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Naya Kashmir Finds Little Space For Sheikh Abdullah, The Tallest Kashmiri Leader Who Joined India, Took Up Tiranga

The Sher-i-Kashmir Police Medal for Gallantry and Sher-i-Kashmir Police Medal for Meritorious Service named after Sheikh Abdullah have been changed to ‘Jammu and Kashmir Police Medal for Gallantry’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir Police Medal for Meritorious Service’. Moreover, the holiday on Sheikh Abdullah’s birth anniversary on 5th December has been done away with.

Sheikh Abdullah addressing a gathering in Srinagar in 1949.
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In 1953, when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Syama Prasad Mookerjee tried to enter Jammu and Kashmir, the then Prime Minister of J&K Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah got him arrested, put him inside jail where days later he died a natural death. It was during those times in Kashmir when a non-resident needed prior permission to enter the erstwhile state. 

Nearly 70 years later, in changed Kashmir, not only is a tunnel at Nashri-Chenani along Srinagar-Jammu National Highway —solo land route connecting J&K with rest of India— named after Mookerjee, but the BJP is also running the show in the region. Mookerjee has been hailed as the ‘ideological fountain head’ of the BJP.

In the  post-August 5, 2019 'changed Kashmir', winds of change have swept the region. On August 5, the Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was scrapped as Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated and the state was divided and downgraded into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.

In one such change, Sher-i-Kashmir Police Medal for Gallantry and Sher-i-Kashmir Police Medal for Meritorious Service have been changed to ‘Jammu and Kashmir Police Medal for Gallantry’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir Police Medal for Meritorious Service’. Moreover, the holiday on Abdullah’s birth anniversary on 5th December was done away with. Moreover, 13th July was earlier commemorated as Martyrs Day in erstwhile state. It was also was deleted from the government calendar. All these things and events were associated with SM Abdullah.

How Kashmir sees tinkering with Sheikh Abdullah's name

Tinkering with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s name assumes significance, since the name is synonymous with India in Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah is considered the one who put Kashmir on India’s lap. Many of the separatist ideology view him as a “traitor” for this decision since he could have chosen also to go with Pakistan. He is often ridiculed by a section in Kashmir for his decision to choose India, which often is heartbreaking for his admirers who always argue that his decision was in best interest for the people of J&K.

In a war of arguments and counterarguments, Sheikh Abdullah’s name is engraved and enshrined in Kashmir’s history. However, tinkering with his name post 5 August 2019 has been a humiliation for Kashmir’s mainstream political parties, who see it as denigration of the people who have held Tricolour in Kashmir against all odds — braving bombs and bullets and shells and rockets.

For a young leader from Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC), constant denigration of “Sheikh Sahib and his legacy” in Kashmir, whether it be taking down the holiday of 5th December or be it removing his name from police gallantry award, “is actually the effort on part of the BJP to denigrate the indigenous Kashmiri nationalism and its espousal that it was started by Sher-e-Kashmir SM Mohammad sahib”. 

The NC youth leader says Sheikh Abdullah was somebody who discovered the “soul of Kashmir”. 

“Sheikh Sahib discovered Kashmiri nationalism in its purest form and espoused it politically. He espoused it culturally. He espoused it  intellectually,” says the leader.

A second NC leader said Sheikh Abdullah fought a “very long arduous” battle for it and brought the “soul of Kashmir” on the international political platform.

So, what does the NC leader feel the problem of BJP is with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah?

The second leader says, “It is in their interest to wipe off the indigenous Kashmiri identity. And the first campaigner of that identity, the first writer of that identity was of course Sheikh Sahib. Sheikh Sahib is no longer there but Sheikh Sahab’s party —National Conference— is pretty much here. Sheikh Sahab’s children are pretty much here. So it creates so much discomfort in the BJP quarters because BJP essentially wants to implement the idea of India that they have in their minds. It is not the idea of India, but their —BJP’s— idea of ‘New India’."

A third NC leader from central Kashmir says Sheikh Abdullah was the leader who felt “within the idea of India, the sub-nationalism of Jammu and Kashmir”. He explains Sheikh Abdullah espoused and tried to create is “off course anti-thesis to that and that is what the problem is essentially with him for BJP. That is the root of the problem”.

“So when we talk about nationalism, it is of course the nationalism of J&K within the larger nationalism of India. But what the BJP is doing is to try to brush aside all sub-national identities and bring every part of every corner of India under this new Hindu kind of an entity that they believe is the idea of India, which actually is not,” says this third NC leader.

So, how does the J&K’s grand old political party National Conference feel about it? The party leaders say they are saddened about their founder’s constant denigration. 

“It has actually saddened National Conference’s heart. It is actually heart breaking for NC and the people of J&K who have supported and loved NC for decades that now we have to become and imagine ourselves as part of India in which things like this happen and legacy of Sher-i-Kashmir is so shamefully erased,” says a NC leader at the party's Nawai Subah headquarters in Srinagar.

The party leaders also say that the “ideas of division and the blatant imposition of Hindutva which is idea of BJP” has made it sad. The party also says Sheikh Abdullah believed that the constitution of the country affords the luxury of imagining of a political future. 

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“J&K you always have to remember is never monolithic. It is a constituency of multiple religions,” explains a NC leader, adding that Sheikh Abdullah represents “soul of Kashmir” and “the cultural identity”. He says BJP has a problem with it.

“They(BJP) want to erase. Identity of every person in the world has to be his first love,” says this leader.

PDP on same page as National Conference

People's Democratic Party (PDP), the NC’s main opposition party in Jammu and Kashmir, also seems to be on the same page on Sheikh Abdullah. The changes post-5 August 2019 in Kashmir seems to have brought two main rivals in Kashmir together at least on this issue. 

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Like NC, a PDP leader also says Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the tallest leader that politics of J&K has ever seen.  He says Sheikh Abdullah did everything to sell idea of India to Kashmiris. 

He says, “The idea of India that he sold to people of J&K was of a country which is governed by a Constitution which has ideals of secularism and democracy at its core. That, I think, was an important sort of thing, the important thing for people of J&K.”

This, he says, was the main reason in his mind that he chose to accede with India in 1947 rather than Pakistan, which had been formed on the basis of religious identity, says this PDP leader.

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Another PDP leader adds, “So basically, he rose above identity politics at that point of time which was a very tough decision at that point of time given the bloodshed, the misery that people had undergone. The acrimony between the communities especially during the partition years. 

“Secondly, a part for the people of Kashmir having blind-folded faith in Sheikh Sahib’s politics is because he mobilised the people on a level which is unprecedented and JK has not seen yet.” 

Another PDP leader argues attacking Sheikh Abdullah’s politics and his identity has multi-pronged dimensions. He says after abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, which was guaranteed under accession, they —BJP— want to abrogate its history as well.

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By demeaning Sheikh Abdullah, the BJP wants to impose its own heroes rather than Kashmir’s own “indigenous heroes”, says this leader. 

He further says, “By attacking institutions, they want to create in their own mind one country, one law. They want to create national heroes in Kashmir and replace old local indigenous heroes. What they call as integrating history is uniformisation of history.” 

He also alleges that BJP wants to instill a “sense of defeat” in Kashmir’s mainstream by doing away with Sheikh’s legacy.

He says, “When the tallest leader of J&K can be deleted from the pages of history, who are others? What ground do they have? What is their stature? They will also be defeated. There is also a sense of power that they —the BJP— have vanquished Kashmir, they have conquered Kashmir and want to hold everything Kashmiri —  their identity, their history, their culture, and their religion.”

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Another politician from PDP says, “If you look at it holistically, by attacking figures and institutions of J&K like Sheikh Sahib, they (BJP) want to orphanise J&K”.

He alleges BJP wants to create a vacuum so that Kashmiris don’t have a link with their past and "how we have reached here and struggles of Kashmir".

He terms it “ironic” that Sheikh Abdullah, who was a champion of democracy, is being deleted from the chapters of history and is replaced by a “monarch”, a “tyrant” Dogra ruler who was basically “anti-constitutional and anti democracy basically”. 

He says, “So, I think this is a dichotomy there. What you see is that someone you know as proponent of democracy is being deleted and is being replaced with who challenged democracy and someone who even did not want to accede to India because he wanted to continue with monarchial set up.” 

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He adds there is now a question mark on the idea of India which Sheikh Abdullah sold to people of J&K. 

He says, “India which is magnanimous, India which is democratic, India which is secular, India which is Republic. It brings me to the same point that this is now ‘New India’ that is being shoved down our throats. New India has its new heroes in terms of Savarkar and Deendayal Upadhay.” 

He says attempts are being made that “the history that we have look up to, the history which we have read is corrupted version of history and that need to denigrated and deleted from chapters”. He also says there is hidden message behind all this.

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“It also means what message Delhi is sending to us that they will install a new mainstream and there will be new hero imposition. It is a process of imposition,” he says.

How BJP sees Sheikh Abdullah?

At BJP’s office in Srinagar at a lazy February afternoon, three men are busy in discussion. A stranger's entry is welcomed. With photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee tucked on the wall and Quranic verses stuck opposite to it, party’s Srinagar president Ashok Bhat lists the party’s achievements.

For Bhat, Sheikh Abdullah is no doubt a man who said no to Pakistan and chose India instead, but there are some grudges that he has got against ‘Lion of Kashmir’.

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“He had gone with India where people live in harmony. He had chosen Tricolour,” says Bhat.

However, Bhat says Sheikh Abdullah had also chosen another flag which now no longer  exists.

He says, “How can there be ek desh mein do jhande (two flags in one country). This cannot simply happen. Akhand Bharat mein ek jhanda hona chahiye (In unified India, there should be only one flag),” he says.

Bhat claims that Sheikh Abdullah had himself said that Article 370 will be gradually eroded.

“When he became CM post-1975, he accepted Article 370 here would mean hurdles for Kashmiris,” says Bhat.

Bhat says impediments created by Sheikh Abdullah through Article 370 were simply putting J&K behind as compared to the country’s other parts. He also puts down scrapping of his name from the gallantry medal and the dates associated with him.

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“Name changing has happened before in the country as well. Previous governments have done the same thing. In UP, Akhilesh Yadav did the same thing,” says Bhat.

So, how Bhat views Sheikh Abdullah — as nationalist or Indian?. He views him as “only a good human being”. 

Sheikh Abdullah was India's Man: Congress

Congress waved the national flag in south Kashmir during recently-concluded Bharat Jodo Yatra. The party says the BJP is fulfilling its political agenda by denigrating Sheikh Abdullah.

“It is not government’s agenda. It is not what India sees Sheikh Abdullah as. He was India’s man in Kashmir, a true Indian solider whose nationalist credentials cannot be questioned. It is an absolute sin to do,” says a Congress leader based in south Kashmir. “Names can be changed, but history cannot be destroyed.”

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