But the wounds inflicted over the last seven decades by three cliques who used and abused power will not be easily healed
MJ Akbar | 09 Aug, 2019
AT 1 PM ON DECEMBER 23rd, 1947 Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister, sent his resignation to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, through a letter written in ‘considerable pain’. The reason was a sharp divergence on how to handle Kashmir.
The status of Jammu and Kashmir was fluid when India and Pakistan became independent. Like the Nizam of Hyderabad, Maharaja Hari Singh also imagined that he could wrench an independent state out of the chaos created by the formation of Pakistan. He had signed a Standstill Agreement with Pakistan, a self-evident term. The status quo would, thereby, be preserved until an agreement was evolved. Patel, as Home Minister, was more concerned, for the moment, with Hyderabad, whose Nizam was not only negotiating a separate Dominion status for his state with the British, but was also rapidly arming his mainly Muslim official troops and the communal force created for the subjugation of the local population and as a resistance force against the Indian Army. Jinnah was determined to add Hyderabad to Pakistan or keep it a Nizamate. This was not geographically impossible since East Pakistan was twice as far away from Karachi. Even a truncated Hyderabad would serve as a dagger in the heart of the Indian mainland.
Patel’s mind cleared on September 13th, 1947 when Jinnah accepted the accession of Junagadh, a Hindu-majority princely state adjoining Pakistan ruled by a Muslim Nawab. If Pakistan could ignore demographics, what stopped India from doing the same? Kashmir had a Hindu Maharaja ruling over a Muslim majority. If Hari Singh acceded to India, Delhi could always use the same logic and accept. Being practical and decisive, Patel immediately began to lay down what might be called the infrastructure of Kashmir’s accession. Wireless, telegraph and telephone links were immediately established between Amritsar and Jammu; and he virtually ordered Mehr Chand Mahajan to take eight months’ leave from the Punjab High Court and go to Srinagar as Hari Singh’s Prime Minister. On September 21st, he wrote to Hari Singh saying that ‘I have promised him [Mehr Chand] full support and cooperation on our behalf.’
Nehru, with his socialist views, had more difficulties in dealing with Hari Singh; his rapport was with Sheikh Abdullah, which was equally important in the fast-evolving scenario. In the last week of September, Nehru passed on to Patel information that Pakistan was preparing a military assault.
Nehru was as eager to keep Jammu and Kashmir within India, but on critical occasions he became vulnerable to British pressure. An early instance came on September 30th, 1947. Nehru during a meeting between him, Mountbatten and Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, agreed to honour the results of a plebiscite in Junagadh. Rajmohan Gandhi comments in his biography of Sardar Patel that ‘Patel would not have volunteered such a commitment’. Why? The answer lay in Mountbatten’s instant intervention. The last Viceroy and first Governor General of India jumped in to assure Liaquat that if need be Nehru would agree to a plebiscite in other disputed states as well. Writes HW Hodson in The Great Divide, ‘Pandit Nehru nodded his head sadly. Mr Liaquat Ali Khan’s eyes sparkled. There is no doubt that both of them were thinking of Kashmir.’
But Muslim League leaders, still heady with the success of their ‘Direct Action’ violence, thought that they could extend this strategy. Using the familiar, if fraying, veil of lies, they sent some 5,000 armed tribesmen in around 300 lorries, under the command of a Pakistan Army officer, Major General Akbar Khan [using the pseudonym ‘General Tariq’] on what would be the first state-sponsored jihad after the Second World War. The invasion began on October 22nd; Hari Singh’s forces were overwhelmed but he did not send a message to Delhi until the evening of October 24th.
At the Defence Committee meeting on the morning of October 25th, Nehru urged resistance and Patel advocated Delhi’s support. Mountbatten, who technically should not have had any executive role, chaired the Committee. While Nehru was initially hesitant about Indian military support, Patel never had any doubts. VP Menon, working for Patel, got Hari Singh’s signature on the document of accession. This received Britain’s formal approval through Mountbatten’s endorsement. On the morning of October 27th, 329 men of the Sikh Regiment, with arms and supplies, began to land at Srinagar airport just as it was on the point of falling into Pakistan’s clutches. The story of India’s success is well known.
So far, as the minister for home affairs, Patel was in charge of Kashmir. On December 2nd, 1947, however, Nehru sent Hari Singh a letter saying Abdullah should become Prime Minister, and took over the management of Kashmir affairs, and Patel had little option except to step aside.
Nehru then brought N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a former Dewan of Hari Singh, as minister without portfolio in his Cabinet, without consulting Patel, and gave him responsibility for Kashmir, reporting to Nehru. When Patel was upset, Nehru rebuked his deputy in writing.
On December 23rd, Patel sent his resignation.
That night, Nehru apologised for the pain, but noted that “our approaches are different, however much we may respect each other.” But he insisted a prime minister’s liberty of direction could not be constrained, and offered his own resignation. The problem was resolved only when Gandhi agreed to arbitrate in any dispute between them.
These facts should put at rest the obfuscation deliberately created by political parties about who was responsible for what during the seminal phase of Jammu and Kashmir’s integration. As Deputy Prime Minister, Patel could not deny his place in collective responsibility, but the decisions were made by Nehru after December 1947. They included the momentous reference to the United Nations, a move that quickly became a bleeding ulcer.
I would prefer to quote Rajmohan Gandhi, who cannot be accused on any bias: ‘As far as Kashmir was concerned, Jawaharlal agreed, on Mountbatten’s persuasion, to refer the question to the United Nations… Patel was as strongly against the reference to the UN and preferred ‘timely action’ on the ground, but Kashmir was Jawaharlal’s baby by now and Vallabhbhai did not insist on his prescriptions when, at the end of December , Nehru announced that he had decided to go to the UN.’
Indeed, Nehru was on the verge of committing a much bigger mistake. He consulted Gandhi, who gave his consent most reluctantly, and also, in the process, saved India from a huge blunder. Gandhi deleted a ‘reference to an independent Kashmir as a possible alternative to accession to either India or Pakistan.’
The United Nations turned India’s allegations of Pakistani aggression into an India-Pakistan dispute.
Nehru was in control of Kashmir affairs when on October 17th, 1949 his nominee Ayyangar moved Article 306A in the Constituent Assembly to give constitutional status to the conditions laid down by Maharaja Hari Singh. Even at the inception, it was widely recognised that this provision, which became Article 370 in the final Constitution, was temporary. No one has ever disputed this. Then how and why did it gradually attain a kind of political inviolability that turned it into something sacrosanct?
A GENERIC FLAW in its very conception enabled secessionists, quasi-secessionists and of course Pakistan, which had its own agenda, to slowly, almost imperceptibly, reposition Article 370. They managed to make it look as if the accession to India was temporary, when the provisional matters were the clauses designed to smoothen a transition process. And so, in public discourse, even experienced politicians argued, including in the just-concluded debate, that abolishing Article 370 would snap Jammu and Kashmir’s link with India, when in fact the truth was just the opposite.
Accession to India became legal and binding when Maharaja Hari Singh signed the treaty of October 1947. Mountbatten recognised its legitimacy by permitting British officers of the Indian Army to play their assigned leadership roles in the 1947-48 war started by Pakistan. It should be noted that British officers refused to obey Jinnah’s orders to send troops in uniform to the Kashmir theatre because Pakistan’s aggression was held to be illegal. It is remarkable how the narrative has been altered over the last seven decades behind the fog generated by Article 370. Islamabad exploited this effectively, and made Article 370 into its evidence of a dispute, rather than confirmation of Kashmir’s accession. This is the challenging paradox that our foreign policy has had to deal with for too long. Today, Pakistan has been blindsided by this historic move.
Home Minister Amit Shah raised a basic question while piloting, with authority and conviction, the legislation that abolished Article 370: how temporary is temporary? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have answered the question. Temporary is limited. All limits have been crossed. Article 370 is, to use an appropriate phrase, history.
BUT THE WOUNDS inflicted upon Jammu and Kashmir over the last seven decades by three cliques who used and abused power will not be easily healed. Sheikh Abdullah, whose struggle for the people’s emancipation and solidarity against Pakistani aggression deserve praise, became a different person once he was seated in office by Nehru. He began to use the professed autonomy granted by Article 370 as a shield against accountability. He rigged the first elections, held in 1951, by a simple ruse. No one was permitted to contest against the National Conference. He won 75 seats out of 75. Nehru and the Congress not only indulged this, but subverted elections in their own ways when they got a chance after the dismissal and arrest of Sheikh Abdullah. It was the beginning of an ominous trend that destroyed the Kashmiri voters’ faith in democracy.
The first honest elections were held in 1977 when Morarji Desai was Prime Minister. In 1980, the Congress came back to power in Delhi and electoral corruption returned to Srinagar, reaching a dangerously corrosive high in 1987.
The ruling families of Kashmir, abetted by the Congress, became bounty hunters, trading adherence to accession for widespread corruption. There was hardly any semblance of governance. Moreover, Article 370 denied rights and reservations that had evolved within India’s democracy to the Kashmiri people.
It is unsurprising that the political cabals who milked Article 370 opposed its abolition so vehemently. The Congress even risked a rebellion that could see the beginnings of a split if it is not calmed by concession. The rebels saw the massive surge of popular support for Prime Minister Modi and found their party once again swimming towards a shipwreck. If Congress does not go into reverse gear, its future will move from dim to dark. The people of India know that PM Modi took this decision in the national interest, not for partisan reasons. If the BJP merely wanted votes, surely it would have abolished Article 370 before the General Election rather than after.
or Prime Minister Modi, conviction is the alchemy that transforms the seemingly impossible into the perfectly possible. That is his strength. He believes, therefore he acts.