Who will free me from this turbulent priest?
– Henry II of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
IT is 55 years since Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the greatest leader Kashmir has produced, was dismissed from the office of Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir on August 9, 1953, and put in prison for 11 years, bar an interval of four months in 1958.
A monstrous wrong demands monstrous efforts at cover-up and monstrous falsehoods to justify it to the people. A document has come to light which reveals the monstrosity of that wrong, the brazenness of the falsehoods that were retailed to justify it, and, sadly, the sheer folly of that wholly unnecessary action. The document shows also that the action was reversible before the wrong acquired a yet graver character. Someone suggested just that. That the suggestion was rejected reveals that it was not an impetuous action. It was calculated and executed in cold blood. The calculations were short-sighted. The perpetrators of the deed overlooked its impact on those who mattered most – the people – because they had none too high an opinion of the people and imagined fondly that they were manageable. The people have proved them wrong.
In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was a symbol of the aspirations of the people. The wrong has left a scar on the Kashmiri psyche that refuses to heal even now because, as in 1953, New Delhi refuses to reckon with the people and make amends. Let alone separatists, even unionists resent it to this day. Muzaffar Hussein Beigh, Deputy Chief Minister in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Congress coalition in the State, said on May 2, 2003, while in office, that the Sheikh’s dismissal was unconstitutional. He revealed what his party, the PDP, told N.N. Vohra, then an interlocutor on behalf of the Centre and now Governor of the State, when they met him on April 27. “We told Vohra that the Government of India has always been purchasing the leaders of the State. That can be done even today.” He cited the record of arbitrary dismissals of Chief Ministers since 1953.
B.K. Nehru, who was Governor of Jammu and Kashmir from 1992 to 1994, wrote in 1997: “From 1953 to 1975 Chief Ministers of that State had been nominees of Delhi. Their appointment to that post was legitimised by holding of farcical and totally rigged elections in which the Congress Party led by Delhi’s nominee was elected by huge majorities” (Nice Guys Finish Second; pages 614-15). In 1975, the Sheikh was reinstated as Chief Minister after he accepted the Centre’s terms.
Mir Qasim was Chief Minister of Kashmir (1971-1975) and had supported the coup of 1953. He wrote in 1992: “Whenever New Delhi feels a leader in Kashmir is getting too big for his shoes, it employs Machiavellian methods to cut him to size.” He proceeded to describe the technique which is still in vogue (My Life and Times; page 119).
Comments by the leaders of the National Conference (N.C.), Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, suggest that in their view the Centre was not supporting them in 2002. Pray, how? The Congress forged a coalition with the PDP and not with them, to the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) relief. It had had enough of the Abdullahs. Omar Abdullah said on May 19, 2002: “The way the Centre is desperate to bring the separatists – who did nothing but caused mayhem and bloodshed – into the elections, we are being made to feel as if we are not important” (The Indian Express; May 20, 2002). He was still a member of the NDA government. Even more revealing were his remarks on June 21 on his father, Farooq: “Whenever you needed him to go and defend your human rights record, even when human rights were at their worst in early ’90s, he went to Geneva, Vienna and the U.N. and did the best he could. Even the human rights record was not worth the paper it was written on.” He added: “To expect that man will accept anything you throw at him like some sort of grateful dog for some scrap is to add salt to the wounds you [the Centre] have inflicted” (The Indian Express; June 22, 2002). These remarks tell us a lot about Omar Abdullah himself and about Farooq Abdullah as well – they want power in Srinagar with the Centre’s blessings. Out of power, they talk of human rights in order to raise their price.
Such is the stranglehold of the Centre over the State’s leadership. In an interview, A.S. Dulat, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and an official in the NDA regime, said: “If I have to bet on anybody as the next Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir then I will bet on Omar Abdullah” (Greater Kashmir; July 10, 2008). This was received with alarm in Kashmir as a revelation of the Centre’s plans to instal its man as Chief Minister. This is the legacy of 1953.
The situation in 2008 is not dissimilar in many significant respects – the rise of the Sangh Parivar; a powerful lobby at the Centre opposed to Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy; ambitious Kashmiri politicians angling for the Centre’s support; hostility in large sections of the media; and unfounded fears of secession. If the lessons are taken to heart, we can, in 2008, devise a better course than was pursued since 1953. The charges against Sheikh Saheb were consciously false. “It would be wrong to conclude that Sheikh Abdullah was as yet planning to take [sic.] Jammu & Kashmir into Pakistan. He was angling for a special status – just short of independence. He knew that he would have no position in Pakistan. He put Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra in prison in June 1953 when Karra openly came out in favour of Pakistan,” wrote B.N. Mullik, Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), in his memoirs, My Years with Nehru: Kashmir (page 39, emphasis added throughout). Could he have changed in a month and a half? The change came, not in the Sheikh, but in his friend, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who personally gave the orders for his friend’s dismissal to Mullik and his own secretary, M.O. Mathai, both on July 31. Mullik wrote (page 44) that he “got information that Pir Maqbool Gelani had established contacts with Pakistan and that an emissary was on his way to Tanmarg (near Gulmarg) to meet the Sheikh. Suspicions deepened when the Sheikh suddenly left for Tanmarg on the morning of 8 July.” Actually, he left for Gulmarg, where he was arrested, and had announced his departure well in advance. Neither he nor the “emissary” could have escaped the I.B.’s surveillance. Mullik was in sole charge of the intelligence services. RAW was set up in 1968.
The charge never figured in any of the secret letters that were published 40 years later. Pandit Prem Nat Bazaz, a former associate who became a strong critic of Abdullah, wrote a devastating exposure of Mullik in The Indian Express (October 28 and 29, 1971): The I.B.’s surveillance of the Sheikh since 1948; its expulsion at the insistence of the State’s Prime Minister; Mullik’s intrigues with Deputy Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and D.P. Dhar, a Minister. This is the man who organised the prosecution in 1958, as a result of which he was confident that Sheikh Saheb and his colleagues “would be ruined for ever”. It was on him Nehru relied with equal disaster on the boundary problem with China. The Kongka Pass incident and the Forward Policy were his “gifts” which Nehru unwisely accepted.
A coup in Srinagar
Nehru’s other confidante, Lieutenant-General B.M. Kaul, who also failed him in the 1962 war, was handpicked by him in 1953 to help in the execution of the coup in Srinagar. He was Brigadier then. Nehru “entrusted him with the task of passing on the word to Lt.-Gen. Atal, the Corps Commander at Udhampur and the Divisional Commander in Srinagar about the impending action… At this time, the Prime Minister, at the suggestion of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, also sent A.P. Jain to Srinagar as his personal representative to hold a watching brief and ensure that the administrative action was not hasty but was tailored to the political needs” (Mullik, page 43). In Delhi, Kidwai was in charge. Kaul’s memoirs, The Untold Story (1967), provided his version of the military debacle in the 1962 war and of the 1953 coup. Nehru called him “in my private capacity” just as he had used him in 1949 when he was Defence Attache at the Embassy to propose an alliance to the United States, bypassing Ambassador Asaf Ali (see M.S. Venkataramani’s three-part series, “An elusive military relationship”; Frontline, April 9, April 23 and May 7, 1999, and the article “A mission without success”, May 21, 1999). He mentions not Tanmarg but Gulmarg. Bakshi and Dhar knew well in advance that Sheikh Saheb was going there “in a few days’ time to meet certain ‘friends’ from across the border which was only seven miles away”. He would then arrest Bakshi, Dhar & Co. and declare Kashmir independent (page 143). This charge also did not figure in Nehru’s papers. It was too stupid for words.
Disgusted with both, Ajit Prasad Jain wrote his book Kashmir which was published in the Bombay monthly Imprint in June 1972. Kaul and he had exchanged words in the columns of The Times of India on August 22 and September 12, 1971. Jain wrote: “The General has reiterated that Abdullah was arrested without Nehru’s approval. Unless he claims to be omniscient he would not know what had transpired between Nehru and me. Jawaharlal knew of the eventuality of arrest, and was prepared not to resist it.” The delicacy is delightful. Kaul and others falsely exclude Nehru from the deed, as do Nehru’s drummer boys in the media and the academia. Jain admits it – but covers the sordid mess with an attractive veil.
These conflicting testimonies must be judged by established tests – inherent probabilities, the surrounding circumstances, and Nehru’s own words as recorded by Mathai. They corroborate Kaul and Mullik and falsify Jain’s assertion that Nehru “strongly felt that in no case should the Indian Army be involved in any action”. This was not a military operation but a coup for which the police and the militia would have sufficed. Mullik points out that “it would be necessary for the Army authorities to sort out the unreliable elements of the militia and keep them under strict control” (page 43), adding: “Moreover, he [Abdullah] could not ignore the presence of the Indian Army” (page 44). How then could he have arrested Bakshi & Co. or declared Kashmir independent? Besides the Army, he had to reckon with a hostile head of State, Karan Singh, and Indian Administrative Service officers in the bureaucracy. How on earth could he have formed a government?
On one point all the three testimonies agree – it was the Centre which inspired, directed and organised the whole affair. It was Nehru who personally inducted the I.B.’s Director Mullik and his Deputy, D.W. Mehra, at Amritsar. “The Prime Minister approved of Mehra’s selection and asked me to send for him so that he could himself talk to him” (Mullik, page 42). Brigadier B.M. Kaul was deployed to secure the Army’s help in need and Ajit Prasad Jain to ensure that “administrative action…. was tailored to the political needs”. All three were Nehru’s men, personally close to him.
However, Nehru was determined to let the responsibility fall squarely on the shoulders of Bakshi and others in Srinagar and keep himself out. He defended them in New Delhi while calling the coup a local affair. Jain wrote: “I am afraid, General Kaul’s story stating that the Sheikh was arrested on the authority of a junta made up of him and some Kashmiri Ministers on their own is no more than unfounded bragging. Nehru certainly wanted the responsibility for the action against the Sheikh to rest with Kashmiri leaders, but he would not resist any action, including Abdullah’s arrest, which they considered unnecessary” (page 71).
How and why did things come to such a pass between two friends of 20 years’ standing? Nehru knew well the vision Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues had of Kashmir. Their plan for Nya Kashmir (New Kashmir), which unfolded in 1944, envisaged an independent State even if India was not partitioned. The Draft Constitution of 50 Clauses provided for a constitutional monarch as head of State; a National Assembly with powers in respect of defence and foreign affairs and a separate citizenship. “The defence of the Motherland is the supreme and second duty of all citizens.”
A Peasants’ Charter, a Workers’ Charter, a National Health Charter and a Women’s Charter formed part of this remarkably progressive plan. In his Foreword, Sheikh Abdullah cited “the inspiring picture of the regeneration of all the different nationalities and peoples of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]”. (New Kashmir; the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, Mujahid Manzil, Srinagar.) He greatly admired the Soviet Union. He fell out with Jinnah in 1939 when the Muslim League criticised the conversion of the Muslim Conference into the National Conference. The League should “leave the Kashmir Muslims alone”, he said at Lahore on April 4, 1939 (Tribune; April 5, 1939). Jinnah and Abdullah had angry exchanges in 1944. Pakistan’s tribal raid triggered Kashmir’s accession to India whose ideology and ethos the Sheikh shared. But he was soon discomfited by the distrust shown by Vallabhbhai Patel, who supported the ruler, and by Mullik’s intrigues. To this day the intelligence services play a baleful role in Kashmir.
Kashmir is the only State which negotiated the terms on which it accepted the Constitution of India, from May to October 1949. Article 370 records a solemn compact. But while Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues were out in the lobby, the draft was pushed through in the Constituent Assembly with a change made unilaterally. (Nehru was in the U.S.) N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar admitted the unilateral change but called it “trivial”. Maulana Azad was privy to this, as was Patel, whose letter to Nehru on November 3, 1949, justified the substantial change (Sardar Patel’s Correspondence; page 310).
In an interview to Michael Davidson in The Scotsman of April 14, 1949, Sheikh Abdullah proposed “an independent Kashmir... guaranteed not only by India and Pakistan” but also by the Great Powers (ibid, page 266). But he was totally opposed to a plebiscite. If no settlement was possible, he was happy to be in India. So much so that on January 12, 1949, Nehru had to assure him that, though he had accepted the U.N. Commission’s plebiscite proposals on December 23, 1948 (published on January 5, 1949), “you know that this business of plebiscite is still far away and there is a possibility of the plebiscite not taking place at all. I would suggest that this should not be said in public” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; volume 9, page 198). He hinted that “new arrangements” might be made, instead of a plebiscite.
The Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir met on October 31, 1951. Sheikh Abdullah wanted it to ratify the State’s accession to India, but Nehru refused. At a press conference in New Delhi on June 21, 1952, Nehru disclosed: “When the Constituent Assembly met in Kashmir for the first time, I might inform you that it was its intention to pass a resolution forthwith confirming the State’s accession to India. We asked it not to do it so as not to be embarrassed before the United Nations.”
A grave complication arose. On October 21, 1951, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh was set up under the leadership of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, former president of the Hindu Mahasabha and colleague of V.D. Savarkar. He had resigned from Nehru’s Cabinet in 1950 and was looking out for an attractive plank. Its first annual session was held at Kanpur when it decided on December 31, 1952, to launch an agitation for the complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India. By then, its anti-Nehru, anti-Abdullah campaign was well under way. There were those in the Congress who sympathised with them. Pressures grew on Nehru, from without and within, and within his own self. He had ruled out plebiscite in 1948 and proposed partition to Pakistan. He now began to chafe at Kashmir’s special status and the Sheikh’s assertions of autonomy. These three forces – in the Sangh Parivar, the Patelites in the Congress, and his own emotions – drove him hard.
There were none around him wise and strong enough to counsel patience. V.K. Krishna Menon, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Maulana Azad, concerned at his loss of power and themselves hardliners on Kashmir, had little understanding of Kashmir. Nehru had; yet he sinned against the light. After the coup, admirers defended him – as they do, still – by attributing the deed to Kidwai. In truth, he was only a glorified operator, fund collector and hatchet man. The decision was Nehru’s alone. Kidwai was allowed free speech and choice of means. The ends were set by Nehru. Braggarts had a field day. In London, Mahavir Tyagi made such claims for his role that the High Commissioner Vijayalakshmi Pandit had to report to Nehru, who was contemptuously amused.
The Sheikh’s preference
What of Sheikh Saheb? The change that came over him is regarded as perfidy in India. Nehru knew better. His friend had preferred India to Pakistan because of its secular ideals. Patel and Ayyangar disturbed him. The rise of the Sangh Parivar posed the question “What will happen to Kashmir after Nehru?” He did not have to wait for that tragedy for the worst to happen.
Nehru knew exactly how Kashmiris felt. He told a public rally in Calcutta on New Year’s Day, 1952: “There can be no greater vindication than this of our secular policies, our Constitution, than that we have drawn the people of Kashmir towards us. But just imagine what would have happened in Kashmir if the Jan Sangh or any other communal party had been at the helm of affairs. The people of Kashmir say that they are fed up with this communalism. Why should they live in a country where the Jan Sangh and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh are constantly beleaguering them? They will go elsewhere and they will not stay with us.” Indeed, “If the people of Kashmir tell us to get out, we will do so.” The dispute was before the United Nations. “We have given our word of honour that we shall abide by their decision. India’s pledge is no small matter and we shall stick by it in the eyes of the world” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; volume 17, pages 76-78).
He added: “Now these Hindu communal parties like the Jan Sangh and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and another party called the Praja Parishad in Jammu have launched an agitation against the Sheikh Abdullah government. They abuse him and want the old Maharaja to come back. Now you can imagine what this means. At the moment, it is Sheikh Abdullah who is completely opposed to Pakistan. There is no doubt about it that he is the leader of the people of Kashmir, a very great leader. If tomorrow Sheikh Abdullah wanted Kashmir to join Pakistan, neither I nor all the forces of India would be able to stop it because if the leader decides, it will happen.”
On April 10, 1952, came Abdullah’s famous speech at Ranbirsinghpura. He said that Kashmir’s accession to India would have to be of a restricted nature as the communal spirit still existed in India. While the government of India was trying to curb communalism, unlike that of Pakistan, it was none too successful. He did not equate the two. “So far as Kashmir was concerned, it wanted to preach the mission of secular democracy, both to India and Pakistan.”
Yet, Nehru was upset and reproached his friend, relying unwisely on a Press Trust of India report. Far more unwise was the reversal of his 1951 stand that Kashmir’s Constituent Assembly cannot finalise accession. When he met Mirza Afzal Beg, Maulana Mohammed Saeed Masoodi and D.P. Dhar on June 19, 1952, he told them that “even before they finalised their Constitution, the relationship of Kashmir to India must be fully clarified” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; volume 18, page 403). It was “the first question to decide” he reposted to President Rajendra Prasad. They reported the change to a disturbed Sheikh.
It was in this background that the Nehru-Abdullah accord, “the Delhi Agreement”, was concluded on July 24, 1952. The issues were constitutional – the extension of Central institutions to Jammu and Kashmir. But the differences were political, and they lingered. The two had different perceptions of the accord – Nehru treated it as a step towards finalising the accession; the Sheikh, as a temporary reprieve while the Constituent Assembly finalised the State’s Constitution. Banter could not conceal that. In his memoirs, Aatish-e-Chinar, the Sheikh recalled that during the talks Nehru exclaimed, “Sheikh Saheb if you do not stand with us shoulder to shoulder, we shall cast a chain of gold around your neck.” The Sheikh looked at him and said smilingly, “But don’t do that ever because you will thereby have to wash your hands of Kashmir” (Ali Mohammed and Sons, Srinagar; 1986; page 542).
The stark reality was that unpopular as accession itself was, Sheikh Saheb could manage the situation, despite the Maharaja’s and Patel’s obstruction, because Nehru had left him free to voice regional self-assertion within the Union.
Nehru’s curbs and the rise of the Sangh Parivar combined to increase popular resentment. The Sheikh found the ground slipping away from under his feet. If on May 14, 1948, Indira Gandhi reported to Nehru from Srinagar that “only Sheikh Saheb is confident of winning the plebiscite”, on July 14, 1953, President Rajendra Prasad wrote to Nehru that Vice-President S. Radhakrishnan, who had been there, reported “even Sheikh Abdullah thought we would lose in a plebiscite as Sheikh Abdullah himself had told him that” (Dr. Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents; Allied; volume 16, page 90).
In this situation came Nehru’s definitive statement of policy of August 25, 1952, given confidentially to the Sheikh, dispelling all doubt in the recipient’s mind. Nehru wanted to finalise the accession. The next step would be the end of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy. Amazingly, in public he always sang a different tune – he would hold a plebiscite.
His speech in the Lok Sabha on June 26, 1952, for instance: “It just does not matter what your Constitution says. If the people of Kashmir do not want it, it will not go there.” If the plebiscite went against India, he would accept the verdict “and we would change our Constitution about it” (volume 18, page 418).
Nehru’s Note of August 25, 1952, made a startling revelation about his change of mind. “Towards the end of 1948…. it became clear to me then that we would never get the conditions which were necessary for a plebiscite… so I ruled out the plebiscite for all practical purposes.” Why then did he accept the plebiscite proposals of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) in December 1948? The Note, written at Sonmarg, was a piece of realpolitik (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; volume 19, pages 322-330). Kashmiris “are not what are called a virile people. They are soft and addicted to easy living”; “We are superior to Pakistan in military and industrial power”; the U.N. is impotent. “Doubts in the minds of leaders percolate to their followers and to the people generally… What is required is a firm and clear outlook, and no debate about basic issues.”
Nehru was wrong on all three points. 1. It is the people’s feelings which moved the leaders not the other way round. 2. The Sheikh represented them only as long as he voiced their views. 3. Nehru thought that the Sheikh would hold those feelings down and cooperate in accomplishing his designs. This he refused to do. Sheikh Abdullah turned a Becket to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Henry II.
The “turbulent” friend had to be got rid of.