Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah

One cannot help but speculate as to what might have been, in this beautiful Valley and for its people, had India’s first Prime Minister been more imaginative, decisive and statesman-like.

In an environment and era that has ushered in a long overdue reassessment of the struggle for India’s independence and the foundational years of her democracy, perhaps the individual most subjected to the gaze of hindsight has been our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. While the genesis of a more realistic view of the man—than permitted by State-encouraged hero worship—has been some years in the making, it has come to heightened prominence with the inferences drawn on the basis of the recent declassification of files relating to the death and/or disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose by the West Bengal Government—and the growing demands that resulted in the Central Government committing to follow suit. At such a time, it is important to attempt to retain perspective and arrive at conclusions backed by data and records, not identification with political affiliations. One critical aspect of this reassessment, which has been under sustained and renewed scrutiny for some time now, is the influence of the leadership of Nehru on the issue of Kashmir.

To an extent, the sheer longevity of the issue—and its perceived intractable complications—bolstered further by the benefit of speculation and hindsight, certainly paints an uncomplimentary picture of Nehru’s efforts. It’s only fair, therefore, that the motivations and convictions that drove the various actions of independent India’s first Prime Minister not be merely guessed at or oversimplified. Unfortunately, however, try as one might to judge with restraint, a study of Nehru’s various communications about Kashmir, the Mountbatten Papers in the possession of the Broadlands Archives Library and the writings of administrators and diplomats of the era, all paint Nehru as having consistently squandered advantages, being prone to succumb to the frequent misdirection of his British generals and Governor General and lacking either the clarity or the foresight to assess the consequences of his actions sufficiently.

Nehru’s prevarication about decisive action as well as an inability to look beyond the short term, when it came to the specific factors and protagonists involved in the Kashmir issue, began well before his assumption of the Prime Minister’s office—indeed, before India attained independence. In the June of 1946, Nehru travelled to the Valley, in defiance of the wishes of Maharaja Hari Singh, the Dogra ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, in order to secure the freedom of Sheikh Abdullah who had been imprisoned by the Maharaja. At the time, Nehru had made several public statements that left his loyalties in no doubt. On one hand, he referred to Abdullah as his “blood brother”; on the other, he cast the Maharaja’s rule as regressive and feudal in no uncertain terms. While it may be justifiably argued that a ruler like the Maharaja represented the old feudal order, a more diplomatic approach would no doubt have eased the Maharaja’s concerns about his interests, post the withdrawal of the British from the Indian subcontinent, and possibly avoided the delay in accession to India.

At the time of these provocations, Nehru, it must be remembered, was already the anointed one and destined to be independent India’s first Prime Minister, in accordance with the wishes of the Mahatma. A mere few weeks prior to his confrontation with the Maharaja, Nehru was one of three candidates being considered for the post of Prime Minister, Nehru himself, Sardar Patel and Acharya Kripalani. Of the three, it was clear that the general cadre of the Indian National Congress were most enthusiastically supporting the candidature of Sardar Patel—12 of 19 Pradesh Committees of the INC had nominated Patel as their preference while none proposed Nehru’s name. After explicit statements from the Mahatma emerged, endorsing the candidature of Nehru, both Kripalani and Patel withdrew their names from the fray and allowed Nehru to be “nominated” unopposed. In effect, therefore, Nehru’s public flourish in defiance of the Maharaja’s ban on his entry into Jammu and Kashmir—and against the advice of several INC luminaries, including Patel—signaled the likely stance of the government of the soon to be independent India.

That these actions added to delays in the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India, despite the great aversion the Maharaja had for Jinnah’s Pakistan, is beyond doubt. Nor can it be contested that these delays contributed greatly to the creation of an exceptional circumstance surrounding the accession or that they gave opportunities to the British generals and administrators, still in key positions after the transfer of power, to act in the geopolitical interest of the erstwhile colonial power, with the active assistance of a Pakistani elite only too keen to act on their instructions. In the end, Nehru allowed himself to be persuaded against his stated intention—some might say, further bolstering the charge of a propensity for flourish and gesture rather than astute statesmanship.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the end of this confrontational attitude towards Maharaja Hari Singh. A mere fortnight prior to India’s independence, Nehru once again publicly reiterated his intention to travel to Kashmir to free Sheikh Abdullah, only to be dissuaded by advisors once more. If the previous episode had faded at all in Hari Singh’s memory, it was brought to the fore once more at a most inopportune moment. At a time when Sardar Patel’s efforts had persuaded most of the various royal families of the princely states to sign instruments of accession to India, Hari Singh, wary of the nascent Nehru-led administration, bided time and considered the quixotic option to retain sovereignty.

Whatever the content of these considerations, Hari Singh was realistic enough to quickly see the inevitability of accession to India. A mere month after the independence of India and Pakistan, in the September of 1947, the Maharaja offered the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. Nehru, however, refused to accept the offer until Sheikh Abdullah had been freed and installed as the Prime Minister of the princely state prior to the accession. Given that the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian State was being offered, and it was to be part of a nation of which he was the Prime Minister, this was, of course, an entirely notional gesture. Even if one might credit Nehru’s principles and concede that he found the incarceration of Sheikh Abdullah an unacceptable act, he was going to be able to reverse that injustice under his own administration. Adding such a precondition was, to say the least, bizarre—especially given the fluid geopolitical forces at play at such a critical time. Hari Singh did not find Nehru’s request acceptable and the completely superfluous stalemate continued.

Late in October, from all accounts emboldened by the prevarication over the accession, the British commanders of Pakistan’s army initiated the first of Pakistan’s transgressions against the interests of the Indian State—complete with the since-established ploy of plausible deniability—in the shape of an army of tribal raiders from the North West Frontier Province.

In 1946-47, British commanders had been asked to prepare a strategic document by 10 Downing Street. This document was to assess the effects of British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent and recommend a course of action that would best continue to serve British interests post the independence of India. The report, submitted in May 1947, was unanimous in declaring Pakistan the more valuable asset to geopolitical stratagem. Pakistan’s location made it an ideal vantage point to stage operations, should the USSR need to be contained, as well as being perceived to be better integrated with its coreligionists in the Middle East—with the added benefit of access to the Arabian Sea. Kashmir thus assumed great significance in the minds of the British as a land that could complete and magnify these advantages of location. Established and longstanding relationships with the Muslim League, which had been a largely loyalist organization to the Empire, and Jinnah’s more enthusiastic desire, at the time, to remain in the Commonwealth, further underscored the benefits of Pakistan as an ally.

By October 26, the rag tag army under the command of Pakistani regulars out of uniform had reached within striking distance of Hari Singh’s capital, Srinagar. While both Pakistan and India still retained British military commanders, Jinnah had kept the post of Governor General for himself. By contrast, Nehru had “magnanimously” chosen to request Lord Mountbatten to remain involved with independent India as its Governor General. The British commanders of the Indian Army, therefore, reported to Mountbatten, for all practical purposes. On the evening of October 26, a meeting of various Indian leaders, including Nehru and Patel, as well as Mountbatten and the British commanders, was held, with the Governor General chairing. Some accounts of the meeting, from credible sources, allege dithering on the part of Nehru until Patel forced the decision to respond to the raiders.

The Indian Army soon established ascendancy on the ground and was well positioned to liberate Gilgit and Baltistan, let alone the areas occupied by Pakistani forces. It was at this point that the advice and counsel of the British commanders and Mountbatten shifted gear and tried to contain the situation in accordance with the plans to operate Pakistan as a client state. By December 1947, Nehru was being advised restraint, against the wishes of the field commanders of the now rapidly indigenizing Indian Army. It beggars belief to turn a blind eye to the fact that General Gracey, who was commanding the Pakistani troops, had foreknowledge of the raiders’ attack but neglected to inform his “Indian” counterparts, or the well-documented sharing of intelligence from British commanders of the Indian army.

This careful orchestration of the conflict was further complicated through the direct intervention of Lord Mountbatten. Not only did he convince Nehru to halt the advance of the Indian forces, he was able to insinuate illegality with respect to the military action itself, a flimsy construct that does not survive scrutiny but one which was enough for Nehru. Matters were further complicated by the appointment of Sheikh Abdullah—the “blood brother”—as the negotiator between the governments of India and Pakistan and the ill-advised appeal to the involvement of the United Nations despite a position of overwhelming strength in the battlefield, as opposed to a counterattack into West Punjab, all at the behest and on the advice of Mountbatten.

By the first few months of 1948, the original Indian complaint to the UN had already been set aside, several anti-India resolutions passed by the UN Security Council, Pakistani forces had bunkered down to occupy land that they retained control of in defiance of UN prerequisites for a plebiscite—a position they still retain—and an overwhelming military victory transformed into something like neutral parity. Sheikh Abdullah, in the interim, had also been convinced to change his pro-India affiliations and had already begun to parley with western powers—especially the US—for an independent Kashmir.

The following decade or more stands further testimony to the complete mismanagement of Abdullah and the creation of circumstances that ended with him and his family securing unprecedented and unopposed hold over the credulous masses of the state through invocation of perceived slights and the constant stoking of religious and ethnic exclusivity. The events of 1953, which saw the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah that allowed him to emerge as a “martyr” pitted against the “tyrannical” Indian State, hardening of the inappropriate application of Article 370 as a longstanding and default position and the mysterious death due to, in the very least, negligence, of Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, further entrenched Kashmir as an unresolved issue and festering wound.

In essence, by omission as well as commission, Nehru’s leadership was critically deficient in providing closure to a run-of-the-mill accession to the extent that subsequent creation of narrative has been successful in sharpening divides and maintaining entrenched positions. At several junctures—including the present—a large section of the Kashmiri population has been amenable to moving forward as part of the Indian union. While skewed reportage concentrates on the actions of dissidents and their followers, the remarkably well-represented success of democratic elections and the public outcry against some of the harsher edicts of Islamist organizations bear testimony to the path that will eventually set this matter to rest. A permanent and lasting solution does now require a somewhat protracted and gradual process. Nevertheless, one cannot help but speculate as to what might have been, had India’s first Prime Minister been more imaginative, decisive and statesman-like.

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