Conversation with Suraya Abdullah

By Nyla Ali Khan

The rustle of a traditionalshalwar kameez; a well-ironeddupattalightly covering her head; a soft look on her face accentuated by a mellifluous voice; an unflinching conviction in basic goodness and the potential of people to redeem themselves even in the worst of situations; an uncritical filial devotion; an enviable sense of contentment and calm, which remains unruffled and a strength in the most trying circumstances; a staunch pride in her cultural and territorial identity; a passionate devotion to Kashmir which remains uneroded despite some hostile incursions into her sense of self; a trooper dutifully trotting to Maulana Azad Government College for Women with her stack of books, even in times of upheaval; a selfless desire to pursue social activism while her health allows; a charming blend of tradition and modernity, never trespassing the boundaries of decency; the youngest of five children of Begum Akbar Jehan and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, my mother Suraiya Ali Matto née Abdullah.

Although myMajihas the proverbial patience of the biblical Job, my political opinions and brash criticism of the contemporary leadership of the National Conference, the political organization founded by her father, irks her. She has the magnanimity to respect my point of view for which I will be eternally grateful.Majihas always had the magnanimity to accept and love me just as I am, with my multiple flaws and strengths. MyAba, Mohammad Ali Matto, and myMaji, Suraiya, mollycoddled me and protected me in my childhood and adolescence from the difficult realities of the world, but they did not clip my wings when I flew the nest. My parents might not always see eye to eye with my politics, but they have never infringed on my right to express myself without fear of reprisal. It was delightful and liberating to finally have a tête-à- tête with my mother about her Papa, for which I am grateful to Ather Zia.Majiand I talked as candidly as was possible about Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, not the iconicized populist leader of Indian administeredJammu and Kashmir, not the vilified and demonized traitor of Indian and Pakistani mainstream discourse, not the tragic hero ofKashmir, but herPapa, in moments of strength, vulnerability, heroism, sickness, self-doubt, and poignant humanity. It wasn’t easy for my mother to talk about her traumatic, politically distraught childhood and adolescence; it wasn’t easy for her to articulate the pain that she has buried deep within her; it wasn’t easy for her to expose the scars that, over the years, have healed, but she has taken baby steps toward opening up. I have always respectedMaji’ssimplicity, humility, and dignified silence when her siblings chose to wash their dirty linen in public. It is those qualities that come through clearly in her concise answers. I present to my readers not a devious politician, not a strategist, not a manipulator, but a daughter who painfully witnessed her parents’ pain, trauma, dislocation, dispossession, and internalized it all without a whimper.


Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a formidable leader; a political stalwart; the tragic hero of Kashmir; the astute strategist; the idealist who nurtured the dream of independence; the visionary who resuscitated the Muslims of Kashmir valley; the larger than life figure whom many seek to emulate while vilifying him. I would like to know more about Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the father.
My father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, tall and imperious, inspired awe in my siblings and I. The reason for this was his constant absence was our lives when we needed him most and his iconic stature. It was only after 1965 that I saw his human side when I had the chance of living with my parents in their exile in Kodai Kanal, Tamil Nadu. He was brave and uncompromising as far as his convictions were concerned and was deeply attached to Kashmir and the people ofKashmir. He was not interested in seeing any of his children joining politics, but destiny had willed otherwise. I am reminded of an incident that made my father more human than iconic. Toward the last months of his exile in Kodai, his blood sugar levels rose very high. Doctors fromMaduraiwho were supposed to examine him every other week were not able to detect it. The result was that he got weaker by the day and his throat would always be parched. That is when he thought that he was being slow poisoned by the government ofIndia. It was my mother and I who were there to boost his flagging morale. T. N. Seshan was then the collector ofMaduraiand was assigned to look my father up every fortnight. I vividly recall that whenever he visited my father, Seshan rarely smiled, was aloof, and off-hand. The cold and rather vicious attitude of the representatives of the government ofIndiaworsened my father’s sense of persecution. But the resilience of his spirit enabled him to overcome the hostility and vindictiveness brazenly exhibited by Indira Gandhi and her minions.

My father died a sad man because of the rift in the family which was aggravated by the succession battle between my oldest brother Farooq and my brother-in-law G. M. Shah. His untimely death on September 8, 1982, left me shattered and devastated. I had lost a very loving father. But unlike the rest of my siblings, I maintained a dignified silence. My father’s corpse was transported to the Polo Ground at 3:00 a.m. to lie in state. When I asked why his corpse was being taken from the house to a public venue, I was told that he belonged to the nation, not to us.

It was towards the last years of my father’s life that all of us got closer to him. He cared for us and, in the latter part of his life, was religious about spending his evenings with the family. He tried to compensate for the time that he had lost with his family by forging a rapport with us in his later years. My older sister, Khalida, and I were closer to him than my brothers. My brothers could never overcome the fear that he inspired in them and would always be at a loss to talk to their father freely.

Abdullah’s unsurpassed achievement during his years as Prime Minister of Indian Administered Jammu andKashmir(J & K) from 1948 to 1953 was the abolition of the exploitative feudal system in the agrarian economy. He was also responsible for the eradication of monarchical rule. Can you talk about the impact that your father’s politics had on your personally?
The impact that my father’s politics had on me was to be guarded in my actions and speech. We, the children, were expected to be perfect human beings. It was not only he who was idolized by the people ofKashmir, but we were loved and venerated by them as well. The trajectories that we followed in life were of great interest to the people ofKashmir. To this day we are known more by his stature than by our own achievements.

The impact of his politics on me personally was that I wanted to his opponents tooth and nail and admired his supporters. I became an ardent supporter of his views and his stance vis-à-vis the right of self-determination for the people ofKashmir. It is his ideology that makes me proud to identify myself as a Kashmiri. My father had an entrenched pride in the unique cultural ethos of Kashmir; the territorial integrity of Kashmir; the right of the people of Kashmir to aspire high and to follow their dreams; the right of the people of Kashmir to express their opinions at national and international forums; the right of the people of Kashmir to demand the redressal of their grievances; the right of the people of Kashmir to demand socioeconomic and political equities. My father was a visionary and a stalwart who, unfortunately, did not have the leisure to groom a successor that would uphold the dignity of Sher-e-Kashmir’s legacy. It is primarily because of his influence that I loveKashmirwith a passion and have an aversion toward military and political oppression.

Abdullah remained in office until he died on September 8, 1982. Shortly before he died, in 1981 Abdullah, contrary to his socialist politics, presided over the ‘coronation’ of his oldest son, Farooq Abdullah, as president of the NC. This act perpetuated the sub-continental tradition of dynastic politics. I think that the trauma of incarceration, political persecution, ill-health, and age had substantially reduced the magnificence of the Lion of Kashmir when he assumed office in 1975. Do you think that twenty-two years of incarceration, political marginalization, and political compromises had caused your father to become disillusioned and cynical when he returned toKashmirin 1975?
My father’s return to mainstream politics in 1975 had many reasons. One reason was the creation ofBangladeshin 1971; the other was the lackadaisical attitude of big powers toward theKashmirissue. My father always nurtured the dream of an independent Kashmir, the independence of which would be guaranteed byIndia, andPakistan, and world powers. My father was viciously stabbed in the back in 1953 by Jawaharlal Nehru’s chameleon like politics. My father’s firm belief that the accession of Kashmir was provisional and not a fait accompli made him an inveterate not just forNew Delhibut for Islamabadas well. For twenty-two years my father fought with all his strength for the territorial, political, cultural, and social integrity ofKashmir. AlthoughNew DelhiandIslamabadtried to break him through various strategies, he maintained his unflinching faith in God and the courage of Kashmiris to rise above despair and defeat. My father was always careful not to buckle under the demeaning pressure put on him by the government ofIndia. The government of India deployed strategies, some seemingly legitimate and others blatantly illegitimate, to coerce my father to toe the mainstream line; my brother, Tariq, was declared a persona non grata when he foregrounded the Kashmir issue at the United Nations General Assembly in the 1950s, accompanied by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; my cousin, Nazir, was brutally interrogated and tortured during Bakshi’s regime for being a committed member of the Plebiscite Front; my brother-in-law, G. M. Shah, was incarcerated leaving my sister and her oldest child almost destitute; but my father did not relent. My mother, also, stood her ground and refused to accept any succor from Bakshi’s goonda regime.

Choosing his oldest son as his successor was influenced by the wishes of a powerful coterie. The choice was between his son and son-in-law, Mr. G. M. Shah. The former was likeable, affable, and the choice of the then electorate. My father did not have much time to groom a successor, and then the main reason was my oldest brother, Farooq Abdullah, to have been chosen as my father’s successor was his acceptability to the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and his ilk. To Mrs. Gandhi and her ilk, Farooq seemed more gullible, malleable, and certainly much less seasoned than Mr. G. M. Shah.

Your mother, Begum Akbar Jehan, established an institution,Jammu and KashmirMarkazi Behboodi Khwateen, in 1975 for the purpose of providing women from the downtrodden sections of society with functional literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security. She stood by Sheikh Sahib even in the most difficult of times. Can you reminisce about your mother’s involvement with her husband’s mammoth task, not just at a political level but at a personal level as well?
My mother came from a very well to do family. Once she got married to my father, she gave up all the luxuries of life that she had been accustomed to. She stood by him through thick and thin. She faced the difficulties of everyday life single handedly while my father was in jail. I have seen her campaigning for him and the National Conference during his illness when he was confined to bed. In my opinion, the real hero of the 1977 elections was my mother! I always admired her for taking my father’s mood swings genially. She was the real force behind her husband’s success as a popular leader of Kashmiris and her kind mother!

Nyla Ali Khan is a professor of Literature atUniversityofNebraska. She is Suraya Abdullah’s daughter and granddaughter of Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah.

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