MANY key Kashmir watchers are of considered opinion that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah committed “original sin” in the late 1930s when he rechristened the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, region’s first political party, as the J&K National Conference.
In their appreciation, the second big political blunder that the Sheikh committed was his unpopular accord with the late Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s.
In his presidential address at the party’s sixth annual session on 26 March 1938, the Sheikh had said: “Like us, a majority of Hindus and Sikhs in the state have immensely suffered at the hands of the irresponsible government…. The main problem, therefore, now is to organize joint action and a united front against the forces that stand in our way in the achievement of our goal. This will require rechristening our organization as a non-communal political body.” (‘The History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir: Cultural and Political, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day’ by Prem Nath Bazaz)
Meanwhile, as the constitutional posts of Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) and Sadr-e-Riyasat (equivalent to President) in Jammu and Kashmir were removed in the 1960s, senior Abdullah ended up accepting the post of Chief Minister after spearheading the Plebiscite Front movement for over two decades.
Abdullah’s detractors saw this as somersault and surrender. His admirers though would point towards the fall of Dacca in 1971 as reason behind his decision.
Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, two Kashmiri academics, in the introduction of the book edited by them titled, A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir argue that, “In the 1940s, Sheikh Abdullah was seen as an unrelenting figure of Kashmiri nationalism. He was the founder of the National Conference party, which in 1931 began as the Muslim Conference. He became the first Muslim prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. His political missions ranged from spearheading the Quit Kashmir movement against the Dogra warlords to forming the Plebiscite Front to demand the right of self-determination for Kashmiris.”
At one point in time in history, the NC envisaged, “an independent Kashmir as an Asian Switzerland. Its position, however, was weakened by collaboration with the Maharaja’s regime in the name of support for the British war effort, and then by an unsuccessful attempt to redeem itself by campaigning for his ouster, which landed Abdullah in jail in 1946. ” (The Indian Ideology, Perry Anderson, p. 78, 79)
Supporters of the NC may argue that it was Sheikh Abdullah who introduced the revolutionary land reforms in the restive region and played a significant role in both economic and political awakening of the people of J&K. But what they must probe and reflect on are these questions: What made the National Conference bury the movement that it had supposedly spearheaded? What made the party describe its political struggle (Mahaz-e-Rai Shumari) as political meandering and wilderness? Why are the people unwilling to place their trust in the oldest political formation at the present moment?
Dispassionate analyses and honest answers to the above questions are important for the NC to stand in front of a mirror for introspection.
For the last three decades or so, the NC has been mocking the other ideological camp active in J&K and accusing it of, “chasing an unrealistic dream.” The party has been relentlessly arguing that
reversing the clock back to 1953 (regional autonomy or pre-1953 status for J&K when New Delhi had control over only communications, currency, defence and foreign policy) was the ideal solution for Kashmir dispute.
With even the leftovers of that semi-autonomy gone with the winds on August 5 last year, the NC leadership has no option but to look within, introspect, and perhaps put its renewed mission statement in black and white before the people of J&K. The party must explain its political agenda without mincing words, without ambiguity, and with sincerity of purpose and clarity of thought. What does the NC advocate? What solution for J&K does the party believe in? And what is the party going to do about it? All these questions must be answered.
Unfortunately, like other regional unionist parties, the National Conference too has loved and lived lies, taken refuge in flowery rhetoric and public posturing during election times, indulged in doublespeak, and also changed its stance at critical junctures.
After the unparalleled rigging of the 1987 elections in J&K, there were no elections held in the region for nearly a decade. Again, it was the NC which fought the elections in 1996 without getting any commitment from New Delhi in black and white. Farooq Abdullah hankered after power and showed no respect for the dignity of the people that he claimed to represent.
His capitulation in 1996 was similar to the surrender offered by his late father, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1975 after suffering in prison for over two decades in separate stints. The Abdullah family has demonstrated that for petty power it can only lower the bar and never raise it.
Amarjit Singh Dulat, India’s former spymaster and chief of the RA&W, in his memoir, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years notes that Farooq Abdullah had told KM Singh, then the top Intelligence Bureau (IB) man in Srinagar, that he had agreed to contest the 1996 Assembly elections for the government of India wanted him to contest, and at the time, he had made it known to the government in New Delhi that he needed a plank to fight an election.
“Autonomy had been that plank.”
The NC supporters may argue that it was their party which passed an autonomy resolution in the J&K Legislative Assembly with two-thirds majority on June 26, 2000. The autonomy resolution was adopted by voice vote after accepting the report and recommendations of the then State Autonomy Committee (SAC). No two opinions about that. But what transpired afterwards is more attention-grabbing. It tells a story.
Indeed, the NC’s autonomy resolution had “shocked” the BJP.
LK Advani, former deputy prime minister of India, in his autobiography, My Country My Life, while talking about the NC’s autonomy resolution in a chapter entitled “Dealing With The Kashmir Issue” writes: “The nation was shocked on June 26, 2000, during the Vajpayee government’s rule in New Delhi, when the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly adopted a report of the State Autonomy Committee (SAC) and asked the Centre to immediately implement it. The SAC recommended return of the constitutional situation in Jammu and Kashmir to its pre-1953 status by restoring to the state all subjects of governance except defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication.”
Subsequently, the BJP-led NDA Union cabinet, in its meeting on July 4, 2000, rejected the NC’s autonomy resolution passed by the J&K Assembly. On the same day, Advani adopted a hawkish stand on the issue and told the media that accepting the autonomy resolution will, “set the clock back”.
Advani further writes how Farooq Abdullah had allowed the issue of J&K’s autonomy to lapse after “Atalji (AB Vajpayee) told Dr Abdullah to decide whether to continue in the NDA at the Centre following the Union Cabinet’s rejection of the state assembly’s autonomy resolution.”
Advani minces no words and explains how the NC chewed up its demand, “This was one occasion when both Atalji and I had to be very firm with the state’s chief minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, whose National Conference was in fact a part of the ruling NDA at the Centre. We advised him not to press for the implementation of the SAC report.”
“To his credit, Dr Abdullah allowed the issue to lapse,” Advaniji notes.
It is precisely because of these flip-flops that a deep-rooted perception exists in the Kashmir Valley that they (the Abdullahs and the Muftis) represent New Delhi in Kashmir, not Kashmir in New Delhi.
Both parties want to be on the right side of New Delhi. The restive region’s political space was dominated and occupied by the National Conference in the 1940s and 1950s. And Sheikh Abdullah was the prime minister. But he was unceremoniously removed from his post and sent to prison for 22 years in separate stints. Similarly, in 1984, Farooq Abdullah was the region’s chief minister. His government too was toppled and his brother-in-law, G M Shah, installed as replacement. Both Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah were kept under detention in 2019. And both are unwilling to put up a meaningful political resistance. Their decision to contest the District Development Council (DDC) polls demonstrates their desperation and uncontrollable urge to hanker after power.
For several years, the National Conference in some ways represented the Kashmiri nationalism. For many years afterwards, the party got confused about the very purpose of its existence, objectives and mission. Officially, the NC claims that it espouses regional autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. In practice, however, the party is normalizing the August 5 decision taken by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The National Conference, it appears, refuses to draw any lessons from the past. In a way, the party is digging its own grave. And it is in the process of writing epitaph of the NC’s tombstone. Indeed, Kashmir is a graveyard of reputations!
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