On October 26, the anniversary of Kashmir’s accession to India 75 years ago, Union law minister Kiren Rijiju highlighted five blunders made by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to explain why Kashmir remains a breeding ground for terrorism, and a bone of contention between India and its largest neighbours that, to use his words, is bleeding India till this day. His precise allegations were the following:
- “July 1947: Maharaja Hari Singh approaches Congress to accede to India like other princely states. Nehru refuses, saying “he wants more”, a requirement which did not exist in any instrument.
- October 20, 1947: Pakistani raiders invaded the Kashmir region. Nehru still waffles and does not accept Kashmir’s request to accede to India.
- October 21: Nehru officially writes to PM of Maharaja Hari Singh, saying it is not desirable for Kashmir to accede to India at that time. This despite Pakistani forces rapidly advancing in Kashmir.
- October 26: Pakistani forces surround Srinagar. Maharaja Hari Singh again makes desperate appeal to join India. Nehru still negotiating and waffling with inordinate delay in responding.
- October 27: Kashmir finally accepted into Indian union when Nehru’s demand met on Sheikh Abdullah.
Rijiju used October 26, the 75th anniversary of Kashmir’s accession to India to launch his diatribe against Nehru’s dilatoriness in accepting its accession to India. But his main purpose seems to have been to shift the blame for the increasing alienation of Kashmiris, and the renewed attacks on the few remaining Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, upon Nehru’s shoulders from those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where it rightly belongs.
There is one flaw in his attack on Nehru: it is seriously inaccurate. I am able to assert this with some authority because in 1995 I wrote a book titled Kashmir 1947 – Rival Versions of History, a book BJP spokespersons have often quoted (and sometimes misquoted) to substantiate their statements on Kashmir. So, using Rijiju’s five blunders as a frame, let me set the record straight.
First, Maharaja Hari Singh did not exactly offer to accede to India in July 1947. He asked Rai Bahadur Gopal Das, a prominent Hindu gentleman from Lahore to intercede with Sardar Patel to break the ice that had formed between him and Nehru, in order to commence negotiations on accession to India. This was because he had decided six months earlier in December 1946, that if the British denied the princes the option of remaining under their suzerainty, he would accede to India.
The deciding event for him had been the arrival in Muzaffarabad on December 23, of 2,360 penniless and traumatised refugees, fleeing from the Muslim League’s first instigated pogrom against Hindus in Rawalpindi and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and been received with open arms by the almost entirely Muslim local population. The Maharani had rushed to Muzaffarabad to supervise their relief and rehabilitation. Her account of what the refugees had suffered made up the Maharaja’s mind: If a 6% minority of Hindus and Sikhs in the NWFP, who had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours for centuries, could suffer this terrible betrayal what, he wondered, would the fate of Kashmir’s 23% Kashmiri Hindus left helpless in Pakistan be?
Nor, he believed would Kashmiri Muslims be spared. This fear was founded on his knowledge of the umbilical cord that joined the Reshi Islam of Kashmir to Hinduism. Reshi is a corruption of Rishi. Their most revered saint, Sheikh Nooruddin, is known in the valley, and invoked by Kashmiri Hindus, as Nand Rishi. His most famous disciple, after whom the main Srinagar hospital is named, was Lal Ded. Her full name was Laleshwari Devi.
Kashmiri Muslims did not change their surnames, and have not even thought of doing so even today. Their diet is still almost entirely Shaivite Hindu: there is no beef in Kashmiri cuisine; most Kashmiris still shun chicken and eggs; Reshi Islam has a dawn prayer, the Aurad-e Fitrat, that has no counterpart in Sunni Islam but is the incorporation of Surya Namaskar into Islam. And finally, all prayers in Reshi Islam start with an invocation of their ancestors by name, just as I have done in every formal prayer I have ever uttered from my Upanayana, till the deaths of my wife and parents. In Sunni Islam this is haraam.
These differences had not gone unnoticed by the Muslim League. In 1943, when the J&K Muslim Conference asked for incorporation into the Muslim League, Jinnah sent a close advisor, possibly his private secretary Khurshid Hussain, to Srinagar to feel them out. Here are a few excerpts from Hussain’s assessment:
“The Muslims of Kashmir do not appear to have ever had the advantage of true Muslim religious leadership…. Islam in Kashmir has therefore throughout remained at the mercy of counterfeit spiritual leaders …..who appear to have legalised for them everything that drives a coach and four through Islam and the way of life it has laid down….It would require considerable effort, spread over a long period of time, to reform them and convert them into true Muslims.”
Hari Singh, therefore, knew, viscerally, what would happen not only to Kashmiri Pandits and Jammu Hindus, but to Kashmiri Muslims if he acceded to Pakistan. But in December 1946, he had lost access to Nehru because, six months earlier, when he jailed Sheikh Abdullah for raising the twin cries of ‘Land to the Tiller’ and ‘Down with Dogra rule’, Nehru had tried to force his way to Srinagar to see Abdullah, been stopped at the border in Kohala on the Srinagar-Rawalpindi road, and virtually held captive in the state guest house for three days till he turned back.
In 1947, Hari Singh made not one but three unsuccessful attempts to break the resulting ice but failed. For the first, he sent his Maharani, accompanied by the 16-year-old Karan Singh, to Lahore for a secret meeting with a judge of the Lahore high court, Mehr Chand Mahajan. At the meeting, which occurred in Faletti’s Hotel, Mahajan asked for time to consider but before he could decide, the British, who had their spies, took the option away from him by appointing him within days to the Radcliffe Boundaries Commission. This was the first indication that the British were determined, to ensure that Kashmir should become a part of Pakistan. The Congress never got to know of this secret power play.
Hari Singh made his second attempt to break the ice in July by asking Rai Bahadur Gopal Das, a prominent Hindu gentleman living in Lahore, to meet Sardar Patel when he visited Delhi, inform Patel of his desire to accede to India, and ask Patel for his help in ending his estrangement with Nehru. Patel’s reply to him, dated July 3, was the first formal communication between the future government of India and the state of Kashmir. There was no communication between the Maharaja and Nehru either in the rest of that month, or in August.
Hari Singh made a third and final attempt on September 19, and this was directly with Nehru, via Mehr Chand Mahajan, who had taken over as prime minister of Kashmir after the dissolution of the Radcliffe Commission.
Mahajan’s memoirs give us the first explicit clue to Nehru’s reasons for not responding earlier. At his meeting with Nehru, when he reiterated that the maharaja was prepared to make the internal administrative changes that Nehru desired only after his accession had been accepted on the same terms as all the others, Nehru apparently lost his temper and virtually threw him out. As a highly insulted Mahajan was leaving the room, he said “Release Sheikh Abdullah from prison, then we can talk”.
That single, throwaway, sentence holds the key to understanding the dilemma of the new government and therefore to Nehru’s strategy for resolving it. The dilemma was, “If we accept Kashmir’s accession now, what will we do if Hyderabad opts for Pakistan?”
For the architects of the future Indian Union, Hyderabad was the Mr Hyde (in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel) to Kashmir’s Dr Jekyll. Hyderabad was the second largest of the princely states, only marginally smaller than Kashmir but with three times the population and four times the wealth. It too was one of the only four princely states that had enjoyed full internal autonomy, including the right to have their own armed forces, and be given a 21-gun salute by the British. It had an 81% Hindu population ruled by a Muslim elite, against Kashmir’s 77% Muslims ruled by a Hindu elite.
Finally, Hyderabad had a far better claim to independence than Jammu and Kashmir because while the latter was a creation of the British and had existed for a mere 98 years, Hyderabad had never been annexed, either by the East India Company or the British Raj. In 1947, therefore, it was the last, still-autonomous, part of the Mughal empire. So, not surprisingly, the Nizam too was determined to remain independent no matter what it cost him. And unlike Kashmir, he had made this plain on June 11, 1947 by announcing that Hyderabad would not participate in the constituent assemblies of either India or Pakistan.
Contemporary Indian assessments of Nizam Asaf Jah VI have painted him as a miser, as somewhat unbalanced and harbouring delusions of grandeur, and if not as a Muslim fanatic himself, then as a willing tool of Qasim Razvi, who had emerged as the head of the Razakars by 1947. What else could make him believe, for even a moment, that Hyderabad could exist as an independent state when it was plumb in the centre of the Decan almost 200 miles from the nearest sea?
But later assessments provide an explanation that is far better grounded in realpolitik. The Nizam had the sovereign right to accede to either India or Pakistan. He was therefore using the leverage that gave him to bargain for the greatest possible autonomy from India. What was worse, with communal clashes increasing and the Razakars steadily gaining the support within the Muslim elite, and Jinnah offering every kind of inducement to him, to the point of pressing the Maharaja of Jodhpur to accede to Pakistan, the Nizam’s bargaining strength was getting stronger by the day.
The only way to take the initiative away from the Nizam was to accept Kashmir’s accession to India not from the Maharaja but from the people of Kashmir. For this, Nehru had to show that not only the Maharaja but also the majority community wanted to be a part of India. And for that, he needed the explicit endorsement of Sheikh Abdullah. This made it absolutely impossible for India to accept Hari Singh’s accession while he was keeping Sheikh Abdullah in jail.
Mahajan took Nehru’s message to the maharaja and Hari Singh lost no time in putting Abdullah’s release in motion by sending his former prime minister, Ram Chandra Kak, to mend his bridges with Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah met him more than halfway. In his reply to the Maharaja, he wrote:
“In spite of what has happened in the past , I assure your highness that myself and my party have never harboured any sentiments of disloyalty to your highness’s person, throne or dynasty….I assure your highness the fullest and loyal support of myself and my organisation.”
The Maharaja released Sheikh Abdullah three days later (September 29) and the road to Kashmir’s accession to India was finally open.
But why, one may still ask, did Nehru not act with greater celerity after that? Why did he allow 23 days to pass, giving Pakistan all the time it needed to organise the ‘spontaneous’ tribal raid into Kashmir that began on October 22? The question is legitimate, but it too is a product of selective hindsight. There were three reasons for the delay: first, the infant government’s preoccupation with the overwhelming disruption and slaughter unleashed by partition; second, the maharaja’s reluctance to make an explicit commitment on the role of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference even after he had tacitly accepted Nehru’s pre-condition and released him; and third the lack of any information about what was brewing in Pakistan. For this, the British government was directly responsible.
Early in October, a British officer serving with the Pakistan army had reported to General Frank Messervy, the transitional commander in chief of the Pakistan army, that he had chanced upon a meeting at the home of the deputy commissioner of Rawalpindi, where seven or eight tribal leaders, including one Badshah Gul, leader of the Afridis, were planning the details of an invasion of Kashmir. Messervy must have reported it in turn to Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, the supreme commander of both the Indian and Pakistani armies, who was based in Delhi. But Auchinleck did not consider it necessary to inform the prime minister of India, and may not even have informed Lord Mountbatten, the governor-general. That led to his rapid, and unceremonious, exit from his position and replacement by General K.M. Cariappa.
The maharaja’s reluctance to make a commitment to the role of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference remained a stumbling block even after the raiders had entered Kashmir, sacked Muzaffarabad, killing and injuring more than 3,000 civilians, and sweeping up into the Jhelum valley. It was only after they cut the power at Mahura power station 40 miles from Srinagar on October 23, plunging the maharaja’s Diwali dinner into darkness, that reality finally dawned on him. He sent deputy prime minister Ram Lal Batra with what the latter described as a ‘Letter of Accession’ to India, to Delhi the next morning.
Nehru immediately sent V.P. Menon, accompanied by then Lt Col Sam Manekshaw and Wing Commander Dewan of the Royal Indian Air force to get the maharaja’s signature, assess the military requirements, and gauge Srinagar airport’s capacity to sustain a military airlift. As Menon reported to the defence committee of the cabinet the next day (they were able to fly back only because National Conference cadres lit up the runway in the dead of night with flaming torches), even as late as the evening of October 25, Hari Singh had still been reluctant to make a firm commitment on democratisation that Nehru required to legitimise India’s acceptance of Kashmir’s accession.
This was not simply a battle of wills. Nehru knew that once the accession was complete, India could force the maharaja to do anything Delhi wanted. But democratisation after accession, even with Sheikh Abdullah’s consent, would not have made it an accession by the people of Kashmir. Nehru, and no doubt Patel, needed that because even at that crisis moment they had not forgotten Hyderabad. Every risk Nehru took during those fateful days was intended to ensure that an invasion of Hyderabad, were it to become necessary, would be considered legitimate in the eyes of the world. For there, whatever the Nizam may have desired, there was never any doubt that his people wanted to be a part of India.
Kiren Rijiju’s third, fourth and fifth ‘blunders’ are therefore nothing more than the querulous complaints of a government that knows that it has caused irrevocable damage not only to Kashmiris, but to India in Kashmir, and is now looking for ways in which to shift the blame onto the shoulders of a long-dead prime minister who can no longer defend himself, and whom the party that he helped to create is too lazy, complacent, or ignorant to know how to protect. He also seems to have forgotten that nine other states, listed in Article 371 of the constitution, have been formed on the basis of the explicit guarantee of Kashmir’s ethnonational identity provided by Article 370. Except for Arunachal Pradesh, to which he belongs, all the other states of the region have been its beneficiaries.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.