One of the landmark decisions in Kashmir’s history was the conversion of the Muslim Conference into National Conference in 1939. Why and how this development was affected by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and what were the short and long term consequences of this, M J Aslam writes on the anniversary of this decision
In his autobiography, Blazing Chinars, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah narrates the factors that had motivated him to convert Muslim Conference (MC) into National Conference (NC) on June 11, 1939. He writes that Mohammad Ali Jinnah had, in 1936, clearly asked MC leaders to “broaden the base of our movement” by including non-Muslims in “our” political and economic struggle on equal basis. (See Blazing Chinar, page 165). He comes out with another justification for his “unilateral decision” by bringing in it the name of Dr Sir Mohammad Iqbal, by insisting that “another great son of Kashmir (first one was Nehru, he says) and well wisher of the Kashmir movement and its patron, Iqbal, had given me similar advice in 1937”. (See page 167).
Both these statements are bizarrely a stretch and far-fetched having been made after decades of the decision without any evidence. Apparently, it seems mere conjectures of mind or after-thought to find justification for his extraordinary decision of historical significance.
In 1936, during his second Kashmir visit, Jinnah was invited by the MC that was at that point of time led by Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, to address a Milad-un-Nabi gathering at Mujahid Manzil, Srinagar. Responding to the welcome address of Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, as President of the Muslim Conference, Jinnah said that the Prophet of Islam was the greatest law-giver the humanity has ever known whose laws were based on justice and humanity. He congratulated “unity of Muslims” under the MC banner and advised them that as the Muslims were in majority in J&K, it was their duty to ensure that the minority community gets full justice and fair play at their hands. (See M Y Saraf, Kashmiris Fight For Freedom, Vol 1, page 622).
Jinnah was, of course, evidently asking MC leadership to strive for co-operation of minorities in political awakening but nowhere indirectly even asking them (including Sheikh) to change nomenclature and the very constitution of their party. He was drawing the attention of the majority community that it was their duty as Muslims to take care of the rights of the minority community.
If Jinnah’s 1936-speech had ever hinted at the conversion of MC into NC, why in 1944, during his third and last visit to Kashmir, Jinnah did not tell MC why they had not since 1936 merged with NC? His 1944 visit was in response to the invitation extended to him by both MC and NC.
Instead, his addresses of May 10, 1944, at Pratap Park Srinagar (to NC’s 60, 000 followers) and on June 17, 1944, at Jamia Masjid Srinagar (to 100,000 MC followers) manifestly show that he wanted Muslims to unite under one banner, one slogan and one mission [of Islam]. (see When Jinnah visited Kashmir for the last time in Kashmir Life May 10, 2017]; and Jinnah in Kashmir in Kashmir Ink dated March 28, 2016  Nowhere in those speeches, is Jinnah seen to have ever hinted at the merger of MC into NC. Instead, “he made it clear during that visit that he disapproved of Sheikh Abdullah’s secularism and that the only body in Kashmir which truly represented the Muslim majority was the MC”. (see Alastair Lamb, Kashmir: A disputed Legacy, 1846-1990, page 95).
In fact, the 1944Jinnah’s visit and speeches had injected new life and authority into the MC. As Muslims in British India became more and more pronounced in their support of an independent Pakistan, the Muslims in J&K began to return to the MC led by Chowdhury Ghulam Abbas, abandoning the ranks of the NC till in March 1946, Sheikh Abdullah played the Quit Kashmir card. (see Josef Korbel, Danger in Kashmir pages 19-20) It was precisely in that political scenario that was developing in the subcontinent that P N Bazaz noted: “National Conference does not represent national interests or democracy simply because its title is National Conference or it appears to be popular”. (see Chitralekha Zutshi, Language of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, & the Making of Kashmir, page 283 quoting P N Bazaz, Gandhism, Jinnaism & Socialism, pages 44-47)
Sheikh’s second limb of justification involves Allama Iqbal. NC was formed on June 11, 1939 while Dr Iqbal had already passed away on April 20, 1939.
Kashmiri-Muslims reacted against Sheikh’s decision of party conversion. To assuage the emotions of the protesting Muslims, if Sheikh could have easily told the angry people that it was advised by Dr Iqbal. Apparently, it is an unethical invention to use name of such a towering personality of Islam after more than 40 years of his death for political purposes. (Blazing Chinar was first published in 1985)
In fact, Dr Iqbal, in his presidential address of annual session of the All India Muslim League held at Allahabad on December 29, 1930 had advocated for a separate and independent State for Muslims of the sub-continent. (see P N Bazaz, The History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir: Cultural & Political page 147)
“I appeal to Muslims of Kashmir to beware of the forces that are working against them and to unite their ranks. The time for two or three Muslim political parties in Kashmir has not yet come,” Dr Iqbal said on June 7, 1933, in his appeal to the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir (see Speeches, writings and statements of Iqbal, page 277) “The supreme need of the moment is a single party representing all Muslims in the State. If perfect unanimity of political opinion is not secured in Kashmir, all efforts of leaders to advance the interests of the people of the State will prove ineffective.”
Sheikh’s “intention” in using the names of Dr Iqbal and Jinnah, as the motivating force behind his party conversion decision on June 11-12, 1939 at Mujahid Manzil Srinagar is not hard to be understood. The wishful claim is not only conflicting with known facts of history. Sheikh admits that he was told by Nehru that by changing MC into NC, non-Muslims would join the movement “without any inhibition and the communal Hindu press and other agencies would have no excuse to dub the movement communal”. (see Blazing Chinar, page 16) But, in Chapter 24 of his autobiography, while heralding changing of MC to NC as “a dream come true”, (see pages 169-177) he does not make reference to the developments that had led to his change of mind. He seems deliberately silent on this vital information which needs to be mentioned here:
August 3, 1935, speech of the Congressman, Dr Saif-ud-Din Kichloo, before the annual session of the MC at Srinagar wherein he stated that Kashmir was a part of India and that political unity between Muslims and non-Muslims was imperative for the success of the Kashmiris’ political movement. (see Shabnum Qayoom’s Comprehensive History of Kashmir (Urdu) Vol 2, page 242)
The Hamdard, mouthpiece of Congress, which was inaugurated at the same time, relentlessly advocated for nationalising and secularising Kashmiri-Muslims’ political movement. (The newspaper was jointly started by Bazaz (then Congressman) and Sheikh Abdullah. See G H Khan, Freedom Movement in Kashmir 1931-1940, page 323.)
In his three meetings with Nehru, Sheikh at Peshawar, (now Khyber Pakhtunkha Province of Pakistan) in January 1938, agreed with Nehru for “changing character of Kashmir freedom movement” (see G H Khan, Freedom Movement in Kashmir 1931-1940, page 347) and his growing closeness with Jammu and Kashmir’s pro-Congress Prime Minister, Gopalaswami Ayyangar. (see Nid-e-Haq: Memoirs of M M Isaaq, pages 124; and Shabnum Qayoom, Comprehensive History of Kashmir (Urdu) Vol 2, page 250)
Did the conversion led to the support of a number of Kashmiri Pandits for Sheikh’s secular politics? Hamdard in its editorial on June 10, 1947 wrote that “National Conference does not have any support base of non-Muslims. Few non Muslims who are seemingly associated with NC are not so because they love NC but because they think that NC is a tool in the hands of Congress Party that could be used against Indian Muslims and for destruction of Pakistan…..” (see Shabnum Qayoom, Comprehensive History of Kashmir (Urdu) Vol 2, pages 296-299, quoting Bazaz’s full passage of editorial in Hamdard along-with other recorded anti-Muslim Conference statements of National Conference Pandit leaders e.g. Jia Lal Kilm, Shyam Lal Saraf, Advocate Raghunath Vishnawi.)
All these strong records of evidence buttress the claim that MC was dissolved and replaced by NC by none other than Sheikh Abdullah himself at the behest of Nehru and his team of “socialist-secular workers” within Jammu and Kashmir. (See G H Khan, Freedom Movement in Kashmir 1931-1940 pages 323, 346-347, 352-354.)
The nationalism and secularism that Sheikh had adopted while transforming his political ideology from “communal” MC to “non-communal” NC were in full alignment with “its Indian cousin or the policy of Indian National Congress by using poetry of Kashmiri poet, Late G A Mehjoor and abstract idea of Kashmiriyat”. (see Chitralekha Zutshi, Language of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, & the Making of Kashmir pages 2, 245, 257) Preaching and pleading these lofty ideals of Congress, he advised Muslim League leadership to leave Kashmir and Kashmiris alone, and don’t thrust their “communal” ideology on Kashmiris as that was going to defeat the very purpose of his “freedom movement” he had been fighting for Kashmiris. (see The Tribune (Lahore) April 15, 1939, page 17, quoted in Khan, page 371)
To this political stand of Sheikh, Jinnah relied in an address to Kashmiri students at the Aligarh Muslim University on April 1, 1939:
“I can say with certainty that he (Sheikh Abdullah) is in the wrong. Having got himself ensnared by the Congress which is thoroughly a Hindu organisation, he has put the ship of his community in a whirlpool.….he is doing this out of ignorance ….he will soon realise his mistake …….will come to know that those whom he is considering his friends and at whose beck and call he is acting, are not his friends but his enemies…..” (see The Statesman, Calcutta, April 16, 1939; as quoted by Khan, page 372)
Jinnah’s prophesied words proved correct right from day one. The non-Muslims whom he thought to be liberal, educated, progressive and modern men did not turn to his NC. Baring few negligible members, their “collective sectarian” thinking towards their fellow countrymen, Kashmiri Muslims, had not changed at all.
For instance, after secularising the party, NC could not hold Milad procession in Srinagar till 1940 when it was finally held on April 24, that year for the first time after its secularisation. Addressing the rally, Sheikh compared Islam with the sun and other religions with the stars. This comparison spun the minds of Kashmiri Pandit leaders so much so that they interpreted the statement as proclamation of victory of Islam over other religions, which was unacceptable to them. They raised a storm of protest and condemned him as “rank communalist” who under the garb of nationalism still wanted to establish Muslim Raj in Jammu and Kashmir, which was followed by protest-resignation of two prominent Pandit leaders, Jia Lal Kilm and Kahyap Badhu, from NC on April 30, 1940. (see M Y Saraf, Kashmiris Fight-For Freedom, Vol 1 pages 542-543) It is also said the Pandit leaders objected to his spotting a beard and wearing a fizz cap on his head. (see Qudratullah Shahab, Shahabnama page 373) They displayed their too reactionary communal behaviour again on May 8, 1944, when in the public rally at Pratap Park Srinagar, (which has been referred to above), prominent NC Pandit leader Jia Lal Kilm walked away from the stage along with his other Pandit friends. The reason was that Sheikh Abdullah in his speech had repeatedly used the phrase “popular leader of Indian Muslims” for Jinnah, which had put them (Pandits) on frying pan of communal intolerance. (see Jinnah in Kashmir in Kashmir Ink dated March 28, 2016)
The secularisation of movement had failed to bring Kashmiri Pandits “as a community” or even other non-Muslims of the State ( see August 9, 1953: Why Sheikh Abdullah was removed in Kashmir Life dated August 17, 2018) within the fold of NC as was erroneously expected by Sheikh Abdullah. And, that handful of non-Muslim-Kashmiris who had joined NC had done it not by heart or conviction but for the sake of political expediency, or for hatching conspiracies against NC leadership. (see Blazing Chinar page 350,384, 401, 568; Nid e Haq, page 253-254; Shabnum Qayoom Vol 2, pages 296-299, quoting Bazaz ‘s editorial in Hamdard dated June 10, 1947)
Although, in August 1953, there was hand of his own closest [Muslim] party-men in his removal from the throne, the role played by Kashmiri Pandits and Jammu Dogras in that “conspiracy” (see Ramchandra Guha, India After Gandhi page 249, 254; Jyoti Bhushan Das Gupta, Jammu & Kashmir, page 196; Ex-Lt Gen Brijmohan Kaul, The Untold Story page 137-143; Isaaq, page 242 & 245) was no less insignificant. About that unceremonious dismissal of August 9, 1953, Sheikh himself confesses that Nehru (man behind his brainwashing in 1938 for rechristening MC as NC) was “drunk with power of authority and that for me he had proved more oppressive and dictatorial than the Maharaja”. (see Blazing Chinar, page 188)
The conversion was supported by pro-Muslim leaders like Choudhary Ghulam Abbas for which he bore lot of criticism from party members and later in 1941 feeling ditched by Sheikh, he parted his way with NC, rejoined and rejuvenated MC. In his autobiography, Choudhary Ghulam Abbas has mentioned that before party-change was effected in 1939, there was an agreement on several conditions between him and Sheikh which, inter alia, included that “Sheikh Abdullah will not own Congress politics nor will he support the Congress in any case…and that he shall never oppose in any manner whatsoever the Muslim League as being the only Muslim representative body of the Muslims of India…” (see Kashmakash, Ch Gh Abbas, page 178. Kashmakash was published in 1950, while as Blazing Chinar was published three decades later.) So, it was binding on Sheikh to object to such an agreement having ever been there between the two leaders, if Choudhary Ghulam Abbas had misrepresented “facts”. Abbas’s claim is testified by the record. We may mention here that Sheikh has written the foreword to the PhD thesis of Ghulam Hassan Khan, first published in 1980 and republished in 2009, under the title Freedom Movement of Kashmir from 1931-1940, which book is cited in this work also. In that book, (page 356; The Ranbir Weekly Jammu, March 28, 1938 page 12) the very same conditions have been repeated by the author which prima facie proves, Choudhary Ghulam Abbas correct that the “agreed conditions” were never honoured by Sheikh during his long political life.
On conversion of MC to NC, the celebrated author, Joseph Korbel, has commented:
“As a matter of fact, the origins of the present tragic struggle can, in a sense, be traced back to those months. Up to that time, the Muslims had been united through the Muslim Conference. In 1939 this unity was broken. Responsible for this tragic schism was none other than the popular Lion of Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.” (see Danger in Kashmir, page 18) Disunity among Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir is and was one of the major reasons of birth of Kashmir dispute and their suffering, that continue till date, writes Christopher Snedden. (see Kashmir: The Unwritten History, page 35)
In Kashmir, the ground for such factionalism was already very fertile as there were deep sectarian fissures between followers of Molvi Mohammad Yousuf Shah and Molvi Ahmedullah Hamdani, on the one hand, and secular-liberal-communist leaders and pro-Muslim leaders of the MC, on the other hand. Sheikh Abdullah’s greatest fault was that he was “not given to deep thinking” (see Lion in the garden of Kashmir in Indian Express dated September 10, 1982 as cited in Kashmir Cries for Justice by Ex CJ of JK High Court, Mufti Bahau Ud Din Farooqi, at page 19) to bridge the gaps between overwhelming majority of his co-religionists by continuing with his original political ideology that could have held the different factions together at least in the name of common bondage of religious ideology. Instead, the secularisation of the movement widened the gulf of the political ideologies of the different groups, which resulted only in frequent clashes between them much to the rejoice of their politico-religious adversaries.
(The author is an Academician, Author, story-teller and free-lance columnist.)