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Between Legacy and Controversy: Unveiling the Layers of Sheikh Abdullah in Chitralekha Zutshi's biography.

Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir

Book 2 in the Indian Lives Seies by the editor Ramachandra Guha

Author: Chitralekha Zutshi

Published by Fourth Estate (An Imprint of HarperCollins India)

Genre Political Biography

Pages: 376

MRP: Rs. 799/-

Acknowledgement: Book Review in collaboration with Book Reviewers Club and Harper Collins India

Chitralekha Zutshi, a renowned historian of Kashmir, has written a comprehensive and nuanced biography of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, one of the most controversial political figures of twentieth-century India. Abdullah, who was popularly known as the Lion of Kashmir, was a leader who championed the cause of his idea of Kashmiri nationalism, secularism, democracy and self-determination. He was also a complex and contradictory personality, who made many political choices that have shaped the history and politics of Kashmir, India and Pakistan.

This book is from the Indian Lives series of books from HarperCollins India which is under the guidance of Mr Ramchandra Guha. Guha, in his Foreward for this book has mentioned that many make the mistake of calling Abdullah a regional leader. Ironically, Mr. Guha has called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as a regional leader not so long ago. 

Zutshi's biography, titled Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir, is based on rigorous research and draws on a wide range of sources, including Abdullah's speeches, writings, correspondence, memoirs, press reports, state records, private collections and interviews. The book covers Abdullah's life from his birth in 1905 to his death in 1982, and traces his political career through various phases: from his early activism against the Dogra monarchy and his founding of the National Conference, to his role in securing Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India and his implementation of radical land reforms as Prime Minister of the state, to his imprisonment and exile for advocating Kashmiri self-determination and his eventual rapprochement with the Indian government in 1975.

While Zutshi meticulously examines Abdullah's political journey, she does not shy away from addressing the fissures and complexities that marked his relationships with various communities.

One of the most contentious aspects of Abdullah's legacy lies in his relationship with the Kashmiri Pandit community. Historically, the Pandits held significant influence in the region, both culturally and economically. However, Abdullah's political maneuvers often strained this delicate balance.

During the tumultuous years leading up to and following Kashmir's accession to India, Abdullah's policies and rhetoric created rifts. His emphasis on Kashmiri nationalism and secularism sometimes clashed with the aspirations and concerns of the Pandits. The land reforms he championed, while aimed at empowering the marginalized, also disrupted established social structures, affecting the Pandits disproportionately.

The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the late 1980s and early 1990s remains a painful chapter in Kashmir's history. While multiple factors contributed to this tragic displacement, Abdullah's leadership during that period is subject to scrutiny. His inability to prevent the escalating violence and provide security for all communities exacerbated tensions.

Zutshi's biography delves into these complexities. She examines Abdullah's speeches, writings, and actions, shedding light on the moments when his decisions intersected with the fate of the Pandits. The book doesn't offer easy answers but invites readers to grapple with the nuances of history.

Zutshi's biography is not a hagiography or a polemic, but a balanced and critical assessment of Abdullah's achievements and failures, his strengths and weaknesses, his ideals and compromises. Zutshi does not shy away from highlighting the paradoxes and contradictions that marked Abdullah's politics, such as his desire to be both a Muslim leader and a secular nationalist, his vision of Kashmir as a nation and as a part of India, his authoritarian and personalized style of governance and his claim to represent the popular will, his aspiration for an independent Kashmir and his acceptance of the Indian Constitution. Zutshi also contextualizes Abdullah's life and politics within the broader developments of the twentieth century, such as the rise of nationalism, the end of colonialism, the partition of India, the Cold War, the emergence of regionalism and the challenges of democracy.

Zutshi's biography is not only a portrait of an individual, but also a prism through which to understand the intertwined histories of Kashmir and India, and the ambiguities and inconsistencies in their national projects. Zutshi shows how Abdullah's politics influenced and were influenced by the politics of other regional and national leaders, such as Nehru, Gandhi, Patel, Jinnah, Karan Singh, Jayaprakash Narayan, Indira Gandhi and others. She also shows how Abdullah's politics affected and were affected by the politics of the people of Kashmir, especially the Kashmiri Muslims, who supported, opposed, followed or challenged him at different times and for different reasons. Zutshi also explores the impact of Abdullah's politics on the politics of Pakistan and the international community, especially the United Nations and the United States.

The biography is a valuable contribution to the literature on Kashmir and South Asian history, as it fills a gap in the scholarship on regional leaders who played a significant role in shaping the course of modern India. It is also a timely and relevant book, as it sheds light on the historical roots and contemporary implications of the Kashmir conflict, which remains one of the most contentious and unresolved issues in the Indian subcontinent. Zutshi's biography is not only a scholarly work, but also a readable and engaging one, as it narrates the story of a fascinating and formidable personality, who lived through and shaped some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century. Zutshi's biography is a must-read for anyone interested in the life and legacy of Sheikh Abdullah, and the history and politics of Kashmir and India.

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