Why Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's Legacy Is As Chequered As Kashmir's Political Past

On 5th December, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s birth anniversary, his grave was decked in red, NC’s party flag colour. Hordes of party men thronged to the venerated site to offer their respects and prayers for the ‘Bab’.

People’s Leader: Sheikh Abdullah addresses a prayer meeting in Gandhi Park, 1949

Even epitaphs cannot rest in peace in Kashmir. While some graves are revered like holy sites, others are desecrated or simply shoved into oblivion.

In this landscape of myriad graveyards, two such graves - both belonging to ‘Babs’ (fathers) or ‘Qaids’ (leaders) to their followers - have assumed special significance in recent years.

One belongs to National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah while the other to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The latter's burial created a hullabaloo in recent times following his death when many in the Hurriyat patriarch's family claimed that Kashmiri authorities had taken away his body and buried it in haste.

But today, let us talk of NC leader Abdullah’s grave, situated in Srinagar’s Hazratbal area, nestled amidst the Chinars along the picturesque Dal Lake, overlooking the Zabarwan mountain range. 

On 5th December, which is Abdullah’s birth anniversary, his grave was decked in red, NC’s party flag colour. Hordes of NC party men thronged to the venerated site to offer their respects and prayers for the ‘Bab’.

Born to the middle-class family of a shawl maker at Soura locality in Srinagar outskirts, Abdullah went on to champion the rights of people of J&K. He passed his matriculation from Punjab University, before doing his MSc. from Aligarh Muslim University. It was at AMU that he was inspired to fight for the rights of Kashmiris.

Abdullah is often referred to by NC followers as ‘Sher-e-Kashmir’, the 'Lion of Kashmir’. They often speak of the aura their “stalwart” leader possessed. Some even believe that had Abdullah been alive, Article 370 would not be abrogated.

Then there are people for whom Abdullah’s legacy has been nothing but a disdainful blot. For them, Abdullah is a “traitor” who sold Kashmir for his own interests. 

Though Abdullah’s mausoleum at Hazratbal attracted hordes of visitors on Monday who prayed for the departed soul, there are occasions when people curse him.  In many of the Valley’s drawing-room discussions and at times outside shopfronts or during social gatherings, Abdullah is often “cursed” for Kashmir’s “ill-fate”. 

Considered one of Kashmir’s “tallest leader” once who commanded respect throughout the Valley, certain events in Kashmir’s history, particularly 1975 Indira-Abdullah accord and militancy in 1990 made Abdullah a "villain" in the eyes of many.

In October 1947, when Kashmir became a part of the country, following the last Dogra ruler Hari Singh’s signing of the instrument of accession, it was Abdullah, Kashmiris believe, who orchestrated the whole thing, since he was the leader with mass unrelenting support.

Also, it was Abdullah who successfully negotiated the induction of Article 370 in the Constitution. It was for this reason that Abdullah became the ‘Bab’ or ‘Lion’ to many Kashmiris. 

So, why is ‘Lion of Kashmir’ seen in a different way in Kashmir today? While his admirers have their own reasons to love him, despisers and deniers too have their arguments.

Abdullah was Prime Minister of J&K from 1948 to 1953. It was in 1953 that he was jailed in Kashmir Conspiracy Case after he started championing for Kashmir’s ‘Azadi’. Critics argue that in 1975, Abdullah gave up his struggle and instead chose his own political career.

Later, when bullets and bombs shattered the Valley’s serene landscape, Abdullah was again slammed by critics, particularly after an event in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk when emotionally charged youth came out of Regal Cinema after watching ‘Lion of Desert’, the Hollywood film showcasing struggles of Libyan freedom fighter Umar Mukhtar, and burnt down several life-sized portraits of Abdullah that had adorned the streets of Lal Chowk at the time. 

Such is the anger against Abdullah among a section of people in Kashmir that there have been foiled attempts to desecrate Abdullah’s grave. Such attempts have been made both by militants as well as protesters such as in 2008 when street protests were a common sight in Kashmir.

There are “die hard” fans of Abdullah still, who believe that his credentials can never be detested.

In 2019, when there was communication blockade in Kashmir, a stocky old man who used to deliver press notes to the newspaper offices each day was asked by reporters what he felt about Abdullah. His response? That he wanted to carry forward "the mission of the Sher-e-Kashmir”. The old man turned out to be a retired officer, who gets a handsome pension and carries on with NC out of mere political conviction. 

Men like him believe that it was Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, GM Sadiq, and later the Muftis and even now Bukharis, who always put “Kashmir on sale”.

There is also a section of the landlord class that despises Abdullah for his ‘land to tiller’ act in 1953. The act brought in by Abdullah didn’t allow landlords to keep more than 20 acres of agricultural land and one acre of residential land. The excess land’s ceiling was transferred to the tillers, as per the act. It facilitated the removal of the feudal landlord system of jagirdari in Kashmir and was considered a “landmark” act. 

Abdullah's grave lies just miles away from the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. But the difference in the two leaders, both in life and death, reflect the duality of politics in Kashmir, where even graveyards cannot be apolitical. It is perhaps for this reason that Abdullah’s biography ‘Aatish-e-Chinar’ has this couplet of Allama Iqbal’s inscribed in it:


Jis Khak Kay Zameer Main Hou Aatish-e-Chinar,
Mumkin Nahin Ki Sard Hou Woh Khak-e-Arjmand

(The dust that carries in its conscience the fire of the Chinar, It is impossible for that celestial dust to cool down).