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The day Kashmir changed forever

August 09, 2012 14:45 IST

The chain of events set off by 'August 9, 1953' has swept away many illusions, demolished quite a few landmarks and woven an altogether new tapestry of the Centre-state relationship, says Mohammad Sayeed Malik.

Looking back 59 years after the event, Sheikh Abdullah's unconstitutional dismissal from power in Jammu and Kashmir on August 9, 1953 stands out as the defining fault line in the turbulent politics of the perennially troubled -- and troubling -- border state.

The thinly disguised coup, remote-controlled from the Union capital, irreversibly changed the course of events, overturned the balance of power between Srinagar and New Delhi, de-institutionalised local governance and added an intractable 'internal dimension' to India's cascading Kashmir problem.

The debatable cost-benefit ratio of the Sheikh's midnight overthrow continues to extract its cost by casting a shadow over the moral legitimacy of India's claim on Kashmir, even as the legal and technical legitimacy of the 1947 accession is acknowledged almost universally. India finds itself thrown on the defensive to justify converting its atoot ang into the 'most militarised spot on the globe'.

Perhaps the only thing that suggests that there might have been method in the (1953) madness is that the perpetrators succeeded in manipulating the balance of power and denuding the state in both the Constitutional as well as political spheres.

More than half a century later, J&K is left with a skeleton of its original Constitutional special status and the state remains saddled with a weightless political class of 'mainstream' leadership.

Till 1953, J&K used to elect its own head of the state (the Sadr-i-riyasat); now even its 'popularly elected' chief ministers have to be anointed by New Delhi, irrespective of their party labels. The state has an unenviable long history of regime-change between elections; rarely as a result of polls.

Successive political arrangements since 1953, assembled and dismantled at regular intervals, have added to the emotional distance between Srinagar and New Delhi. Even the shortlived relief offered by the lopsided 1975 Kashmir Accord, with a chastised Sheikh, came unstuck soon after his death in 1982.

The Sheikh's legacy effectively remains entombed with him near the Hazratbal shrine on the banks of the Dal lake. His dynastic successors are left with a pale shadow of it. In fact, 'August 9' had ceased to be observed as 'black day ('yom-e-siyah') by the Sheikh's followers after he was placed back in power, in 1975, by the very same hands that had dispossessed him. Lingering consequences of his return on his tormentor's terms continue to haunt his successors.

So much has happened because of '1953' and yet the full story behind the event remains untold. There are sketchy details about how exactly the coup was conceived and who did what to make it happen.

The then Sadr-i-riyasat Karan Singh is perhaps the only surviving principal character, from among the dramatis personae, most of whom have parted only with piecemeal account. Dr Singh's biographical account of the event is no less evasive than that of others.

The key question that whether the Sheikh's trusted friend, Jawaharlal Nehru, was in it has not been conclusively answered so far although two of his close aides have hinted positively. The account rendered by Ajit Prasad Jain whom Nehru had deputed to oversee the political part of the operation and the one given by M O Mathai, Nehru's personal aide, suggest that the then prime minister was very much into it, notwithstanding his posturing to the contrary.

Nehru's subsequent decisive role in picking up the debris and re-designing post-1953 politico-Constitutional format suggests well disguised laborious preparation behind the actual act.

After the Sheikh was dislodged and put behind bars the J&K constituent assembly was impelled to exceed its original brief and endorse the finality of the accession in violation of India's commitment in the United Nations on a plebiscite.

The 1952 Delhi Agreement (with Sheikh) was used as a wedge and its scope was changed beyond recognition to tighten the Centre's stranglehold over the state. The potency of the state political leadership, 'menacingly' symbolised by a pre-1953 Sheikh, was systematically undermined with unabashed hiring and firing of his successors, until a tired Sheikh himself fell in line after 22-year in the wilderness.

Today the leadership has learnt to 'behave' and to acquiesce without fuss. The pattern remains unchanged irrespective of the incumbent's political hue or the ideological colour of the regime in New Delhi. It was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that contemptuously rejected the state legislative assembly's autonomy resolution (in 2000) spearheaded by its ally, the National Conference. The National Conference did not protest and Omar Abdullah continued to cling to his ministerial berth in New Delhi. The lesson of August 9, 1953 had, obviously, gone home.

Back in power now in his home state, Omar, a third generation 'Abdullah', finds it politically safer to eat his own words, rather than getting into the line of fire when it comes to taking position over sensitive public issues like lifting of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, from areas free of trouble and removal of bunkers from thickly populated towns.

Unlike in any other state of India, the military establishment in J&K feels free to take the chief minister head on and virtually show him his place. The election commitment of Omar's National Conference on the restoration of state autonomy to the 'pre-1953 level is frowned upon by his local coalition partner, the Congress while the 'high command' shows contempt for any such idea. The idea is practically as good as dead and buried with the Sheikh.

The chain of events set off by 'August 9, 1953' has swept away many illusions, demolished quite a few landmarks and woven an altogether new tapestry of the Centre-state relationship. It is an irony that this sea change in the scenario has brought the hero and the villain of the 59-year-old high drama on to the same pedestal in so far as the popular psyche of Kashmir goes.

The Sheikh's tomb in his beloved homeland needs round the clock protection of New Delhi's paramilitary forces. This historical enigma makes it impossible to distinguish the hero of the 1953 tragedy from the villain. Or was there a hero at all?

Mohammad Sayeed Malik is a leading commentator on Kashmir.

Mohammad Sayeed Malik