On a cold but not freezing February afternoon pushing my way through crowded and crushing Residency Road to a nearby bookshop I was stopped by an old time Plebiscite Front worker.
Given to intolerance of some contemporary “top” leaders, “clerics” and their “hangers-on”, initially, I thought, he has not liked some of my writings about once towering leader or his scions. There was no anger on his face but from expressions on his face, I could make out he has a bagful of questions for me and intends to engage me in a roadside discussion – one of favorite pastime of old time political workers. In “one breath” he posed lots of questions to me: How do you look at Sheikh Nazir and Mustafa Kamal raising the slogan of plebiscite and demanding right to self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Do you think the duo intendeds to revive the Plebiscite Front and start operating from Mujahid Manzil? Sheikh Nazir said that Sheikh Sahib (Sheikh Abdullah) was not a signatory to the 1975 agreement with Indira Gandhi. Do you also believe that Beg Sahib (Afzal Beg) was power hungry and wanted to become Chief Minister of the state? To shorten the debate, I told him that the statements made by Sheikh Nazir and Mustafa Kamal have been thoroughly discussed by eminent historians, writers and analysts in the newspaper.
Much later in the day in a bookshop an elderly person- again an old time political worker was looking for speeches of Sheikh Abdullah from 1958- 1971, supposedly compiled by Mirza Muhammad Afzal Beg and statements made by Sheikh Abdullah and his associates in the court during the Kashmir conspiracy case. He was also looking for a picture of the flag of the Plebiscite Front.
The political gimmickry of the NC leaders in demanding holding a plebiscite in the state apart the statements made by the two leaders as is evident from the above quoted instances have renewed peoples interest in the Plebiscite Front and its history. These have also caused an undercurrent in a section of youth leaders not enjoying adequate space within a multiparty combine. Reportedly, these are toying idea: If the Front buried twenty-eight back could be resurrected along with its Constitution and agenda.
The Plebiscite Front was founded in 1955, at a time when New Delhi had categorically stated that holding of the plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir was ‘beside the point.’ The announcement to this effect was made by Home Minister, G.B. Pant in July 1955 at a reception in Srinagar. Setting up an organization demanding right to self-determination during the rule of “peace brigade” full of fear, terror and intimidation was manifestation of an extraordinary courage. Even New Delhi did believe that the Plebiscite Front had mass support but for fear of Peace Brigade remained away from its public gathering. Syed Mir Qasim in his memoirs writes that the Home Minister Pant was aware of the activities of the brigade and thin attendance in public meetings of the Front. Pant told Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, “Just one goonda can make thousand men’s life miserable, if he has the support of area’s police chief.” (My life and Times page 77).
On the question of accession of the state, the Front had very clear-cut stand and on many important occasions its leadership endeavored hard to clear any ambiguities. It made clear that at precisely at the time of Maharaja acceding to India and India accepting the accession, “the idea of self-determination or referendum in regard to Kashmir was injected into the course of events.” It made it clear that the decision of the “constituent assembly cannot be equated with a referendum, which Prime Minister had solemnly pledged”. On the question of Sheikh Abdullah statements being “bandied” to prove that he had accepted the accession it made clear even if it was so, the proviso of referendum was there. “Neither the National Conference nor Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah could take the place of the people of Kashmir, whose will have to be ascertained and not of the Sheikh or that of the National Conference.” It did not accept New Delhi’s argument ‘that since Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTO, the offer of plebiscite stood no longer. It vehemently argued that ‘it was not to Pakistan that the pledge had been given but to the people of Kashmir. There could be no justification for punishing the latter for the actions of the former.’
Looking analytically at the political stand of the organization it was more candid and clear than many other contemporary organizations espousing the cause of right to self-determination or resolution of the Kashmir ‘dispute’/problem. Like some quasi-political organization or politico-religious organization, it was not ambiguous in demanding right to self-determination or did not consider it of secondary importance. Its political stand was more transparent and even clearer than that of the Hurriyat Conference that simultaneously talks of right to self-determination in accordance with UN Charter and the resolutions adopted by the UN Security council and about some vague negotiated settlement, without delineating a clear-cut modus operandi for achieving such a settlement- and leaving it open ending.
In 1964, the Plebiscite Front brought out a white paper refuting “the contention that Kashmir accession to India was final an irrevocable”. The organization with its dedicated statewide cadre did not meet its political waterloo on account lack of cohesiveness in its professed political ideology nor division within its ranks or no command system or organizational set up but for nervousness of its leader because of “emphatic victory of India in December 1972”. In fact, Abdullah was overawed by the charisma of Mrs. Gandhi (post 1971). To quote contemporary Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, “Throughout 1971 he (Sheikh Abdullah) had been living in New Delhi, so had witnessed at first hand Mrs. Gandhi’s emergence as a national leader.
The war made him less confused; it now appeared that independence for his people was quite out of the question. In June 1972, he met Mrs. Gandhi. Shortly afterwards he was allowed to go Kashmir.” He returned to Kashmir with an altered psyche “in September while speaking at a function to mark his sixty seventh birthday, the Sheikh went to so far as to say I am an Indian and India is my homeland.” (India After Gandhi page 475). “From India’s point” writes Victoria Schofield, “virtually came the movement for right to self-determination came to end with the 1975 Accord.” It did not happen but truth remains that no formidable and well knit pro-right to self-determination was born after the death of PF.
The aged scions of Abdullah have dropped the idea- who picks up