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The Sheikh’s last stab

In 1964,Sheikh Abdullah visited Pakistan again to suggest a confederation between India,Pakistan and Kashmir

Written by Inder Malhotra |
March 5, 2012 3:55:50 am

In 1964,Sheikh Abdullah visited Pakistan again to suggest a confederation between India,Pakistan and Kashmir

Despite the fiasco of the marathon Swaran Singh-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto negotiations in the summer of 1963 and the end of the Anglo-American pressure for mediation over Kashmir later that year (‘Mirage of Mediation’,IE,January 23),Nehru did not give up the search for a modus vivendi with Pakistan,though he knew it was an uphill task. Towards the end of the year,two factors goaded him to accelerate the quest.

The first,which did not become known until several years after his death when his Commonwealth secretary (later foreign secretary),Y. D. Gundevia,revealed it in his book Outside the Archives,was a letter from a “friend” whose name the prime minister told no one though he shared the letter’s gist with a few of his confidants. The letter-writer had advised him not to leave both the China and the Kashmir problems to his successors but to solve at least one in his lifetime.

Secondly,the prolonged imprisonment of his old friend and comrade and Kashmir’s tallest leader,Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah,was weighing on Nehru’s mind. The first “prime minister” of the sensitive state after Independence,the Sheikh was dismissed and detained without trial in 1953 because he suddenly wanted Kashmir to be independent of both India and Pakistan,which was totally unacceptable.

The Sheikh’s successor in Srinagar,Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed,reluctantly released him,largely at Nehru’s insistence,in 1958,only to re-arrest him almost immediately. This time around the Sheikh was charged with “treason” under what came to be known as the Kashmir Conspiracy case that dragged on and on.

In the last week of December 1963,a tremendous upheaval erupted in the Kashmir Valley because a holy relic — a hair of the Prophet’s beard — was stolen from the Hazaratbal shrine. Not until it was recovered and certified by religious leaders as genuine was a semblance of calm restored (‘Hanging by a Hair’,IE,August 9,2009). Nehru’s mind was made up that the Sheikh must be released and his help sought to bring normalcy and stability back to Kashmir. About instant reconciliation with his old friend he had no doubt whatsoever. He was privy,however,to the Sheikh’s firm belief that without an understanding between India and Pakistan there could be no peace or stability in Kashmir.

Surprisingly,Nehru’s fiercely loyal Intelligence Chief,B. N. Mullik,vehemently opposed his idea of withdrawing the Kashmir Conspiracy case and promised to prove the charges within a few weeks. Furiously,the prime minister rebuked him.

On being released from the Jammu jail,together with his lieutenant,Mirza Afzal Beg,on April 8,1964,Sheikh Abdullah had an invitation from Nehru waiting for him. It requested him to come to Delhi as soon as possible and stay with Nehru at Teen Murti House so that the two could discuss the future rather than the past.

Since the Sheikh had already planned to go to Srinagar via Bhadarwah and Kishtwar areas of Jammu,and then address a series of public meetings in the valley,he got to Delhi early in May. It is already well known that while agreeing to go to Pakistan to explore the possibility of finding a solution,the Sheikh argued that a confederation of India,Pakistan and Kashmir was the best way to cut the Gordian knot. This was unacceptable to Nehru who said that a federation was the maximum he could agree to.

Even so,in his talks with President Ayub Khan,the Sheikh did put forward the idea of a confederation. Ayub rejected it out of hand. Without going into details,the two sides simply announced the failure of the Sheikh’s mission,but added,optimistically,that a meeting between Nehru and Ayub would take place in Delhi in June,and that the Sheikh “would not be far away from the conference table”. All this came to pass on the evening before the day of Nehru’s death when,according to his schedule,the Sheikh and his caravan left Rawalpindi for Muzzafarabad,the capital of “Azad” Kashmir.

This should also explain why the Sheikh’s visit,during which he was given a hero’s welcome,was completely overshadowed by Nehru’s death and particularly by the tremendous outpouring of grief across Pakistan,including the part of Kashmir under its control (‘Mourning Nehru in Pakistan’,IE,May 29,2010). So much so that it was nearly a month after our return from Pakistan that I learned of the Kashmir leader’s programme to stay in Pakistan for 16 days that was so cruelly cut short.

Even today it is not widely known that the Sheikh’s original plan was to go to Pakistan by walking across the Ceasefire Line (now Line of Control). Nehru had gone along with the idea,little realising the risks it entailed. After all,the dividing line was heavily defended on both sides. What if some Pakistani soldier shot at the “intruders” from the Indian side? Mridula Sarabhai,a former general secretary of the Congress who had become a staunch supporter of Sheikh Abdullah after his imprisonment,was the first to raise the alarm. Gundevia and G. Parthasarthy,then high commissioner to Pakistan,who was in Delhi for consultations,appreciated her concerns,and with Nehru’s consent,persuaded the Sheikh not to cross the Ceasefire Line but to fly to Rawalpindi.

What Ayub Khan had to say in his memoirs,Friends,Not Masters,published in 1967,is revealing: “When Sheikh Abdullah and Mirza Afzal Beg came to Pakistan in 1964,they had brought the absurd proposal for a confederation between India,Pakistan and Kashmir. 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 was clear that this was what Mr. Nehru had told them to say to us.”

When the Sheikh was shown the book (in jail,yet again,though this time in Kodaikanal in the south),he immediately wrote to Ayub: “The late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru… never forced us to put before you any particular proposal. No,we are not made that way”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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