Love-Hate: Gandhi, Abdullah Families Across Generations

The love-hate relationship between the Abdullahs and Nehru-Gandhis across generations has defined frequent ups and downs in the ties between New Delhi and Kashmir

Farooq Abdullah joined Rahul Gandhi for Bharat Jodo Yatra

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In January 2023, visuals of an emotional former Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) chief minister Farooq Abdullah joining Rahul Gandhi went viral as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s scion resumed his Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) through India’s entire length. Abdullah seemed to have been moved to tears when he hugged and patted Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on their backs.

Abdullah rejoined Rahul Gandhi when the yatra culminated in Kashmir after the 2,000-mile journey, which the opposition Congress hoped would end its political wilderness since it was voted out of power in 2014. 

Battle For Survival

The Nehru-Gandhis and the Abdullahs have been politically diminished since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s return to power with a brute majority in 2014. The BJP has since aggressively sought to undo the Indian state’s secular character enshrined in the constitution. The stripping of J&K of its semi-autonomous status in 2019 has been a key step in this direction. It was widely seen as an attempt to alter the region’s demographic character by allowing non-residents to buy land and get government jobs there.

To India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, if secular democracy was to be secured, Muslim-majority J&K had to be a part of India. J&K’s accession was finalised on the condition that its identity would be preserved.

A Change Meeting

The accession with a predominantly Hindu India in 1947 would not have perhaps been possible had it been for a Nehru’s chance meeting with Farooq Abdullah’s father, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, in 1938. The two would forge a strong bond in the 1940s. The subsequent love-hate relationship between the Abdullahs and Nehru-Gandhis across generations would define frequent ups and downs in the ties between New Delhi and Kashmir, which Nehru was deeply attached to as the land of his forbearers. 

Nehru banked on Abdullah’s messianic image to ensure Kashmir’s accession with India years after the two first met at the Lahore railway station, around five km from the venue where the resolution for Pakistan’s creation as a Muslim homeland was passed in 1940. The meeting perhaps sealed Pakistan’s fate without Kashmir. 

Abdullah, 33, who founded the Muslim Conference in 1932, met Peshawar-bound Nehru during a layover. They got along quickly and Abdullah ended up accompanying Nehru to Peshawar. Abdullah gravitated to Nehru’s social-revolutionary nationalism after their discussions there. 

The Turning Point

Abdullah would convince his colleagues in 1939 to rename their party as the National Conference as per Nehru’s advice to secularise their politics. The phraseology explaining the change was in contrast to Mohammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League’s 1940 Lahore resolution, which called Indian Muslims a nation by any definition. 

The resolution sought a separate homeland encompassing Muslim-majority areas including Kashmir. The condition of Muslims in J&K was much worse than that of their coreligionists in Bengal and Punjab, the two provinces that became the mainstay of the Pakistan movement. 

The socio-economic conditions of the majority of Muslims in Bengal and Punjab helped the movement take root there in the 1940s when the Hindu Dogra kingdom had ruled J&K for almost a century and reduced its Muslim majority to the status of serfs. 

Abdullah burst onto the political scene as an embodiment of anger over Muslim exclusion from positions of power, jobs, and education. The Dogra rulers’ discriminatory policies dashed first his hopes of becoming a doctor and later a bureaucrat despite his eligibility and good academic record. Abdullah’s politics changed under Nehru’s influence when the Pakistan movement gathered steam as the Muslim League raised the specter of post-independence Hindu-dominated India.

The Rise Of A Messiah

The traction for the movement coincided with Abdullah’s rising popularity as communists within the National Conference ranks authored the Naya (New) Kashmir manifesto in 1944 promising land redistribution. The pledge capped Abdullah’s rise as the messiah of deprived masses while support for Pakistan’s creation grew in other Muslim-majority areas. The pledge became the basis of Abdullah’s politics in the 1940s which made Nehru, a socialist, his natural ally. The alliance proved crucial in depriving Pakistan of Kashmir. 

Jinnah could do little to bolster support in Kashmir. He was left with no allies after the National Conference’s creation. The organisational strength of Abdullah’s party gave India the much-needed edge when the Dogra kingdom collapsed as the Pakistan-backed irregulars were on their way to its summer capital Srinagar. Hari Singh, the last Hindu king until October 1947, believed Kashmir could remain independent and maintain ties with both India and Pakistan. He ignored Nehru’s requests for accession to India as he pursued his pipedream

Jinnah’s Nemesis

Jinnah relied on Kashmir’s Muslim majority and dependence on western Punjab, which became a part of Pakistan, to ensure the accession as per his wishes. Kashmir’s political future hung in balance when Hari Singh fled to Jammu as the irregulars closed in on his capital. The National Conference played an important role in fending off the invasion and rallying the public against it.

Abdullah, who neutralised the remnants of Jinnah’s ally Muslim Conference, was flown to Delhi on October 25, 1947, to devise the Indian strategy to repulse the invasion. Women were among hundreds of his volunteers, who joined the National Conference militia and assisted the Indian army in Kashmir.

Nehru believed Abdullah’s popularity would help India retain J&K as its accession to India was subject to a referendum, which was agreed upon after a ceasefire to end the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. Abdullah argued for India’s legitimacy over Kashmir at the UN. He endorsed the accession even as virtually the entire Muslim population of the Jammu region of about half a million was displaced or butchered. 

Symbol Of Secularism

Nehru considered Abdullah a symbol of secularism, the practitioner of inter-faith harmony, and a refutation of the two-nation theory. He took on Hari Singh and rushed to defend incarcerated Abdullah in 1946 but was detained and sent back before he could enter the Kashmir Valley. 

Abdullah would famously embrace Nehru at a rally in Srinagar and recite a Persia couplet: ‘mantu shudam tu manshudi man jah shudam tu tan shudi man degram tu degre (I am in you and you are in me, I am the soul and you are the body).’

The Unravelling

He negotiated autonomy for J&K except in defence, foreign affairs, and telecommunications until his ties with the governing Congress soured. Abdullah antagonised powerful Hindu traditionalists in the Congress, including Vallabhbhai Patel when the Kashmiri leader tried to end the dispossession of the J&K’s Muslims. 

Abdullah formed a Land Reform Committee in April 1949 to distribute land to tillers as per his pledge in the Naya Kashmir manifesto, believing he could implement it in line with Nehru’s socialist policies. Kashmiri Brahmins, or Pandits, accounted for less than five percent of Kashmir’s population but owned over 30% of the land. They had a lot at stake to let Abdullah get his way.

Patel tried to stall the land reforms. But Abdullah managed to restrict land holdings to distribute the land among Muslims and so-called untouchables in the Jammu region while trying to placate the Pandits, who refused to take kindly to the reforms. The differences that began over the reforms snowballed. Patel would rush top Intelligence Bureau (IB) operative B N Mullick to Kashmir in August 1949 to plot Abdullah’s removal. IB agents penetrated the National Conference to divide its ranks for the ouster of Abdullah. 

Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of the BJP, aligned with the Praja Parishad, which Hari Singh apparently financed, to launch a violent campaign against Abdullah. These groups were livid over the land reforms and the end of the monarchy, which conformed to the Hindu idea of kingship. Kshatriya and Brahmins, who are at the top of the hierarchical caste system, helmed with Dogra state.

Abdullah tried to upend the region’s social structure. He somehow managed to finalise the Delhi Agreement in July 1952, which recognized Kashmir’s autonomy. BJS leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee launched an agitation with Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad against the accord. Abdullah was particularly rattled after posters in Delhi warned to kill him after Mookerjee’s death of pleurisy in a Srinagar jail in 1953.

Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin, chose to dump Abdullah when the situation became too hot to handle. Abdullah was summarily dismissed and arrested at midnight on 9 August 1953. His humiliation polarised J&K as Muslims saw his unceremonious ouster as an attempt to reverse their empowerment.

Abdullah’s ouster marked a dramatic reversal of his fortune six years after he helped India overcome the impediments to accession—geography, Hari Singh’s pipedream, and demography. It marked the beginning of engineered politics in Kashmir and the installation of a series of clients as rulers sustained through patronage networks, corruption, and strong-arm tactics.

Abdullah would spend the better part of the next decade in jail without trial ‘for being in touch with Pakistan,’ which dismissed him as a quisling. There was no love lost between Abdullah and Pakistan. In 1948, Abdullah described Pakistan as an ‘unscrupulous and savage enemy.’

Change of Heart

Nehru sought to bury the hatchet over a decade later after Abdullah’s release in 1964 and sent him to Pakistan as part of attempts to resolve the Kashmir dispute. While Abdullah was there, Nehru died making a resolution difficult. It was again back to square one when Abdullah was rearrested after meeting Chinese leader Zhou Enlai. 

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who wrote to Nehru expressing ‘terrible and deeply penetrating sadness’ over Abdullah’s arrest in 1953 and described it ‘like cutting off a part of oneself,’ again reached out to the Kashmiri leader in 1968. Seven years later, the two hammered out an accord.

Abdullah is believed to have been unsure about anointing Farooq Abdullah, his eldest son, as his political heir. Indira Gandhi’s insistence is ultimately said to have forced Abdullah senior’s hand. But Farooq Abdullah’s attempt to be his own man annoyed Indira Gandhi. 

Back To Square One

The situation degenerated in just two years. Indira Gandhi would repeat history and get Farooq Abdullah dismissed in the middle of the night in 1984. She did not take kindly to his audacity to decline an alliance for the 1983 elections saying Congress ‘thought I would be a mere puppet.’

Farooq Abdullah won a comfortable majority but angered Indira Gandhi further by discussing regional autonomy with leaders of other states. She had had enough of Farooq Abdullah when she toppled his government in July 1984 by engineering a revolt within his family and propping up his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah as the chief minister. 

Their ties sourced to the extent that Farooq Abdullah called Indira Gandhi paranoid and said she wanted one to be totally servile. Indira Gandhi hit back calling him ‘a totally untrustworthy’ man who ‘tells too many lies.’

Kiss And Make Up

Farooq Abdullah learnt his lessons fast to emerge out of the political wilderness. He would grab his second chance with both hands after going out of his way to build a relationship with Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother. 

Farooq Abdullah allied with the Congress saying he had to stay on the right side of the Centre if he wanted to run the government. The compromise culminated in perhaps the most fraudulent elections in J&K’s history in 1987. 

The ballot stuffing followed the torture and imprisonment of opposition alliance Muslim United Front functionaries. It provided one of the sparks to fan the fires of the ongoing armed insurrection. 

Blow Hot And Cold

The two families drifted apart as the Gandhis stayed away from politics following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s father, in 1991, and the National Conference allied with the BJP in the late 1990s. Farooq Abdullah, who became the chief minister again in 1996, maintained a distance from the Congress and blamed his alliance with Rajiv Gandhi for the mess in Kashmir. He became a federal minister when Congress returned to power in 2009.  

Farooq Abdullah’s son, Omar Abdullah, who served as a minister in the BJP’s previous Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government, forged a close relationship with Rahul Gandhi. He became the chief minister with Congress’s support in 2009. Rahul Gandhi countered reports of his differences with Omar Abdullah at a rally in Kashmir in 2012 by recalling his family’s close ties with the Abdullahs. He pledged to carry forward the legacy of their friendship.

Rahul Gandhi rushed to Kashmir when Omar and Farooq Abdullah were among hundreds of people detained when the J&K was stripped of its semi-autonomous status amid a lockdown and communications blackout. But Rahul Gandhi was sent packing from the Srinagar airport. Things have since appeared to look up for Rahul Gandhi and the Abdullahs tried to ensure his message had resonance when Bharat Jodo Yatra entered J&K and boosted their battle for political survival.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide  

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