Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan — end of an era

Updated July 11, 2015


Inclined towards violence in the beginning, Sardar Muhammad Abdul Qayyum Khan turned pacifist later. Indeed, he was a blend of paradoxes - devout in his private life but secular in his politics; an astute politician who understood power politics but was also a popular leader. No wonder then that he enjoyed a special status in the hearts of people as well as in the power corridors.

Born on April 4, 1924 at Ghaziabad, a small village in Bagh district in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), Sardar Saheb began his practical life with the engineers corps of the British Indian army.

However, he was laid off in 1946 like other non-combatant personnel. He then found a job as a clerk in the soldier board of the Jammu Kashmir government – but only for a year.

But this was a minor event compared to what was happening around him politically. The country was about to be partitioned and the fate of Jammu and Kashmir was unclear.

At this juncture the Muslim Conference (MC), then the sole representative party of Kashmiri Muslims, passed a resolution calling for the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan at the residence of Sardar Muhammad Ibrahim Khan in Srinagar. This resolution was passed on July 19, 1947 and 25 days later Pakistan was born.

Around the same time former Muslim soldiers and officers carried out an armed march in what is now the Sudhnoti district of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

A worried Hindu maharaja of the state who ruled over a Muslim majority, passed sweeping orders to de-weaponise Kashmiri Muslims, snatching away even kitchen knives and making arbitrary arrests of young Muslims.

It was in these restive times that the 23-year old gun wielding Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan took part in a big gathering on the hilltops of Neela Butt. On their way to Bagh this gathering was stopped by the Dogra police. Legend has it that this is where Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan fired his first gunshot.

This day was celebrated by the followers of the Mujahid-i-Awwal (the first freedom fighter) as he was popularly known, commemorating his bravery.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that while his supporters recognised Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan as the “first initiator of the Kashmir freedom movement”, some of his heavyweight contemporaries such as Sardar Muhammad Ibrahim Khan and K.H. Khurshid did not agree with this assertion.

After the liberation of the AJK territory and the subsequent ceasefire, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan moved to Rawalpindi and began getting involved in Pakistani politics. He launched the ‘Azad Kashmir Party’.

However, in 1951, he returned to Azad Jammu and Kashmir and joined the MC, to which he remained committed till his last breath.

The MC was the lone political party until 1962 when K.H. Khurshid founded the Jammu Kashmir Liberation League (JKLL), which called for the recognition of the AJK government as a ‘revolutionary provisional successor government’ of the deposed Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir.

Sardar Abdul Qayyum however always opposed the ideology of Mr Khurshid. In fact, the MC continued to enjoy the patronage of the establishment for a long time and in return it still supports a constitutional role for the army in political affairs.

Other events also indicated his closeness to the state.

For instance in 1951, MC split in two – one faction led by Sardar Ibrahim, who was in favour of the people voting and Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas who felt that the electoral exercise would diminish the peoples’ interest in the Kashmir freedom. Sardar Abdul Qayyum stood by Chaudhry Sahib, earning himself a slot in the cabinet next year.

The party reunited a few years later.

In 1961, he contested and lost his first presidential election under the Basic Democracy (BD) system and three years later he canvassed for Ayub Khan against Fatima Jinnah, who was supported by K.H. Khurshid.

In 1966, he took over as the president of Muslim Conference, a position he held till 1979.

In 1970, he finally won the first presidential elections, defeating K.H. Khurshid and Sardar Ibrahim by a wide margin. It was during his stint as president that he coined and promoted the slogan of “Kashmir banega Pakistan” (Kashmir will become Pakistan).

While his supporters said that this slogan manifested the popular sentiment of Kashmiri Muslims, his opponents believed that it was invented to please the establishment.

He also introduced an amendment in the AJK Constitution of 1970, making allegiance to Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan mandatory. He declared Urdu the official language and ‘Shalwar Kameez’ as the official national dress. He also changed the AJK flag, which was reversed by the next government.

Towards the end of his term, his relations with then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started turning sour. As a result in 1974, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan was removed from the office of the president through a vote of no confidence and after the MC’s boycott of the 1975 election, he was arrested and interned for a year and a half.

When martial law was imposed by Ziaul Haq, initially Sardar Sahib joined the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD).

But his anti-establishment mood lasted but for a while. One fine morning he announced the dissolution of MRD, though it was not accepted by the mainstream political parties of Pakistan. He then became close to Zia.

This closeness helped MC form the government in AJK in 1985, with Sardar Abdul Qayyum and Sardar Sikandar Hayat as president and prime minister, respectively.

In 1990, Sardar Abdul Qayyum was again elected president, even though the PPP had formed the government in AJK. But the next year, when the general elections were held in AJK, he resigned from the office of president and got himself elected as an MLA against a seat reserved for the clergy and became the prime minister, a post he held for the next five years.

However, while people admired and appreciated his administration under the presidential form of government (1970-74), his stint as prime minister (1991-96) was seen as a weak one.

In the years following, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan and his son Sardar Attique spent time out of power as Sardar Sikandar Hayat became the prime minister.

But the military coup in 1999 brought a reversal of fortune.

In 2002, President Gen Pervez Musharraf appointed him chairman of the National Kashmir Committee. The same year, Sardar Abdul Qayyum saw his son and heir, Sardar Attique, take over as the MC president and later (in 2006) become the prime minister.

It was during this period that an ailing Sardar Qayyum was compelled to reduce his activities. However, he never stopped meeting delegations from across the country and abroad, despite being bed ridden.

They say to err is human. And in an active political career, one is bound to make mistakes. Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan was not an exception to this. But despite his mistakes, his achievements were significant, which are rarely seen in this day and age.

He was a commoner and belonged to a very small Abbasi tribe in AJK but held the office of the MC president for over 20 years, and remained acceptable to party cadres from all casts and creeds. He never practiced the politics of biradri. And despite his rise, he never lost his tolerance and empathy. Workers were encouraged to speak out their hearts before him without any fear.

So important were the ordinary workers to him that he was always on the go, reaching out to them in every nook and cranny of the state. Perhaps he was the only leader who knew all of his workers by name.

He was also known for his ability to forgive. Many of his protégés turned against him or conspired against him but he never sought to pay them back in the same coin.

Sardar Abdul Qayyum will always be remembered as a wise strategist, a statesman, and a tolerant politician. May his soul rest in peace.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2015

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