Akbar Jehan faced resolutely the whirlwinds that accompanied life as Sheikh Abdullah’s wife
Living in a culture of blinkered consumerism in which most people opt for the most lucrative situations regardless of the damage done to their consciences, I write with wonder and amazement about a woman, Akbar Jehan, born and raised in the lap of luxury, who made the exacting choice of marrying a young Kashmiri Muslim greenhorn, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The wedding took place on 5 Jamadi-us-Sani 1352 A.H., which would translate as 1933.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had undertaken the gargantuan task of determining his intellectual, political, and personal trajectory in an environment that sought to stifle even embryonic expressions of Kashmiri selfhood, self-determination, and nationalism. In this undulating landscape, Akbar Jehan’s resolute and self-willed temperament is amply borne out by her intractable decision to relinquish the safety, security, and plenitude of her maternal home for life with an idealistic, self-willed rebel whose political ideology spoke to the repressed masses of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1930s and 1940s but whose political future was uncertain. Akbar Jehan had, of her own volition, embraced a path strewn with thorns. At the time, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s arduous undertaking of constructing Kashmiri nationalism, demanding the political enfranchisement and socio-economic empowering of Kashmiri Muslims, was a nebulous and tottering enterprise, the success of which was by no means guaranteed.
Despite the anxiety generated by her decision, Akbar Jehan, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, bedecked in jewels, bedizened in satin, made the intransigent decision to throw in her lot with a determined and politically savvy young man whose fiefdom was the political battlefield, whose entourage comprised the poverty-stricken, disenfranchised, dispossessed, denigrated masses, whose palace was his family home in Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar.
I would venture to say that subscribing to religious traditions and maintaining an unshakeable faith in providence anchored her in times of extreme distress, pain, and loneliness. Visitation at shrines and tombs was an integral part of her religious experience. I accompanied her to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer several times. According to Grandmother, it was one of the most sacred sites for votive rituals. The wise say that, “faith can move mountains,” and I believe that Grandmother’s faith gave her the pugnacity and resoluteness to face the many whirlwinds in her immediate as well as distant world.
I remember accompanying Grandmother on her election campaign to Damal Hanji Pora, Anantnag. It was on this rapturous campaign that the force of the people’s will was clearly manifested.
In late 1984, soon after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, general elections were held in India. Although the National Conference (NC) was a house divided against itself and had, yet again, been undemocratically undermined by New Delhi, the organisation decided to throw down the gauntlet and fielded candidates in all the parliamentary constituencies in J&K. Akbar Jehan was the NC candidate in Anantnag constituency. Although she was by no means young, she embraced the challenge with open arms and contested the election with inimitable vigour. At the time, Damal Hanji Pora was represented by the NC’s Wali Mohammad Itoo in the J&K Legislative Assembly. He had organised a rousing reception for her in his constituency. The atmosphere reverberated with slogans in support of her candidature. She would stand with the force of her conviction on makeshift daises and employ religious and democratic rhetoric to instil confidence in those who, time and again, had been betrayed by the machinations of nation-states. She was willing to climb every mountain to relay her political message of regional pride, Kashmiri nationalism, and assertion of people’s power. (It is ironic that the NC forged an alliance with the Congress in the 1987 Assembly elections.)
The early part of her life with Sheikh, even as the consort of the Prime Minister of J&K, was constrained by hardship, uncertainty, political duplicity, privation, and constant attempts to curb freedom. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s ouster on August 9, 1953, at the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru, and subsequent arrest because of his vociferous protests against what he perceived as endeavours to erode the constitutional autonomy of the State and legitimise its integration into the Indian Union, was an event that alienated the Kashmiri masses and cast his immediate family as personae non grata.
The attempted political, social, and economic marginalisation of Akbar Jehan and her children during the politically tumultuous, dictatorial and ruthlessly arbitrary post-1953 era placed her in the unenviable position of being disowned by her near and dear ones.
My mother, Suraiya, remembers,
“The years between 1953 and 1964 were the most difficult in our lives. My sister, Khalida, was living with us at the time, along with her three children. We faced innumerable hardships in those years. After the ouster and arrest of Papa in 1953 we were rendered homeless. A Kashmiri Pandit by the name of Mr. Madan and his wife offered their house to Mummy. At that very traumatic period, they were angels for us; and the family moved to their very comfortable house in Buchwara, Srinagar. Mr. Madan and his wife, a childless couple, lived in the house adjacent to the one that they had given us. My brothers, Farooq, Tariq, and Mustafa were in college then, and I was in Kothibagh School. The other almost insurmountable hardship which we faced was the health condition of my sister. We were the unfortunate objects of the mechanisms of power operating in Kashmir, at the time. The constant surveillance and penalties imposed on those who commiserated with us discouraged physicians from taking the risk of tendering medical aid to us. Through that period Mummy remained undeterred, and our house became a site of struggle and resistance.”
It cannot be hard for a relatively objective observer to admit, even one who might disagree with Akbar Jehan’s politics, that despite her forbearance, quiet strength, and unbuckling conviction, she was sorely tried.
Akbar Jehan Abdullah was a benign, affectionate, slightly detached, and much lauded presence in Sheikh sahab’s lifetime. I remember her as being a self-assured, articulate, politically savvy, and elegant person, whose social and political activism didn’t dwindle till very late in life.
(Nyla Ali Khan is the granddaughter of Begum Akbar Jehan and Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. She is a visiting professor in the Department of English, University of Oklahoma. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)