Just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s famous and spontaneous visit to Lahore on the birthday of his Pakistani opposite number, Nawaz Sharif, television showcased a Sangh Parivar stalwart’s view that the road to Akhand Bharat was open. One can react to this dangerous delusion whichever way one likes — laugh derisively or weep — but I think it necessary to recall and recount an instructive event in the subcontinent’s history that took place half a century ago. Most of the younger generation is unlikely to be aware of it.
In May 1964, a startling but not provocative idea of a confederation of India, Pakistan and Kashmir was discussed at the highest level. The talks took place between Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah — with Nehru’s full backing — and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan, who welcomed Kashmir’s tallest leader to Rawalpindi. The Sheikh’s view that this was the best solution to the vexed Kashmir issue was discussed by the two leaders at length and, as should have been expected, rejected by Ayub emphatically.
Let the story begin from the beginning. In the last week of December 1963, Kashmir went through unquestionably the worst internal crisis when a holy relic — a single hair of the Prophet’s beard — was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. There were massive protests across the state. Mercifully, it was soon found and recognised as genuine by religious leaders. Things started simmering down. However, a bigger problem persisted. Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first “prime minister” and a close friend of Nehru, was still in jail since 1953 when he was dismissed and imprisoned because of his attempt to make Kashmir independent of both India and Pakistan. This weighed heavily on Prime Minister Nehru’s mind. He, therefore, ordered Abdullah’s release, invited him to New Delhi to be his house guest and encouraged him to go to Pakistan to try and settle the Kashmir question with Ayub.
Relations between the two old friends were as cordial as in the distant past, but Nehru was somewhat ill at ease because he found that the Sheikh was fixated on the idea of a confederation. One night, he sent for an important Kashmiri leader, Syed Mir Qasim, and told him, in Urdu, that the Sheikh was insistent on a confederation. Qasim replied: “Sir, kaan kaat dijaye”, which can be translated only as “please cut the ears”. “Whose ears am I supposed to cut?” Nehru asked testily.
A repentant Qasim explained: “Sir, all I am suggesting is that the letters ‘con’ should be removed from confederation”. This was conveyed to Abdullah but made no difference at all. The Abdullah-Ayub talks were confined to the confederation idea alone. The field marshal heard his honou-red guest’s pleas with full attention and patience. Even while rejecting the Sheikh’s proposal, he did so with courtesy.
One remarkable argument he expounded against a confederation is worth quoting at some length. After rejecting the idea fundamentally, Ayub added: “Another problem is that your arrangement would generate strong pressures in East Pakistan to merge with West Bengal, and in Bengal as a whole to join the confederation as an independent member. Similarly, South India, Rajasthan and even the Sikhs would want to become autonomous members of the proposed confederation.”
The failure of the Sheikh’s mission was announced on the evening of May 26, 1964. But it was accompanied with the declaration that Nehru and Ayub will meet in Delhi in the middle of June, and that the Sheikh would “not be far from the conference table”. The next morning, the Sheikh, together with his entire caravan of which I was a member, left for Muzaffarabad, the capital of “Azad” Kashmir, according to his schedule. The news of Nehru’s illness reached us at Murree, a charming hill station. And he passed into history the moment we set foot in Muzaffarabad. Since the tremendous emotion and mourning for Nehru in Pakistan has been written about elaborately and often, let me not repeat it here. But I must quote from Ayub’s own writing on the Sheikh’s visit in his book, Friends, Not Masters (1967), if only to underscore his change of tone.
“When Sheikh Abdullah and Mirza Afzal Beg came to Pakistan in 1964,” he wrote, “they had brought the absurd proposal for a confederation. I told him (sic) plainly that we would have nothing to do with it. It is curious that whereas we were seeking the salvation of Kashmiris, they had been forced to mention an idea which, if pursued, would lead to our enslavement. It is clear that this was what Mr Nehru had told them to say to us”. Obviously, Pakistan’s first military dictator knew little about Nehru, whose refusal to accept a confederation has been stated above, or the Sheikh with a long history of defiance of his friend, Nehru.
It is perhaps needless to add that when Ayub’s book came out, Sheikh Abdullah was again in jail, this time round down south in Kodaikanal. He read the copy sent to him from cover to cover and immediately wrote to Pakistan’s president: “The late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru never forced us to put any particular proposal. No, we are not made that way.”