Ask a layperson about Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in Kashmir, and he is likely to rant against the country’s first Prime Minister for his alleged pusillanimity, borrowing from the BJP-RSS’ playbook: Why did Nehru internationalise the Kashmir dispute by referring it to the United Nations? Why did he consent to Article 370 which hindered the princely state’s total integration with India? Why did he have to lose a third of Jammu and Kashmir when the region in its entirety was attainable?
The gap in history as it unfolded and history as it is sold—in this case, by the BJP and the RSS—has long made Nehru a favourite whipping boy. His leadership and legacy are questioned virulently as and when the ruling party needs to deflect attention from the more immediate, bread-and-butter economic issues.
This time, ahead of the Gujarat election, Union Minister Kiren Rijiju went one notch further and said that Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir had proposed the merger of his state with the Indian dominion as early as in July 1947, but Nehru vacillated. The accusation is serious as it roughly translates into Nehru allowing tribal raiders the time to mobilise and launch an attack on the then princely state. But is there anything concrete in history to back Rijiju’s assertion?
The indecisive Maharaja
Diplomats, politicians, and other people in the know have long attested to the fact that it was the Maharaja whose mind wavered on the question of accession. Chief among them is Karan Singh, then heir-apparent to the throne, who noted about his father that, “indecisive by nature, he merely played for time”. The reference was to then Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten’s visit to Srinagar in June 1947. Records say that upon Mountbatten’s arrival, the Maharaja sent him on a fishing trip, then cancelled an appointment with him, and then did not meet him at all. The Maharaja’s indecision is confirmed by both his aide-de-camp, Captain Dewan Singh, and Mountbatten’s press secretary, Alan Campbell Johnson, who called it “paralysis of Princely uncertainty”.
Shortly thereafter, Lord Hastings Ismay, Mountbatten’s chief of staff, arrived in Kashmir but the Maharaja was loath to discuss the accession. Hastings has left a written account of his meeting with Hari Singh: “Each time that I tried to broach the question, the Maharaja changed the subject. Did I remember our polo match at Cheltenham in 1935? [the Maharaja asked].... Whenever I tried to talk serious business, he abruptly left me for one of his other guests.”
Today, Kashmir has become a motif of Hindu nationalist sentiment, exploited ruthlessly by the right wing to gain electoral advantage, but in the months leading up to Partition and Independence, with their accompanying unremitting riots and bloodshed, and the vexed question of the economically more significant Hyderabad, it was only Nehru who showed the aptitude to take over Kashmir.
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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose legacy the BJP has now appropriated to discredit Nehru, tried to convince Liaquat Ali Khan in the Partition Council to take Kashmir and leave Hyderabad-Deccan. In her book , Kashmir in Conflict, Victoria Schofield says that even Mountbatten’s political adviser, Sir Conrad Corfield, recommended a barter but “anything that I [Corfield] said carried no weight against the long-standing determination of Nehru to keep Kashmir in India”.
The Gurdaspur question
History attests to Nehru’s clear political vision and careful planning vis-a-vis Kashmir. On August 12, 1947, whereas Pakistan signed a Standstill Agreement with the Maharaja, India did not. The awarding of Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district to India is often attributed to Nehru’s political expediency, particularly by Pakistani historians who had long suspected complicity between Nehru and Mountbatten, though others such as British historian Victoria Schofield attach geographical reasons for it.
At that time, Kashmir could be reached through three main routes. The first via Rawalpindi, Muzaffarabad, Baramulla, and then Srinagar. The second, through Sialkot, Jammu, and then Banihal pass. The third, through Amritsar, Gurdaspur, and then Pathankot. Military experts of the time contend that if the whole of Gurdaspur or even its three Muslim-dominated tehsils had gone to Pakistan, the maintenance of India troops in Kashmir would have been extremely difficult.
During the 73 days when Kashmir was independent, from August 15 to October 26, 1947, measures were taken to upgrade the communication between India and Jammu and Kashmir, which included the metalling of the road from Jammu to Kathua, so that essential supplies or troops could be rushed to Kashmir from the Indian territory in case of an emergency. Nothing suggests inaction on Nehru’s or India’s part.
Kashmir was a complex terrain, an inherently feudalistic society with a wide economic gap between its ruling Dogra and Pandit elites, and the impoverished Muslim majority. Most of the peasants were landless tillers and 50-75 per cent of the produce went to the Dogra rulers; the Dogras had also re-introduced the begar (forced labour) system. The Muslim majority’s natural affinity for Pakistan was apparent when on August 14-15, 1947, the Pakistani flag was hoisted atop most of the post offices in Kashmir.
In that unruly landscape, Nehru needed an ally who would give a veneer of legitimacy to India’s claim on Kashmir. He turned to Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference, who believed that it was by partnering with the secular and socialist leadership of India that he could explore ways to end Kashmir’s autocracy and mitigate wide-scale economic deprivation. Nehru tapped into that sentiment. When Sheikh Abdullah was in prison, Nehru attempted to visit Kashmir in July 1946 to defend him in his trial. When he was denied entry to the State, he stood at the border for five hours.
If India had relied solely on the Maharaja’s will without securing the allegiance of Kashmir’s tallest leader, Sheikh Abdullah, it would have invariably legitimised the will of the Nizam n Hyderabad, who was determined to remain independent despite the fact that his state’s population was mostly Hindu. The same dilemma was true in Junagadh.
But why did Nehru refer the situation in Jammu and Kashmir to the United Nations even after the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession with India? Speaking to Frontline, former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha said: “No doubt, it was a mistake, but think also of what would have happened if India had not. What if Pakistan had gone to the UN first?”
Mountbatten was among those who advocated a UN-monitored solution and Nehru had no reason to doubt his sagacity. According to some scholars, Mountbatten’s insistence on accession before military assistance to Jammu and Kashmir was designed to suit the Indian interest. In another instance, according to George Cunningham, the then Governor of the North-West Frontier Province, when Sir Frank Messervy, commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Army, visited Delhi, he found Mountbatten directing the military operations in Kashmir and noted: “Mountbatten is daily becoming more and more anathema to our Muslims.”
The reason why India was eventually let down by the UK and the US, could be, as Yashwant Sinha put it, “the world powers having created Israel, perceived as an anti-Muslim State, had to set the optics right”.
There is endless bickering about Nehru’s decision to grant autonomy to Kashmir. The natural counter is to ask: So what should have he done in a situation where a vast Muslim population was filled with misgivings about its future in a predominantly Hindu India? Could a newly independent nation grappling with poverty and political turmoil have applied strong-arm tactics? How would the world have reacted?
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Guaranteeing Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy and letting Sheikh Abdullah address class disparity with drastic land reforms was a pragmatic course aimed at emotional integration. The plan went well, till the Praja Parishad vitiated the scene. By 1952-1953, Sheikh Abdullah was disillusioned with India’s secularism and openly spoke about the marginalisation of Muslims. On August 8, 1953, he was dismissed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and incarcerated.
What followed was a tyrannical regime under Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, remote-controlled by New Delhi. In Bakshi’s ten-year tenure, civil liberties were curtailed, with some accounts stating that government agents forced hot potatoes into the mouths of opponents; that newspapers with a dissenting viewpoint, including Prem Nath Bazaz’s Voice of Kashmir, were banned; and the State’s special status was steadily eroded.
It was a betrayal of Kashmiris, not of Indian interest in Kashmir.
- Union Minister Kiren Rijiju recently accused Nehru of indecision when Maharaja Hari Singh proposed the merger of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian dominion as early as in July 1947.
- In fact, it was the Maharaja whose mind wavered on the question of accession, as attested by diplomats, historians and the Maharaja’s own son Karan Singh.
- During the 73 days when Kashmir was independent, from August 15 to October 26, 1947, measures were taken to upgrade the communication between India and Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing suggests inaction on Nehru’s or India’s part.
- Kashmir was a complex feudalistic society with a wide economic gap between its ruling Dogra and Pandit elite, and the impoverished Muslim majority. In that unruly landscape, Nehru turned to Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference, who believed he could find ways to end Kashmir’s autocracy and mitigate wide-scale economic deprivation.
- Mountbatten was among those who advocated a UN-monitored solution and Nehru had no reason to doubt his sagacity. The reason why India was eventually let down by the UK and the US, could be, as Yashwant Sinha put it, “the world powers having created Israel, perceived as an anti-Muslim State, had to set the optics right”.
- There is endless bickering about Nehru’s decision to grant autonomy to Kashmir. The natural counter is to ask: So what should have he done in a situation where a vast Muslim population was filled with misgivings about its future in a predominantly Hindu India?