Nyla Ali Khan
Special to The Sun
Despite the diatribe, “quiet diplomacy” and 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.
In 1947, India gained its independence from British rule and partitioned into India and Pakistan. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, which lies roughly north of both countries, acceded to India. The accession occurred after tribal invaders from Pakistan attacked Kashmir, causing its monarch to seek military support from India. The Indian government agreed to provide aid to Kashmir under the condition of accession.
However, it was understood that once the warring subsided, a plebiscite would be held under United Nations auspices that would give the Kashmiri people the right to decide whether to stay with India or accede to Pakistan. Some Kashmiris felt an option for independence also should be added to the discussion since Kashmir had been autonomous before the invasion.
In 1948, my maternal grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, became prime minister of Kashmir, and by 1953 Abdullah, who was a strong advocate for Kashmiri independence, began to openly question whether the Indian government would organize the plebiscite since efforts had not been made to do so. Even though he took a peaceful approach, his display of skepticism — coupled with his ideas of an independent Kashmir — and the popularity it gained with others who shared his views, is what caused Abdullah to be deposed and imprisoned by the Indian government for the next 22 years.
The armed conflict in Kashmir, which began in 1989, has pervaded the social fabric in terrible ways, creating a whole generation of disaffected and disgruntled youth. The social, economic, political and psychological brunt of the conflict has been borne by the populace of Kashmir. Uncertainty about the status of Kashmir has loomed large since 1947. In an atmosphere of unpredictability, life for common citizens becomes difficult. Kashmir remains a highly militarized zone.
The irony of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, 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, May 1, 1958), wasn’t lost on the world community.
The re-arrest 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 Times of London, Jan. 20, 1958:
“At week’s end Sheikh Abdullah, wearing a long black funeral-black achkan (coat) 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, which should be the goal even today.
NYLA ALI KHAN, an Edmond resident and the granddaughter of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She is the author of “Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and “Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).