Kashmir: Demeaning Shekih Mohammad Abdullah and his legacy
After the Modi-led BJP government came to power for the second time in 2019, the party made several efforts to dismantle Sheikh Abdullah's legacy. Apart from incarcerating Sheikh’s son and grandson and hundreds of others after undoing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August last year, the government also dropped the holiday observed on the birth anniversary of Sheikh from the list of red-letter days in the calendar. The latest such decision is to drop the title of Sher-e-Kashmir from Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC).
"His name is etched on the memories of people in Jammu and Kashmir. You can't obliterate the impression he has left on the pages of history", says 62-year-old Nazir Ahmad.
Ahmad was referring to the recent decision of the government to drop the title of Sher-e-Kashmir from Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC). Like Ahmad, many of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's supporters and opposition political parties upbraided the government's move.
Sheikh, who earned the sobriquet Lion of Kashmir, is seen as one of the tallest and most respected leaders in the post-colonial history of Jammu and Kashmir. He bestrode the political landscape of the state like a colossus till his death in 1982. The land reforms carried out by Sheikh increased his popularity by leaps and bounds among the impoverished peasantry of the region, and the grand old generation living across the wide rural swathes of the Valley still recount the sordid tales of landlordism. It is this old generation that voted for the National Conference every time during troubled times.
However, the critics of Sheikh blame him for betraying the people of Kashmir by endorsing the instrument of accession. Sheikh preferred India over Pakistan, given India’s secular and democratic values. His socialistic political outlook also drew him close to India.
As separatism got a hold in the Valley with the help of Pakistan in the late 1980s, Sheik’s decision of siding with India was openly challenged. In 1989, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front even observed the death anniversary of Sheikh as a black day. Since then Sheikh was fiercely panned for not maintaining a strong, intransigent position on Kashmir. The erstwhile feeble voices against him grew louder and shriller.
Even the remains of the six-feet-four-inches tall leader in his grave located on the western bank of Dal Lake in Hazratbal were not seen as safe anymore. The authorities had to deploy policemen to guard his mausoleum. In the summer of 2010, a band of young men made an abortive bid to desecrate Sheikh’s grave.
"This is all because he made the wrong choice. He would have still been a popular leader if he had not opted for India", said Ghulam Qadir, a resident of Srinagar.
However, Sheikh still commands respect among his numerous supporters, like Nasir Ahmed quoted at the outset, and among his political opponents for his single and unparalleled role and contribution. They see the government's move of dropping his title from buildings and awards as belittling his political role.
“Sher-e-Kashmir is not just a title but a glorious chapter of history in Jammu and Kashmir. We might have differences with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, but that doesn’t mean we should undermine the historic role played by him and his colleagues right from their advent on the political scene,” said communist leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami in a statement.
Sajad Ahmad Dar, a young National Conference leader from Srinagar's Zadibal area, says that the right-wing government at the centre has been consistently and insistently changing the historical facts and re-writing history. "Sheikh Sahab was a political colossus. His contribution to the socio-economic and political development of Jammu and Kashmir is enormous. That history cannot be re-written", Dar said.
After the Modi-led BJP government came to power for the second time in 2019, the party made several efforts to dismantle the Sheikh's legacy. Apart from incarcerating Sheikh’s son and grandson and hundreds of others after undoing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August last year, the government also dropped the holiday observed on the birth anniversary of Sheikh from the list of red-letter days in the calendar. Only last month it removed the Sher-e-Kashmir title from the state awards and police medals.
Despite his siding with India, Sheikh was not treated well by New Delhi. He was ousted from office unceremoniously in 1953 and jailed for 12 long years. The leaders on the political right in India have always been against Sheikh. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took Nehru to task in the Rajya Sabha when Sheikh was released from detention in 1964.
"The BJP has always been against Sheikh Abdullah. The Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the present BJP, had criticised the Sheikh as early as in 1953", said Shahnawaz Ahmad, a Valley-based political observer.
He asserted that Sheikh is an intrinsic part of J & K's political identity since the 1930s and removing his name from a few places could not erase him from history.
Although Sheikh's name cannot be obliterated from history, New Delhi, right from 1953, has made many moves which have led many to question his decision of opting for India. It is because of such moves that today a dead man's grave is facing a threat even from the people who revered him.