Sheikh Abdullah: from plebiscite to autonomy

Sheikh Abdullah: from plebiscite to autonomy
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By Qazi Mudasir
The conclusion of World War II and its financial burden brought Britain to the verge of financial catastrophe. Britain was largely convinced that handling India would be a costly affair. Hence, it was decided to transfer power in the Indian subcontinent to the successor regimes. The failure of the cabinet mission plan to reconcile the two ideologies of the Congress and Muslim League convinced Britain that its successor would have to be two states. The tussle between these two ideologies had a direct ramification on Kashmir politics.
 It was British Prime Minster Clement Atlee who announced the Partition Plan in the British Parliament on 3rd June 1947. With regards to Princely States, it was clearly laid down that, his ‘Majesty’s government’ will cease to exercise the power of paramountacy and the rights surrendered by the princely states to the paramount power will be returned. Both the Muslim Conference and the Indian National Conference accepted the Partition Plan but they differed on the question of the future of princely states. The Indian National Congress accepted the right of states to join Pakistan but saw no possibility of states remaining independent. On the other hand, the Muslim Conference accepted the right of princely states to remain independent.
Before the future of princely states could be decided amicably, Britain decided to leave India on 15th August 1947. This urgency largely complicated the problem further. The leaders of the two dominions accelerated the process of integrating the states to their side. More importantly, the relationship between the National Conferenceof Sheikh Abdullah and the Muslim League of Jinnah was never constructive. Jinnah’s last visit to the Kashmir Valley on May 1944 further created apprehension in the mind of Sheikh Abdullah when Jinnah eloquently spoke in support of the Muslim League which was the arch-rival of Sheikh’s National Conference. On the other hand, Congress built its relationship with Abdullah as he was seen as the dominant force in the Valley. This became a key factor in determining the future course of events in Kashmir.
By early July 1947, it was reported that the Maharaja intended to declare his independence. This really was a shock for the Congress. According to observers, both Nehru and Gandhi had been anxious that the Maharaja should not declare independence. Thefore, it was in this context that Mountbatten visited Kashmir on 18th June, 1947 to diffuse the Maharaja’s idea of declaring independence and convinced him to accede to any of the two dominions. However, the visit did not bear fruit as he failed to secure any assurance from the Maharaja. Hari Singh at that time also faced internal problems. His authority was  challenged in Poonch, where a revolt erupted against him and it was renewed after the partition. The result was unrest in Jammu region which jeopardised communal peace.
It was against this background that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was released on   29th September 1947, largely due to the insistence of the Congress. Abdullah’s release was termed by Pakistan as a conspiracy hatched by the Congress to secure Kashmir’s accession with India. Soon after his release the Sheikh argued for freedom and formation of responsible government. To him, freedom was a prerequisite before accession. Therefore, Sheikh approached the problem in a realistic manner and started a dialogue process with both India and Pakistan.  However, soon Abdullah was convinced that Pakistan was not ready to respect the democratic right of the Kashmiri people for self-determination. On the other hand, the Indian National Congress promised Sheikh Abdullah that it would respect the Kashmiris urge for freedom and the right to self-determination. This irritated the Pakistan leadership and they suspected Sheikh’s intentions, thereby Pakistan employed a coercive method to secure Kashmir accession. The tribal invasion of 22 October 1947 overran the defence of the Dogra army. Alarmed by the situation the Kashmiri leadership and the Maharaja turned towards Indian defence.
Mehar Chand Mahajan was officially sent to New Delhi for the defence of the state. The matter was discussed in the Defence Council presided over by Mountbatten on 25th October 1947. The Defence Council agreed that it would lend its defence services to the Maharaja only after he would accede to India. Furthermore, another provision was  also attached to the instrument of accession on the suggestion of Mountbatten, that once peace was restored the people will be allowed to exercise their right of self-determination. The instrument of Accession was signed by Maharaja Hari Singh on 26th of October 1947 and the same was accepted by India on 27th October. According to Prem Nath Bazaz, “it was Sheikh Abdullah’s…accession to India”.
Sheikh Abdullah secured the best possible deal for the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir was accorded a unique position in the Constitution of India. Legally, India’s jurisdiction only extends to external affairs, defence and communications. Article 370 endorsed the same.  But it does not mean that Sheikh Abdullah was against independence. He never gave up this idea. Warren Austin, the American representative to the UN corroborated to the US secretary of state that when Abdullah met him in the US, he (Abdullah) emphasised his vision of independent Kashmir. But he did not air his ideas openly as he was aware of the consequences. Loy Henderson, the American Ambassador to India, secretly visited Sheikh Abdullah in September 1950 and recorded that Abdullah favoured the idea of an independent Kashmir but it was an impossible choice. Therefore, he favoured accession to India. Sheikh Abdullah realised the changing dynamics of the Kashmir conflict and opted for autonomous status for Kashmir in the union of India.
Sheikhs land reforms in the state anguished the Indian leadership who declared it an anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim step. Furthermore, Sheikh vehemently criticised India tinkering with the special status accorded to the state. He was anxious to frame the constitution of the state to continue his radical reforms, which were guided by the Naya Kashmir Manifesto. Furthermore, by constituting a Constituent Assembly he wanted to legitimise his regime in state. He totally rejected the Mysore Model, in which the Union Constituent Assembly was authorised to frame the constitution for it. According to Alaistar Lamb, “Sheikh Abdullah believed that the Constituent Assembly would guarantee that the state of Jammu and Kashmir would never become another Indian state.All that accession really meant to him was that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was not in any legally sense part of Pakistan. It did not indicate that the state was forever more to be an integral part of India.” India did not push this issue too much because it saw the election to the Constituent Assembly as a substitute to plebiscite.
On the other hand, Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru concluded an agreement which is often referred to as the Delhi Agreement. Despite the two sides concluding the agreement, both suspected each other. Sheikh Abdullah’s apprehension of Delhi tinkering with the state’s autonomy was accelerated when communal elements rose against the Delhi Agreement in Jammu and Ladakh. Sheikh Abdullah crushed these forces ruthlessly. On 13th July 1953, Sheikh Abdullah stated, “that it was not necessary for Jammu and Kashmir to become an appendage of either India or Pakistan.”
However, it alarmed the New Delhi leadership in general and Nehru in particular. A conspiracy was hatched in which the Director of Intelligence Bureau, BN Mullik, DP Dhar, Karan Singh (Sadar-e-Riyasat) and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad equally participated. Nehru supported this as he now saw Sheikh Abdullah as a dangerous element acting against the interest of India.
The departure of Sheikh Abdullah gave India ample opportunity to erode the autonomy of the state and integrate it with the rest of India. In February 1954, the Constituent Assembly confirmed the legality of its accession to India. Under the leadership of Bakshi the Constituent Assembly gave the final shape to the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir which came formally into operation on 26th January 1957. The new Constitution declared that the State of Jammu and Kashmir is and shall be an integral part of the Union of India. Political dissent was simmering in Kashmir and Afzal Beg, soon after his release, mobilised the people against Bakshi’s merger-policies. He institutionalised dissent by giving it shape in the form of regional party which later was named as Mahaz-i-Rai Shumari (Plebiscite Front) on August 1955. The Plebiscite Front vehemently criticised the ratification of the accession by the Constituent Assembly. The Plebiscite Front was the brain-child of Sheikh Abdullah and was guided by his political philosophy.
No doubt, Sheikh’s detention helped India erode the state’s autonomy. But it had international ramifications too. India was internationally criticised for this act and it eroded its moral stature. It was in this context that Sheikh Abdullah was released on 8th January 1958. But soon after his release he guided the activities of the Plebiscite Front and cornered the Bakshi government from all sides. He openly aired the demand of plebiscite. His outspoken demand of plebiscite alarmed New Delhi which soon detained him again on 29th April, 1958.
The Kashmir Conspiracy case, under which Sheikh Abdullah and other plebiscite leaders were  detained, dragged on for six years. India was now satisfied that it eroded much of the state’s autonomy and accession was complete, so there was nothing to worry about. Sheikh Abdullah’s detention proved embarrassing to the Government of India. Therefore, he was acquitted and released from jail on 8th April 1964. But soon after his release he trained his guns against the state government and India. On the other hand, an ailing Jawaharlal Nehru tried to reconcile with Abdullah and invited to him to New Delhi.  Abdullah accepted the invitation and went to New Delhi to explore new initiatives to solve the Kashmir problem.  According to Balraj Puri, “Nehru was broken by the Indo-China war and alarmed by the holy relic agitation, offered to reverse the integration process.” Sheikh Abdullah in his biography, Aatish-i-Chinar recalls that it was Nehru “who asked me to visit Pakistan and try to persuade President Ayub Khan to enter into negotiations with his Indian counterpart”. Sheikh Abdullah went to Pakistan with an idea of a India-Pakistan-Kashmir confederation. Ayub Khan rejected this proposal on the pretext that it would undo the partition and place the Hindu majority in a dominant position. However, Nehru’s sudden death brought an end to the reconciliation process between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
In February 1965, Sheikh Abdullah, along with his wife and Mirza Afzal Beg went to perform Haj. After the Haj, they also visited some Islamic countries as well as France and Britain. In Algeria, he also met Chinese Premier Chu-En-Lai. These activities of Abdullah were enough to create a stir in the mind of the Indian leadership. Sheikh Abdullah was soon instructed to return and was detained for three more years. Sheikh Abdullah’s detention was followed by a mass agitation and violence. The state administrative responded with repressive measures. Pakistan tried to take advantage of this surcharged atmosphere and started operation Gibraltar. But Kashmiris in general and Plebiscite Front in particular did not support this adventure.
The Indian liberal intelligentsia realised that reconciliation with Sheikh Abdullah was the only way to explore a solution of the Kashmir dispute. They persuaded Indira Gandhi to shun the confrontational attitude and engage with Sheikh Abdullah. Throughout 1968, Sheikh Abdullah reiterated his call for plebiscite and even at the All Party Convention, which was held in October of 1968, inaugurated by Jayprakash Narayan, he voiced the same. The defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war convinced Abdullah that reconciliation with New Delhi was the only way forward. His bargaining position was weakened due to Pakistan’s defeat. Therefore, he bargained for more autonomy and in turn agreed to surrender the demand of Plebiscite. The 1975 Indira–Abdullah Accord was the reflection of that. He later corroborated to the London Times that “the structure of internal autonomy is the main concern of the Plebiscite Front.”
—The writer is a research student at the department of political science at Aligarh Muslim University