The abrogation of Article 370 has all over again brought back into focus the arrest of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the then PM of J&K, in 1953. Incidentally, both these momentous decisions were taken in August. The Sheikh Abdullah government was dismissed and the PM was arrested on August 9, and the scrapping of J&K’s special powers was done on August 5. Even if these actions, separated by 66 years, are termed the trigger and finale of a long process towards complete integration of the state into the Indian mainstream, no two events could be more dissimilar. When PM Jawaharlal Nehru acted through the elected head of the J&K state, Sadar-e-Riyasat Karan Singh, he had all-round support from every party in the country, including Abdullah’s National Conference.
A deep dive into The Tribune archives reveals the story of a PM, who was decisive, quick and restrained in understanding a conspiracy, exposing it, nipping it in the bud, and yet, remaining reticent about it. Unlike the scrapping of Article 370, the first welcoming reactions to Nehru’s decision came from the Opposition. Acharya Kripalani of the Praja Socialist Party was somewhat circumspect, saying that, ‘It is good that the Sadar-e-Riyasat has taken action. We hope that this action will clear the atmosphere and will guarantee Kashmir an honest, efficient and progressive administration’. The undivided Communist Party of India combined anti-imperialist ideology and analysis to explain that Nehru’s decision was ‘the culmination of recent developments in Kashmir since Adlai Stevenson’s visit there… Sheikh Abdullah fell in line with American intrigues and came out for an independent Kashmir to be guaranteed by UN i.e. America.’
From the Left to Right, Nehru had the support of the entire political spectrum. NC Chatterjee, the president of the Hindu Maha Sabha, endorsed the decision, saying that, ‘This is the first right step in the right direction. Any further vacillation may have had far-reaching consequences.’ Balram Tandon of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Sant Ram Aggarwal of the Ram Rajya Parishad, too, welcomed Abdullah’s arrest, though putting it in the context of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s death in detention in J&K earlier that year. Ram Manohar Lohia, unlike his party colleague Kripalani, was at his acerbic best: ‘I only want that the Hindus and Muslims should be welded into a single nation and whatever developments take place in Kashmir I shall test them by that criterion. I hope the people of Kashmir will continue to adhere to this one-nation ideal. As far as an independent Kashmir is concerned, any Asian would reject it outright, for, that would be sure breeding ground and clearing house of international intrigues. I do not want any of these power blocs to catch hold of my head and shuttle it along the way they like. At the moment, America is playing a game of international intrigue in Kashmir and I would say, as the entire Indian people would say, America hands off Kashmir.’
Unlike his supporters from the Opposition camp, Nehru, while making a statement in Parliament on August 10, refused to indulge in name-calling. Even at that hour of betrayal by Abdullah, he remembered his old comrade: ‘It is a matter of deep regret to me that Sheikh Abdullah, an old comrade for the last 20 years, should have come into conflict with our other comrades in Kashmir and that it should have been considered necessary by the Kashmir government to place him in detention for the time being.’
Abdullah was making the first call for the independence of Kashmir, which was amplified by Islamist secessionists three decades later. Soon after Abdullah’s arrest there was an interesting analysis from an independent member of the Lok Sabha, Lanka Sundaram, who said the attempt was to trifurcate J&K by merging PoK into Pakistan, Jammu and Ladakh into India, and by creating an independent Kashmir under Abdullah’s premiership. Nehru, even while exposing this conspiracy to turn the Valley into a launch pad of ‘international intrigues’, refused to reveal the contours of Abdullah’s plans that led to the dismissal and arrest.
But on August 14, The Tribune published a story from Srinagar, which gave out details of this conspiracy with a strap line: ‘What Sh. Abdullah had conspired for Id day’. August 21 was Id and the Sheikh had planned to announce the ‘independence of Kashmir’ that day, with the arrest of Karan Singh, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, Shamlal Saraf and Giridhari Lal Dogra. All this was planned despite his group being in a minority in the working committee and the general council of his own party, and, of course, the constituent assembly of the state. The plan was contingent on the immediate recognition of ‘independent Kashmir’ by Pakistan, for which he had sent the state’s director of education as an emissary. This official, while going to the US on a scholarship, had stopped at Karachi for a week. Some other foreigners, too, were actively carrying messages between Srinagar and Karachi. In fact, the very next day, after the arrest of Abdullah, the then US ambassador to India, George V Allen, had denied allegations of US interference in Kashmir.
The process of merger or integration of J&K, which began on August 9, 1953, with the arrest of Abdullah was completed in 1965, when the J&K Constitution was amended to abolish the posts of PM and Sadar-e-Riyasat, to be renamed Chief Minister and Governor, as in other states. Unlike the current lockdown and telecom ban, in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Abdullah, the state secretariat was functional, and life was by and large normal. There were three deaths in police firing and stone-pelting in the Old City, which — then and now — remains a pocket of influence of pro-Pakistan elements. And unlike all the war talk, acrimonious UN sessions and protests in London that are still playing out, Abdullah’s arrest wasn’t even a blip on the international radar, with Pakistan PM Muhammad Ali arriving in Delhi on August 16, 1953, as scheduled.