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An Important History Lesson for Mainstream Indian and Pakistani Mainstream Politicians

India agreed to hold a free and impartial plebiscite in the state. At a mass public rally in Srinagar in 1948, Nehru, with the towering Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah by his side, solemnly promised to hold a plebiscite under United Nations auspices.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s ascendancy received vituperative opposition not just from royalist elements, but also from Ladakh’s Tibetan Buddhists who were apprehensive about the sudden rise of a new Kashmiri Muslim elite and were particularly fearful of the implications of its land reform policies for the Buddhist clergy’s enormous private land-holdings in Ladakh. As the elected head of government Abdullah

“pushed through a set of major reforms, the most important of which was the “land to the tiller” legislation, which destroyed the power of the landlords, most of whom were non-Muslims. They were allowed to keep a maximum of 20 acres, provided they worked on the land themselves: 188,775 acres were transferred to 153,399 peasants, while the government organized collective farming on 90,000 acres. A law was passed prohibiting the sale of land to non-Kashmiris, thus preserving the basic topography of the region.”

The new economic plan of the state, formulated and executed by Abdullah’s government, underlined cooperative enterprise as opposed to malignant competition, in keeping with Abdullah’s socialist politics, which implied the organization and control of marketing and trade by the state. This revolutionary economic agenda in a hitherto feudal economy enabled the abolition of landlordism, allocation of land to the tiller, cooperative guilds of peasants, people’s control of forests, organized and planned cultivation of land, the development of sericulture, pisciculture and fruit orchards, and the utilization of forest and mineral wealth for the betterment of the populace. Tillers were assured of the right to work on the land without incurring the wrath of exploitative creditors, and were guaranteed material, social and health benefits (Korbel [1954] 2002: 204). These measures signaled the end of the chapter of peasant exploitation and subservience, and opened a new chapter of peasant emancipation.

Sheikh Abdullah’s unsurpassed achievement during his years as the prime minister of J & K from 1948 to 1953 was the abolition of the exploitative feudal system in the agrarian economy. He was also responsible for the eradication of monarchical rule. A.M. Diakov, a Soviet specialist on India, wrote about the progressive and democratic policies adopted by Abdullah’s National Conference (NC):

“After the Second World War, a national movement in Kashmir developed the program of doing away with the Maharaja, of turning Kashmir into a democratic republic, of giving to the people of Kashmir the right of self-determination.”

The Dogra monarchy was formally abolished in 1952, and the last monarch’s heir apparent, Karan Singh, was declared the titular head of state. Disregarding the attempts of the Indian government to ratify its authority in J & K, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in March 1951 reminding the governments and authorities concerned of the premises of the Security Council resolutions of 21 April 1948, 3 June 1948 and 14 March 1950, and the United Nations (UN) Commission for India and Pakistan resolutions of 13 August 1948 and 5 January 1949, according to which a final decision about the status of the state would be made in accordance with the wishes of its people expressed in a free and fair referendum held under the impartial auspices of the UN.

This resolution also determined that the convening of a Constituent Assembly as recommended by the general council of the “All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference,” and any decision that the Assembly might take and attempt to execute determining the political affiliation of the entire state or any part thereof, would be considered as not in accordance with the above principles and would therefore be disregarded .

When Sheikh Abdullah first voiced his unrelenting opposition to autocratic rule in the state, his political stance was applauded by some sections of the Indian press, which, by foregrounding his position, further brought it out of the catacombs of provincialism:

“It is imperialism’s game to disrupt the great democratic movement led by the NC. . . . There is no doubt that the NC would defeat these disruptive efforts by placing in the forefront the issue of ending the present autocratic regime and establishing a fully democratic government in accordance with its program.” (Communist, October 1947, quoted in Krishen 1951: 3–4)

Despite the injunction of the Security Council, Abdullah and his organization convened a Constituent Assembly in 1951. The NC regime was faced with unstinting opposition in the Hindu-dominated southern and southeastern districts of the Jammu region. Disgruntled elements comprising officials in the former maharaja’s administration who had been divested of their authority by the installation of a democratic regime in the state, and Hindu landlords stripped of their despotism by the NC administration’s populist land reforms, founded an organization called the Praja Parishad in late 1947, which was at loggerheads with Abdullah’s regime since 1949 (see Bose 1997: 104–64).

Despite all the odds, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah sought to maintain Kashmir’s autonomous status. Tariq Ali makes an astute observation regarding Abdullah’s locus standi:

If Sheikh Abdullah had allied himself with Pakistan, the Indian government and its troops would have been unpleasantly disarmed. But he considered the political and social ideologies of the Muslim League extremely conservative and was afraid that if Kashmir acceded to Pakistan, the Punjabi feudal lords who were at the helm of the ship of policy making in the Muslim League would hamper political and social progress. In order to prevent such an occurrence, Abdullah agreed to support the Indian military presence in the State provided under United Nations auspices in J & K.

The purportedly autonomous status of J & K under Abdullah’s government provoked the ire of the Hindu nationalist parties, which sought the unequivocal integration of the state into the Indian Union.

The unitary concept of nationalism that these organizations subscribed to challenged the basic principle that the nation was founded on, namely, democracy. In such a nationalist project, one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state buttressed by nostalgia of a “glorious past.”

The unequivocal aim of the supporters of the integration of J & K into the Indian Union was to expunge the political autonomy endowed on the state by India’s constitutional provisions.

According to the unitary discourse of sovereignty disseminated by the Hindu nationalists, J & K was not entitled to the signifiers of statehood – a prime minister, flag and constitution. The concept of nationalism constructed by Hindu nationalists bred relentless violence and the delusions of militant nationalisms, which is exactly what is happening now.

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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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