It was in 1953 that Kashmir’s estrangement from the Indian Union began. Blame it on Nehru
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with Kashmir, his ancestral land, spanned the last quarter-century of his life. In 1940, he visited the Kashmir Valley at the invitation of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The 1930s had witnessed a mass awakening in the Valley, starting with the incident on 13 July 1931 when the princely state’s police fired on demonstrators in Srinagar, killing 22 people. Sheikh Abdullah was the charismatic face of the popular movement for change that developed in the Valley through the 1930s. In 1938, Abdullah’s group was behind the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference’s resolution to ‘end communalism by ceasing to think in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims’ and its invitation to ‘all Hindus and Sikhs who believe in the freedom of their country from an irresponsible rule’ to join the struggle. In 1939, the Muslim Conference was re-named the National Conference to reflect this spirit of inclusivity.
In 1945, shortly after his release from prison, Nehru returned to the Valley to attend the National Conference’s annual convention. He was accompanied by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. A year earlier, in September 1944, the National Conference leadership had met in Sopore and declared the ‘Naya Kashmir’ manifesto, a republican and socialist charter. Nehru’s convictions made him a natural sympathiser of this political line.
By then, the princely state’s popular politics was becoming polarised between the National Conference and the Muslim Conference, revived in 1941 by religious and social conservatives based mostly in the Jammu region with support from anti-Abdullah elements in the Valley. The National Conference was dominant in the Valley, but its rival had much influence in the Jammu districts, on both sides of what was to become the Ceasefire Line in 1949 and the Line of Control in 1972. In 1944, Jinnah had visited the Kashmir Valley, and, in an address to the Muslim Conference’s annual gathering, proclaimed it to be representative of “99 per cent” of the princely state’s Muslims. This snub to Abdullah’s party reinforced its tilt towards the Indian National Congress. When in April 1946 the National Conference launched its ‘Quit Kashmir’ mass agitation against the Dogra monarchy—a movement inspired by and modelled on Congress’s ‘Quit India’ call of 1942—the Muslim Conference leader Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas described it as “an agitation started at the behest of Hindu [read Congress] leaders”. The battlelines had been drawn for the events of late 1947 in Kashmir. When the accession of the princely state to India was sealed on 26-27 October 1947, Abdullah was staying at Nehru’s residence, having arrived in Delhi on the evening of 25 October.
Had Nehru’s government not taken the Kashmir issue to the United Nations in January 1948—a move which eventually led to a ceasefire in Kashmir on 1 January 1949—it is possible that the Indian Army would have rolled back regular and irregular Pakistani forces further towards the borders of the princely state over one or two years of continued hostilities. There is no certainty, however, that this counterfactual scenario would have materialised, and pursuing it would have been risky and bloody. It is also flawed to assume that had it materialised, the Kashmir issue would have been laid to rest. India would have had to deal with a much larger pro-Pakistan population had possession of all or almost all of the princely state been regained. Concentrated in the western Jammu districts comprising the so- called ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’, the strongholds of the Muslim Conference and pro-Pakistan sardars (landed chieftains), this population would have meant trouble, whether from within or as refugees in Pakistan. That would have compounded the thorny dilemma represented for Indian policy by Abdullah, who, as events by the early 1950s revealed, viewed himself as an equal ally rather than a docile subordinate of Nehru’s government in New Delhi.
That dilemma came to a head in 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah was summarily ejected from office and imprisoned. While he was formally dismissed by Karan Singh, the sadr-e-riyasat (titular head of state), the extraordinary turn of events in August 1953 could only have happened with the sanction of Nehru, at the very least, and given its magnitude and ramifications, Abdullah’s ouster was likely choreographed in New Delhi. The ideological affinities and personal ties between Nehru and Abdullah proved flimsy in the cold, cruel light of realpolitik. In September 1953, Nehru justified the change of regime in Srinagar in the Lok Sabha on the grounds that Abdullah had lost the confidence of three of his four cabinet colleagues—Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, Pandit Shyamlal Saraf and Giridharilal Dogra, leaving Mirza Afzal Beg as his only supporter—and that Abdullah’s actions had caused “distress to the people”.
Certainly, Abdullah’s behaviour in the run-up to August 1953 presented plenty of cause for alarm in New Delhi. In negotiations with Nehru in Delhi in June- July 1952, Abdullah dug in his heels on ‘maximum autonomy’ for J&K and rejected most of the Government of India’s proposals for greater integration with the Union. Nehru’s report of the talks to the Lok Sabha in August 1952 had a tone of weary resignation—he wanted “no forced unions”, he said, and if the government of J&K wished “to part company with us, they can go their way and we shall go our way”. In summer 1953 Abdullah—fortified by the massive public response in the Valley to his government’s extensive land reforms between 1950 and 1952 and beleaguered by the Praja Parishad’s escalating agitation for J&K’s ‘full integration’ with the Union in the southern Jammu districts—upped the ante. A National Conference sub-committee appointed to examine options for J&K’s future status recommended four options in June, all involving a plebiscite and independence for part or all of the former princely state. Abdullah refused to back down in correspondence during July with Nehru as well as Azad. Instead, he announced that his party’s working committee and general council would discuss the proposals and also take them to the public in the second half of August.
So Nehru can be regarded as having acted to protect India’s territorial integrity and vital national interests in 1953. The problem was that the episode marked the beginning of the Kashmir Valley’s bitter estrangement from the Indian Union, as Abdullah had messiah-like status in the eyes of the vast majority of the Valley’s people. Syed Mir Qasim, a National Conference leader in Anantnag, sided with the New Delhi-backed group and immediately became a minister in Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s cabinet; he was later J&K’s Chief Minister from 1971 to 1975. He writes in his memoir, published in 1992, that the putsch ‘gave rise to a grim situation and a bitter sense of betrayal… giving rise to widespread agitations and protest marches. In Anantnag… I sat in my law chamber for three days, watching wave after wave of protest marches surge past. Some people were killed in police firing’. On 12 August, Qasim set out for Srinagar with GM Sadiq, a top National Conference leader who also sided with New Delhi. As they passed through the towns of Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama they ‘saw the people’s angry, rebellious mood’. In Kulgam, crowds at a graveyard where people killed in police firing were being buried asked on seeing him with a police escort: “So you are also with them?” ‘In Shopian we faced a graver situation’, as ‘a 20,000-strong crowd menacingly surged towards where we were staying, to attack us’. Sadiq and Qasim arrived in Srinagar to find the city ‘in chaos’— ‘Bakshi Saheb’s own house, despite the police guard, was under attack. He was nervous and wanted to step down as Prime Minister in favour of Mr Sadiq.’
Nehru was unrelenting. When in 1954 an attempt by the Praja Socialist Party to open an office in Srinagar was prevented by the Bakshi regime’s goons, the Prime Minister of India reacted by accusing the PSP of “join[ing] hands with the enemies of the country”. Around the same time the late Jammu-based journalist and activist Balraj Puri met Nehru and pleaded that pro-Abdullah elements be allowed some political space to operate in the Valley. Puri recalls that Nehru agreed in principle but “argued that India’s case [on Kashmir] now revolved around Bakshi and so…his government had to be strengthened”. According to Puri, Nehru said that the Valley’s politics “revolved around personalities” and there was “no material for democracy there”. In 1955, Abdullah’s supporters formed the Jammu & Kashmir Plebiscite Front, which commanded mass support in the Valley till its disbandment in 1975.
In the 1962 J&K Legislative Assembly elections, the official National Conference won 68 of the 74 seats; the Praja Parishad won three in Jammu and three other seats went to independents, one of whom was the head of the Buddhist clergy of Ladakh. Of the Valley’s 43 seats, 32 were decided without any contest. Nehru then wrote to Bakshi: ‘It would strengthen your position if you lost a few seats to bona fide opponents.’
The last months of Jawaharlal Nehru’s life coincided with the outbreak of a major crisis in the Kashmir Valley. The mysterious disappearance of the ‘holy hair’ of Prophet Muhammad from Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine in late December 1963—the relic re-appeared just as mysteriously a week later—sparked an uprising of unprecedented proportions in the Valley, surpassed in scale and intensity only in 1990. The relic issue was a trigger for the resentment that had been festering in the Valley for a decade at police-state repression and farcical elections. The crisis led to the release of Sheikh Abdullah who, The Times of India reported, ‘entered Srinagar and was greeted by a delirious crowd of 250,000 people’ on 18 April 1964.
The ‘Srinagar Spring’ soon dissipated. A slew of measures integrating J&K with the Union were unilaterally enacted from New Delhi between December 1964 and March 1965, and in January 1965 the official National Conference, led by Sadiq and Qasim, dissolved itself and announced its new avatar—the Jammu & Kashmir Pradesh Congress. Amid renewed unrest and turmoil, Sheikh Abdullah was re- arrested in May and the countdown to the opportunist Pakistani aggression of autumn 1965 began.
The roots of the Kashmir Valley’s estrangement from the Indian Union are located squarely in the Nehruvian period of India’s democracy. The toxic legacy was carried forward and aggravated in the 1970s and 1980s by his daughter and later his grandson. The nation lives with the burden 50 years after Nehru’s passing.
Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His next book, Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism, will be published in early 2018 by Cambridge University Press