Kashmir: Historical blunders and missed opportunities

Across the Palk Straits By Kuldip Nayar

The settlement at Jammu that there would be no transfer of land and that the pilgrims would only use the government-built facilities, pre-fabricated huts, etc., for three months has nothing in it to which the people in the valley could object. Yet the original handling of the land issue has aroused misgivings in the valley.

Unfortunately, most political parties in the valley have rejected the settlement. They could have begun a new chapter in good relations by welcoming it. In this way, the valley might have spanned the distance with Jammu, without which the state of Kashmir is incomplete. After living hundreds of years together, the two cannot go apart. Their equation has been an example for the rest of India.

I recall that at one meeting where I mentioned only Kashmir when discussing the state, Syed Shah Gillani corrected me that it was Jammu and Kashmir. Today he favours Kashmir for Islam. Religion does not provide the sinews for the country's integrity. Bangladesh had to liberate itself from Islamic Pakistan when the former felt exploited. That both avowed the same religion could not ward off the breakup.

Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers stand guard as Kashmiri Muslims offer prayers during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar on September 5. AFP

The problem with those who are today in the limelight in the valley is that they have allowed their secular movement to be hijacked by those who talk in terms of religion alone. Only a secular valley can impress the other parts of the country, not an Islamic state of Kashmir.

Looking back, I feel that if Pakistan had been patient after its formation on August 14, 1947, the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir would have fallen in its lap. It could not have survived independently, land-locked as it is. The pressure of population - the majority was Muslim - would have made it join Pakistan. But the latter messed up things.

After the lapse of British rule the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir did not join either India or Pakistan and preferred to stay independent. He wanted to enter into a standstill agreement with both the countries.

Pakistan agreed to it. But India did not since Sheikh Abdullah, the popular Kashmiri leader, was for the rule of people. Unofficially, Sardar Patel, then India's Home Minister, sent a message to Qauid-e-Azam to persuade the Nizam of Hyderabad to join India on the understanding that it would not claim Kashmir.
Jinnah did not agree to this on the consideration that Kashmir was bound to come to Pakistan while independent Hyderabad might create problems for India. Yet Pakistan did not wait after independence and sent its regular troops and tribesmen to occupy the state forcibly. As the forces of occupation, they only looted, killed and raped women on the way to Srinagar.

People in the state built up resistance under the leadership of the Sheikh. This delayed the troop's advance. New Delhi could not intervene because the state was under the Maharaja. India sent its troops only after he acceded to India and gave reins to Abdullah.

Pakistan has never admitted that its forces went to Kashmir. Asghar Khan, former Pakistan Air Chief, has for the first time said in his book how Pakistani forces fought inside Kashmir:

"In October 1947, my brother Major Aslam Khan was actively involved in the fighting in the Muzafferabad sector of Kashmir where he led a group of Pakistani army volunteers and tribesmen. After the capture of Muzafferabad he led the assault on Baramula and moved on to a spot just a few miles from Srinagar. Indian army reinforcements had by that time begun to arrive and Brigadier Sher Khan, director of military operations at GHQ, decided to move Major Aslam Khan to Gilgit to organize and lead the operations in the northern areas of Kashmir."

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised, reportedly on the advice of Lord Mountbatten, India's first Governor-General, that after the end of hostilities, India would hold in Jammu and Kashmir a plebiscite to know the wishes of people, whether they wanted to stay with India or join Pakistan.

However, when Pakistan joined in 1954 the US-sponsored military pacts against the then Soviet Union and received the latest weapons from America, Nehru said that in the light of the "new situation" the US arms supply to Pakistan had created in the subcontinent, there was no question of a plebiscite.

By this time Sheikh Abdullah had got disillusioned with New Delhi. He wanted India to adhere to the Delhi agreement which had delineated powers between Delhi and Srinagar. The Sheikh's protest became strident. Nehru detained him at Kodaikanal in southern India for 11 years. In his letter to chief ministers, Nehru explained:

"The Kashmir government could not function and everything was disintegrating. Sheikh's attitude became more and more bitter and he seemed to be bent on upsetting everything. In the course of a conversation with a friend, Sheikh said he would set fire to the state. I do not know what he meant but it indicated the state of his mind which was almost functioning as if it were unbalanced. So, we came to live under constant apprehension of an impending disaster. It was a very difficult and distressing situation. There was no way out. To allow things to continue as was to invite disaster and, in any event, that was a feeble way of meeting a situation. To take any steps to check it also meant inviting trouble. The choice in our times was one of the lesser evil."

Despite a special status (Article 370) for Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian constitution, the state became increasingly a preserve of New Delhi after the Sheikh's arrest.

His successor Bhakshi Ghulam Mohammad was beholden to it and frittered away the state's autonomy at New Delhi's asking. Still the people in the valley did not respond to Pakistan's call in 1965 when the infiltration led to the war between the two countries.

However, India did not gauge the alienation of the valley. The 1987 election in the state was a test. When the polls were rigged, people's faith in the ballot box was shaken and some among them took to bullets.
Pakistan had been egging them on to get training and weapons to revolt. A few hundred young men responded to this. The face of fierce insurgency lasted till early nineties. But then came the demand for azadi which changed the mood to join Pakistan into a feeling of independence.

I still think that the azadi which has given an emotional unity to people in the valley does not mean secession. The Kashmiri leaders know that India would never accept another partition. They are also conscious that India has to stay secular for the entire region to feel secure.

Azadi can be within limits. The problem with the government at the centre is that it is surrounded by hawks. Their mindset bureaucrats have pushed things to the precipice where the valley stands today. It can be retrieved provided the valley is confident that the autonomy it gets today will stay tomorrow and the day after.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and one-time member of Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house. He was also a former Indian diplomat)

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