August 9, 1953: The day Kashmir changed forever

By Mohammad Sayeed Malik  
Looking back 60 years after the event, Sheikh Abdullah’s unconstitutional dismissal from power in Jammu and Kashmir on August 9, 1953 stands out as the defining fault line in the turbulent politics of the perennially troubled-and troubling– border state. The thinly disguised coup, remote controlled from the union capital, irreversibly changed the course of events, overturned the balance of power between Srinagar and New Delhi, de-institutionalised local governance and added an intractable ‘internal dimension’ to India’s cascading Kashmir problem. 

Debatable cost benefit ratio of Sheikh’s midnight overthrow continues to extract its cost by casting a shadow over moral legitimacy of India’s claim on Kashmir, even as the legal and technical legitimacy of the 1947 accession is acknowledged almost universally. India finds itself thrown on the defensive to justify converting its atoot ang into the ‘most militarised spot on the globe’. 

Perhaps the only thing that suggests that there might have been method in the (1953) madness is that the perpetrators succeeded in manipulating the balance of power and denuding the state in both constitutional as well as political spheres. More than half a century later, J&K is left with a skeleton of its original constitutional special status and the state remains saddled with a weightless political class of ‘mainstream’ leadership. Till 1953, J&K used to elect its own head of the state (Sadr-i-riyasat); now even its ‘popularly elected’ chief ministers have to be anointed by New Delhi, irrespective of their party labels. The state has an unenviable long history of regime-change between elections; rarely as a result of polls. 

Successive political arrangements since 1953, assembled and dismantled at regular intervals, have added to the emotional distance between Srinagar and New Delhi. Even the short-lived relief offered by the lopsided 1975 Kashmir Accord, with a chastised Sheikh, came unstuck soon after his death in 1982. Sheikh’s legacy effectively remains entombed with him near Hazratbal shrine on the banks of the Dal lake. His dynastic successors are left with a pale shadow of it. In fact, ‘August 9’ had ceased to be observed as ‘black day (yom-e-siyah’) by Sheikh’s followers after he was placed back in power, in 1975, by the very same hands that had dispossessed him. Lingering consequences of his return on his tormentor’s terms continue to haunt his successors. 

So much has happened because of ‘1953’ and yet the full story behind the event remains untold. There are sketchy details about how exactly the coup was conceived and who did what to make it happen. The then Sadr-i-riyasat Karan Singh is perhaps the only surviving principal character, from among the dramatis personae, most of whom have parted only with piecemeal account. Dr Singh’s biographical account of the event is no less evasive than that of others. 

The key question that whether Sheikh’s trusted friend, Jawahar Lal Nehru, was in it has not been conclusively answered so far although two of his close aides have hinted positively. The account rendered by Ajit Prasad Jain whom Nehru had deputed to oversee political part of the operation and the one given by MO Mathai, Nehru’s personal aide, suggest that then prime minister was very much into it, notwithstanding his posturing to the contrary. 

Nehru’s subsequent decisive role in picking up the debris and re-designing post-1953 politico-constitutional format suggests well disguised laborious preparation behind the actual act. After the Sheikh was dislodged and put behind bars the J&K constituent assembly was impelled to exceed its original brief and endorse finality of the accession in violation of India’s commitment in the United Nations on plebiscite. The 1952 Delhi Agreement (with Sheikh) was used as a wedge and its scope was changed beyond recognition to tighten centre’s stranglehold over the state. The potency of the state political leadership, ‘menacingly’ symbolised by a pre-1953 Sheikh, was systematically undermined with unabashed hiring and firing of his successors, until a tired Sheikh himself fell in line after 22- year wilderness. 

Today the leadership has learnt to ‘behave’ and to acquiesce without fuss. The pattern remains unchanged irrespective of incumbent’s political hue or the ideological colour of the regime in New Delhi. It was the NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee that contemptuously rejected the autonomy resolution of the state legislative assembly (in 2000) spearheaded by its ally, National Conference. NC did not protest and Omar Abdullah continued to cling to his ministerial berth in New Delhi. The lesson of August 9, 1953 had, obviously, gone home. 

Back in power now in his home state, Omar, a third generation ‘Abdullah’, finds it politically safer to eat his own words, rather than getting into the line of fire when it comes to taking position over sensitive public issues like lifting of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from areas free of trouble or hanging Afzal Guru to ‘satisfy collective conscience’ of the Indian nation. Unlike in any other state of India, military establishment in J&K feels free to take the CM head on and virtually show him his place. Election commitment of Omar’s National Conference on restoration of state autonomy to the ‘pre-1953 level is frowned upon by his local coalition partner, Congress while the ‘high command’ shows contempt for any such idea. The idea is practically as good as dead and buried with the Sheikh.

Chain of events set off by ‘August 9, 1953’ has swept away many illusions, demolished quite a few landmarks and woven an altogether new tapestry of centre-state relationship. It is an irony that this sea change in the scenario has brought the hero and the villain of the 59-year old high drama on to the same pedestal in so far as popular psyche of Kashmir goes. Sheikh’s tomb in his beloved homeland needs round the clock protection of New Delhi’s para-military forces whereas the graves of ‘traitors’-Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad and GM Sadiq– are unprotected and safe. This historical enigma makes it impossible to distinguish the hero of the 1953 tragedy from the villain. Or was there a hero at all? 

(From Kashmir Times archives. This article was first published in Kashmir Times on August 9, 2012)