It’s a trail of disasters, beginning with Sheikh Abdullah himself

On the occasion of Omar Abdullah’s vibrant overtures, rather open statements, that NC will forge political alliance with Congress, some old stories press for telling.

After almost two decades, when Plebiscite Front decided to participate in the election in 1972, its attempts were scuttled. Its leaders were arrested, including Sheikh M Abdullah. In this election, held in 1971-72, “Congress orchestrated a landslide victory for itself, managing to acquire 5 out of 6 parliamentary seats and 56 out of 73 Assembly seats.” 

After the elections were over, New Delhi began to reach out to Sheikh Abdullah. This exercise finally culminated in an understanding between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi. In 1975 “an aged and weary” Sheikh gave up in favour of a permanent settlement with New Delhi. Kashmir Accord, formulated by G. Parthasarthi and Mirza Afzal Beg concluded an eventful chapter in the history of National Conference. 

Sheikh was released from the prison and placed as the head of the state government in place of Mir Qasim. In the subsequent years PF was converted into National Conference and this party, under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah, participated in the elections of 1977. 

This was the most ironic development in Kashmir politics.  The iconic figure of Kashmir’s regional politics was heading a government of Congress party that represented New Delhi’s centrist ambitions over J&K. In this situation Sheikh Abdullah pushed for premature dissolution of the Assembly so that fresh elections could be held which in his view would serve as “referendum” for new political dispensation. While National Conference had a landslide victory in the 1977 elections, “disconnected qualified youth had become increasingly a feature of the state’s political activity.” Though he tried to address some “internal contradictions”, Sheikh’s policy was not without contradictions of its own. By dint of his formidable personality he could “float over the waves created by such contradictions”, but once his time was over it was a dam burst.  8th September, 1982, sheikh died and “after him came the deluge.” 

Once the Kashmir Accord was concluded and a dissenting Sheikh Abdullah was brought back into the fold of Unionist politics, it was felt that it would “divest Abdullah of his convictions, political platform and strength.” There were certain internal and external elements that strengthened this belief. Sheikh was now “aged and weary”, and was “decapacitated not just by age but by twenty two years of incarceration as well”. Further the defeat of Pakistan at the hands of India in 1971 Bangladesh war and the subsequent Simla Treaty, had substantially diminished “his bargaining power”.  Within Kashmir also his political rivals had now a long stint in power and they had transferred it into an electoral strength. The formation of Congress party in the valley of Kashmir was a portent signal in that direction. Another element that added to his vulnerability was the disgruntled section of Plebiscite Front and the rise of fundamental politics that vociferously advocated the autonomous and independent character of Kashmir politics. In this condition Sheikh Abdullah had to sign the pact that many believe was “an abject capitulation to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi”. In such circumstances “it was hoped that New Delhi could use Sheikh Abdullah as its chosen instrument in keeping the state with the Indian Union”. 

Though the Accord paved way for 1977 elections in the state which almost everyone believes were the “first reasonably democratic elections”, but the unfolding of events made it clear that the evaluation of New Delhi was an “illusion” and that “Sheikh Abdullah was the chosen instrument of nobody except Sheikh Abdullah.”  

In his autobiography Sheikh clearly allows expression to the contradiction that still besmirched Kashmir politics. If New Delhi thought that Kashmir Accord was an end to dissenting politics of Sheikh, he himself was of the opinion that by doing so he “transferred the battleground from streets to the table”, and that “it was not a change in objectives but a change of strategy”. The account given by Sheikh Abdullah about how he again felt let down by Congress emphatically tells us that the underlying contraction in the politics of Kashmir refused to subside even after the Kashmir Accord.

Since Kashmir Accord stipulated that the state of J&K will continue to be governed by Article 370, which in reality was “patently hypocritical”, but it allowed Sheikh Abdullah to get connected to people again  in terms of the rhetoric unleashed in the days of Plebiscite Front. This allowed the cleavage to open up again. The thumping majority with which Sheikh Abdullah won the 1977 election marginalizing Congress Party, was considered as a “mandate” for the “preservation” of regional character of the politics in Kashmir.  

This was absolutely anathematic to Indira Gandhi’s understanding of the Accord. It was this difference that later set the course of Kashmir politics, trying to contain the urge and manage the contradictions. 

B K Nehru was sworn in as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir on 26th February, 1981. This was the time when Sheikh Abdullah was nearing end. His account of the person amply demonstrates that there still was mistrust between New Delhi and Srinagar. He plainly writes that Indira-Sheikh relations were “certainly not good”. He makes a portent reading by saying that the fundamental mistrust of Indira Gandhi was about the Sheikh’s “loyalty to India.” He goes ahead by adding a parenthetical remark that it was “a mistrust that was not unjustified.” But to Sheikh what Indira was asking for was not “cooperation” but an “unquestioning obedience.”