University of Oklahoma visiting professor explores life of her grandfather

Nyla Ali Khan's grandfather was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, an important figure in the history of Kashmir
BY ASHLEY GIBSON Modified: May 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm •  Published: May 14, 2013

“As a child, it was difficult for me to deal with the way this man I had placed on a pedestal my entire life was being vilified and demonized,” said Khan, who holds a doctorate from OU in postcolonial literature and theory. “So I became skeptical and ambivalent about his role, and for the longest time, I wasn’t really sure about which portrayal of his life I subscribed to. I wasn’t sure whether I saw him as a hero, or a savior, whether I saw him as a politician with vested interests or a visionary. So, I did go through that period of confusion.”

“My writings on Kashmir have given me a chance to try to understand the politics of the place with as much objectivity as possible and to try to understand the politics espoused by my grandfather and the ideology that drove him and his political organization. I think it is important to understand that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and the history of Kashmir were inextricable for the longest time and even now, even though he died in 1982- so he has been dead 30 years- even now, he is the largest political actor on the landscape of Jammu and Kashmir.”

In 1975, after engaging in negotiations with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Abdullah was released from prison and became chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and he maintained that position until his death at age 76. In an accord between Indira and Abdullah, Kashmir was affirmed as a constituent unit of India, but allowed to continue a form of autonomy within the union. Khan said her grandfather’s detractors accuse him of compromising his original position of self-determination in the negotiations. However, the only thing that changed was his methodology, she said. Abdullah held the same position, but decided to take his struggle from the streets to the conference table, Khan said.

Abdullah recognized that by 1975 the geopolitical scene had changed in Kashmir. While he was in prison, Kashmir’s leadership, which was installed by the Indian government, seemed to further institutionalize the state and gradually muffle its voice, Khan said. With all of the changes, Abdullah wanted to once again raise the consciousness of self-determination- even if he had to do it within the confines of the Indian constitution, Khan said.

“What is interesting about the people who accuse my grandfather of compromising is that none of those people did anything to further the cause of self-determination while he was in prison,” she said. “In fact, they were willing participants in elections organized by India. However, I believe, and even one of his detractors has written this, that if he had lived longer, he probably would have been imprisoned again for raising the banner of self-determination once again.”

Abdullah’s funeral is recorded as one of the largest in the Indian sub-continent with more than one million attendees- a fact that Khan says is “a slap in the face” to his critics.

"My detractors level the allegation that I 'eulogize' Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah," Khan states in one of her excerpts. "But I believe, with the force of my conviction, that he, with all his contradictions, was a force to reckon with."

Khan has published three books: The Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society and Polity, The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, and Islam Women and Violence in Kashmir Between India and Pakistan. Her fourth book, A Labor of Love, will publish later this year and will share the life story of her grandmother and Abdullah's late wife, Begum Akbar Jehan Abdullah.