Friendship Gone Sour: The Nehru-Abdullah bond and its implications on India and Kashmir

Friendship Gone Sour - The Nehru-Abdullah bond and its implications on India and Kashmir

A bear’s friendship is how today’s Kashmiri literati remember the ties between the two stalwarts — Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah

By: Naseer Ganai

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them,” writes Basharat Peer in his much-acclaimed 2008 memoir, Curfewed Night. “When India was violently partitioned in 1947, both Hari Singh and Sheikh Abdullah sought time before deciding Kashmir’s fate. In October 1947, however, tribesmen from the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, supported by the Pakistani Army, invaded Kashmir, forcing their hand; Singh decided to join India, and Sheikh Abdullah, who was a friend of the new Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, supported him,” notes Peer in the book.

The defining moment in Kashmir’s modern political history, like for much of the subcontinent, arrived in 1947, when the two dominant characters of the time, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, were friends. The nature of that friendship shaped Kashmir’s political course in the following decades, formed an essential part of every Kashmiri’s political education, and was recorded extensively in folklore, books and magazine articles. In Kashmir, this friendship has received both awe and ridicule as it encapsulates spectacle, history and betrayal. A leading Kashmiri historian, under anonymity, labels this friendship as hapath yaraz (a bear’s friendship)—a bond that does more harm than good—for Kashmir.

This friendship was revisited and suddenly brought into national focus by the BJP after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. The ruling party accused Nehru of giving his friend Article 370 on a platter. In fact, after the special status was revoked, many articles and national news channels claimed that Nehru had devised this status for the erstwhile princely state through Articles 370 and 35A—because of his friendship with Abdullah. It was being implied that the country’s first prime minister had betrayed India’s interests at the altar of friendship. “The special status was accorded because of the friendship between Nehru and Sheikh. Article 370 was imposed and even Parliament was made helpless,” said BJP leader Vasundhara Raje, a month after the abrogation.  Soon after, the BJP government detained former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and thousands of others. Strangely, the incumbent party also tried to justify the arrests by arguing that Nehru made sure Farooq’s father, Sheikh Abdullah, was arrested in 1953 and jailed for 11 years during his tenure as the J&K Prime Minister. Abdullah was accused in the infamous ‘Kashmir conspiracy case’ of hobnobbing with the Americans for an independent Kashmir. The Intelligence Bureau convinced Nehru that Abdullah had become a liability. Subsequently, he was dismissed and jailed on charges of sedition.

Kashmiri writers opine that it was Nehru who actively pursued the friendship with Abdullah for vested interests, which changed Kashmir’s destiny forever. The friendship thus became a metaphor for the relationship between Delhi and Kashmir, and the BJP seems to admit that betrayal was an essential feature of this bond. Abdullah and Nehru’s friendship is woven in such a way that everything revolves around it, including Kashmir-India relations. During the autonomy resolution debate in the J&K Assembly in 2000, Farooq had spoken at length about the closeness between Nehru and Abdullah, and how suspicion was created about Abdullah’s meeting with American diplomats in 1953.

A Kashmiri Historian, Under Anonymity, Labels This Friendship As Hapath Yaraz (A Bear’s Friendship)—A Bond That Does More Harm Than Good—For Kashmir.

It is said that Abdullah first met Nehru, a Kashmiri by ethnicity, at the Lahore Railway Station in 1937. “He took an immediate liking to Nehru, and the two became so engrossed in their discussion that they forgot the train had started to move… Sheikh Abdullah was delighted when he learnt that Nehru was already well-informed about the movement,” writes Syed Taffazul Hussain in his book, Sheikh Abdullah: A Biography. The movement here refers to the anti-monarchy political movement in Kashmir that had pushed for democracy and human rights. Abdullah was the star of this movement.

In his autobiography, Aatish Chinar, Abdullah wrote that he was deeply impressed with Nehru’s love for Kashmir. “In 1942, when the Maharaja was thinking to arrest Nehru, the latter said he would prefer to be a prisoner in Kashmir rather than the Prime Minister of India… I was deeply impressed and dazzled by Nehru’s attachment with Kashmir and this became the reason for our friendship,” Abdullah wrote, and went on to quote the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz: Aa ki wabasta hain us husn ki yaadein tujhse/Jis ne is dil ko pari-khana bana rakha tha (Come! For the memories of that beauty affiliate with you/ That sprouted in my heart the joyous abodes of faeries). However, later in the book, Abdullah indirectly held Nehru responsible for his arrest, saying Nehru was misled by some sections claiming he was in league with outside forces to turn Kashmir into an independent nation, which led to his dismissal and arrest on August 9, 1953.

Author Ayaz Rasool Nazki says there is a lot written about Abdullah in poetry and literature, but not much on the Abdullah-Nehru friendship, barring a Persian couplet quoted by Nehru in November 1948, when he was addressing a huge crowd alongside Sheikh Abdullah at Lal Chowk. Mun tu shudam tu mun shudi,/mun tun shudam tu jaan shudi /Taakas na guyad baad azeen,/ mun deegaram tu deegari (I have become you, and you me, /I am the body, you soul; / So that no one can say hereafter, / That you are someone, and me someone else.)  The couplet, says Nazki, is often quoted to reflect upon a deep friendship that turned sour.

The Nehru-Abdullah friendship, he says, has remained part of political folklore in Kashmir’s long history and interpreted by historians according to their own political views but has surprisingly escaped literary scrutiny. “Perhaps, the writers didn’t feel much about this friendship to write about it,” he adds. However, after 1953, ladishahs (Kashmiri storytellers) would visit people’s homes, reciting satirical poetry about the political conditions—offering a sharp take on the affair.

Thadis na akl aes tundas kya gav/  warnihind nachiv duniya khyo (If the tall one didn’t have sense, what happened to the short one? / Meanwhile, the midwife’s son stole the entire world). The ‘tall one’ implies Abdullah. Mirza Afzal Beg, Sheikh’s deputy, is called the ‘short one’. After Sheikh’s imprisonment, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was made J&K’s second prime minister and it is he who was referred to as the midwife.

One of Kashmir’s well-known historians and writers, M.Y. Taing, in his new book, Nehru in Kashmir, writes that “both Nehru and Abdullah are responsible for Kashmir’s turbulent, though, glorious history. But all paths of glory have to travel through graveyards.” In his recent book, Nehru and the Spirit of India (Penguin Viking, 2022), writer and political theorist, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, uses portions from Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi (2017) to draw out the “politics of friendship” between the duo. He views their friendship as emblematic of Kashmir’s political fate. Bhattacharjee uncovers the universal tropes of friendship in that relationship: the promise of trust, and the lack and loss of it in politics. Bhattacharjee sees a socialist hope in what made Abdullah prefer Nehru’s India to Pakistan’s overtures. Both feared the repercussions of anti-minoritarian politics. But, rumours and decisions in bad faith ruined their bond. At the end, Bhattacharjee writes: “The Nehru-Abdullah friendship did not quite adhere to Michel de Montaigne’s idea of friendship being run by tempered and moderate emotions. Politics doesn’t allow such luxury.”


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