The slogan of “we want Azadi” is often raised in popular demonstrations whatever be the issue. Azadi is Urdu translation of independence and freedom, which sometime contradict each other. The question is: do people need independence; if it denies them freedom has never been debated in Kashmir.
When Sheikh Abdullah, the most popular leader Kashmir ever produced, assumed power after the state’s accession to India and end of Dogra rule he hailed it as Azadi of Kashmir after four centuries of slavery, having been ruled by Mughal, Afghan, Sikh and Dogra rulers. People enthusiastically celebrated the Kashmiri rule, as if the Sheikh was their own king.
However, neither the ruler nor the people bothered about freedom. No dissenting voice was tolerated. The system was so regimented that the office bearers of the ruling National Conference were appointed as government officers and vice versa. The Sheikh dismissed my suggestion that government officer should not hold any office in the party by citing how successful the system was working in the Soviet Union, then his ideal.
I showed a copy of an order by the Deputy Commissioner of Doda dismissing tehsil committee of Kishtwar National Conference and appointing a new committee to the Prime Minister Nehru. I asked “Can such a regimented state remain a part of a democratic India”? He disapproved the practice but added “Our entire Kashmir policy revolves around the personality of Sheikh Abdullah. We cannot afford to oppose him.”
Gradually, discontent started brewing in the State, which was bound to grow even if it was ruled by angels. As all outlets of discontent were blocked, it sought a secessionist outlet. GM Karra, a legendary leader of the Quit Kashmir movement against the Dogra monarchy in 1946 who was, for some reason, sidelined by the new government, in sheer desperation, raised the slogan in favour of Pakistan in June 1953 as leader of the newly formed party, People’s Conference. In Jammu, discontent took the form of an agitation sponsored by Jana Sangh for “full integration” of the state. The Sheikh, to steal thunder of Karra and provoked by Jammu agitation started making anti-India noises.
Many international forces also played a role in aggravating difference between Nehru and the Sheikh, leading to dismissal and arrest of the latter in August 1953. I was one of the first persons outside the Valley to mobilize a campain against this action of the Government of India. Nehru asked me “Weren’t you critic of the Sheikh”? I replied that “I was a critic because he was a not a democrat. But I am opposed to his removal in an undemocratic way. In any case, if my advice had been heeded in time, the present step would not have been necessary. Moreover, he has been replaced by a ruler who is no less authoritarian and far more corrupt.” Nehru replied, “Unfortunately, Kashmir politics revolves around personalities.”
In 1954, I was able to persuade socialist leaders to set up a pro-India opposition party in the State. I argued with Nehru that if it was done, anti-government sentiments might not become anti-India. He warned me that “for the sake of gaining four annas, you might lose ten rupees.” I submitted that my game was for four annas not at the cost of ten rupees. He did not agree the experiment was ruthlessly crushed. When Praja Socialist Party president Asoka Mehta, along with other national and state leaders reached Srinagar to inaugurate the state unit of the party, they were beaten in Lal Chowk in bright day light.
The first effective experiment of two-party system in Kashmir Valley was made in 1977, when Sheikh Abdullah again came to power and Janata Party, the ruling party at the Centre, contested the Assembly election as an opposition party. The revived National Conference won handsomely. But it demonstrated, for the first time, that loyalty to India and to the Government of India was not synonymous. Moreover, all anti-India and anti-government parties including Karra and Jana Sangh had rallied round a pro-India secular opposition party.
The practice did not continue for long. In 1984, Farooq Abdullah, who had succeeded his father and won the subsequent elections, was dismissed allegedly for hobnobbing with the opposition parties of India. He continued in opposition, and provided a pro-India outlet to anti-government sentiments. But by 1986, he lost patience and formed a coalition government with the Congress. Till then people opposed to the State government supported the Congress and those opposed to the Central government supported the National Conference, leaving no room for an anti-India party. But as both outlets were closed, particularly because 1987 election was rigged, it eventually sought a secessionist outlet, supported by militants from Pakistan.
The lesson from the recent history of Kashmir is that removal or reduction of outside authority over the State may actually lead to an authoritarian regime. This is a lesson also for those who are demanding Independence, Autonomy or Self-rule for the State. For if jurisdiction of federal autonomous institutions like the Supreme Court, Auditor and Comptroller General and the Election Commission is withdrawn from the State, without corresponding autonomous state institutions, it will lead to an authoritarian regime and it will remove checks over the Union government from interfering in the affairs of the State. It is worth remembering that if jurisdiction of the Supreme Court had been extended to the state, there was no law in India in 1953 under which Sheikh Abdullah could be dismissed and arrested.
Thus champions of Independence, Autonomy and Self-rule must first think out and publicly debate what measures they propose to ensure freedom to the people in case they achieve their objective.
Moreover, the Kashmiri leaders have to decide whether they are concerned with the Valley or the whole State. For ensuring unity of the State, a federal decentralized system is a necessity. The decision jointly announced by Nehru and Abdullah in July 1952 for granting Regional Autonomy as proposed by me and a similar decision by the State People’s Convention, convened by Sheikh Abdullah in 1968 as leader of the Plebiscite Front for an internal constitution of the state, drafted by me and unanimously approved by all the participants who included Plebisciste Front, Jamat-e-Islami, Mirwaiz Farooq’s Awami Action Committee, Karra’s People’s Conference and personalities like Maulana Massoodi, PN Bazaz and Shamim. These agreed proposals provided for regional autonomy and further devolution of power at district, block and panchayat levels. This could be a basis for evolving a composite and harmonious personality of as diverse a state as J&K.
Such a set up is a first step to ensure democratic rights to the people and unity of the state which alone can aspire for a satisfactory status externally. A common inter-regional party can contribute to reconciling regional aspirations and prevent regional tensions.
Institute of Jammu and Kashmir affairs