"This crown I’m placing on your head is made of thorns"
The Sher-e-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir) Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah uttered these prophetic words as he named his son Farooq president of the the National Conference, thus formally anointing him his successor at a rally in Srinagar’s Iqbal Park on August 21, 1981. A little over a year later, on September 8, 1982, he passed away. Within days, Farooq was sworn in as Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister.
So too, nearly two decades later, Farooq passed on the crown to his son Omar, first by making him president of the NC in June 2002 and then by insisting that Omar and not he would lead the NC-Congress coalition government formed after the last assembly elections in November-December 2008. With Omar still a youthful 39, the fate of his state is likely to remain intertwined with that of yet another Abdullah for many more years.
Already for nearly eight decades, the Abdullahs have been at the centre of every major turn the history of Jammu and Kashmir has taken. Sheikh Abdullah’s political career began in 1931, leading the first major agitation in the state against the autocratic rule of the then maharaja, Hari Singh, to end a good 50 years later. It made him the first Prime Minister of democratic Kashmir (as the post was then called), but it also put him behind bars for nearly a decade.
It was he who insisted that the name of the party he had joined be changed from ‘Muslim Conference’ to ‘National Conference’. He repeatedly rejected Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s efforts to draw him into the struggle for a separate Pakistan. He organised the defence of his state when the Pakistani raiders attacked in 1947, until the Indian army arrived. As prime minister, he introduced sweeping land reforms.
No doubt there was the flip side too. Once the Sheikh became PM, serious misunderstandings also arose between him and Jawaharlal Nehru. Some flirting on the Sheikh’s part with the idea of an independent Kashmir saw him jailed in 1953. More than half a century later, his son and grandson are still grappling with the question of Kashmir’s precise relationship with the rest of India.
Farooq, though very different from his father, has had just as rough a political life. A fun loving, exuberant medical practitioner by profession, he has been forced to curb his natural style to cope with ever mounting pressures — be it from Delhi in the early part of his career, or from the militants seeking an independent Kashmir in the latter. Three times chief minister, he has survived the state’s worst phase of insurgency in the 1990s when mainstream politicians appeared to be fast becoming irrelevant.
“He (Farooq) is the only credible political face around,” former state governor Gen K. V. Krishna Rao once said. “He can take up challenges. If he ever gets bumped off, the whole political process will collapse.”
This no longer holds true perhaps, with the third generation of Abdullahs, Omar, having firmly taken over. It has been a renewal of sorts for the NC; many are willing to give young Omar a chance they would not have done his father.