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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Shaikh Abdullah -- book review

Sheikh Abdullah – like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the other tall poppy of the freedom movement – is a neglected figure. Despite their larger-than-life presence and towering personality among their ‘own’ people, both men have been inexplicably dwarfed by the interpreters of modern Indian history, especially in comparison to Nehru, Patel and other Congress stalwarts. There is virtually nothing of any significance available on the Sheikh except his autobiography, Aatish-e-Chinar, and its excellent translation in English by Khushwant Singh. This erasure from public memory and historical study is disturbing, to say the least. Given the Sheikh’s pivotal role in retaining Kashmir within the Indian Dominion and his lifelong commitment to a secular political ideology his name should, rightly, have featured among the freedom fighters routinely listed in school textbooks. But it is not so.

Ajit Bhattacharjea’s Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah: Tragic Hero of Kashmir is a valuable book and a timely one, too. Being the good journalist that Bhattacharjea is he presents more than one side to any picture and brings to the craft of biography writing a rare quality – multiple points of view that together present more than one way of looking at things. In his characteristic unhurried, understated, elegant prose, he portrays a man who is complex, dynamic, ambitious. Never a camp follower, always a leader, the Sheikh imagined for Kashmir a status like Switzerland, a state that would be completely neutral despite its location in a volatile neighbourhood. His dream for azaadi destined not to be fulfilled, the tired and ageing ‘Lion of Kashmir’ struck a deal with Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1974 hoping to ‘regain some elements of the autonomy whittled away during his long years in detention. This too was however denied. Abdullah was criticized in the Valley, and some young men accepted offers of training in arms in Pakistan-held Kashmir. Yet his commitment to secularism remained undiminished. Among his last acts were to order closure of the  network of fundamentalist schools run in Kashmir by the Jamaat-i-Islami funded by Arab money and ban a convention planned by its youth organization, Jamaat-i-Tulba, to be held in Srinagar in 1981.’ This commitment to secularism cost him dear; his house was burnt down in 1989 during the worst days of militancy in the Valley and armed guards still protect his grave beside the tranquil waters of the Dal Lake.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Despite its subtitle, this is a political biography. There is very little about the man himself nor any mention of the many myths, legends, popular songs about the Sheikh’s persona that resounded in the Valley. I remember going to the Valley in the 1970s when gaggle of street children would crowd around asking ‘Tu Sher? Tu bakra?’ (Followers of the Sheikh were Sher; those of his arch rival the Mirwaiz were Bakra.) Then there were the legions of stories one heard about his miraculous powers, about mothers rushing ailing infants hoping that his mere touch would heal. However, those looking for personal details will find meager pickings in this book. In fact, the only personal detail, about the Sheikh’s wife Akbar Jehan, known popularly as Madr-e-Meherban (Benevolent Mother), is brief and matter of fact. Akbar Jehan, the daughter of the prosperous Austrian Hotelier, Harry Nedou, was briefly married to Colonel T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Bhattacharjea writes: ‘Akbar Jahan’s brief marriage to an Englishman proved no obstacle to her remarriage and she provided the firm support that Abdullah required. She retained her dynamism and proved a strong influence on her husband’s career.’

Accused of adopting vacillating, often contradictory, postures the Sheikh, despite forging a ‘secular partnership’ with Nehru, faced a lifelong dilemma: he felt ‘pulverised, caught in the obscurantist grinding mill stones of the Hindus and Muslims.’ He can be credited with giving the Kashmiris a sense of Kashmiryat that was in no way incompatible with a secular, mainstream politics though it did mean walking a tightrope between serving regional interests and  forging ‘too close an integration with India’. More importantly, Sheikh Abdullah, more than any other leader from the region, gave his people a sense of dignity that the 100-year old Dogra rule had severely eroded. He was one of the few leaders from the nationalist who actively and consistently diverted attention away from religious politicking to social issues such as abolition of landlordism, distribution of land among the tillers, equal rights for women. In fact, his ‘Naya Kashmir’ Manifesto, announced at Sopore in 1944, was far ahead of its time, going where even the Congress had so far been reluctant to tread.

One of the most illuminating sections in the book are those dealing with the relationship between Nehru and Abdullah. Drawn with sympathy and insight, the contours of the relationship between these two great leaders follow the ebb and flow of secular forces following independence. As Bhattacharjea writes: ‘Ironically, it was their concern for secularism that separated Nehru and Abdullah, after drawing them together against Pakistan’s two-nation theory. Fear of forces pressing for full forcible integration with India impelled Abdullah to push for greater independence… Nehru distanced himself from him, fearing that it would unleash a backlash against Muslims in the rest of India.’ Pointing out the arbitrariness of allowing ‘favoured scholars’ to have access to the papers housed in the Nehru Museum and Library, Bhattacharjea notes wryly: ‘I continued to be denied permission to see the crucial correspondence between Nehru and the Sheikh.’ Were it not so, this would have been a more robust book.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah: Tragic Hero of Kashmir, Ajit Bjattacharjea, Roli Books/Lotus Collection, 2008, pp 271, Rs 395

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