Granddad, son and grand flop - by S Viswam Back   Home  
The right thing to do for this column on this day is to analyse the wins and losses in the Jammu and Kashmir elections region-wise and partywise and comment on the extraordinary political significance of the outcome.

However, even as the wrangling for the Chief Minister’s post goes on in New Delhi and Srinagar, there is a far more interesting story to tell.

That is the story of a dynasty which, if not in its death throes, is on the decline and has suffered the most humbling experience of being rejected by the populace in what will certainly be seen as the fairest of polls held in Kashmir in the last five decades.

The Abdullah dynasty, which held Kashmiris in sway for so many years, is down, with the last scion, Omar, son of Farooq, himself being defeated at the polls.

The National Conference which symbolises the dynasty of the Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad, is certainly down but it may be premature at this stage to say whether it is also out.

These are days when many Kashmiris themselves will be wondering whether the National Conference will fade away into oblivion in the coming months by getting marginalised in the sweep of history-making events still to unfold in the immediate future or whether, Phoenix-like, it will rise again from the ashes. It could well be a toss-up and the coin may fall this way or that.

For, although Farooq is temporarily out of the picture and Omar’s destiny is still in the making, the impending clash of political forces in the post-election phase of Kashmir’s future is such that the same voters who have brought about the eclipse of the National Conference may well return to it given time.

Despite the severe setback the National Conference has suffered, it is not yet time to say, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” The dynasty has been crippled but not driven into limbo.

For any non-Kashmiri observer of the scene, two factors have always to be kept in mind while arriving at assessments of the present and the future. The first is the Kashmiri mind, which has always remained inscrutable and unfathomable, and will remain so.

Whether it is a Muslim or a Pandit, unless one has even a remote comprehension of this elusive “Kashmiri mind”, you will never really know whether the Kashmiri says what he means or means what he says.

It was only Indira Gandhi, not even Nehru (himself a Kashmiri) who seemed to understand the Kashmiri mind and it was this which made her bring out Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from his 22-year-long political wilderness and turn him into a hero.

The second factor is the equally elusive phenomenon of “Kashmiriyat”. Unlike the Telugu, Tamil and Kannada “pride”, which is easy to understand if not to fully appreciate because of the sectarian chauvinism it evokes now and then, Kashmiriyat lends itself to many interpretations depending upon the source which interprets it.

The Kashmiri himself will interpret it according to the time and place and the mood. Throughout history, Kashmiriyat has been a dominant factor in the Kashmiri thought and its processes.

Time was when it symbolised only the indomitable spirit of independence and the fierce commitment to secularism. The times, as we know, have changed and much blood has flown down the Jhelum. The Muslim and the Pandit have drifted apart and the brotherhood has broken.

Today Kashmiriyat is many things to many people. An instrument of political blackmail? An excuse for alienation? A symbol of militant Islam? The basis for people-security forces confrontation? An ethereal legend confined to the Valley?

An alibi advanced by the Muslims of the Valley to cut themselves adrift from the Hindus of Jammu and the Buddhists of Ladakh? A phenomenon exploited by Pakistan? You can make a choice to fit in with any theory.

Inscrutable as is the mind of the average Kashmiri, it will be imprudent to speculate on his reaction to the incoming government, whatever its political complexion. For the present, the only reality is that the National Conference, the party of government in J&K, is out of the frame.

Between 1975, when Indira Gandhi installed Sheikh Abdullah in power following the historic accord negotiated by G Parthasarathi, the soft-spoken but astute diplomat and Mirza Afzal Beg, the Sheikh’s associate, confidant and lieutenant of 40 years, and 1982 when the Lion of Kashmir passed away, lies a fascinating history of how the founder of the dynasty strode across the Valley and the plains like a colossus and was the accepted voice of Kashmir and the symbol of Kashmiriyat.

In a sense, the Sheikh’s death helped consolidate rather than fritter the dynasty. Farooq, who midway in the Sheikh era stepped into State politics forsaking his medical career in London, was a natural successor.

Fortuitously, continuity was maintained. Just as the Shiekh anointed Farooq his heir on August 21, 1981, Farooq anointed his son Omar as his NC successor a few months ago.

The Sheikh had told Farooq that he was placing “a crown of thorns” on his head, Farooq told his son it was time he stepped into his shoes as Chief Minister since he was moving to another pasture.

To whom will Omar pass on the mantle when his time comes?

However, Farooq was not to enjoy the Sheikh’s legacy in peace. His brother-in-law Gul Mohammad Shah (Gulsha), envious of Farooq, with ambitions of power, was ever a source of trouble and friction for the Shekh’s son.

Now, even as the NC is out of power, there are reports galore in Srinagar of family quarrels and palace politics. For a brief while Farooq and Omar seemed estranged, but the electoral defeat may still bring them together in the tough battles which lie ahead of the NC.

Farooq, a colourful personality in his own right, is however no patch on the father, who was taller in every sense of the term. Sheikh Abdullah commanded total love and affection of the Kashmiris.

Farooq dissipated if not squandered the legacy left by the father despite his sound political instincts and the zeal to do good.

However, he lost popular esteem, and his love for golf and the good life, his yen for travel, his frequent absences from the State, his apparent lack of interest in governance, and his hobnobbing with the tinsel world of stars and film celebrities soon earned him the image of the playboy.

The father was cast in a different mould. In Kashmir, he once proclaimed, we have the same blood, the same culture and Hindus and Muslims are brothers.

Sheikh saheb’s popularity stemmed from his grassroots affinities with the people and his leadership in a movement which was aimed at securing azadi from the feudalistic monarchy.

His biggest achievement was in giving a new identity to the Kashmiris, in restoring to them self-respect and a sense of pride in themselves, and in making them feel confident of a great destiny.

The people made him a legend in his own lifetime. He was their beloved rehnuma (leader). And, he was a consummate politico.

The only leader who could speak three different political languages: when he spoke to the national leadership in New Delhi he stressed the importance of the Centre and the State “working on the same wavelength” — a trait which Farooq quickly followed, even to the extent of joining the National Democratic Alliance coalition.

In Jammu, he spoke of secularism, of the permanence of the State’s accession to India. In Srinagar, he always talked of opening the “road between Srinagar and Rawalpindi”.

Though a great “friend and comrade” of Nehru, and very fond of his daughter Indira, Sheikh had only contempt for the Congress. His constant refrain in his public speeches in the Valley was that Congressmen were “gandhe naali ke keede hain”. Only he had the adroitness of berating the Congress in one breath and lauding Indira Gandhi in the next.

Soon after the 1975 accord, when Indira visited Srinagar for the first time, Sheikh Abdullah organised for her the traditional procession of boats down the Jhelum, a welcome reserved only for kings and emperors. But the Sheikh was a maharaja in his people’s eyes and they followed him implicitly with full trust in him.

Nothing illustrated this better than the popular reaction to his sudden illness a couple of days before the historic 1977 election. He suffered a stroke which was seen as life-threatening.

As many as 3,000 rams were sacrificed and the meat distributed among the poor, and prayers were held for days in all the mosques.

The only sour note to come, unfortunately from New Delhi, was a piece of gratuitous advice from the then defence minister Jagjivan Ram (himself a heart patient) that those who suffered a heart attack must retire from politics. Nothing could have been in worse taste.

The whole of Kashmir heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Sheikh recovered. A reception hosted for him to celebrate the recovery turned out to be a spontaneous turnout of the people, the size of popular attendance never ever witnessed in Kashmir’s history and almost surpassing that which was seen in Calcutta to greet Khrushchev and Bulganin.

The Sheikh was driven into the Hazratbal Park mounted on a golden throne mounted on a high pedestal mounted on a truck platform and the sea of humanity sat enthralled as he spoke to them. It was a hero’s welcome, magnified many times.

Kashmir’s history plunged a new depth after September 8, 1982, with the passing away of the Sher-e-Kashmir. During the better part of the Sheikh’s turbulent political career, there was a running battle between the Sher (lion) and the Bakra (sheep) in Kashmir, the Sheikh being the titular head of the lions and Maulvi Farooq, his aged and popular adversary the titular head of the sheep.

The sher-bakra animosities provided perennial talking points to the politicos and journos who had made the India Coffee House the liveliest adda of political gossip.

The Coffee House, alas, is no longer the beehive of politics it was in the sixties to the eighties, Maulvi Farooq is no more (he was assassinated) and his son is now a Hurriyat leader.

The lions and sheep of Kashmir have faded into a new environment where the political centrestage is occupied by terrorists, their targets, the families of their victims, and a fractured and communalised polity.

The Kashmir of Seikh Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah is already a different Kashmir. Who could have ever thought that the Sheikh’s grave has to be guarded 24 hours a day lest his present detractors defile it? Will Omar again be symbolic of dynastic rule? It is a big question mark.
Published in Deccan