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That Spring in the Valley

The Kashmir crisis was more complex than is made out to be by a timely new biography of Sheikh Abdullah

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: February 1, 2009 4:13 pm

The Kashmir crisis was more complex than is made out to be by a timely new biography of Sheikh Abdullah
In this eminently readable book,Ajit Bhattacharjea has not only chronicled a very eminent Indian’s life that was full of high drama and a measure of tragedy but also reminded us that we Indians are strangely disinterested in history and,therefore,deficient in the art of biography writing. He has indeed filled a yawning gap because Sheikh Abdullah was unquestionably the tallest leader of the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir,and Kashmir’s vexed history is intertwined with his colourful life. Others ought to write biographies of equally outstanding Indians ranging from E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Jyoti Basu to Annadurai,Master Tara Singh and Kanshi Ram.

But for Sheikh Abdullah and his towering leadership,the accession to the Indian Union of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir would not have been possible even after the Maharaja had belatedly signed the necessary instrument. But then,Sheikh Abdullah’s changing mind and stance also played a role in the painful twists and turns in Kashmir’s affairs,while others surely contributed their mite.

In 1953,amidst apparently credible fears that he was working for an independent Kashmir,the Sheikh was dismissed and detained without trial. Released briefly five years later,he was rearrested by his former deputy and later successor,Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed,this time around to be tried in what was called the “Kashmir Conspiracy Case” that dragged on for some years.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah had been close friends since the days of the freedom struggle,and since both shared the secular-socialist outlook,this strengthened the bond between them. Later,both got disenchanted with each other but mutual personal regard remained. Thus,Nehru’s last act in relation to Kashmir was to order the withdrawal of the Kashmir Conspiracy Case — despite protests by his intelligence chief,B.N. Mullik — to release Sheikh Abdullah,to invite him to Delhi to be a house guest at Teen Murti and to encourage him to go to Pakistan to explore the possibilities of an India-Pakistan settlement on Kashmir. The mission’s success was limited to arranging a Nehru-Ayub summit in Delhi in June but even this proved abortive because of Nehru’s death while the Sheikh was still on the Pakistani soil.

I was at that time at Abdullah’s side. Having known him from the first day of the first session of the Kashmir Constituent Assembly in 1951,I had travelled with him from Jammu from the time of his release from prison right through to the end of his Pakistan visit. Ajit Bhattacharjea,a friend and colleague a few years senior to me,had the advantage of knowing both Kashmir and the Sheikh since the first Kashmir War (1947-48). His rapport with the Kashmir leader was enhanced also by the author’s proximity to Jayaprakash Narayan,better known as JP,whose advice the Sheikh sought in good times and bad.

In 1965,Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri happily allowed Sheikh Abdullah to go abroad. This caused renewed trouble. For,the country,with its memories of the traumatic border war with China still intact,heard that the Sher-e-Kashmir had called on,of all people,Zhou Enlai. (What became known much later was that in Saudi Arabia,Abdullah had met the Pakistani intelligence head,M. Awan.). Arrested yet again,the Sheikh spent three more years in captivity until Indira Gandhi freed him and sought a political understanding with him. The famous Indira-Sheikh accord was concluded and under it,in February 1975,he returned to his old office of chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and ruled the state until his death in 1982.

To trace all these ups and downs,the author has done painstaking research. He has relied also on the Sheikh’s autobiography,Fire of Chinar,the autobiography of another Kashmiri chief minister,Syed Mir Qasim,and all available documents,including Sadar-i-Riyast Karan Singh’s correspondence with Nehru. So different are the various versions of the same event that they are reminiscent of Kurosawa’s masterpiece,Rashomon.

There are a few errors in the book — for example,Morocco is mentioned as the meeting place between Abdullah and Zhou though the meeting took place at Algiers — but these are minor. To me a serious shortcoming is Ajit Bhattacharjea’s undue tilt towards the Sheikh,who is absolved of practically all blame,while Nehru is held responsible for all that went wrong. The reality is that every Kashmir crisis was a complex affair for which both sides were more or less equally responsible. However,this does not detract from the high quality of this contribution to modern Indian history.

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