The broader identity of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s leadership is mainly defined by four factors -sustained struggle for democratic rights to people, integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India on principles of secularism, equal empowerment of people through revolutionary land reforms and then two-decade long complicated relationship with the Centre. These major phases in the life Sheikh Abdullah overshadow his administrative acumen and governance capabilities which come to fore after his return as Chief Minister in February 1975 following Indira-Sheikh Accord of November 1974.
Since Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal as Prime Minister and his detention in August 1953, the democracy and governance in Jammu and Kashmir went for a toss as Centre spent next two decades in management of anger and neutralisation of the special status through pliable governments of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, G.M. Sadiq and Syed Mir Qasim.
When Sheikh Abdullah took over the charge of office in February 1975, almost half of the legislature comprised of legislators who were returning to House election after without actually facing a contest. Local officers of the civil bureaucracy were either on Central deputation or posted to insignificant assignments. The economy was in complete disarray and the subsidies -a largesse of two decades to keep people happy -had mounted debt burdens to unmanageable proportions. The education sector was in shambles with no regard for merit.
In wake of these and other challenges, Sheikh took some drastic measures to streamline governance, economy and education.
R.K. Jerath, who served as an IAS officer in Jammu and Kashmir for over three decades, had just entered the civil service around this time. He has a first-hand account of the governance scenario as it existed in mid 1970s. In his recent book, ‘Rajtarangini of the composite state of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh’, lists the measures that Sheikh Abdullah took after taking over as Chief Minister in 1975. These measures laid strong foundation for holistic governance.
As Sheikh Abdullah is vividly remembered by his followers and admirers on his 118th birth anniversary, below is an edited excerpt from Jerath’s book published with permission from its publisher Gulshan Books.
Return of Sheikh Abdullah
After the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War and birth of Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi had categorically stated that the “Two Nation Theory” has been buried into the “Arabian Sea” once for all and had also realised the futility of keeping Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in prison and in view of the changed geo-political scenario of the Indian Sub-Continent, both Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah appreciated the need for restarting the dialogue to end long pending impasse, and with the assurance that the Article 370, whose author was none other than Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah himself, shall be restored in letter and spirit.
Indira Gandhi took initiative and sent her Private Secretary P.N. Haksar to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, where Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was undergoing treatment, who invited Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to meet the Prime Minister. The meeting proved very fruitful and both prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah finally agreed to talk to reach an understanding. The ban on the plebiscite front was removed. Begum Akbar Jahan and Beg Sahib were permitted to go to Kashmir and Sheikh Sahib was also released on 5th June 1972 followed by various meetings between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah nominated Mirza Afzal Beg to represent Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to hold talks with Prime Minister’s representative G. Parthasarthi, former Vice Chancellor, Jawahar Lal Nehru University and son of the former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir State Mr. Gopalaswami Aiyangar, with the result that the struggle had shifted from streets to the Conference Table.
During negotiations Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other leaders several times and finally both the parties reached an understanding and discussions concluded in February 1975 when both the representatives submitted their report to their principals and an agreement arrived which was known as “Kashmir Accord” was officially announced which heralded a new era in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
On February 23, 1975, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah arrived at Jammu from Delhi and same afternoon the Congress Parliamentary party convened a special meeting at the Chief Minister’s private office where Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was unanimously elected as leader of the Congress Parliamentary party in presence of Dev Kant Baroah, President of the Indian National Congress, where Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s name was proposed by the outgoing Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim and proposal was warmly welcomed and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was sworn in as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir State along with Sh. Mohammad Afzal Baig, Thakur Devi Dass and Sonam Narboo as Cabinet Ministers.
The accord was also placed before the Parliament the same day and was ratified by the entire house. Strangely enough no one among all the four belonged to the Congress party or State legislature and perhaps it was first and unique example of its kind in the history of parliamentary democracy in the world.
While constituting his Cabinet in February 1975 Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had given due representation to all the three regions of the State in which D.D. Thakur represented Jammu, Sonam Narboo represented Ladakh and M.A. Beg represented Kashmir Valley.
Immediately after assuming the office in February 1975, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah on priority overhauled the State administrative set up and to remedy the situation, the entry of visitors to secretariat was streamlined with the result that there was visible improvement in the things and various functionaries in the Secretariat began to attend to their work with regularity.
Turning to education Institutions and Examination centres, where annual examinations had become a mockery and everyone used to have free run and indulge in all kind of mass copying and resorting to all sorts of unfair means, in total connivance with the supervisory staff, which had become an order of the day, with the result that the annual examinations conducted by two Universities and Board of School Education, had become a total sham and to stem the rot, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah personally visited a number of examination centres and gave strict instructions to the supervisory staff to ensure total elimination of all mal practices during the examinations with iron hand. Police used to be posted outside the examination centres in good strength with the result that the sanctity and credibility of Board and University examinations had been restored to a great extent.
In order to further ensure that the degrees obtained through unfair means, become irrelevant, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah introduced a system of separate written competitive examination for admission to various technical and professional colleges of the State, which has now became a permanent feature of all admission to Technical and Professional colleges and to give such examinations a legal status—an executive order was issued in the year 1987 where-under a separate legal entity styled “Competent Authority” was constituted by the General Administration Department in 1987. This authority had been created, during the posting of the author, as Additional Secretary (Trainings) in the General Administration Department along with Sh. Altaf Ahmad Advocate, who had been solicitor General of India and Prof. Satish Raina, Ex-principal of Government Degree College had been appointed as its First Chairman. This “Competent Authority” conducted written examinations for admission to Medical and Engineering Colleges of the State till 2001.
To revive sick economy of the State, a seventeen member Development Review Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Laxmi Kant Jha, the then Governor of the State was constituted and number of leading economists including Dr. Manmohan Singh (Former Prime Minister), Prof A.M. Khusro, Director IEG New Delhi, Prof K.A. Naqvi, Director Delhi School of Economics, Dr M.S. Swaminathan, Director General ICAR from outside the State were invited to work on the committee. The report submitted by the Jha Committee, popularly known as “Jha Committee Report” made useful recommendations for economic development of the State and after the receipt of recommendations of Jha Committee, “Haq Contestants” had been engaged by the State government to prepare District wise profile of the local resources available so that same could be used for economic development of the State- but later on after the death of Sher-i-Kashmir, both the economic reports had virtually been thrown in the dustbin.
After the arrest of Sheikh in 1953, the economic structure of the State had become sick owing to political chicanery. To deaden the political sensibilities of the people, Bakshi and pedantic communist leaders had gratified their belly by selling them rice at a subsidized rate. They had convinced the rulers in Delhi that by this they would be able to take the people’s attention away from politics and also from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The government purchased rice from Indian market at a high price and sold it at a very low price in the state, thus causing a heavy strain on the State exchequer. Bakshi thought he had stumbled on an efficacious recipe. In 1975, when Sheikh Sahib assumed office, the subsidy on rice had gone up to twenty crore rupees annually. This was eating away into the State’s budget, and he abolished the subsidy in a phased manner. For this purpose, he called a meeting of all parties including the Congress party. The participants approved a gradual withdrawal of subsidy and the money thus saved was diverted to developmental schemes and employment generating programmes. It was heartening, however, that people did not get misled but saw the reasonableness of the action in time. Indira Gandhi had termed the decision bold and commendable.
In order to translate new vision into reality, the Government needed a vibrant, honest administrative set-up. But it was found that the administrative set up in place was sick to the core as a result of two decades long rot affecting every sphere of life in the State. A quick, complete retrieval was just not possible. And the Government for the first time in the history of State bureaucracy dismissed from Government Service some notorious officers and ended the deputation of some officers from outside for whom the state was just ” a new and green pasture” and also sent some State cadre Officers on Central deputation. This sent shock waves in the entire administrative set up. But the move resulted in a perceptible improvement. The old, genteel times with their work ethics seemed to have returned.
After revamping the administration, the attention was given to political functioning and as a first step the plebiscite front was disbanded, and National Conference revived and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was elected as President of National Conference with Mirza Afzal Beg as Vice President. Subsequently, the Cabinet had been expanded and members from both Congress as well as National Conference were inducted as Ministers from National Conference namely- Ataullah Suhrawardi, Hakim Habibullah, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, and Ghulam Nabi Kochak. Mangat Ram, Rangil Singh, Chhaju Ram, Choudhary Mohammad Aslam, Kachu Mohammad Ali and Zainab Begum from Congress were also inducted in the Cabinet. Mohan Kishen Tikoo, who was the presiding officer of the court which was trying “Kashmir Conspiracy Case” was appointed as State Minister.
Subsequently, in the year 1977, the Congress withdrew its support form National Conference and Governor dissolved the Assembly on 27 March, 1977 and ordered holding of fresh elections in June 1977 which were mainly fought between three major political parties namely National Conference, Indian National Congress and Janta Party and outcome of the elections surprised almost everybody except Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who got clear majority in the State Assembly by getting 47 out of 76 Assembly seats and formed a Government of National Congress only on 9th July, 1977.
Immediately thereafter Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah paid his attention to various infrastructural Project in the State. His dream of mid-thirties of constructing a state of the Art Modern Hospital in Kashmir ultimately become a reality and super speciality Hospital saw light of the day at Soura, near Regional Engineering College Srinagar, which had been constructed under a trust for which Government had transferred the land. The recruitment of doctors and para-military staff and procurement of machinery had been started during the time of Sheikh Sahib itself and when completed after his death, this institute had became one of the finest State of the Art hospitals in the country which not only benefitted the people of Kashmir but people from Poonch Rajouri, Doda, Kishtwar and even people from Jammu also preferred to go to Soura Institute rather than go to PGI Chandigarh or AIIMS Delhi.
Another mile stone achieved during the second tenure was the construction of Shere-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre on the banks of picturesque Dal Lake which substantially contributed to the promotion of National and International Conferences/seminars and tourism in the State. Apart from SKICC, it was during Shere-e-Kashmir’s time that old Tawi Bridge was replaced by a new four lane bridge which considerably improved the traffic management in Jammu City, he was also responsible for construction of indoor sports complex at Srinagar near Bakshi which promoted Indoor Games and also resulted in promotion of Tourism. His contributions for the renovation of Hazratbal Shrine at Srinagar and revamping Muslim Auqaf Trust and substantial increase in its income, by construction of various building and shopping complexes, resulted in substantial increase in the income of Muslim Auqaf Trust which had also been brought back on rails.
Single Line Administration
The most revolutionary administrative reform introduced by Sher-e-Kashmir was the concept of “Single Line Administration” introduced during the year 1976. As per existing set up at that time, Deputy Commissioner of the District used to be the head of the Administration in the district and other District officers, posted in the district, were not under his control who always used to listen and to look to their concerned head of department, rather than to head of the district administration, which had resulted in dual control over the District officers with the result that they were neither responsible to District head or to their concerned thereof the department which resulted in total lack of effective supervision and coordination.
It was Sher-e-Kashmir who under the single-line administration, made the Deputy Commissioner as head of the district, and all district heads of the various departments were made accountable to him and simultaneously a concept of district plan was introduced for the districts, which had to be prepared and approved by the District Development Board headed by the concerned Deputy Commissioner. In order to streamline and strengthen Single Line Administration, District boards were constituted under the Chairmanship of Dy. Commissioner (District Development Commissioner) for preparing and implementing district plan. Every year a meeting used to be held in the district under the Chairmanship of Chief Minister with all MPs, MLAs and MLCs from the concerned District and other major heads of the various departments and all District officers used to participate as members.
Subsequently with the passage of time, a Cabinet Minister, instead of District Development Commissioner, was made the Chairman of the District Development board and Dy. Commissioner’s role rather became only ceremonial and he was only made answerable for the implementation of decisions which he had not authored and which could not be implemented primarily because of lack of funds.
Another important notable contribution of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the establishment of two Agricultural Universities in the State under Sher-e- Kashmir (Universities) of Agricultural, Sciences and Technology Act, 1982. Normally one State has only one Agricultural University, but it is only J&K State which has two Agricultural Universities known as Sher-e-Kashmir, Agricultural University Jammu and Sher-i-Kashmir Agricultural University Kashmir. These two universities had apart from providing lot of employment to the people of the state had also done lot of good work in increasing production of various Agricultural/Horticulture, Floriculture, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, Sericulture and Poultry products. Keeping in view the agro-climatic zones of state of J&K. In fact credit also goes to Sher-I-Kashmir for making Kashmir Valley surplus in poultry products and almost self-sufficient milk production for which major credit also goes to these two universities and concerned line Departments of the State.
Separately, the issue in regard to the creation of additional districts became highly controversial. In October, 1972 the State government had appointed two Committees under the chairmanship of Sh. S.A.S. Qadri, the then Financial Commissioner (Rev) J&K, for the two divisions of Srinagar and Jammu. These Committees recommended that no new district should be created either in Jammu or in Kashmir Division. However, on July 1st, 1979, the State Government suddenly decided, on its own, to create three districts in the Kashmir Valley, namely Badgam, Pulwama and Kupwara and one in the Ladakh region, namely Kargil.
This decision of the State Government was considered arbitrary and partial to the Valley. It was followed by a number of agitations in the Jammu region, including a prolonged agitation in Kishtwar and Reasi. On November 12th, 1981, the State Government appointed another Commission under the chairmanship of Justice J.N. Wazir, retired Chief Justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, to go into this question. The Commission recommended the creation of three more districts in the Jammu region-Kishtwar, Samba and Reasi- and one more district, Bandipur, in the Srinagar Valley. The Recommendations which mostly went in favour of the Jammu region, had remained unimplemented till 2007.
At the time of death of Sher-e-Kashmir, the author was in Srinagar and was staying in Hospitality and Protocol but near MLA’s Hostel Srinagar and had been an eyewitness to the huge crowds of people, who had gathered on Maulana Azad Road to mourn his death. President Giani Zail Singh and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi personally came to Srinagar to pay their last tributes to the departed soul.
At the time of departure of his body for burial on the banks of Dal lake near Kashmir University, a sea of men, women and children had come on the roads to pay their last tributes to the man who had completely changed the destiny of the people of Jammu and Kashmir in general and that of people of “Kashmir Valley” in particular for which his name shall always be written in golden letters in the History of Jammu and Kashmir in general and that of History of Kashmir Valley in particular.
Immediately after the death of Sher-i-Kashmir his eldest son, Dr. Farooq Abdullah was appointed as next Chief Minister of the State, who while constituting his Cabinet had not inducted any minister from the previous Cabinet of Shere-e-Kashmir and had inducted only new faces, perhaps all of them did not enjoy integrity beyond doubt and also may be with an eye on Assembly elections which were held in June 1983 in which Dr. Farooq Abdullah got majority and formed a single party National Conference Government.