Kashmir conundrum: In conversation with Iqbal Chand Malhotra

Print edition : May 06, 2022

Iqbal Chand Malhotra Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Near the Chinese border in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Indian Army jawans keeping vigil. A file photograph. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Interview with Iqbal Chand Malhotra, whose latest book on “proxy wars” in Kashmir reviews past policies and their consequences for the country now.

Iqbal Chand Malhotra's latest book, Dark Secrets Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir, offers a distinctive and competing new narrative on the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent in the days leading up to India’s independence and creation of Pakistan and its immediate aftermath, as it re-examines the British and Soviet interests in the region. Malhotra, who co-authored the best-selling Kashmir’s Untold Story: Declassified, attempts to reposition the genesis of the Kashmir conflict in terms of the British and Soviet designs in the State, thereby adding another element of conundrum and controversy to an already vexed issue. Excerpts from an interview.

While you allege that Britain advanced the partition of India in order to continue spying on Soviet nuclear activities in Soviet Kazakhstan and Sinkiang from Gilgit, the fact that the United States preferred to side with India kind of negates that hypothesis.

I have made no allegations in my book; rather, cogent arguments supported by evidence have been put forward to test a hypothesis that I have proposed. What I have argued is that the British necessity to continue spying on Soviet nuclear activities in Soviet Kazakhstan and Sinkiang from Gilgit made it imperative for it to control the Gilgit Agency, Kashmir, NWFP at the time of Partition, to enable it to monitor the progress of the Soviet nuclear programme. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, wanted China to take over the region of Aksai Chin and western Tibet in order to ensure a supply of rare materials, namely uranium, so as to accelerate the weaponisation of its then nascent nuclear arsenal.In 1944, the U.S. and Britain had signed the top secret ‘1944 Hyde Park Agreement’. The signatories were Prime Minister [Winston] Churchill and President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt. For some strange reason, the U.S. copy of this classified document was lost in Roosevelt’s papers after his death in 1945. Unaware of this top-secret Anglo-U.S. agreement, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act), which became a law on August 1, 1946. It restricted the access to nuclear information for other countries and left Britain out of the loop. For Britain, therefore, it became vital to spy on what developments were happening in Sinkiang, Soviet Tajikistan and Soviet Kazakhstan and the relationship of various entities established in these areas to the uranium mines in the Koktogai valley which was also in the same region. This was vitally important for Britain if it had to make the atom bomb for itself using its own resources and skills.

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Historical evidence on record reveals that the two Democratic administrations of Presidents Roosevelt and [Harry S.] Truman that governed the U.S. from 1932 to 1952 were emotionally attracted to the Congress party’s democratic, non-violent, non-cooperation movement to free India from British colonial rule. In 1943, President Roosevelt donated large quantities of wheat for the Bengal famine. It is another story that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill diverted those shipments away from India. In fact, between 1947 and 1949, the U.S. doggedly courted India. It also supported India against Pakistan in the first Kashmir War of 1947-48. The U.S. believed that democratic India was the ideal foil to Communist China and the role model for the rapidly decolonising post-war world. There is, therefore, neither negation of nor a contradiction of my hypothesis.

What in your opinion discouraged India from accepting a U.S.-India partnership offered in 1949? Were Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel on the same page on that question?

India rejected the proposition of an Indo-U.S. partnership in 1949 because Prime Minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru naively believed that in order to achieve the goal of drafting all the newly decolonising nations of Asia and Africa into the ambit of a global non-aligned movement, it was vital to secure China’s entry into such a movement. Yet Nehru distrusted China and also entered into a secret intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S. against China in 1949. Therefore, while overtly India was non-aligned, covertly, it was on the same page as the U.S. was with respect to Communist China. This ambivalence cost India dearly in the years and decades to follow. Nehru and [Vallabhbhai] Patel were not on the same page. Patel distrusted China and argued that since “power had been transferred” from Britain to the Congress party, the external foreign policy interests of the post-Independence Government of India remained the same as those of the British Raj. India had to defend its foreign strategic interests not surrender them for a wishy-washy utopian ideal.

You dismiss the Nehruvian doctrine of non-alignment as an impediment to India’s emergence as a self-reliant power. But would not India doing the U.S.’ or Britain’s bidding reduce it to a pliant state like Pakistan is today?

Nehru’s doctrine of non-alignment started to unravel in 1962 after China attacked India and he was forced to turn to the U.S. for help. Yet both he and his successors continued to remain diffident towards the U.S., and India was unable to reap the benefits of a wholesome relationship with the U.S. Whether it was 1962 or 2020, when India turned to the U.S. after unprovoked Chinese aggression, the mantra of non-alignment or its latest avatar of “strategic autonomy” has been a millstone around India’s neck. India could never be reduced to a pliant state like Pakistan if it opted to join the Western alliance because Nehru was successful in nurturing and cementing the institutions of democracy and in building both a scientific temper and a technocracy drawn from first-class educational institutions that he conceived of and was instrumental in establishing.

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India failed to become a world-class power because Nehru pushed India into a command-and-control economy where resources were not auctioned off optimally and profitably but were subject to government control under the aegis of the licence permit raj. It took the ingenuity and skill of Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh to free India from this bondage in 1991.

Critics may say that your over-simplified hypothesis dismissing important pillars of Nehruvian foreign policy only seeks to give greater circulation to right-wing propaganda of the day, more so when you admit that you have used literary liberties to piece together your narrative.

Let me emphasise that Nehruvian foreign policy was disastrous for India because:

One, it forced India to surrender her extra-territorial-treaty-bound rights in Tibet that were vital for India’s defence then and now.

Two, of the three founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, the United Arab Republic comprising Egypt and Syria collapsed after the 1967 war in the Sinai, Golan Heights and the West Bank. Egypt under Anwar Sadat became a U.S. ally, and Syria has today collapsed into a civil-war-ridden fractured polity. Tito’s Yugoslavia, the second founding nation of NAM, became the epicentre of genocide in Europe in the 20th century and balkanised into six or seven countries. India, the third founding member of NAM, is today aligned with the U.S. in the Quad and is also a key ally of Israel. Where is non-alignment today?

Three, Nehru built a wall of steel insulating India from all the nations of South East Asia with whom we had civilisational ties because he did not want to open India to the lasting imprint of Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army and Indian Independence League in these nations.

Four, courting and pursuing the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s only brought us grief. We lost Aksai Chin to them and still have the Chinese breathing down our necks in eastern Ladakh. The Soviet Union and China were aligned against India in 1949 as they are today in 2022 despite our “special relationship” with Russia owing to the extremely lucrative arms trade relationship. This relationship primarily helped us to break Pakistan into two parts in 1971. At best it also provided assistance in developing our indigenous nuclear submarines and rocket forces.

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I can be accused of many things but not of promoting right-wing propaganda! The “right wing” in India today is both pro-Russian and pro-Chinese. Big monopolies in western India source imports from China that continue to de-industrialise the Indian economy.

Literary liberties have only been taken to fill in the gaps where still classified British records are a hindrance to revealing the truth.

You aver that the Soviets influenced and expedited the Chinese intrusion in Aksai Chin in 1950. What is your assessment of the Chinese and Soviet interests in Kashmir now?

Russia has no current interests in Kashmir. China’s interests in Kashmir are to physically control the flow of the Indus river and its four main tributaries so as to use modern hydrology to maximise intense riverine flows owing to glacial melt as a result of global warming. The Chinese need maximum and unimpeded flow of the Indus to their two gigantic dams combined with vast water storage reservoirs on the Indus in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, namely, the Diamer Bhasha Dam and the Bunji Dam. Both the electricity and stored water from these dams is to be diverted to southern Xinjiang where the expansion of the Chinese semi-conductor industry is taking place. China’s strategic objective is to ultimately push the Indian Army well beyond the west bank of the Indus in Ladakh. To this end it will encourage and fund cross-border terror to inhibit India’s exploitation of these hydrological resources.

A section of geopolitical observers believes that the Narendra Modi government’s unilateral action on August 5, 2019, in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir influenced Chinese skirmishes at the Line of Actual Control.

I disagree with this opinion. Chinese aggression in breaching the LAC is because it could not get Prime Minister Modi to accede to its demands made at the Modi-Xi summit at Mamallapuram in October 2019. They were emboldened by India’s withdrawal from Doklam following the Modi-Xi summit at Wuhan in April 2018. They wrongly thought that 2019 would be a repeat of 2018.

The incumbent Government of India appears helpless at LAC, with Beijing building a village at the banks of the Tsari Chu river in the Upper Subansiri district, which lies along the LAC.

This question has to be addressed by the Government of India.

What is your solution model to the Kashmir conundrum, and, in the more immediate context, the escalation of tension at LAC?

There is no simple solution to the Kashmir conundrum today. In the absence of a coherent long-term vision of India’s strategic interests, the best that can be done is to consistently and firmly deny the Chinese and Pakistani objectives.