Centre Stage Man

Senior Congress leader Makhan Lal Fotedar on his recent visit to Kashmir made headlines when he raked the debate on accession. Syed Asma meets the Nehru family loyalist to map his journey to the centre stage of Indian politics and his role in Kashmir’s accession to India.

Foetedar

Makhan Lal Fotedar, a senior Congress leader, born in Kashmir and now based in Delhi visits his birthplace once a year and always makes it to the front pages of local newspapers when he is here. Famous for his controversial statements about Kashmir history and politics, both present and past, this year he spoke about Kashmir’s accession with India, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah and Mohammed Afzal Beg.

“He never wishes to be in news. It is the reporters like you, who visit him and ask him questions,” says his manager. But the 79 years old congress leader follows media eagerly. He is particular about what local papers say about him or how his statements are carried by the press.

Born in a modest family of a shopkeeper, Nayaran Ji Fotedar, Makhan Lal Fotedar was youngest of three siblings. He did his schooling from a government school in Mattan, Islamabad. But later shifted to a missionary school in main town Islamabad, from where he completed his matriculation.

Fotedar remembers the year he passed his 10th standard examination. It was 1947. For him 1947 is important because of three events: his 10th standard examination, India’s independence and Maharaja handing over Kashmir to India.

Fotedar says, Maharaja was willing to join hands with India in 1947 but New Delhi asked for a people’s representative, so, Sheikh (Abdullah) was used as a face.

That was the year when Fotedar, after completing his 10th standard examination, came to Srinagar to pursue his studies at Sri Pratap School.

After that Fotedar enrolled at Amar Singh College from where he did his Bachelor’s in Arts.  He remembers it was during his bachelors that he became interested in politics.

Fotedar’s first step into politics was at college level when he joined the students’ union as its President. A good orator, Fotedar had mastered the skill of mobilising students which made him famous among students. Even his teachers were impressed by the way he was handling students’ affairs as president of the students’ union. He recalls, A Kazmi, the then Director of Education, among his admirers at the college.

Then came 1951, a landmark event in the history of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah’s party won first election and became the prime minister of Kashmir. In the same year Fotedar completed his graduation and wanted to go for higher studies. For post-graduation, Fotedar says, he had two options, Aligarh Muslim University or Varanasi university, because Kashmir had no university then. Not impressed with the standard of education in Aligarh, he chose Varanasi but A Kazmi, his mentor, was against his decision. “Kazmi suggested me to go to Allahabad and gave me a recommendation letter,” remembers Fotedar. On his mentor’s advice, Fotedar went to the University of Allahabad to study law. Kazmi’s recommendation letter helped Fotedar get a full fee waiver.  Fotedar says that moving to Allahabad changed his life. On his way to University, Fotedar remembers that he would come across a big palatial mansion with name plate reading: K N Katju, Union Home Minister.  The name ‘Katju’ caught Fotedar’s attention. Knowing that Katju is a Kashmiri Pandit like him, Fotedar got encouraged to secure a meeting with the Union Home Minister.

On his first visit, Fotedar could not meet the Home Minister but managed to meet his son, Shivnath Katju, who promised him a meeting with his father. “They, Shiv and his mother, seemed impressed with me. They expressed joy after seeing a Kashmiri boy who had travelled a long distance to pursue studies,” says Fotedar.

Finally, one day Shiv took Fotedar to K N Katju. The meeting lasted for an hour in which they discussed studies, Kashmir and politics. Impressed by Fotedar, a pandit boy from Mattan village in Islamabad, Katju promised him a meeting with Jawahirlal Nehru. Three months later, Fotedar met Nehru, who was campaigning in Allahabad for upcoming elections. After their first meeting, Fotedar became part of Nehru family. “I was impressed with Pandit Ji’s [Jawahirlal Nehru] modesty and speech. These two things prompted me to follow him,” says Fotedar.

During election campaigning Fotedar helped Nehru campaign in one of the blocks of his Phoolpur constituency. Nehru won the elections with a huge margin securing 12 lakh votes against Prabha Dutt, his opponent’s meagre 28,000 votes. Both Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were impressed by the outcome and Fotedar’s contribution. “After the elections whenever I used to visit Delhi, Pandit Ji, used to meet me personally,” says Fotedar.

The successful election campaigning helped Fotedar rise through ranks in the party. He served Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Ghandhi as Political advisor, respectively.

Besides, he has served as cabinet minister for mines and health. He is the only Kashmiri who is the member of Congress Election Committee (CEC) and has been there for past three decades now.

In Nehru family Fotedar was close to Indira Gandhi. When Indira Gandhi was attacked in 1984, Fotedar was reportedly the first person to reach the spot and carried her to hospital. The mention of that day still brings tears in his eyes. “Please let us not talk about this,” he says and a long pause follows.

Fotedar has travelled to Kashmir many times with Indira Gandhi. He claims he is witness to many historic events viz-a-viz Kashmir including Indira-Sheikh meetings. “I was there during their last meeting,” says Fotedar. During their last meeting, Sheikh did not talk much as he was ill. A few days later Sheikh died.

Fotedar’s closeness to Nehru family made him an important personality back home too.  Sheikh and his associates had started noticing Fotedar after he campaigned for Nehru.

After completing his LLB in 1955 Fotedar came back to Kashmir and started practicing law in a local court in Islamabad. There he met Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who was practicing in the same court.

They are still good friends and meet whenever they get a chance, Fotedar say, “besides, it was me who introduced Mufti to Congress.”

From 1955 to 1980, Fotedar stayed in Kashmir with his mother, wife, three sons and two daughters. In 1980, he permanently shifted to New Delhi.

In 1957 Sheikh’s associate, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, suggested Fotedar to contest elections but as luck would have it, his nomination papers got rejected. “Well! Reasons are not known to me but I think I was a serious threat to my opponents,” he says.

He wanted to contest election from Khoorpora, now known as Pahalgam. It was the time when G M Sadiq and Mir Qasim had differences with Bakshi.

However, after cancellation of his nomination papers, Fotedar continued practising law. Meanwhile, he became friends with G M Sadiq and advised him to contest next elections.

And this time he did contest (1967) elections and won. He was the first person to represent Indian National Congress in J&K.

He served as an MLA for next five years and says that people appreciated him for the work he did.

In the next elections, he defeated a Jamaat-i-Islami candidate by 16,000 votes. Being a party loyalist, he was entrusted with the job of convincing Sheikh and his associats to sign the document of accession.

When Sheikh and Beg were put under house arrest in 3 Kotla Lane, New Delhi, Fotedar would often go and meet Beg. “We would talk for hours,” he remembers.

He clearly remembers a day in November, 1970, when Beg called him. “I went to meet him and he told me to write, ‘I accept accession with India with all its implication’,” says Fotedar. “I was confused and asked him, ‘should I write “I” or “We”’, he answered, “I” not “We”.” The former statement was released in press in February then.

Fotedar believes that Sheikh was not convinced to accede with India but later changed his mind in 1975.

When asked to elaborate the implications of accession that Beg must have talked about, Fotedar says, Beg talked to G Parthasarthi in length about accession, not me. What he remembers is that Sheikh and Beg were eager to keep the post of Prime Minister intact and were not getting convinced to convert it to the post of Chief Minister.

Fotedar asserts that Sheikh became a loyalist after 1975 and worked honestly with India prompting New Delhi to reciprocate by bringing him back to power in Kashmir. “Besides surrendering their two major constituencies, Anantnag and Ganderbal, to Beg and Sheikh, Congress helped Sheikh in many ways,” he says.

Fotedar believes that Sheikh was eager to come back to power after remaining under house arrest for long, so he accepted all the conditions put forth by Indira Gandhi. “Kashmir so far has produced only four leaders, Bakhsi, Beg, Sheikh and Sadiq,” believes Fotedar.

This year the accession debate kept Fotedar in news. Since 80s Fotedar has limited his visits to Kashmir to annual Kheer Bhawani festival only. He still owns a house in Mattan, but prefers to stay at the state guest house (Church Lane) Sonawar.

Last year, he was in news after he had criticized the then Home Minister, P Chidambaram, and had given a statement; he [Chidambaram] may know good English but does not know anything about Kashmir issue.

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