Any mention or thought of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), India’s troubled northern state, habitually brings to mind the image of Farooq Abdullah, an 83-year-old, tall, chubby man with wisps of gray hair on the sides of a bald pate, which is often crested with a Karakul—a Kashmiri sheepskin cap.
For four decades, he dominated Kashmir’s pro-establishment politics. A three-time chief minister, his most prominent political function has been to champion India’s cause in a state roiled by a long-running armed separatist movement and also claimed by Pakistan.
On Sept. 16, New Delhi detained and slapped him with the Public Safety Act, a stringent law under which he could be in jail without trial for six months, extendable up to two years. The law is routinely invoked in the state against separatist activists and stone pelters.
Other top leaders which include Abdullah’s son Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, both former chief ministers, have been detained since Aug. 05 when India unilaterally revoked Article 370, which granted J&K autonomy within the Indian Union. Around 4,000 political workers and young men deemed as potential stone pelters are also under detention.
However, it is Abdullah’s arrest under PSA which stands out. And this is not just because he is the tallest living mainstream political leader in the state who has been targeted, revealing the all-encompassing nature of India’s crackdown in the state.
Abdullah is important also because of who he is in his personal capacity: son of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who was instrumental in tying Muslim-majority J&K’s lot with Hindu-majority India. Sheikh rejected Muslim-majority Pakistan that asserted its right to the state, and still does, under the two-nation theory which partitioned India following liberation from Britain in 1947.
Kashmir has ever since been a raging bone of contention between India and Pakistan, which administer two-third and one-third of the state respectively and claim it in full.
Article 370 was negotiated by Sheikh with India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952 as a constitutional guarantee for upholding Kashmir’s internal autonomy and maintaining its unique cultural identity and demographic character.
However, Sheikh, who was also the first prime minister of an autonomous J&K, later fell out with Nehru over his summary dismissal from office in 1953 for allegedly conspiring with Americans to make Kashmir an independent state. He led a 22-year-long struggle for the self determination of the people of his state before returning to power, now as chief minister, after reaching an understanding with New Delhi, now ruled by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi. By then, much of the autonomous status conferred on J&K in 1953 had been whittled down by New Delhi.
And with Sheikh returning to state politics in 1975, so did his eldest son Abdullah, a doctor, from Britain where he had married and become a citizen. When Sheikh died in 1982, Abdullah took over as the J&K CM.
Initially, infused by a sense of idealism, Abdullah tried to move the state away from its conflicted past, focussing on economy with tourism as the mainstay. There were still political voices in Kashmir which continued to oppose Kashmir’s accession to India, among them the politico-religious outfit Jamaat-i-Islami. For Abdullah and his party National Conference, though, a rethink on the state’s relationship with New Delhi was now out of question.
He only sought a restoration of the state’s complete autonomy as envisaged in the Sheikh-Nehru agreement. The demand was more in the nature of rhetoric deployed occasionally to drum up electoral support than a steadfast ideological position informing the party’s political action.
In and out of power, Abdullah batted for India in Kashmir, a stand he stood by despite its unpopularity in the state. He continued to do so even after 1989 when he lost power following an outbreak of armed separatism against India’s rule. New Delhi then desperately needed a well-known Kashmiri leader to stand by its cause.
Abdullah was this leader, the tallest of them all. His support for India at the time compensated for the absolute lack of visible popular support for the country in the Valley. What is more, Abdullah’s backing of India brought with it the full weight of the legacy of his father, who, until his death, commanded a near absolute following of his people.
Abdullah also came in handy to New Delhi through the nineties, to fend off international scrutiny of the human rights situation in Kashmir. He was gainfully deployed across the world to defend India on Kashmir and blame Pakistan for the turmoil in the state. In 1994, when India was at the receiving end at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Abdullah was sent to Geneva to defend the country as part of the team led by then opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The team had managed to fend off UNHRC intervention in Kashmir. According to press reports of that time, Abdullah had given a tough time to the Pakistani side claiming to be Kashmiris by asking them “can you speak in Kashmiri?”
Being a pro-India leader in Kashmir doesn’t entirely define Abdullah. Nor does being a Kashmiri Muslim leader. He would flaunt his secular credentials by singing bhajans at Hindu religious functions. He would let go at wedding parties and lip-sync and dance to Bollywood tunes. What is more, when Muslim leaders in India baulked at chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai, arguing it was against their religion to do so, Abdullah went ahead and did it.
He shouted the slogan loudest during an all-party prayer meeting last year for the former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And he stuck to his guns even when he was later heckled by people in Kashmir during Eid prayers for doing so.
Abdullah has also been unpredictable and inconsistent in his political conduct, flitting between contradictory ideological postures with ease. He would pillory New Delhi’s Kashmir policy one day and the following day plead for bombing Pakistan out of existence for supporting militancy. He would seamlessly traverse the distance from allegiance to his religion to commitment to secularism to the praise of rightwing.
And through it all, he not only escaped politically unscathed but also went from strength to political strength. His statements would often shock his supporters and baiters alike but then it would soon turn out that Abdullah hadn’t been serious after all.
Over the years, Abdullah had perfected the art of elevating his inconsistencies and apparent flaws into an endearing political quality, something people would love and hate simultaneously.
In the past, he has heaped praise on Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, at one point even defending him soon after 2002 riots in which around 1,000 Muslims were killed. In 2011, while addressing a gathering in Ahmedabad, Abdullah said he longed for the day when he would see Allah in Modi’s eyes and in turn Modi would see Bhagwan in his eyes.
What is more, soon after Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged in early 2013, Abdullah said Guru had got a fair trial, overturning his son Omar Abdullah’s outrage over the execution.
As the PSA against Abdullah has made it clear, BJP’s Naya Kashmir has no place for him. Once extensive political middle ground in J&K that flourished between proponents of the state’s integration with India and those for its separation from the country is dead.
It was a space that produced leaders like Abdullah who could with equal ease owe allegiance to India and also relate to ongoing separatist movement by pressing for an acceptable political solution to the issue. They could also espouse their own settlement formulae which sought more political autonomy for Kashmir within India’s constitution. It is now a stark choice between reconciling to assimilation with India with looming threat of a demographic change or resisting it, a choice in the words of detained Kashmiri politician Shah Faesal between being a stooge or a separatist.
Will Abdullah be a stooge? He was often billed as one by his detractors in Kashmir and also by Pakistan. But then, he operated on a wider political canvas in a partially autonomous Kashmir, which allowed political space for debating and challenging Kashmir’s place within India. Mainstream politics in the state has suddenly become narrow and contracted which may not be for the likes of Abdullah. PSA against him has made it loud and clear.
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