As much as it is a political biography of its eponymous subject, Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir is equally revealing of 20th-century India’s transition from a British colony to an independent nation-state. The cast of political “characters” who appear in the book, apart from the former Prime Minister, then Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah (1905-1982), include Gandhi, Jinnah, and, most prominently, Nehru.

Accordingly, the book’s author, Chitralekha Zutshi, Professor of History at William & Mary, Virginia, US, presents a study of Abdullah’s making and unmaking as a statesman caught between multiple exigencies. Pressing as his loyalties were to his beloved Kashmiri people, there were also the political machinations of negotiating the sovereignty of a region affected by the geopolitics of its strategic location. Since Jammu and Kashmir continue to occupy a vexed place in postcolonial India’s polity, the legacy of the Sher-i-Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, inescapably informs the region’s political heritage.

In an interview with Scroll, Zutshi talked about her latest book and its analysis of Kashmiri and Indian political history. Excerpts from the conversation:

In his foreword to your book, the second in the Indian Lives series, editor Ramachandra Guha begins by expressing the belief that “every historian must, at some stage of her career, try her hand at writing a biography. Were you to agree with Guha, what made you feel that you had arrived at the point at which this biography of Sheikh Abdullah needed to be penned, especially given the extensive research it took to make this book possible?
In a sense, the process of writing this book began almost 30 years ago, when I first started research on Kashmir’s history and political culture. Very early on, it became clear that Abdullah figured rather prominently in shaping Kashmir’s modern past. But the urgency for writing his political biography became apparent when I was working on my second book, Kashmir’s Contested Pasts, which is a history of how Kashmiris have written about and debated their past. Abdullah’s legacy emerged as perhaps one of the most contested issues in Kashmiris’ understanding of their modern history and identity.

So I embarked on this project in earnest a little more than a decade ago, realising soon after that this would have to be a biography of Abdullah in conversation with his associates, interlocutors, critics and supporters through his long and checkered political career. It was a challenging task not only because of the breadth and depth of research that went into it but also because in writing it I had to think like a biographer and a historian, two roles that can be fruitfully combined but are sometimes difficult to reconcile.

One learns very early on in the book that, unlike so many other politicians who made their mark on South Asian history of the decolonising and then postcolonial era, Abdullah’s beginnings were humble. Yet, his rise was meteoric, despite what you describe as the grimness of his entry into the world, at “[t]he turn of the 20th century as a [Muslim] subject … of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.” You situate Abdullah’s early popularity within the zeitgeist of a “Kashmiri generation … [grappling] with being subjects of [this] princely state within the larger British Indian Empire.”

Might one say that there was a coincidence between the rise of anti-coloniality in South Asia generally and the desire for Kashmiris to unyoke themselves from the local monarchy more specifically? Therein, did Abdullah represent an ideal leader precisely because of his lack of pedigree?
Yes, indeed, I think that the Kashmiri movement for economic and political rights in the early 20th century has to be located within the larger, variegated narratives of anti-colonialism in the subcontinent. In its early years, the movement was linked to the cacophonous politics of the Muslims of the Punjab and by the late 1930s it was closely associated with the nationalism of the Indian National Congress. For these outside groups and Kashmiris across classes, Abdullah represented an ideal leader because he came from humble beginnings, could speak the language of justice and equality in an Islamic idiom, and had a clean political slate since his family had never been in government service or associated with politics in any way.

Quoting from a speech he made in 1933, you pinpoint the egalitarian ethos of Abdullah’s political praxis: “I am Muslim … but I see Hindus and Muslims with the same eye in worldly affairs and want them to live and work together happily.” Thereupon, you conclude that Abdullah’s “secularism … was drawn from Islam.”

However, you also find from your research that he imbibed communist ideals at a later stage while continuing to be staunchly Muslim and secularist. How might we understand these seemingly contradictory influences in his development as a politician?
One of the reasons for Abdullah’s success, and perhaps also failure, as a politician was his ability to bring together what you term “seemingly contradictory” ideas. In part, because he came from an apolitical background, he was not wedded to particular political ideologies and was open to drawing on a variety of ideological influences to shape himself as a political figure as well as his politics. What remained consistent throughout was his commitment to Islam and egalitarianism. If nationalism or communism or any other ideology could serve to further the cause of equality, he was willing to work within its parameters, and equally to jettison it if it no longer served his larger political purpose.

Still on the question of religion and politics, you observe very strikingly that “[t]hroughout his political career, [Abdullah] sympathised with the predicament of Indian Muslims, but did not consider their interests to be similar to those of Kashmiri Muslims.” Evidently, this was more than just a matter of identity politics. Instead, could we understand this distinction for Abdullah as one that was central to his aim of establishing Kashmiri sovereignty as produced of its specific regionality and historicity?

Nevertheless, Kashyap Bandhu, Abdullah’s fellow-Kashmiri politician of the early-1940s believed “that Abdullah wanted to be both a nationalist leader as well as a leader of Muslims, roles that were irreconcilable in [Bandhu’s] opinion.” Was this, then, merely political strategy on Abdullah’s part?
First, Bandhu’s quote is in the context of Kashmir, not India, so what he was saying is that Abdullah was trying to be both a Kashmiri nationalist and a leader of Kashmiri Muslims, roles that he thought were irreconcilable. He had to choose to either represent all Kashmiris or remain confined to the leadership of Kashmiri Muslims.

For the other question, Abdullah felt that the situation of Kashmiri Muslims was different than that of Indian Muslims, even prior to independence. While Indian Muslim politics were defined by their position as a minority in India, Kashmiri Muslims were a majority that was suffering under the yoke of an authoritarian system in Kashmir. After independence, too, Indian Muslim issues continued to be defined within the minority framework, while Kashmiri Muslims, still a majority in Jammu and Kashmir, had to now contend with being considered a part of the larger Muslim minority in India. For Abdullah, although Indian Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims shared the same faith, they had distinct histories, identities, and demands. So you’re right that in his mind it was of utmost importance that Kashmir’s distinct regional-national identity be recognised and its people – and he himself as their leader – be given free rein to develop a prosperous society within an independent India.

At the risk of trivialising their long relationship, I could not help but feel from reading your book that Nehru and Abdullah shared quite a bromance! Ultimately, that friendship soured. Of their earlier camaraderie, might there have been any likelihood that Nehru’s affinity arose from the Kashmiri identity he shared with Abdullah?

Despite that possibility, was the crumbling of the rapport between them starkly emblematic of the growing rift between Kashmir and India where the latter were becoming increasingly intransigent on the question of Kashmir’s autonomy?
Yes, to an extent their relationship drew from their common Kashmiri roots, but it also stemmed from the Congress’ larger strategy towards princely states and Muslims in general, both of which they were attempting to bring within their fold in the late 1930s. In Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority princely state, these two concerns came together. Abdullah’s sheer sincerity and willingness to work within the Congress vision cemented the relationship and kept it strong through turbulent times. It finally soured because Abdullah grew more intransigent from Delhi’s perspective, demanding autonomy and being increasingly unwilling to work within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. And also because while Nehru felt that Abdullah was no longer committed to bringing Kashmir closer to India, Abdullah felt that Nehru was no longer championing him as the sole leader of Kashmiris.

A rather revelatory statement you make in the book is that “Abdullah’s vision for the Kashmiri nation did not go beyond the Kashmir Valley. Key parts of the state – Jammu and Ladakh – were left out of its ambit, with their people … [believing] that Abdullah’s nationalism came at their expense.” Was this political myopia on Abdullah’s part or did he believe this to be a viable tactic that may have made the fight for sovereignty more manageable?
don’t think it was political myopia on Abdullah’s part; what I do think is that this was baked into the movement very early on when Jammu’s Muslim leaders broke with Abdullah as he moved closer to the Congress. Once that had happened and he came to be identified largely as a leader of Kashmiri Muslims, Abdullah worked assiduously to develop them as his primary constituency, and his national vision, too, fell in line with that, focusing on the Kashmir Valley at the expense of other parts of the state.

As one progresses through the book, it becomes very clear that Abdullah’s familial relationships were always second to the cause of Kashmir. Even so, Begum Jehan Abdullah (1916-2000) proved to be more than just a long-suffering political “widow.” What can you tell us of her own self-making in and beyond the shadow of her spouse?
Begum Abdullah was a formidable personality in her own right. The daughter of a Gujjar mother and an Austro-Hungarian father, she was raised a devout Muslim and stayed in purdah until events forced her to come out of it to enter the political limelight in the wake of her husband’s arrest in 1946. Throughout Abdullah’s various prison terms, she took over the reins of the movement and was crucial in steering its course as well as in keeping Abdullah’s memory alive among his constituents. During his second and last tenure as Chief Minister in the 1970s, she was an active participant in the affairs of the state as the state administration became somewhat of a family business. After Abdullah’s death, she continued in this role and was active both behind the scenes as well as on the frontlines of politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

Your book concludes by considering Abdullah’s legacy shortly after he died in the 1980s. For Abdullah’s detractors, the lion’s roar was one that had faded into the distance; they believed him to have been effectively defanged by India.

In the contemporary moment, and as they read your book, why might those with an interest in South Asian history need to rethink the story of the Sher-i-Kashmir and what lessons may his political career still be able to offer?
Abdullah has always been regarded in black or white in the subcontinent, either as a revolutionary martyr or a conspiring traitor depending on the place and the time. I hope that this biography illuminates the complexities of his political character by placing it in a broader historical context. His story also compels us to remember that the idea of the Indian nation was at one time capacious enough to accommodate multiple regional and religious identities, but that became increasingly difficult in the postcolonial period with two antagonistic nation-states asserting their unitary sovereignties in opposition to one another. Kashmir, and Abdullah, were caught in between, unwilling to pick a side but being forced to do so. Finally, his story illustrates the fraught nature of centre-state relations in postcolonial India, serving as a reminder of the dangers inherent in the centre’s strategy of banking on individual political personalities, no matter how significant, to mollify communities on the country’s restive peripheries.

R Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies at William & Mary, Virginia, US.