Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah: Villain Or Hero?


At the time of independence in 1947 Indian Union had 565 princely states. By virtue of an act of British Parliament, the rulers were given the right to accede to either India or Pakistan. Independence was not the option.  Almost all states decided their fate except Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Nawab of Junagadh and Nizam of  Hyderabad were Muslim rulers and the population was predominantly Hindus. Therefore it was not practicable to merge these states with Pakistan in view of geographical position also. Hence these two states were annexed with India forcibly. Nizam of Hyderabad wanted to be independent. He went to London to request Emperor with gifts of gold etc for acceptance of his plea. But he returned disappointed. In Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruler of Dogra dynasty wanted to be independent and announced a Standstill Agreement which ensured travel trade and communication services between the two countries. Pakistan accepted the declaration but India rejected it. As a Hindu Maharaja did not like Pakistan and as an Indian he did not like British either. As a prince, he cared neither for anti-feudal Gandhi nor for Muslim leader Sheikh Abdullah.

Kashmir has a long history of continued political and economic deprivation/subjugation, poverty, slavery, beggar (forced labour without wages) for hundreds of years of Sikh and  Dogra rule.  Due to low self-esteem people were driven like dumb driven cattle and nobody had courage to speak a word against Maharaja. In such dark and distant era of political misfortune Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah opened his eyes in 1905.  Education was domain of privileged class. Four seats were reserved in only Institution (Sri Pratap College) of Kashmir for Muslim students, established by Annie Besant, a British Social Reformer and educationist in 1905, for the then ruler of the State Maharaja Pratap Singh.

Sheikh Abdullah got Master’s degree in Physics from Aligarh Muslim University in 1930. In Aligarh he met some liberal and progressive intellectuals, prominent among them was Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, which broadened his vision and understanding about the problems of Muslims in India. He was convinced that the feudal system was root cause of all miseries of people, and like all other progressive nations of the world, Kashmir should have also the democratically elected government. When he came back he was appointed as teacher in Science and ultimately dismissed from service.                      

In Sept 1944 a dream document of NC known as “Naya Kashmir” was approved at its Mujahid Manzil office. This document was divided in two parts. First Constitutional Structure which laid down details for fundamental rights, freedom of speech & press. Freedom of worship and equality irrespective of religion, caste, color or creed or sex. It also proposed a democratically elected government with an independent judicial system. National Economic Plan which proposed abolition of landlordism, assigning land to tillers, right to work with wages and freedom from debt.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe a British Law Professor at Oxford University and a colleague of Lord Mountbatten was assigned the job of drawing a demarcation line of India. Jawahar Lal Nehru after exercising influence of lady Lord Mountbatten on Sir Cyril Radcliffe got allotted three fourth of Muslim majority district of Gurdaspur to India giving India a corridor and access to Kashmir. Otherwise according to original plan of partition India had no access to Kashmir. This corridor provided a ray of hope and a light in the dark tunnel to chase Kashmir.  After Sheikh Abdullah launched quit Kashmir movement against Maharaja Hari Singh he was arrested on charges of sedition and detained in Badami Bagh Cantonment. In order to show solidarity with Sheikh Abdullah, Pt Nehru visited him on 16th June, 1946, but he was arrested  for not having a valid permit to enter Kashmir by Maharaj’s police. Sheikh Sahib was touched by the goodwill gesture of Nehru. Nehru later sent Mahatma Gandhi to Kashmir to persuade Maharaja Hari Singh for release Sheikh Abdullah. 

Exhausted by weeks of difficult negotiations with Congress and Viceroy and weakened by the unrelenting disease in his lungs, Mohammad Ali Jinnah desired to relax for sometime in Kashmir in mid September. For this purpose he sent his personal Secretary Colonel William Burnie to Kashmir to seek permission of Maharaja for his stay. The British officer returned after five days with an answer of Maharaja Hari Singh which stunned Jinnah. “Maharaja did not want him to set foot on Kashmir even as a tourist”

 An internal revolt began in Poonch against the oppressive taxation of Maharaja in August 1947 which was suppressed with the iron fist. Many people were killed and thousands of people migrated either to Pakistan and other parts of India. As a sequel to this massacre warlords of NWFP entered Kashmir on 22nd October 1947. They struck down the only Power House of Kashmir (Mohra) Consequently the Maharaja’s palace plunged into darkness which created a sense of fear and panic in the royal  family and common people. In an act of desperation Maharaja sent his PM Mehar Chand to Delhi for military help. The Defence Committee, at Delhi held the view that sending troops to neutral State (Kashmir) would be a folly in the eyes of international community. They held the view that unless the ruler accedes to India, military help cannot be considered. On this PM Mehar Chand told Nehru “he had orders from Maharaja to go to Pakistan in case immediate military help was not given” On this Nehru reportedly lost his temper and shouted at him. Sheikh Sahib was sitting in an adjacent room listening all the arguments. He reportedly sent a note to Nehru requesting him to agree to the request of Maharaja. Nehru cooled down and V.P.Menon was ordered to go to Jammu. By that time Maharaja had already left Srinagar on 26th Oct 1947. On 27th Oct 1947, Instrument of Accession was signed by Maharaja at Jammu but only for three subjects, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Currency. This fact was stated by Dr. Karan Singh (Son of Hari Singh) in his speech on the floor of the Rajya Sabha. Consequently Army was airlifted to Srinagar on 27th Oct 1947   while Maharani Tara Devi instigated Hindus in Jammu which resulted in worst kind of communal pogrom in which according to one estimate 30,000 Muslims were killed, but Sheikh Sahib was instrumental in protecting Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir.  Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad recovered a number of Muslims girls from Dogra Houses, including the daughter of Jammu Muslim leader Chuadry Ghulam Abbas. Sheikh Sahib reportedly broke down on seeing the horrific scenes of communal riots in Jammu.

The royal couple was called to Delhi and persuaded by Pt. Nehru to leave Kashmir temporarily and appoint Karan Singh as Regent of the State. On June 20th, 1949 the royal couple left for Bombay which boosted the morale of Sheikh Abdullah. On the intervention of Pt. Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah took over as Prime Minister and Karan Singh as Regent of Kashmir on 5th March, 1948. He enacted big Land Abolition Act which put an end to landlordism and autocratic rule. Hence tillers mostly, Muslims became owners of the land. It was a revolutionary step. Pt. Nehru considered Sheikh Sahib as a beacon of light in secular politics.  However, within five years clouds of mistrust were created by Hindu landlords who had lost their lands and orchards in the state. Pt. Nehru desired the ratification of accession by Constituent Assembly. Although Constituency Assembly ratified the accession, before its deliberation could be concluded, Praja Parishad (A Hindu right wing group) launched agitation in Jammu against the autonomous structure of the State.  Many leaders in India believed that Sheikh Sahib’s ultimate aim was independence. All these contributory factors led to the unconstitutional dismissal and arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in August 1953, and installation of puppet regime with Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad as its head.

Infamous Kashmir conspiracy case started in which hundreds of Kashmiris appeared as witnesses which disheartened Sheikh Sahib. In this way democracy was not allowed to take roots in the state and puppets were installed by the center at will.  The case of Pakistan intrusion was taken to UNO by Pt. Nehru which promised plebiscite after normalcy is restored. During next 11 years Sheikh Abdullah refused to pledge his loyalty to India and spent most of his time under detention. Finally the case was withdrawn. Neither was the pledge of plebiscite honoured nor was the terms of accession upheld.

 In 1964 Sheikh sb was released. He got enthusiastic reception. Upon his release Sheikh Sahib floated Plebiscite Front, a political movement seeking a nationwide vote for independence.   But after public enthusiasm began waning, he initiated the construction of SKIMS, a landmark achievement of his life. He travelled many countries and collected money for its construction. He also oversaw reconstruction of Dargah hazratbal, with which Kashmiri Muslims have an emotional attachment.

Sensing the mood Pt. Nehru invited Sheikh and sought his opinion for everlasting solution of Kashmir tangle. On advice of Pt. Nehru,  Sheikh Sahib visited Pakistan on 24th May 1964 along with Mirza Mohammad Afzal Beg. G.M.Sadiq had already reached Pakistan. He met President General Ayub Khan.  He was still in Pakistan when he heard the news of death of Pt. Nehru, thus the doors of reconciliation were closed for ever.  Creation of Bangladesh, Simla Agreement erosion of autonomous structure of the state, shifting of loyalty by people and emergence of hard line political parties on political landscape compelled Sheikh Sahib to change his demand of plebiscite to autonomy for the State.

Sheikh Sahib left for pilgrimage and also visited Egypt, Britain and Algeria. Pakistan arranged his meeting with Chinese premier Chu-en-lie who invited Sheikh to China. This was viewed by some Indian leaders as sedition and as a result his passport was impounded by Indian Government on May 8, 1965. Upon his return Sheikh was arrested at Delhi Airport and sent to Ootacamund Jail in South India. He was arrested nine times and spent overall 22 years in Ooty, Kodaikanal, Udhampur and Kud jails.

In 1975 there was infamous accord between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah and he took over as Chief Minister with the support of Congress party. This step is viewed by some as an endorsement to the accession of the State. After only two years Congress party withdrew support to  Sheikh government. Consequently Assembly was dissolved and election was held in 1977. NC was elected back to power with absolute majority. This period was not impressive because much of the autonomy was eroded by his predecessors and popularity of Sheikh Sahib had waned. Sheikh Sahib once himself stated on the floor of the house that he wasted 22 years in political wilderness. If these precious years would have been spent for the development of Kashmir, things would have been different.

Sheikh Sahib was distinguished and dominant political personality of the State for five decades (1930 to 1980) He made a long struggle for uprooting autocratic rule of Maharaja Hari Singh and establishment of democratic rule in the state. He was a charismatic leader. He left an indelible impact on the political landscape of Kashmir. He was a crowd puller. He was deeply religious, a symbol of secularism and ardent follower of his faith and  supporter of socialism. He was known for his fearlessness and courage that is why he was known as “Sheri-Kashmir. He did not like two nation theory and preferred to stay with India, but unfortunately he became a victim of betrayal.  He protected Kashmiri Pandits in 1947 in Kashmir when entire India was up in communal flames, including Jammu. He was harbinger of national consciousness and instrumental to introduce political modernisation in the state.  He would invariably start his speech with recitation of Quran and verses of Allama Iqbal which had a magical effect on the people. End of autocratic rule of Maharaja, establishment of democratically elected government, restoration of civil liberties, and constitutional rights. Construction of SKIMS, reforms in Education Department and remodelling of Dargah Hazratbal and abolition of landlordism and land to tillers, introduction of single line administration, are landmark achievements of his life for which he will be remembered for long time to come. He died in 1982. Lakhs of people participated in his funeral procession in which PM and President also participated. 

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