Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigues and Proxy Wars in KashmirIqbal Chand Malhotra
285 pages|₹ 799
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MOUNTBATTEN’S APPOINTMENT WAS preceded by a meeting of the British Gen 163 Cabinet committee on 8 January 1947.
Nearly a year earlier on 25 December 1946, [Igor] Kurchatov’s reactor F-1 started producing a nuclear reaction. MI6 obtained a vital piece of intelligence from a secure source in the Kremlin that Stalin was set to meet Soviet nuclear czar Kurchatov on 9 January 1947.
Also invited were [Yulii] Khariton, [Isaak] Kikoin and [Lev] Artsimovich, who were the scientific leaders of the atomic cities. Also attending were [Vyacheslav] Molotov, [Lavrentiy] Beria, [Georgy] Malenkov, [Nikolai] Voznesensky and [Mikhail] Pervukhin. Special Committee members—[Boris] Vannikov, [Avraami] Zavenyagin and [S.A.] Makhneyev—were also invited. NKVD Major General A.H.
Komarovsky, head of Glavpromstroy PGY, atomic gulag, was also present in the list. None of those participating in the meeting left any kind of note of the meeting. The regime of secrecy prohibited making such notes. This was to date the most important meeting ever held in the Soviet Union to discuss nuclear issues. While authentic information on the proceedings would not be easily available, what was clear was that the Soviets were racing ahead with their first nuclear test in Semipalatinsk.
Further, Combine6 located in Khojand, Tajikistan, was the key unit producing uranium blocks out of uranium ore. NKVD Colonel B.N. Chirkov was appointed as the Combine’s first director. Both Semipalatinsk and Khojand became vital targets for aerial reconnaissance by the British. The Joint Air Photographic Intelligence Board (UK) in liaison with TAL determined the frequency and number of targets to be covered by aerial reconnaissance sorties flown out of RAF Chaklala and RAF Risalpur. These were all black operation flights.
In addition, the Abbottabad Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) station of the Indian Army was directed to solely focus on SIGINT traffic out of the southern Soviet Union and Sinkiang. The focus was on Kashgar, Urumqi, Semipalatinsk and Khojand.
It had been a major objective of British policy to insulate Kashmir from Russian influence. The selection of Semipalatinsk as the site of proposed Soviet nuclear tests posed potential threats to Kashmir. Control over Kashmir was called for and many believed that a Pakistan under British supervision was better equipped to exercise this control than India
Share this on
Professor H.I.S. Thirlway, an eminent British seismologist, was under consideration to head the seismic monitoring station Stowage. He reported directly to [Commander Eric] Welsh in London. Clearly, [Lt Colonel Roger] Bacon’s nuclear monitoring empire was Britain’s most vital resource in enabling it to claw into the nuclear club.
The British could not afford to be left behind and needed to know what the Soviet nuclear scientists were going to be doing over the next few years. The new Viceroy would have to perform the delicate task of ‘officially’ winding down Britain’s role in India while physically retaining secure control of the Gilgit Agency-based monitoring and study of Soviet nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk.
Mountbatten arrived in India to take over as the Viceroy on 22 March 1947. By this time, the Government of India had a clear idea as to what Maharaja Hari Singh intended to do after the transfer of power in June 1948. If possible he would prefer to opt for a quasi-independent status with Pakistan. He already had bad blood with Nehru, and [Sheikh] Abdullah continued to be a thorn in his side. The Maharaja needed to free himself from slow strangulation if political reform was forced on Kashmir after denying him quasi-independence. [Ram Chandra] Kak had his eyes set on striking a deal with the emerging state of Pakistan. In his dispatch from Srinagar on 14 November 1946, the British Resident in Jammu and Kashmir, Webb, reported as much to Viceroy Wavell.
It had been a major objective of British policy from the 19th century to insulate the state of Jammu and Kashmir from Russian influence. After the start of the Cold War, the possibility of Subhas Chandra Bose’s refuge in the Soviet Union, the Soviet presence in Sinkiang and the selection of Semipalatinsk as the site of proposed Soviet nuclear tests posed potential threats to the security of Jammu and Kashmir, thereby threatening the stability of the post-independent government in the state. All of these interests would be best served if Jammu and Kashmir had been prevented from being the site of further foreign policy experiments. Resolute control over the state was clearly called for and many in the British administration believed that a Pakistan under British supervision was better equipped to exercise this control than India.
On 29 April 1947, Mountbatten took a calculated decision and displayed his awareness of the undercurrents and complications of the Gilgit lease when he advised Lord Listowel, Secretary of State for India in the British government, on the future of the lease. At this point, the date for the transfer of power was still known to be 30 June 1948. Mountbatten recommended that the entire area of Gilgit be returned to the state of Jammu and Kashmir well before June 1948 and as early as October 1947. Listowel agreed and Nehru, too, concurred when consulted. Jinnah, for the record, was not asked for his opinion.
The British needed to know what the Soviet nuclear scientists would be doing. The new viceroy would have to perform the delicate task of winding down Britain’s role in India while retaining control of the Gilgit agency-based monitoring of Soviet nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk
Share this on
In the backdrop of what was happening in Sinkiang, it became difficult to make a case for transferring the responsibility of defending Gilgit to Maharaja Hari Singh. It was largely to keep the area out of Hari Singh’s hands that the Gilgit lease was secured in the first place. Yet, here was Mountbatten apparently abandoning this vital outpost and handing it back to Hari Singh. This was a paradox, which only made sense on the assumption that the new lessees of the Gilgit lease would be based not in Srinagar and Jammu but Karachi.
Why did Mountbatten take this new decision? Did [Clement] Attlee tell him to rescind the Gilgit lease to enable a quiet and legal transfer of Kashmir to Pakistan?
It is being argued here that Mountbatten was issued top-secret instructions in London before he left for India to take up the post of Viceroy. As mentioned earlier, Mountbatten’s overriding orders from the British government were to secure the ‘cast-iron’ safety and continued existence of the three British nuclear monitoring stations in Gilgit, notwithstanding the transfer of power. This was the decision of the Gen 163 Cabinet committee that succeeded the Gen 75 Committee in January 1947. Since the balance was tilted in favour of Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to Pakistan, it became imperative to ensure that the entire kingdom, including the Gilgit Agency, passed peacefully into Pakistan’s willing hands. This would also provide complementary support to the British plan of including NWFP in Pakistan so that the entire range of British India’s north-western borders would devolve into Pakistan.
The author Aman Hingorani refers to Mountbatten’s interview with the authors Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, who wrote the famous book Freedom at Midnight. In this interview, Mountbatten said he wanted Kashmir to accede to Pakistan simply because it made Pakistan all the more viable. Since he was responsible for the creation of Pakistan, he wanted it to work, he said, and it would work better with Kashmir. By achieving this, his creation had a better chance of surviving.
What Mountbatten was presumably loath to admit or reveal to Collins and Lapierre was that Britain’s quest to join the nuclear club made it imperative that both the Gilgit Agency and the Muzaffarabad-Poonch belt remained under British physical influence and official Pakistani control. With both of these in the bag, if it was possible to also add the Valley, then that would be a bonus.
Mountbatten arrived in London in the middle of May in 1947. The issue of the NWFP was critical to the existence of Bacon’s nuclear monitoring empire because Risalpur airfield was needed for certain overflights above the Soviet Union. Also, the joker in the pack was the role of all the Pathan Scouts and levies raised since 1946.
ON OR AROUND 31 May 1947, Major General Stewart Menzies (also C and head of MI6), drove from MI6 HQ at 54 Broadway to 10 Downing Street. He had an urgent appointment with Prime Minister Attlee. On the cards was a top-secret ‘for your eyes only’ briefing on the latest intelligence about the Soviet nuclear programme. Top secret MI6-controlled RAF reconnaissance flights from Chaklala outside Rawalpindi over the selected Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk revealed activities involving the construction of buildings, railway lines and an airfield. Intelligence from Moscow revealed that the Kurchatov Institute, which was designing the first Soviet nuclear weapon at the site called KB-11, had made key breakthroughs, leading to the start of prototype construction of the weapon. The construction of the Mayak plutonium plant in the southern Urals was being driven at a scorching pace by Beria. Combine6 at Khojand was also working round the clock to produce uranium blocks. It was imperative to put in place all the cogs in Bacon’s nuclear monitoring empire.
If possible Maharaja Hari Singh would prefer to opt for a quasi-independent status with Pakistan. He already had bad blood with Nehru. Ram Chandra Kak had his eyes set on striking a deal with the emerging state of Pakistan
Share this on
To C’s surprise, Mountbatten was also present at this meeting. All three of them agreed that Bacon’s entire set-up had to be made secure. For that to happen, both NWFP and Kashmir had to remain under secure British control for as long as required, notwithstanding independence and partition. Mountbatten left for India shortly after this meeting.
All the records of C’s meetings with Attlee and what transpired during these meetings would not be recorded, particularly if deemed to be highly sensitive and at variance with the government’s official position, or those matters that, in the public domain, could appear to be unprincipled. It is my assessment that given the pattern of events, this meeting had to have happened.
On 4 June 1947, immediately after his return from London, Mountbatten announced 15 August 1947 as the deadline for the transfer of power, instead of sticking to the earlier target date of 30 June 1948. Did Mountbatten spring this surprise as a result of his meeting with both C and Attlee a few days earlier?
Mountbatten had to urgently decide the future of the NWFP. This was to be brought about by a referendum with a clear choice for the voters to choose between India and Pakistan. The two Khan brothers, Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka ‘Frontier Gandhi’ and Dr Khan Sahib, were Congressmen and the ruling dominant political force in NWFP. They wanted the removal of Sir Olaf Caroe from his post of the Governor of NWFP. Nehru ensured that Mountbatten got his deal, provided Caroe was removed. Mountbatten got his deal through. For the British, ultimately replacing Caroe with Cunningham was going to be a good deal for what Cunningham could achieve was not possible through Caroe.
General Sir Robert Lockhart was appointed as the new Governor to oversee the referendum in NWFP in July 1947. The Congress officially boycotted the referendum. Despite this, only 50.49 per cent voted for Pakistan.
For Mountbatten, the complex problem of the future of Jammu and Kashmir and Hyderabad remained, both of which indicated an interest in being independent states after Partition. Mountbatten made it abundantly clear that he was personally unhappy about the prospect of independence for either. Given the ‘historical unreliability’ of Maharaja Hari Singh, both Mountbatten and [Hastings] Ismay were convinced that an ‘independent’ Jammu and Kashmir could not be relied upon to permit the British monitoring stations to remain in existence. On 9 June 1947, he announced that he was instructing the British Residents in both states to urge the rulers to make no announcements about independence until he had had the opportunity to visit them and discuss the matter.
What does become clear is that Mountbatten’s changing the date of the transfer of power and bringing it forward by ten-and-a-half months completely obscured, from the minds of both the Congress and Muslim League, thoughts about the wider geopolitical consequences of splitting Punjab in two.
The approaching reality of Pakistan became a novel idea that was so overwhelming and daunting that it drowned all else including thoughts about the future of Kashmir. Further, the draft of the Indian Independence Act, by which power was to be transferred, had a joker in the pack, and that was the handing back of paramountcy in princely India to the princes. They would decide whether to join India or Pakistan or remain independent. In the rush to the new date of 15 August 1947 for the transfer of power, no direct thought was given to what was really happening in Kashmir and what the British were really up to. Mountbatten had, as far as possible, isolated Kashmir from the focus of immediate attention, which was the forthcoming partition of both Punjab and Bengal.
Mountbatten, accompanied by Lady Mountbatten and Lord Ismay, arrived in Srinagar on 17 June 1947 and was back in New Delhi six days later. During these crucial six days, he aimed to engage in detailed parleys with Hari Singh and Kak. Mountbatten asked Nehru to prepare an exhaustive briefing note on Kashmir for him, which would provide him with talking points for the ensuing discussions. While in Srinagar, Mountbatten was frustrated because Hari Singh was unwilling to engage in any serious discussions with him. The Maharaja had picked up gossip about Nehru’s friendship with Edwina Mountbatten and his extraordinary closeness to the couple while Jinnah was kept at arm’s length by the Mountbattens. To Hari Singh, Lord Mountbatten was merely a votary of Nehru’s views on the future of the state. He did not allow Mountbatten to visit Sheikh Abdullah in prison, even with Nehru’s intervention. Lady Mountbatten found it impracticable to meet Begum Abdullah, and Mountbatten did not attempt to visit Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas and other political prisoners close to the Maharaja or to seek the views of the Mirwaiz.
The internal politics of the Valley was of no interest to Mountbatten because he knew it would be going to Pakistan lock, stock and barrel. He did, however, engage with Kak. What transpired in their conversation was not recorded. What they said in public or to the press later was an obfuscation of reality.
Both Mountbatten and Ismay were in sync on this one. They ensured in tandem that no one could guess their hidden agenda. Did this action of Mountbatten propel Ismay to sound out Bacon to also start planning for the execution of the Gilgit rebellion as a fallback plan?
(This is an edited excerpt from Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigues and Proxy Wars in Kashmir by Iqbal Chand Malhotra).