As they did Prem Nath Bazaz, Kashmiri Pandits hated Shyam Lal Yacha. But Muslims, who also did not take kindly to Bazaz, loved Yacha, and held him in high esteem.
Neighbours in his native Rainawari remember him fondly, nineteen years after his death, and scores of his Muslim friends gathered when this researcher went asking about him: all vouched for his integrity.
Born into a modest Pandit family of Rainawari in 1923, Yacha had been a rebel even when young, and did not identify with the tyrannical Dogra bureaucracy. He sided with the persecuted, and was jailed many times. He joined politics soon after matriculation, and became an active member of the Young Socialist League in 1945. His limited formal education did not deter him from undertaking extensive studies in philosophy and history. And this served him well. He found a place on the editorial staff of the Free Thinker and Kashmir Affairs (published from New Delhi, now defunct), and has produced heaps of material on Kashmir, being one of the few to write about the state’s accession during the fateful post-partition era.
He was jailed for four years in 1951 because of his writings and political activities, and later, in 1955, implicated in the Jamia Masjid bomb blast case in Delhi.
Along with several colleagues, including JN Sathu, Yacha was tortured in custody for several days, and then sent to the District Jail on Mathura Road. But the charges against him were withdrawn after some time, and he was set free with the others.
Around this time Prem Nath Bazaz formed the Democratic Kashmir Union. Shyam Lal Yacha, Aalam Sartaj and Comrade Noor Muhammad became its members. They had also launched a journal on Kashmir.
Yacha attended the State People’s Convention in October 1968 in his capacity as acting president of the Political Conference. A booklet published by the Convention’s organizers refers to Yacha in passing, but his speech at the event is believed to have made a strong impression.
Yacha stood for Kashmir’s total merger with Pakistan, only the second Pandit to hold such views – the other being Pandit Raghunath Vaishnavi.
On the contrary, his close associate, Prem Nath Bazaz, supported the total independence of Jammu and Kashmir.
Yacha was also very close to Political Conference leader Ghulam Ahmad Mir who was put on trial for trying to kill Bazaz, but he maintained cordial relations with both.
The Joint Action Committee, comprising of all parties, formed for the recovery of the Holy Relic which was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine on December 27, 1963, continued its fight for self-determination even after the sacred heirloom was recovered, and Yacha was an important part of that fight.
Its members would court arrest to send a message to the outside world. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s arrest after returning from Hajj created a stir across the Valley. Authorities imposed Section 144 to bar public gatherings, but a group of Political Conference workers headed by Ghulam Ahmad Mir began satyagraha at the historic Lal Chowk on June 5, 1965.
He and four party activists – Ghulam Nabi Kar, Ghulam Muhammad Thagoo, Muhammad Yusuf Sheikh and Muhammad Sidiq Bangroo – courted arrest.
A portion of Mir’s message released minutes before he was taken into custody, speaks volumes about Yacha’s abilities:
“Brothers, sisters and countrymen; I am thankful to the Action Committee for giving me a chance to serve my people and play my part in the freedom struggle. The government has banned public gatherings, processions and rallies. This has been done to strangulate our voice. This is against the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. By arresting Sheikh Abdullah and placing restrictions on Begum Abdullah, the government has forced us to launch a civil disobedience movement. When it comes to Kashmir, the double standards of the Government of India come to the fore. We have not been given an opportunity to apprise the people of India and Pakistan about the developments in Kashmir. We fully agree with Mahatma Gandhi when he says that difficulties should not scare us. I request the people to act upon the programme of the Action Committee. Remain steadfast. Victory shall be ours. I hope my organization (Political Conference) will live up to the expectations of the people. It has to play a vital role in the coming days. I appoint Pandit Shyam Lal Yacha as the acting president of the Political Conference. He is a man of integrity and has offered huge sacrifices.”
After the 1975 Accord, Yacha kept away from conventional politics and worked for the welfare of the people. When his Muslim friends forced him, against his wishes, to leave Kashmir in 1990 for his safety, he went to Delhi to stay with a nephew.
A bachelor, who, in his own words, was wedded to the Kashmir cause, lived in poverty and had no regrets about it. He was never impressed by the wealth and influence his peers and juniors acquired within and out of power.
Yacha passed away in Delhi on January 21, 1996. No one in Kashmir seemed to have been aware of the strong voice that had fallen silent. No tears were shed for this great son of Kashmir.