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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hero's Son Gives Up Golf for Kashmir Struggle

NEW DELHI, India -- Sheik Mohammed Abdullah was a legendary leader of Indian Kashmir, a heroic figure who endured years in prison and sought independence for his Himalayan homeland until he died in 1982. Adoring constituents called him "The Lion of Kashmir."

His son, Farooq Abdullah, seemed cut from less strenuous cloth, a bon vivant with little patience for governing or sacrifice. With his famous name, Abdullah became chief minister of India's Kashmir state, but whenever crisis struck, he was likely to be playing golf or joy riding in a helicopter. Even as Kashmiris rose in revolt against Indian troops, he was ready to cozy up to the government in Delhi.

"If you have someone in mind who ends up in jail, you can count me out," Abdullah told supporters in 1989 before leaving for vacation in England while Kashmir erupted in violence. "I like to play golf. What am I going to do in jail?"

So last month, Abdullah, 62, astonished India and ignited a political firestorm when he roared out of his comfortable chair to revive his father's cause, demanding that India restore the autonomy it had long ago permitted Kashmir.

With that gesture, Abdullah unleashed protests and demands across India that have opened cracks in the premise of its federal system and underscored the precarious nature of political and religious unity in this democracy.

Pounding a lectern in Kashmir's state assembly, Abdullah called on India to honor its long-breached promises to Kashmir. When the British-ruled subcontinent divided at independence in 1947, the Moslem-dominated state joined mainly Hindu India f rather than Pakistan f in exchange for a special, autonomous status. But India gradually stripped away Kashmir's powers.

"Don't push us to the wall the way Jinnah was in the 1940s," Abdullah warned India's leaders in a recent speech, raising the specter of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Moslem leader who abandoned India to form Pakistan.

The Indian government, led by the Hindu-based Bharatiya Janata Party, brusquely dismissed Abdullah's autonomy proposal. Still, it triggered similar demands from separatist leaders in a half-dozen other states and threats from groups in Kashmir to divide the state along religious lines.

Abdullah's critics said he orchestrated the controversy out of pure self-interest. Many critics believe Abdullah raised the red flag of autonomy to upstage rivals in Kashmir.

"It suits him to keep things boiling," said Mahbooba Mufti, a Kashmiri politician whose family has long been at odds with Abdullah. "He sees his power slipping away, and he is desperate to stay relevant."

Abdullah insists his intentions were genuine. He notes that autonomy has been a major plank of his National Conference party's platform for years and says his recent proposal should have surprised no one. Yet Abdullah makes no secret of his personal ambitions, which long have depended more on his close and pragmatic relations with New Delhi than on his commitment to Kashmir. He and his Moslem-based party have allied with India's Hindu-based governing coalition since it took power in 1996, and he clearly expects to be rewarded.

"In such a large Hindu country, it is not easy for a Moslem to become prime minister. If Kashmir was a part of Pakistan, my chances would have been far brighter," he told the Indian magazine Frontline. "But I still want to be president of India. That I can become!"

While many suspect his motives, Abdullah's gesture has opened the first door to political change in Kashmir after a decade of guerrilla war and Indian military repression.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 1996, Abdullah formed an awkward alliance with it in return for electoral support.

Abdullah's state government has been labeled a corrupt, poorly managed stepchild of Delhi. But he has used his connections to bring development funds to Kashmir even as its populace chafes under Indian military control.

Abdullah's revival of the autonomy issue has left his balancing act teetering. Since the request earlier this month, many National Conference legislators have demanded that Abdullah pull out of the governing coalition.

Instead, while claiming he would never betray his people's dream of independence, Abdullah flew to Delhi to talk about compromise. But even with his political future at stake, Abdullah exuded confidence. "I am climbing Mount Everest, and I am still just at the base," he told reporters.