It was on this fateful day, the August 9, way back in 1953 that the Indian state sowed the proverbial wind in Kashmir and the country continues to reap the whirlwind for the past 63 years.
Precisely, on the intervening night of August 8 and 9, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, political anchor of Kashmir’s accession with Indian Union was unceremoniously removed from power and put behind bars causing a tectonic emotional breach and setting off disastrous fault lines between Srinagar and New Delhi.
Down that fateful line today, the latest unabated bloody flare up in Kashmir following Commander Burhan Wani’s killing on July 8, 2016 is a grim reminder that the accumulated anger and simmering alienation, now with a sharper hostile edge, are not going to go away unless addressed concretely.
Over the past six decades the situation has got compounded for want of meaningful engagement, pushing farther the goal posts on both sides.
In 1953, New Delhi’s indefensible action to oust and imprison someone who then was the local face as well as tallest symbol of the accession of India’s only Muslim-majority state, against the (communal) run of events on the subcontinent, turned out to be a bad bargain in the long run: undermining India’s moral legitimacy in its Kashmir case for the sake of a questionable political gambit to artificially force the pace of the Kashmir’s ‘integration’ with the Indian union and ‘managing’ (manipulating?) its local affairs.
Ironically, with this one fell swoop JK’s constitutionally guaranteed special status was rendered hollow and reduced to fiction; as if to match Pakistan’s unabashed annexation of ‘liberated’ Kashmir across the Line of Control, with the Islamabad-based Kashmir affairs secretary enjoying the overriding authority to hire and fire the notional President of Pakistan Administered Kashmir.
On this side of the LoC, Sheikh Abdullah had come to be seen by New Delhi as a stumbling block in the “process of integration”, in less than six years’ time. His forced exit virtually wrote epitaph to his celebrated role as a “patriot”.
Overnight he became a “traitor”.
Locally, the message was loud and clear: time for a “Kashmiri-Indian” to rule Kashmiri was over; now on only “Indian-Kashmiri” would get that accreditation. And it has been so ever after. Even Sheikh returned to his downsized throne 22 years later only after his “conversion”.
As history would show, this miscalculation virtually gifted Pakistan an unearned opening for its proxy presence on this side of the LoC after its near eclipse from the arena in the turbulent fallout of the (1947) tribal invasion.
Sheikh’s arbitrary overthrow, perceived as brazen assault on the popular local sentiment he symbolised, resulted in intractable complications on the ground as well as vitiating the external dimension of the Kashmir dispute to India’s disadvantage.
Accumulated discontent, since 1953, occasionally burst into the open, over one immediate issue or the other. The latest being the post-Burhan upheaval. The familiar pattern has been that after dousing flames of unrest New Delhi invariably goes to sleep, letting the grass grow under its feet; until the next round of firefighting.
As a result, the emotional and political distance between Kashmir and rest of India has been growing in inverse proportion to considerably shortened physical travelling time between Srinagar and New Delhi by road, air and now partly by rail too.
On the other hand, almost defunct symbolism (between 1947 and 1953) of the decrepit ‘Srinagar-Rawalpindi road’, Kashmir’s only surface link with rest of the world till 1947, resonates louder after each round of this cyclic unrest; lately in its strident “Azadi” mode.
Till he was alive, Sheikh Abdullah’s unrivalled leadership across the spectrum served both, as the sword arm and the shield of Kashmir’s popular politics.
After his demise on September 8, 1982 the disintegrated legacy is claimed (or usurped) by political actors across the democratic divide – mainstream and Hurriyat. Even so, none of his successors from within the Abdullah dynasty and their rivals has been able to replace him effectively.
They can only float over the crest of an occasional wave of unrest but cannot control it.
Sheikh alone had the capability and ability to contain/neutralize the toxic effects of post-1953 alienation or that of his own misrule. Credibility with legitimacy of moral authority was the USP of his leadership that went into his grave along with his body.
Not that he had forgiven those who tormented him from 1953 to 1975 and consigned him to 22-year political wilderness. His autobiographical account leaves nothing to doubt on that score. Yet he chose to retain his own vital stakes in that forgettable past.
Between 1947 and 1953, Sheikh was exhibited on the world stage as the living symbol of India’s moral legitimacy in Kashmir. His towering personality at the local level dwarfed every other feature on the political landscape.
However, the inverted logic of ‘1953’ dictated loss of that moral high ground.
No doubt that Sheikh’s relationship with New Delhi towards the fag end of his first innings (1947-53) was fouled by mutual distrust over various issues including that of the demarcation of centre-state relations in the context of India’s commitment to the Maharaja on greater internal autonomy for his state.
Even so, the Delhi Agreement of 1952, formalizing a broad framework of distribution of powers between Srinagar and New Delhi was concluded with Sheikh at the helm.
The job done, Sheikh found himself thrown behind the bars shortly thereafter.
Over six decades later, today, the political appeal of the accession as well as the ‘autonomy’ has drastically diminished, almost vanished. In 1947, the accession of the Muslim-majority JK state was convincingly acclaimed as the logical culmination of ‘affinity of ideals’ – democracy and secularism versus Pakistan’s two-nation theory. Political landscape has since changed beyond recognition.
Now there is a head-on collision between forces spearheading Kashmiri discontent and those perceived to be conniving in New Delhi’s callous unresponsiveness, irrespective of the ideological complexion of the regime at the helm. Sheikh was able to maintain that tricky balance between steam letting and explosion of anger.
Generational changes between 1953 and 2016 were accompanied by gradual withdrawal from committed positions at both ends of the game, stridently after Sheikh’s demise in 1982: New Delhi brazenly backtracking from its committed position on restoration of the usurped (greater) autonomy and the dominant sentiment in Kashmir moving away from its emotional commitment on the accession.
The first generation with Sheikh in the lead found itself entrapped in a vicious situation after 1953. Sheikh led a 22 year-long largely peaceful but very effective political resistance demanding plebiscite (1953-75) until the Kashmir Accord that enabled his return to power but left estranged local aspirations dissatisfied for want of any substantial concession in return.
The succeeding (leadership) generation (1970s-90) either acquiesced or found itself helpless to check New Delhi’s growing shadow over local political landscape until it became the ultimate deciding factor. Erosion of the Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy was now matched by corresponding political encroachment on the ground at the expense of the public standing of local political class.
The deteriorating equation reached its logical conclusion by the time the third generation (post-1990s) arrived on the scene. By that time even the remnants of the political ‘auto-cut’ of the Sheikh era had also ceased to function.
It was the reversal of all that had happened between 1947 and 1953 when the tribal invasion from Pakistan was resisted with popular local support and unarmed Kashmiri staked their lives to stem the advance of Pakistani invaders until the arrival of Indian forces.
The third generation of the post- 1990 era found itself on a totally opposite course: groups of Kashmiri youth flocking to Pakistan and returning with weapons after getting arms training across the Line of Control. Something that was unimaginable even till a long time after 1953.
Even a major historical tragedy like the August 9, 1953 remains shrouded in mystery. Who played what role and why is not yet fully revealed because the dramatis personae were reluctant to part with full facts known to them.
Even Sheikh Abdullah’s own account is less than convincing.
Yet the event will go down in Kashmir history as a political watershed, for better or worse.