Farooq Abdullah: Man For All Seasons

No one in Kashmir understands the inner workings of the powers that be in Delhi more than Farooq Abdullah, and if he is able to provide leadership to help the Kashmiri political class avoid the pitfalls, it will be a swansong he will be positively remembered for; his chequered past notwithstanding

If Farooq Abdullah, who knows the inner workings of Delhi, is able to provide leadership, it will be a swansong he will be remembered for  

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

By the 1970s, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s over two-decade-long incarceration on trumped-up charges for his zeal to empower Kashmir’s dispossessed masses had taken its toll on him. He was ailing and had lost the resolve to fight for Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) full autonomy.

Abdullah struggled hard to ensure autonomy for due share for his people in resources and power. He was promised it in return for virtually singlehandedly ensuring J&K’s accession to India in 1947

Abdullah virtually abandoned his insistence on full autonomy guaranteed as part of the special status to J&K under a special provision in India’s constitution by making peace with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

He signed an accord with Indira Gandhi to pave the way for his return to power as the chief minister in 1975. The accord endorsed the dilution of J&K’s special status since 1953 when Abdullah was unceremoniously sacked as the Prime Minister and arrested in the middle of the night. 

Abdullah made all the right noises when he returned to the helm but could not achieve much. He was reduced to a pale shadow of his former self when he passed away in 1982.

Abdullah named his son, Farooq Abdullah, as his successor shortly before his death even as he is believed to have been unsure about the anointment. Indira Gandhi’s insistence is ultimately said to have forced Abdullah Senior’s hand. 

Once the baton was passed on to him, Farooq Abdullah had every reason to believe his position was unassailable. He had no less the back of the all-powerful Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

They started off well. But Farooq Abdullah’s attempt to be his own man got an unpredictable Indira Gandhi’s goat. The situation degenerated so much in just two years that she would repeat history and get Farooq Abdullah dismissed in the middle of the night in 1984. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was similarly dismissed three decades earlier and incarcerated.

Indira Gandhi did not take kindly to Farooq Abdullah’s audacity to decline an alliance ahead of the 1983 elections, saying Congress ‘thought I would be a mere puppet.’ Delhi was used to dealing with pliable leaders in Srinagar after getting rid of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. 

Farooq Abdullah’s momentary defiance worked. He won a comfortable majority but annoyed Indira Gandhi further by discussing regional autonomy with leaders of other states. 

Indira Gandhi raged over the idea and dismissed autonomy as anti-national. She had had enough of Farooq Abdullah when she toppled his government in July 1984 by engineering a revolt within his family and propped up his brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, as the chief minister. 

Their ties sourced to an extent that Farooq Abdullah said Indira Gandhi’s ‘paranoia was such that she wanted one to be totally servile.’ Indira Gandhi hit back calling Farooq Abdullah ‘a totally untrustworthy’ man who ‘tells too many lies.’

Indira Gandhi’s attitude was a continuation of Delhi’s approach, which Sayyid Mir Qasim, the chief minister from 1971 to 1975, has best described in his autography. 

Qasim wrote that whenever Delhi felt a leader in Kashmir was ‘getting too big for his shoes; it employ[ed] Machiavellian methods to cut him to size. He added it was done ‘by projecting a lesser leader as an alternative with the help of a two-way overt and covert campaign – one, by convincing the targeted leader that his position was unassailable and the lesser leader was conspiring against him; and second, by telling the lesser leader that he was more popular than the main leader who has outlived his utility.’

Qasim wrote that tale-tellers, ‘of whose black art one heard in Mughal courts, play[ed] a major role in this kind of conspiracy’. 

Farooq Abdullah would learn his lessons fast to emerge out of the political wilderness Indira Gandhi consigned him to. He did not have the stomach for the fight his father put up and eventually lost. 

Farooq Abdullah would grab his second chance with both hands. He went out of his way to build a relationship with Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother after her assassination. 

Farooq Abdullah allied with Congress saying he had to stay on the right side of the Union government if he wanted to run J&K. The compromise led to 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. 

Farooq Abdullah again lost favour in Delhi and was forced to quit in January 1990 when his pleas against appointing Jagmohan as the governor fell on deaf ears. He pleaded Jagmohan ‘hates the guts of Muslims’ and would make the situation worse. 

As Farooq Abdullah feared, the government responded with brute force as the administration virtually collapsed following his resignation. The situation continued to go from bad to worse. 

The Indian government fell back upon Farooq Abdullah to plead its case at the UN, where India faced immense scrutiny over human rights abuses. It pulled him out of virtual political retirement when Delhi sought to hold assembly elections to delegitimise the separatist forces in Kashmir and to show the world that all was well amid much global scrutiny over the abuses. 

Farooq Abdullah’s party had virtually become defunct as its cadre was at the receiving end of the militant violence and targetted killings. He would again become the chief minister in 1996 with the full backing of Delhi

Farooq Abdullah remained in power until 2002 before Delhi again had a change of heart and propped up the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to cut the Abdullahs to size. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was repackaged as the ideal politician Kashmir needed while in reality, he was every inch a product of politics that Delhi patronised after purging Abdullah Senior. 

The experiment continued for a few years before his son, Omar Abdullah, succeeded Farooq Abdullah as the head of their party and eventually became the chief minister. The game of musical chairs continued until Sayeed’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, became the chief minister in alliance with the new hegemon in Indian politics, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Mufti lost power in 2018. A year later, the BJP, which is committed to the idea of a Hindu state, ended J&K’s constitutional safeguards meant to protect its unique demographic. The BJP saw them as part of a permissive approach of previous governments towards its Muslim majority. 

To add insult to injury, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti were among those detained under a law that allows incarceration without trial for up to two years when the BJP ended the region’s watered-down autonomous status. 

For once, Kashmir’s political elite got some taste of what Kashmiris have been going through, particularly since 1989. The BJP showed them their place and left them with no option but to close ranks. 

At 82, Farooq Abdullah again stepped in to provide the leadership to keep Kashmir’s political forces afloat. For they know whatever excuses the government may come up with for stripping the Muslim-majority region of its semi-autonomous status, one of the immediate goals of the move was to take over its political control directly. 

A substantial share of power cannot be denied to Muslims in the region as long as its demographic profile remains as it no matter how flawed, manipulated, and engineered electoral processes are.   

Farooq Abdullah took centre stage again when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2021 invited leaders from Jammu & Kashmir for talks. It marked a major climbdown after the government tried every trick in the book to discredit and diminish the Kashmiri leadership. 

Given its ideological blinkers and antagonism towards Muslims, the engagement was perceived well be window dressing for international consumption and an attempt to bide time for accomplishing BJP’s longer-term project better in Kashmir. 

Many expect Farooq Abdullah to rise to the occasion and provide leadership to the Kashmiri political class fighting for its survival in the seemingly changed scenario. No one in Kashmir understands the inner workings of the powers that be in Delhi more than Farooq Abdullah. If he is able to provide leadership and help the Kashmiri political class avoid the pitfalls, it will be a swansong that Farooq Abdullah will be positively remembered for; his chequered past notwithstanding.  

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

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