When Pro-Plebiscite Kashmiris Found Common Cause with 'Hindu Nationalists'

Today, all political forces in the valley are keen to show their aversion to the BJP's political agenda, and the saffron party too appears eager to distance itself from them. But in 1977, things were quite different.

Srinagar: If there is any remarkable take-away from the manner in which the Lok Sabha elections have been fought in Kashmir, it is the extent to which the Bhartiya Janata Party has become persona non grata in the region. Keeping the party away has become a major clarion call trumping every other demand.

Apart from the fact that the party’s ranks are filled with avowed ‘Hindu nationalists’, its historical stand against laws that endow political autonomy to J&K has also not helped its cause in the Valley. As the saffron camp ups its rhetoric on abrogating Articles 35A and 370 of the constitution, regional parties in Kashmir are now increasingly taking recourse to the kind of public posturing that places them in the firing line of the BJP’s brand of politics. Even Sajad Lone, touted to be the party’s new ally in the Valley, has distanced himself from the BJP during the recent election campaign and has even gone so far as to launch a tirade against Omar Abdullah for his past associations with the NDA.

But a peek into the deeper recesses of Kashmir’s modern history throws up an extraordinary paradox. Kashmir has witnessed such strange ebbs and flows that one national party in whose rank and file Hindu nationalists held sway came close to making a momentous difference in the region’s body politic and even courted support from pro-plebiscite Kashmiris. “That was in 1977, when Kashmir had its first assembly elections that were billed as relatively freer and fairer than those held previously,” explains Altaf Hussain Para, historian and author of The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and Politics of State.

The Janata Party – out of whose detritus the BJP later emerged – had cultivated an appeal so strong that it saw hordes of Kashmiri Muslims flocking to its fold. Party leaders including Vajpayee travelled to the Valley. They received an electrifying reception, leaving the regional political grandees joyless and grumpy.

Janata Party leaders were deeply revered and on the very day that Morarji Desai – the first non-Congress premier of India – landed in Srinagar, he was greeted with bouquets, accorded a hero’s welcome and even reportedly called Pakistan’s ghazi, or warrior, as women threw arms around each other’s shoulders, rocking to and fro as they broke into a local folk dance.

But how and when did the Valley arrive at such a crossroads in the first place? Is there any residue left of that old chapter in the Kashmir valley – now aflame with uncontainable resentment against the Centre?

From Plebiscite Front to Janata Party

Hussain, a stocky man in his mid-sixties, now retired, was one of those young men from Srinagar’s downtown who was drawn to the Janata Party. In an interview to The Wire, he said he is not associated with any party today but is still a strong supporter of the demand for a referendum to settle the status of Kashmir.

During his youth, he canvassed support for a party called the Plebiscite Front (PF) – a loose association of rag-tag groups and secret societies committed to resolution of the Kashmir issue through a referendum. “I was a member of the Students Liberation League, a secret group which supported accession to Pakistan. Its parent organisation, Liberation League, was in power in ‘Azad Kashmir’ led by K.H. Khursheed as its chairman. SLL was ideologically allied with the PF along with several other groups like Popular Front and People’s League,” Hussain says.

The PF was originally the brainchild of Sheikh Abdullah, who led a popular movement against the erstwhile princely state’s Dogra rulers and had emerged as a beneficiary of the transfer of power from them. But he was dismissed from power in 1953 by the Centre when he attempted to renegotiate the state’s accession after failing to assuage agitationists of the Praja Parishad, a coalition of former employees of the Dogra court in Jammu who were embittered over his land reform policies.

Abdullah was succeeded by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, a former colleague who purged Sheikh’s loyalists from the party. The latter banded together under the Plebiscite Front (PF). Formed by Mirza Afzal Beg, trusted lieutenant of the NC founder in 1955, the PF was the cradle of all independentist and pro-Pakistan emotions inside Valley.

Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and Karan Singh, Sadr-i-Riyasat of Jammu & Kashmir, in the late 1950s. Credit: Amar Mahal Museum & Library, Jammu.

Once in power, Bakshi diluted Kashmir’s overarching autonomy, striking down tariff barriers with India, opening the state’s bureaucracy to non-Kashmiri Indians and also allowing India’s Supreme Court to arbitrate on civil and criminal matters. The J&K constituent assembly was also disbanded and a state legislature took its place.

The elections through which Bakshi retained power involved massive irregularities and his party, the NC, consistently won all of them unopposed, making a mockery of democratic norms in the state and affecting India’s prestige globally. In fact, before the 1962 elections, “Nehru urged the Praja Socialist Party – a leftist India-wide opposition party whose members he had once described as enemies of the state because they opposed Bakshi’s strong-arm tactics – to field candidates because recurrent unopposed elections [in Kashmir] were earning India’s democracy a bad reputation,” writes historian Sumantra Bose in Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace.

Such summary assaults on Kashmir’s political autonomy as well as democracy had caused enduring bitterness among people and popular resentment  poured out in to the open in the winter of 1963. The pretext came in the form of a high-profile theft when a holy relic, a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s hair enclosed in a glass vial, was stolen from Hazratbal shrine on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar. The episode reignited political activity that had died down after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah.

The 1974 accord and the return of Sheikh Abdullah

In 1964, Kashmir’s premier was Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq, a bespectacled man with a cherubic face who stewarded Kashmir inexorably into greater integration with India – first by demoting the position of prime minister to that of a provincial chief minister and then by absorbing Abdullah’s National Conference into the Congress. In the elections of 1967 and 1972, this puffed up Congress returned to power unopposed but before the 1977 elections came around, a major development occurred which changed things.

Abdullah announced he would forgo demand for a referendum if allowed to return to politics and agreed to a compromise with the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, under whose terms he was ready to affirm Kashmir’s “unbreakable” ties with India and accept the rules of engagement framed in Delhi.

Undated photograph of Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi.

This marked Abdullah’s fresh ascent in Kashmir’s political graph. He dissolved the PF, resurrected the National Conference as a separate party and allied with the Congress once again, walking back to power in February 1975, now as chief minister. But the accord also caused deep shock among Kashmiris of the independentist persuasion who were deeply entrenched in Kashmir’s political fabric.

Gradually, animus towards the Sheikh began seeping through. “When the accord was published, Abdullah repeatedly assured the people in his public utterances that he is bound to get it approved by the people but during the two years of his rule he never had the courage to do so,” wrote Prem Nath Bazaz, his influential former colleague whose book, Democracy Through Terror and Intimidation, offers crucial insights in to the 1977 elections.

Throughout the following years, anger against Abdullah intensified. A tipping point came in 1976, when Abdullah passed the Land Grants Ordinance that allowed non-Kashmiris to buy estates on lease. This infringed on the state subject laws. The anti-Sheikh wave first appeared in tangible form in parliamentary elections that year, when NC fielded Begum Akbar Jehan, Abdullah’s wife, in one of Kashmir’s constituencies. In the fray against her was Maulvi Iftikhar Ansari, father of Imran Ansari, now with Sajad Lone’s party.

As the Times of India of March 3 1977 noted, “resentment against the chief minister, Sheikh Abdullah, finds expression in the large attendance at meetings addressed by opposition candidates. Thus a young Maulvi is posing a serious challenge to the chief minister’s wife, Begum Abdullah, in Srinagar”.

However, it was the Begum who later emerged triumphant. Violence erupted in the wake of her victory as jubilation gave way to vandalism. On March 23, NC workers in Srinagar clashed with protestors who refused to accept the poll verdict, causing the death of one Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. Sheikh Abdullah might have won the Lok Sabha election but he left a sullen, resentful public behind. This resentment was aggravated by NC’s storm-troopers, who had made it a custom to rough up his political opponents.

Three days later, the Congress – citing bad economic conditions and the “erosion of values we cherish” – withdrew its support in the assembly. However, before the Congress could contemplate hitching its wagon to other parties, Abdullah shot off a letter to governor L.K. Jha requesting dissolution of the assembly. Jha obliged promptly. This gubernatorial role was reprised in November 2018, when Satya Pal Malik dissolved the J&K assembly to thwart the PDP and NC from forming a new government.

For the first time, shutdown calls began to be against the NC’s heavy-handed politics. The Kashmir Motors Association announced one at the end of March 1977. Around 500 students in Anantnag shouted anti Abdullah slogans on April 8. Similar demonstrations took place in Srinagar and elsewhere.  Wary of the growing outcry against the party, influential members began deserting the NC.

Tide turns but not enough

In the meantime, the Janata Party ascended to power in India riding on a similar wave of post-Emergency resentment against the Congress at the Centre. The party also decided to dip its toes into the political currents of J&K as it stood to gain from the anti-Sheikh wave. Its point person in valley was Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra, once a key NC man till he and Sheikh Abdullah fell out. “Congress and NC workers dissatisfied for one reason or another with the working of their own parties, besides thousands of politically-conscious men and women belonging to other parties began to swarm into the Janata unit formed by Karra,” Bazaz wrote. “Working-class men, like motor drivers, boatmen, artisans and factory labourers vied with teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers and students to support…[the party]”

Hussain, too, was driven by the same public gusto. “I and many young fellows in my neighborhood walked into Janata Party office opposite the  famous Jee Enn bakery near Regal Chowk and signed up. I rose through the ranks to become general secretary of its youth wing, the Yuva Janata Morcha,” he told The Wire. “I lived in downtown back then and had support from the majority of Kashmiri Pandits in my area.”

On April 10, the Janata Party got a shot in the arm after Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, prominent religious cleric and father of the present Mirwaiz, extended support to it. According to a report in the Indian Express of April 16, 1977, the Mirwaiz also hinted that “he would not raise the issue of the right of self-determination on which he had harped often in the past”.

However, the Janata party also knew its limitations. Sheikh Abdullah  had a charismatic persona and commanded near-devotional respect among various sections of society. With white sideburns, a rigid jowl and patrician forehead, the Sheikh cut a powerful figure. He peppered his speeches with verses from the Quran as thousands raised their arms in supplication affirming that whatever the Bab or father desired, they would oblige without resistance.

More worrisome was also the renewed attempt by NC leaders to arouse pro-Pakistan emotions to undercut the popular anager against the party. During the election campaign, “Mirza Afzal Beg used to carry a lump of Pakistani rock salt in his pocket wrapped in a green handkerchief,” writes Victoria Schofield in Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and Roots of Unending War. “As his speech reached its climax, he would take out salt with a dramatic gesture and exhibit it to his audience indicating thereby that ‘if his party won, Pakistan would not be far away’.”

The NC leadership’s hysterical rhetoric was probably prompted by the rousing welcome given to Janata leaders. On June 25, 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited the Valley. “I led the procession of both Desai and Vajpayee, both of whom gave speeches at the Polo Ground in Srinagar,” Hussain says. “Desai then left to meet the Mirwaiz at his place where people welcomed him with the following lines: sabz dastaras khoda chui razi, Pakistan’uk ghazi aaw.” (God be pleased with his green turban, Pakistan’s ghazi has arrived.)

“It was the same song sung by supporters of Muslim Conference when Jinnah visited the Valley in 1944,” Para says.

Despite the evident popular support, the Janata Party knew it needed a face – noble of character and strong of morals – who could strike a chord with the public. It  chose Maulana Masoodi, a top cleric, who, during the holy relic crisis of 1963, had displayed remarkable presence of mind and averted the prospect of sectarian violence.

Despite signs that the Sheikh had fallen out of favour with the public, the NC returned to power – winning 47 of the 75 assembly seats. Bazaz has questioned the fairness of the poll process and ascribed that win to the NC leader’s heart attack episode and rumours of his death which generated a wave of sympathy at the final moment.

Rigged election of 1987 and after

Abdullah died in September 1982, before the 1983 elections, leaving a major political void amidst a volatile situation. Led by his son Farooq Abdullah – better know at the time for his hedonistic ways rather than his political acumen – NC’s political stock tumbled further. The resulting public disaffection produced a fresh crop of political upstarts who attempted to fill the political vacuum in the 1987 polls. With no real ideological cohesion, these disparate players allied under the banner of the Muslim United Front (MUF) and refused to follow the rules of engagement set by Delhi. The widespread rigging that took place in favour of the Congress-NC coalition made the 1987 election a watershed moment in the political history of Jammu and Kashmir. Overnight, the political novices who had been gripped by a wave of triumphalism turned into a despairing, sulking lot.

Many of them went on to cross the Line of Control into Pakistan, where they received arms and training so they could lead an armed insurgency committed to “liberation” of Kashmir from India. Among them was Yusuf Shah – known today by his nom de guerre, Syed Salahuddin – who stood and lost from Srinagar’s Amira Kadal assembly constituency. “Insurgency in this sense wasn’t a direct product of poll rigging in 1987,” says Para. “Instead, it signified a political rupture caused by the weight of 40 years of dark history marked predominantly by political subterfuge and the denial of democracy.”