No other topic bisects Kashmiris right down the middle as much as the legacy of one man -- six foot and four inches tall. Commonly referred to as the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ by most National Conference wallas, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah is considered something of a male Lady Macbeth by countless others. A complex character, he attempted to climb Mt Greatness (and did reach quite high) but sadly stumbled somewhere along the trek to the summit. While lions are not known to live for more than a decade in the wild, Sher-i-Kashmir survived several jungles and jails. His cubs continue to live in a nice little den under the foothills of Zabarwan to this day. No, they didn’t become lions.
Sheikh Abdullah can best be described as a paradox who knew his Iqbal well. Kashmiris taking a walk along the Chinar bagh near Haft Chinar, Srinagar, in days bygone, often stumbled across Chinar leaves with Sheikh’s name clearly visible on both sides. Of course it was part of the myth-making around the man who was part anti-India, part pro-India, a Prime Minister now, a Chief Minister some other time, Nehru’s pal, Nehru’s foe, sleeping in Nehru’s bedroom at Teen Murti Bhavan one season to fighting swarms of mosquitoes in Kotla Lane jail the other. Like his persona, the inheritance of Sher-i-Kashmir is deeply split.
How does one attempt to remember a man who challenged the might of the last Dogra feudatory at a time when entire villages were taken for bonded labour? Heck, you can’t even begin to place a leader who sets up the Plebiscite Front, telling a stunned India fearlessly that it should hold referendum in Kashmir under the auspices of the United Nations (Yes, pretty much what Mr Geelani says these days). Imagine the dent in the collective pride of millions after years of political struggle and broken promises, when the Sher-i-Kashmir meekly walks into Indira Gandhi’s rat-trap, also known as the Indira–Sheikh accord. His cubs now publicly say what Kashmiris knew all along: the exercise of the agreement was never actually completed. Less than a year after signing on the dotted line, Madam Gandhi had the Sheikh conveniently removed from power. You see this whole democracy business is somewhat messy, sometimes.
Thirty years after his death (died this week in 1982), one is astonished at his lion-logic that pushed us to these strange crossroads. By what alchemy, one wonders, did the Sheikh expect to change the conviction of Kashmiris? What then explains his volte faces? Was it spunk or silliness that led him to hobnob with Nehru even after the old boy had him thrown into a dungeon for eleven long years? Did he dig his own ideological tomb when he famously gave up Kashmir’s earnest demand for plebiscite? Did he really think that after Nehru’s chicanery, his daughter would accord Kashmiris genuine political space? It is difficult to say, even in hindsight.
So what really did the Sheikh bequeath to us? Was it Farooq Abdullah, the prince boy of good times, whose only claim to fame is that he was born to the right parent? Or was it the plough— a pastoral totem, hugely symbolic of our peasant past and an emblem that Sher-i-Kashmir efficiently tilled our consciousnesses with? Cutting short his first and only Pakistan visit, the Sheikh rushed back to cry at Nehru’s dead bed. Did he willfully dismiss from mind his humiliating arrest in Gulmarg in 1953 on Nehru’s orders? Pray, Krishna Menon, Nehru’s sidekick, famously likened Abdullah to Leon Trotsky. Not surprisingly the way Kashmir’s tallest leader was put out of countenance by the Delhi gang was not too different to what Stalin did to poor old Trotsky, before exiling him to Mexico.
Even if one were to excuse Sheikh’s strung-out flirtation with the Indians, how come he erred majorly in collecting a team, every member of which was a Marcus Junius Brutus in the making? The core team of Bakhshis, DP Dhars, Sadiqs plied Delhi with all the intel that was required on the Sheikh. And when the time came, his very team, trusted lieutenants like Bakhshi, hailed as Khalid-i-Kashmir within the NC (famous for saying all Muslims follow five tenets of Islam, I follow six; the sixth being Sheikh Abdullah’s command) stabbed him in the back. Multiple times.
There is a possibility that Sheikh Abdullah was a secular democrat. IB boss BN Mullick, India’s eyes and ears in Kashmir during Sheikh’s time, thought that Sher-i-Kashmir perhaps envisaged semi-independence for Kashmir. Howbeit most historians are agreed that from the very outset the Sheikh became disillusioned with India’s selective secularism but somehow got on with it. Nehru and co, on the other hand, knew their cards well. They knew exactly how to checkmate the lion with a semi-literate Bakhshi (eight-class pass), who in turn was given a simple brief: glue Kashmir, like a girl, to the couch.
Idealism, it is said, is the despot of thought. If Sheikh Abdullah really felt that independence was a ‘charming thought but academic and impractical’, then why did he wander all the way to Saudi Arabia and Algeria to garner support for Kashmir’s right to self-determination? Why did he seduce an emotional populace with slogans like ‘Throw my body in the Arabian sea, do not bury me in slave country’? A few years thence he simply gets up and concedes that the Instrument of Accession, ratified under the slimy Khalid-i-Kashmir, was no longer subject to challenge, meaning all those demands of plebiscite were nil and void. How many marks for that genius? 370.
Not surprisingly there are those who would say that his lion-roars meant nothing. No matter how earnestly he started off on the promise of delivering Kashmiris on the road to redemption, he ended up badly misjudging the route. His quislings ensured just that. For many he was a lion-heart who truly emancipated the poor with his socialistic zeal, gifting land to the tiller, something the feudal Pakistanis are still unable to do. In the end the Sheikh probably traded lions for lambs.
That September Indira Gandhi (not taking off her designer sunglasses for a millisecond) came for the funeral. Who knows what brought her to Srinagar: schadenfreude or sorrow? The Sheikh’s body was wrapped in a tricolor, perhaps fittingly in some parting thank you gesture from India. A million Kashmiris marched that afternoon, beating their chests, howling. The lion was dead. It was time to lionize him.
Less than six winters later, Kashmiris rose in a massive armed struggle. Millions marched again. There were no tricolors this time.