Most of us have a hazy understanding of Kashmir’s troubled history. The haunting lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s, The Country without a Post Office captures with poignancy the Kashmir story and tells us why it is difficult to make sense of it. Now with the revocation of Article 370 and 35A, we are forced to turn to postcards from history and to speculate if much of this tragedy could have been avoided. For many believe that if Sardar Patel was India’s first Prime Minister instead of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country would have been spared this festering wound.
Nehru is portrayed as being gullible and tempestuous unlike Patel, a strong man, who sees the world as it is, not as it should be. It is contended that Patel would never have agreed to Article 370 and 35A, never offered a plebiscite, and never gone to the UN for meditation. More importantly, it is averred that Patel would have pushed the Indian Army to overrun the entire princely state of Kashmir.
A minimal retelling of India’s partition is necessary here. The Radcliffe Award was the basis for dividing British India, but when it came to princely states like Hyderabad and Kashmir, each of these kingdoms had to choose between the two successor states namely, India or Pakistan. There were over 500 such states and most joined either, except Kashmir. Hyderabad had to be pushed, but ultimately it fell in line unlike Kashmir which hedged until it faced a crisis. But then Kashmir was exceptional.
The accession came with caveats, namely granting of special status to Kashmir and Article 370 and 35A being the constitutional provisions for this special relationship
First, it had a Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, while its majority population was Muslim. Next, it is the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent and strategically therefore of great significance to both India and Pakistan. Third, as the Maharaja prevaricated, an unwritten principle came to be established namely that if the ruler was of one faith and his citizenry of another, then the will of the people had to be ascertained. Into this twisted tale comes this larger than life character, Shaikh Abdullah.
The lion of Kashmir
Abdullah was a complicated man. Initially an Islamist, he slowly grew into a secularist. He was ambitious, wily and a fierce defender of Kashmiri identity rooted in diversity and syncretism. He was the Maharaja’s bête noire, one a progressive, and the other a feudal ruler. Shaikh Abdullah was also Kashmir’s biggest mass leader, the lion of Kashmir, and a great admirer of Nehru; indeed their friendship preceded the turbulent times of the partition. And though the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession in 1947, it was Abdullah’s steadfast support that helped India seal the deal on Kashmir
The accession came with caveats, namely granting of special status to Kashmir and Article 370 and 35A being the constitutional provisions for this special relationship. Pakistan contested the accession and went to war with India. Consequently, Kashmir was divided, a stalemate reached and a ceasefire line established. This dispute then got referred to the UN and India offered to hold a plebiscite, but since the conditions for holding the plebiscite were never fulfilled by Pakistan, this exercise was never carried out. Meanwhile, India having held elections in its part of Kashmir and ascertained the will of the people repeatedly ruled out the need for a plebiscite. Unsurprisingly Pakistan disputes most of this.
The argument is that if Nehru had not offered a plebiscite and not referred this dispute to the UN, and had instead allowed the Indian Army to occupy the entire princely state of Kashmir, this albatross of a dispute could have been avoided. Indeed it is speculated that Patel advised Nehru exactly that and had he been the Prime Minister, this imbroglio would not have arisen.
This is a mischievous retelling of the story but even if this were true, Abdullah would not have endorsed the accession which without Abdullah’s validation would have been a worthless piece of paper. It was on account of Nehru that Shaikh Abdullah threw his lot with India. He fervently believed that India under Nehru would not renege on its promises and would hold fast to its creed ‘unity in diversity’. He did not have that confidence in any other Indian leader. Next, the decision to halt the Indian Army at the current ceasefire line was because Abdullah’s sway over the Kashmiris did not extend beyond this point.
Sardar Patel was in some ways greater than Nehru, but Kashmir’s accession needed Nehru, and Nehru needed Abdullah to win over the Kashmiris. Next, authenticated documents confirm that Patel concurred not only with the terms of the accession but was prepared at one stage to barter Kashmir for Hyderabad. These two outstanding leaders had major differences but their love for India united them. Let no one tell you otherwise.
— Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer and thinker, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.