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Why August 9, 1953 casts a dark shadow over Kashmir

By Mohammad Sayeed Malik
August 09, 2016 08:31 IST
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On that day, Sheikh Abdullah, political anchor of J&K's accession with the 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 and its effects continue to this day, says Mohammad Sayeed Malik.

It was on this fateful day, August 9 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 night between August 8 and 9, 1953 Sheikh Abdullah, political anchor of J&K's accession with the 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 the Valley, following Burhan Wani's killing on July 8, 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 the tallest symbol of the accession of the country'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 state's 'integration' with the Union and 'managing' (manipulating?) its local affairs.

Ironically, with this one fell swoop J&K's Constitutionally guaranteed special status was rendered hollow and reduced to fiction; as if to match Pakistan's unabashed annexation of the so-called 'liberated' Kashmir across the Line of Control, with the Islamabad-based Kashmir affairs secretary enjoying over-riding authority to hire and fire the notional 'president of Azad Jammu & Kashmir'.

On this side of the LoC, one of the architects of the accession, 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 the 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 this state was over; now on only 'Indian-Kashmiri' would get that accreditation. And it has been so ever after.

Even Sheikh Abdullah 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 Abdullah's arbitrary overthrow, perceived as a 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 Wani upheaval.

The familiar pattern has been that after dousing the 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/political distance between Kashmir and the rest of India has been growing in inverse proportion to the considerably shortened physical travelling time between Srinagar and New Delhi by road, air and now partly by rail too.

On the other hand, the almost defunct symbolism (between 1947 and 1953) of the decrepit 'Srinagar-Rawalpindi road', the Valley's only surface link with the 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 separatists. 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 Abdullah alone had the capability and ability to contain/neutralise 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 years in the 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 Abdullah 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 Abdullah's relationship with New Delhi towards the fag end of his first innings (1947 to 1953) 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, formalising a broad framework of distribution of powers between Srinagar and New Delhi was concluded with Sheikh Abdullah at the helm.

The job done, Sheikh Abdullah 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 J&K state was convincingly acclaimed as the logical culmination of the 'affinity of ideals' -- democracy and secularism versus Pakistan's two-nation theory.

The 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 Abdullah 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 Abdullah's demise in 1982: New Delhi brazenly backtracking from its committed position on restoration of the usurped (greater) autonomy and the dominant sentiment in the Valley moving away from its emotional commitment on the accession.

The first generation with Sheikh Abdullah in the lead found itself entrapped in a vicious situation after 1953. Sheikh Abdullah led a 22 year-long largely peaceful but very effective political resistance demanding 'plebiscite' (1953 to 1975) 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 either acquiesced or found itself helpless to check New Delhi's growing shadow over the local political landscape until it became the ultimate deciding factor.

Erosion of the state's constitutional autonomy was now matched by corresponding political encroachment on the ground at the expense of the public standing of the 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 Abdullah 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 '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 the 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.

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