Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah (1905-1982) earned the peasants' trust during a transitional period that raised hopes for an independent nation of Kashmir. Despite being imprisoned nine times, his fight for human rights helped win partial autonomy from India. He risked family, political position, and reputation by continued peaceful negotiations with Indian and Pakistani leaders in an attempt to gain freedom for Kashmir.
Born to a merchant family in Soura a few miles outside the capital city of Srinagar, Kashmir, on December 5, 1905, Abdullah was orphaned in childhood. He graduated from Jammu's Prince of Wales College and Islamia College in Lahore, Pakistan. It was at this time that he first developed an interest in political reform. Working his way through school, he completed a graduate degree in physics from Aligarh Muslim University at age 25 and became a high school science teacher. In 1933, he married Begum Akbar Jehan, daughter of a wealthy European businessman in Gulmarj. Abdullah and his wife would later raise two daughters and three sons.
To preserve Muslim rights, Abdullah first came to the political fore by defying the autocratic Maharaja of Kashmir, spokesman for India's Hindu majority. In 1931, Abdullah joined with high priest Mirwaiz Maulvi Yusuf Shah against the tyrannical Maharaja, but abandoned the Maulvi upon learning that he regularly accepted bribes from India. The disclosure of corruption caused Abdullah to reject the communal politics of the Muslim Conference. From that point on, he supported the rights of all people over the rule of a single religious group.
As punishment for advocating a secular state, Abdullah was transferred to a teaching post at Muzzafarabad. He resigned his classroom position and, on May 19, 1946, received the first of nine prison sentences. His family left a comfortable home to live in meager rented rooms in Srinagar while Begum Jehan led her husband's party. Upon completion of a nine-year sentence, he established the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, later called the National Conference of Kashmir to acknowledge a coalition of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. This group pressed for home rule and the creation of a democracy in Kashmir.
When Great Britain restored Indian home rule, Abdullah supported Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and pacifist Mohandas K. Gandhi of the Indian National Congress. During the partitioning of India and Pakistan into separate Hindu and Muslim states, Abdullah gained control of Kashmir in a 1947 coup. However, he opposed siding with Muslim Pakistan in favor of secular autonomy. Initially, Kashmiris received economic safeguards and recognition as a unique nation and culture while avoiding the bloodshed of territorial wars that raged around them.
Abdullah summarized much of the passion and intrigue of this period of unrest in his autobiography, Aatish-e-Chinar [The Fire of Chinar Trees]. He recounted the failed attempts of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to win Kashmir to Pakistan's pro-Muslim cause. The distancing of the two men was largely a result of character flaws in Jinnah. He ruined his chances for a coalition with Abdullah by maligning Maulvi Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah and by discounting the will of the Kashmiri people.
As Kashmir's prime minister and delegate to the United Nations in 1948, Abdullah stirred citizens and outsiders alike with patriotic oratory. Concerning the nation's constitution, enacted in 1944, he reminded Kashmiris that their assembly was "the fountain-head of basic laws laying the foundation of a just social order and safeguarding the democratic rights of all the citizens of the State." He championed free speech, a free press, and a higher standard of living for the poor. At the core of his speech lay his belief in "equality of rights of all citizens irrespective of their religion, color, caste, and class."
Placing three choices before the nation—yield to India, yield to Pakistan, or remain independent—Abdullah superintended moderation until 1953, when India accused him of sedition and formally charged him with illegally seeking Kashmir's independence. Stripped of power and imprisoned once more by the Maharaja for demanding the national rights that India guaranteed in 1947, Abdullah remained adamantly opposed to an alliance with India during 11 years of house arrest. His family was turned out into the streets and refused shelter even by relatives. Abdullah's enemies twice assaulted his wife, who, in her husband's absence, took charge of the party mascot and flag.
Against raids on Kashmir by the Pakistani army, Abdullah organized a home guard of mostly unarmed volunteers to defend the area from rape, arson, and pillage. This militia had to remain vigilant to threats of sabotage to bridges and intervention in supplies of gasoline, salt, and currency, which had to pass through Pakistan from India. While the nation was in grave danger, Abdullah dispatched Farooq, his son and political heir, to safety in London.
Caught between two hostile nations, Abdullah had little choice but accept the Maharaja's demand that Kashmir yield to India, which was ostensibly a more tolerant state than Pakistan. On October 27, Lord Louis Mountbatten, governor-general of India, accepted the nation's capitulation and dispatched troops from the Indian Army to halt Pakistani insurgents. Allama Iqbal, Pakistan's philosopher-poet, praised Abdullah for "[wiping] the fear of the tyrant from the hearts of the people of Kashmir." Of his courage, Ayub Khan, president of Pakistan, declared, "Sheikh Abdullah is a lion-hearted leader." The phrase popularized his nickname, "Lion of Kashmir."
In 1964, Nehru granted Abdullah's freedom. He returned to solid public support and a more positive atmosphere for guaranteeing Kashmiri autonomy constitutionally under Article 370 of Indian law. In 1968, he won the hearts of devout Muslims by remodeling the Hazratbal Mosque, the seventeenth-century repository of the Moi-e-Muqqadus, a sacred hair of the prophet Mohammed, for display on holy days. The nation's prime Muslim shrine on Dal Lake in Srinagar, it took shape in marble under the leadership of the Muslim Auqaf Trust, chaired by Abdullah, and reached completion in 1979.
To shore up international goodwill, Abdullah toured Algeria and Pakistan. His position shifted once more as the public began doubting his loyalty during the uncertainty of the political climate on the Indian subcontinent. In 1953, the deterioration of relations with India caused him to demand an end to Kashmir's subservience. He returned to a benign house arrest until 1968, when he headed the Plebiscite Front, a political movement seeking a nationwide vote on independence. After the party failed to gain enough popular support to override the Congress Party in 1972, he moderated his stance on self-determination for Kashmir.
After Syed Mir Qasim and the Congress Party relinquished power on February 24, 1975, Abdullah became Kashmir's chief minister. He gained support of the State Congress Legislative Party for the formation of a new government led by deputy chief minister Mirza Afzel Beg and under-ministers Sonam Narboo and D. D. Thakur. In talks with India's pime minister Indira Gandhi, Abdullah moved beyond their differences of opinion to negotiate more independence for Kashmir. On March 13, 1975, Parliament approved the Indira-Abdullah Accord, granting partial autonomy to Kashmir. To implement the transition to a new constitutional status, he appointed a four-member coordination committee on October 13.
Abdullah's political position seemed certain after his election as president of the National Conference on April 13, 1976, and the first cabinet session at Doda on December 8. He initiated a youth wing of the ruling National Conference, led by his son Farooq. By the following March 25, Abdullah's followers lost sympathy during investigations of corruption and the dissolution of the state assembly. Under a local governor, on July 8, Abdullah once more rebuilt the machinery of home rule. Refusing confrontational politics, he maintained his popularity as a critic of the dynastic control of Kashmir. In a show of honest dealings with the people, in September 25, 1978, he demanded the resignation of his former deputy chief minister Mirza Afzal Beg and oversaw his expulsion from the National Conference.
In 1981, when the Begum Jehan refused to replace her ailing husband, Abdullah engineered the rise of surgeon Farooq Abdullah, the son whom he had educated in diplomacy by taking him along in boyhood during state missions to Pakistan. Abdullah publicly declared Farooq's succession to leadership of moderate Kashmiris. Still highly visible after Dr. Farooq Abdullah was elected head of the National Conference on March 1, Mohammad Abdullah dedicated the Tawi Bridge on August 26, only three weeks before his death from an acute illness in Srinagar on September 8, 1982. At his funeral, over a million mourners paid their respects to the loyal statesman. His son replaced him as chief minister and pledged to continue the fight for religious tolerance and an independent Kashmir.
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