Understanding Sheikh

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Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah has been Kashmir’s enigmatic and complex political leader who was as much the master of his persona as he was the victim of it, Shabir Mir writes while reviewing a scholarly book on Kashmir’s former Prime Minister who gladly became the Chief Minister

Altaf Hussain Parra - The Making of Modern Kashmir - Book Review by Shabir Mir

The Making of Kashmir (cover of the book) and Altaf Hussain Parra

“History”, says Julian Barnes in his Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, “is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

History, thus, at its very best is a forced certainty over the uncertainties of memory and documentation. But when the memory is not only imperfect but contested as well and the documentation is not only inadequate but restricted, is the history then a forced certainty or a forced uncertainty?

Altaf Hussain Para in an engaging and scholarly work The Making of Modern Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State tries to disentangle such a morass of certainty/uncertainty (forced and voluntary) that the history of Modern Kashmir has been reduced to. The word ‘Modern’ here, as the author himself cautions, “has been used in the sense of periodization rather than in developmental sense.” And the ‘period’ is such a one, which had been overwhelmingly dominated by the person – Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Hence, it would appear, the History of Modern Kashmir becomes the political biography of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and in the process, The Making of Modern Kashmir may appear thus to be history in a Carlylesque sense; the author himself acknowledges this fact but at the same time offers his rebuttal as well. In his own words, “Although Thomas Carlyle’s bold assertion that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” does not go unchallenged, the fact remains, however, that great men do not simply represent the social forces but they also mould and create them.”

This inversion of the Carlylesque conception of history forms the core of Altaf Hussain Para’s work. The Making of Modern Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State is not thus a history of Kashmir as a biography of Sheikh Abdullah but it rather is a history of how Sheikh Abdullah makes/unmakes modern Kashmir and Modern Kashmir makes/unmakes Sheikh Abdullah.

Though there have been books written about Sheikh Abdullah before but Altaf Hussain Para argues that his work is different. “(M)ost of the works on the Sheikh are compiled to serve some particular ideologies and agendas and have thus become victims of pre-determinism. Besides, these histories, which are based mostly on official documents of state and political parties, give us an official version of events, neglecting popular perspectives,” the author wrote. “I have attempted to transcend this limitation by adding to the existing source base by drawing from the Kashmiri, Urdu, and English languages, both oral and written. The sources that have been used include private diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts of poetry and polemical writings, published political and social pamphlets, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, newspapers, folk narratives, oral histories and interviews, and state archival records.”

Further those works on Sheikh Abdullah which are free from such pre-deterministic bias suffer from a different problem; again in Altaf Hussain’s own words, “Moreover, those who have produced works on Sheikh Abdullah have followed what can be termed as an exclusivist approach. They have studied the Sheikh’s role in watertight compartments and sometimes in isolation.”

Thus Para starts out to write the history of modern Kashmir by examining how the social, economic and political factors of the milieu defined the politics of Sheikh Abdullah, and how Sheikh Abdullah redefined the social, economic and political milieu of his time.

But does he succeed?

Yes, he does; though not comprehensively but admirably enough. In lucid prose and free-flowing narrative, Para resurrects Sheikh Abdullah in flesh and blood before his readers. He dissects each and every decision of Sheikh Abdullah with the scalpel of a true scholar. And the readers having the advantage of hindsight and retrospection feel sorry (not angry or disgusted as would have been expected) at every such decision that marks the downfall of the Lion of Kashmir. And this is the real achievement of Para, to make his readers see why Sheikh Abdullah did what he did.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah - Sher e Kashmir - National Conference - Muslim Conference

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah

That being said, Para does not justify the blunders and mistakes of Sheikh Abdullah. Instead, he presents Sheikh Abdullah as he was: with all his historical misjudgments, horrendous decisions and U-turns but at the same time he also brings to fore the personal as well as socio-political forces that informed Sheikh Abdullah’s decisions, policies and strategies and in the process makes us realize that the Sher e Kashmir was as much the master of his persona as he was the victim of it. As the whole tragedy of Kashmir and Sheikh Abdullah unravels, it assumes the contours of a Shakespearean tragedy with Sheikh Abdullah having one too many tragic flaws – the tendency to misjudge, the authoritarian streak, the split between his public and private persona, the inability to resist the allure of power, the egoism, the weak realpolitik skills etc.

And the horror of it all was that it was not Sheikh Abdullah but it rather was Kashmir and the gullible Kashmiri followers of Sheikh Abdullah who had to suffer the most. The whole tragedy is summed up in these lines from the book which refer to the aftermath of Indira-Sheikh accord:

“Abdullah Khan heard Mirza Afzal Beg saying to another Front leader, Ghulam Mohammad Badrawahi, in his presence on the stage:

‘Today I expected people gathering here to hurl stones and shoes at us. Alas! They are greeting us. What for are the slogans of zindabad [long live Abdullah]raised here? What have we done for our people? What have we gained? Oh God! Which nation are we leading?’”

From an academic point of view this book, as put by Ayesha Jalal, ‘opens up new lines of analysis and deepens understanding of the reasons of the Kashmir’s contentious relations with New Delhi. By interweaving Abdullah’s life and times with political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, The Making of Modern Kashmir provides new insights into the history of one of the world’s longest surviving and most dangerous conflicts.’ These new lines of analysis and insights have not been thoroughly exhausted both because of the exigencies of time and the scope of the work under consideration as well as due to the peculiar problem of resource handicap which the author expresses as:

“First, Indian archives related to the relationship of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian state still remain closed except to favoured scholars. Second, much of the literature and documents related to the period between 1953 and 1975 during which Abdullah patronized a most crucial movement – Tahrikh-i-Rai-Shumari (plebiscite movement) – were destroyed after its patron signed an accord in 1975 with Indira Gandhi and disowned the two-decade-long movement as political waywardness. Also, while there are separate papers of important political figures available for research like Nehru Papers, Jinnah Papers, and so on, in Abdullah’s case one has still to wait.”

And to a considerable extent, this wait for Abdullah papers seems to be finally over with The Making of Modern Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State.

(The book was published by Routledge early this year. The author did his doctorate in history and is teaching at the Cluster University, Kashmir.)

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