Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was born on 5 December 1905, in a village on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir. He went on to play a dominant role in Kashmiri politics for over half a century, and was instrumental in Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union.
Abdullah graduated from Punjab University in 1928, and completed his postgraduation in Physics from Aligarh Muslim University in 1930. The anti-colonial politics at these university spaces inspired him to resign from his job as a school teacher and work full time for the betterment of the Muslim masses in Kashmir.
His first major political engagement was during the protests against the death of 21 people in police firing in July 1931, for which he was arrested. Soon after his release, he founded the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference in October 1932.
Role in India’s Independence Movement
Abdullah soon realised that modern Kashmiri politics needed to reorient itself on a secular and anti-feudal axis. Consequently, the party was renamed as the National Conference in 1939, and formed linkages with both minority leaders within Kashmir and the national-level Congress leadership. His personal camaraderie and shared ideology with Jawaharlal Nehru aided the process.
In 1946, the National Conference started the massive ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement against the ruling Dogra dynasty. Abdullah also succeeded Nehru as the President of the All India State Peoples’ Conference, but was soon arrested by the Maharaja on charges of sedition. Nehru protested against this suppression, but was prevented from entering the State.
After his release post-independence, Abdullah asserted the right of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide the future of the State. He mobilised the people for the defence of Kashmir against the tribal aggressors supported by the Pakistani state, and urged the Maharaja to accept accession to India. On 5 March 1948, he was appointed as the Prime Minister of the State.
Contributions to Constitution Making
Abdullah joined the Constituent Assembly of India on 16 June 1949. He did not speak in the Assembly, but played a critical role in negotiating the terms of entry of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union, which granted it a distinct status.
As Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 to 1953, he implemented a vigorous programme of land reforms which saw the abolishment of Zamindari, implementation of land ceilings, transfer of land to the landless, and equitable tenurial arrangements. These reforms have been hailed as the most substantive and impactful among all the states in India. He was also a part of the Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir which drafted the State Constitution from 1951 to 1956.
Abdullah was unceremoniously arrested and dismissed from office in 1953, as part of a coup engineered by dissidents in the National Government. In this affair, the new Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad got tacit approval and support from Nehru, who was increasingly disillusioned with Abdullah’s refusal to commit to India and curb secessionist tendencies. He was released briefly in 1958, only to be arrested again and was finally released only in 1964 when the conspiracy case against him was withdrawn at Nehru’s intervention.
The erosion of autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 had made Abdullah sceptical about the Union government’s intentions, but he accepted the finality of accession in 1975 under the Kashmir Accord, and returned as Chief Minister with the support of the Congress party. The revived National Conference swept the polls in 1977, and he remained Chief Minister up until he passed away on 8 September 1982. He was succeeded as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir by his son Farooq Abdullah.
Abdullah was a prolific writer in Urdu, which includes his posthumously published autobiography, Aatish-e-Chinar (1986).
- Eminent Parlimentarians Series (Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1990)
- Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, 1905-82 by Balraj Puri (Economic and Political Weekly, 1982)
- Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir by A.G. Noorani (Oxford University Press, 2011)
- India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha (Picador India, 2007)