilemma.

At the time, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah harbored the mirage of an independent Jammu and Kashmir. But he believed, in the interests of expediency, that provisional accession to predominantly Hindu India was a better option than unconditional accession to predominantly Muslim Pakistan. He felt that the political voice and socioeconomic interests of Kashmiris would be greatly threatened and diminished by the plutocracy of Pakistan, which was predominantly feudal. The successful implementation of the land to the tiller program by the Sheikh Abdullah-led state government in Jammu and Kashmir would have been a pipe dream in a country like Pakistan, which was ruled by the feudal aristocracy.

The “defining moment in Jammu and Kashmir’s post-Indian independence history” came in 1950 when disenfranchised peasants “were freed from the shackles of landlords through a law that gave them ownership rights on the land they tilled. . . . The sweeping land reforms under the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act passed on July 13, 1950, changed the complexion of Kashmiri society. The historical image of the emaciated local farmer in tatters, with sunken faces and listless eyes, toiling to fill the granaries of landlords changed overnight into one of a landowner who expected to benefit from the labor he had put in for generations” (Ahmed, F.). This program emphasized the necessity of abolishing exploitative landlordism without compensation and enfranchising tillers by granting them the lands they worked on. Many policy makers in the Indian subcontinent, political scientists, and economists have acknowledged the effectiveness and rigor of land reforms in Jammu and Kashmir.

In August 1952, Nehru declared in the Indian parliament: “We do not wish to win people against their will with the help of armed force; and if the people of Kashmir wish to part company with us, they may go their way and we shall go ours. We want no forced marriages, no forced unions” (Bhattacharjea 2008: xiv; Lamb 1991: 46–47). But, once again, he equivocated and sought to capitalize on the formation of the de facto border by declaring in 1955 that he had asked his Pakistani counterparts to consider resolving the Kashmir issue by converting the de facto border into a permanent international one between the two nation-states. Nehru’s endeavor to renege on his oft-repeated promise of holding a plebiscite created a hostile obstinacy in Pakistan.

Nehru’s sentimentalism and vacillation regarding Kashmir, perhaps, played a large role in keeping this issue of international dimensions in limbo. The Kashmir dispute has thus remained troublingly infantile in its irresolvability. The re-mushrooming of the separatist movement in Kashmir in 1989 and the subsequent creation of a political vacuum has allowed the insidious infiltration of distrust and suspicion into the relationship between Kashmir, and the two nuclear powers in the Indian subcontinent, India and Pakistan.

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.

Part 2

My impressions regarding Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s arrest and the Kashmir Conspiracy Case became more coherent after reading the monograph by Y. D. Gundevia. The Chicago Daily Tribune was just as unequivocal in its criticism of the Sheikh’s detention as other international commentators and political analysts. The editorial in the Tribune underlined that the Sheikh’s arrest was under the Nehru government’s Preventive Detention Act, which gave Indian authorities free rein to hold a suspect for a period of up to ten years without either lodging formal charges or a formal warrant. The Sheikh, the editorial explained to its readers, had been “making himself unpopular by demanding that the people of Kashmir be permitted to decide their own future by a plebiscite.” It further noted that the significant and exemplary role played by the Sheikh in India’s freedom struggle and the arduous work of nation-building had won him disapprobation from the British authorities. In the days of British rule, the Sheikh’s “record of arrests rivals that of Nehru himself.” The editorial observed that in a recent letter to Nehru, the Sheikh had drawn an analogy between a Nazi concentration camp and the political morbidity in the Valley of Kashmir. He had also expressed his consternation at the halted march toward democracy after political stalwarts in the Indian subcontinent had campaigned and fought against the British colonial power. The commentator concludes, “All that has happened is that Abdullah has become a martyr in the cause of liberty under Britain’s heir” (May 5, 1958). It did not take a skeptic to question whether articles in newly ratified constitutions of sovereign nations, which pledged to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, had a real impact on institution building.

Gundevia was Special Secretary handling Kashmir Affairs in the United Nations, then Commonwealth Secretary handling Kashmir Affairs, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s Foreign Secretary, all in the 1960s. Gundevia’s monograph is appended with The Testament of Sheikh Abdullah (1974). I quote portions of Gundevia’s astute observation about the Sheikh’s ouster and arrest in 1953. Gundevia observes that the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir [Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah], at this stage, was contending with the rabidity “of Muslim communalism of the pro-Pakistan variety and Hindu communalism of the strongly entrenched Praja Parishad (today’s Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing ultra-nationalist organization) in Jammu.” The increasing communalization of Indian politics was a juggernaut that questioned the myth of secularism in India, and the increasing religiosity in Pakistan was just as damaging. Punitive measures taken against Muslim communalists were welcomed with quiet sighs of relief and approval in India, but any attempt to crack down on the divisive politics of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Praja Parishad met with strong denunciation.

Mullick, in his intransigence and determination to close the chapter of Kashmiri self-determination and autonomy, argued that without Akbar Jehan in the trial the prosecution would be unable to corroborate the charge of seditious conspiracy leveled against her, the Sheikh, and their political colleagues. He insisted that without the prosecution of Akbar Jehan, they would “miss one of the main connecting links with Pakistan and this would greatly weaken our case; but on this question Bakshi would not budge; and Pandit Nehru [Prime Minister of India] also agreed that the Sheikh should not be prosecuted.” The Intelligence Bureau and the Ministry of Home Affairs [India] were in a state of perplexity and uncertainty over how to proceed in this rather difficult situation, because they had moved mountains to prepare a “proper charge-sheet.” But, to their utter dismay, they were categorically told that, “he [Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah] should not be put on trial.” The Intelligence Bureau, however, persevered, in its attempt to bring Akbar Jehan and the Sheikh to book. Mullick’s vitriolic outbursts, rancor, and vicious endeavors to vindicate the unwarranted incarceration of the Sheikh and his political colleagues proved futile, as Prime Minister Nehru was averse to detaining a leader against whom no substantive evidence could be garnered. The evidence fabricated by Mullick and his cohort was fragmented, contradictory, and could not hold water. India, a young nation-state in the late fifties and early sixties, sought the approval of the international community and could not brook the corrosive criticisms of world powers and intergovernmental organizations.

While harboring his heritage, culture, and values of the past, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was well-aware of the exigencies of the present and had the courage to translate his vision into reality, thereby, opening a new chapter of peasant emancipation, and further instituting educational and social schemes for marginalized sections of society. Despite his flaws, I find an incredible depth of thought and strength Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s politics, manifested in the dialectic of resistance and accommodation. I say this not as a granddaughter, but as a student of his life and politics. The Sheikh’s nationalism was premised on geography and history, not on religion. He clearly did not subscribe to the notion that a powerful global ideology, like pan-Islamism, communism, or fascism, could effectuate universal liberation. He advocated the creation of a political structure in which a popular politics of mass mobilization would be integrated with institutional politics of governance.


[1] India and Pakistan retained dominion status until they adopted constitutions of their own. India became a democratic and socialist republic in 1950, where-as Pakistan became an Islamic republic in 1956.


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