The manner in which Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed from office and put in jail without reason actually weakened India’s case in Kashmir.
On August 8, 1953, 55 years ago this week, Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and put into prison on the orders of the Government of India. The act was the culmination of 18 months of smouldering distrust between the Kashmiri leader and the politicians in New Delhi. Before and after Independence, the Sheikh had been on the closest terms with the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Their affinity was political as well as personal, for Abdullah, like Nehru, was a socialist and a secularist.
Abdullah admired Nehru, but he had less than full faith in the Congress party and the people of India. In a speech of April 10, 1952, he said that the Kashmiris would accept the Indian Constitution “in its entirety once we are satisfied that the grave of communalism has been finally dug yet.” The speech touched a raw nerve. As the political scientist Richard Park wrote at the time, “for Nehru and many in India, Abdullah’s Kashmir was proof of the secular ideal, for this predominantly Moslem state chose to remain allied with India”. When the Congress won a comfortable victory in the General Elections held in January-February 1952, the result “seemed to give conclusive evidence that the communal parties... did not have much support in India and that the goal of a secular state was a near-reality”. But then, “in this context of general satisfaction with the election results, Sheikh Abdullah chose to accuse India of being weak in the very sector in which India felt she had shown her greatest courage and strength of purpose” (namely, secularism).
Truth be told, Abdullah’s wavering attitude towards India and Indians was dictated also by his own personal ambition. He was clear that he did not want Kashmir to join Pakistan; at the same time, he entertained the hope that with American help, he might yet carve out an independent nation, a sort of Switzerland of the East. It was because of their fear of this eventuality, and because of the special circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to India (following a war with raiders sent in from Pakistan), that the Government of India conceded special rights to the residents of the State, as for instance the right to fly their own State flag, and to refer to the head of the State’s administration as Prime Minister rather than as Chief Minister.
On the one side, Abdullah contemplated a push for total independence. On the other side, Right-wing parties in India demanded that the special rights accorded to the Kashmiri people be withdrawn. From the autumn of 1952 through the summer of 1953, the forces of autonomy and integration battled it out in the streets of the State’s second largest town, Jammu. Writing to his friend and colleague C. Rajagopalachari on the last day of July, 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru observed that “the internal situation in Kashmir’ was “progressively deteriorating”. This was caused, in the first instance, “by the wholly misconceived Praja Parishad and Jan Sangh agitation, which produced strong reactions in the Kashmir valley”. This was bad enough; worse still was the fact that Sheikh Abdullah, while retaining his position as Prime Minister of the State, had begun “functioning as the leader of the opposition”.
A week later, the Sheikh was dismissed from office, the order being issued in the middle of the night. He was put into detention, and replaced as Prime Minister by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, a man with a reputation for, among other things, feathering his own nest. Till this day we do not know on whose orders the arrest was undertaken. Some claim it was at the instigation of the Intelligence Bureau officer, B.N. Mullick; others that the man behind it was the senior Congressman Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. Some believe that Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the arrest himself; others that he got to know of the deed only after it was done.
Reasons not known
Unfortunately, the papers of the Government of India are closed on the subject. The reasons for the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah are still a matter of speculation. There is less dispute about the consequences. For, the manner of the Sheikh’s dismissal from office, the fact that he was held in jail without any charges being pressed against him, the crudities and corruptions of his successor’s administration — all these seriously weakened India’s case in, and for, Kashmir. The Indian leadership did not at first sense this; nor, more remarkably, did Pakistan’s. In fact, in the last week of July 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Karachi, where he got a tremendous reception. Two weeks later, after the Sheikh was arrested, the Pakistani Prime Minister visited India, and was similarly feted. In both Karachi and Delhi, the talks were conducted in a spirit of cordiality, raising hopes of an early settlement on Kashmir.
In its issue of September 29, 1953, this newspaper carried a story on a visit by Kashmir’s new Prime Minister to the town of Baramulla. Here, as The Hindu reported, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed told an “enthusiastic throng of 10, 000” that “Kashmir’s future is quite safe with India”. Even by the standards of Indian politicians, this was a prophecy of the most outrageous recklessness.