Why was Jammu and Kashmir such a challenge for the Indian leadership: A Historical Perspective

Jammu and Kashmir unlike the other princely states of India, proved to be an especially challenging area for the Indian leadership and continues to be so. Due to its geographical continuity with both dominions of India and Pakistan and on the account of its unique status as a Muslim majority state being ruled by a Hindu king it could be claimed by both India and Pakistan. With Pakistan’s logic of two-nation theory and India’s rejection of the same both were in position to accept the accession of the state to their respective dominions. Hence, the state was poised to be heavily contested between both of these nations. 

Against the Pakistani claims:

At the eve of partition Maharaja Hari Singh was unsure about the future of his state due to the geographical and demographic uniqueness of the state. But amidst these uncertainties he was leaning towards accession with India as he dismissed his Prime Minister, Ram Chandra Kak to appoint Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan. Mahajan also communicated Maharaja’s desire to join India but wanted political reforms to be deferred. But it was ultimately the tribal invasion from Pakistan that compelled Maharaja to join the Indian union.

While India saw this invasion as an act of aggression committed by Pakistan on a sovereign state, Pakistan viewed this as a natural reaction to the oppressive policies of Maharaja on his Muslim subjects, his brutal supression of Poonch revolt and the massacres of Muslims that was commited in Jammu. This crucial difference in opinion surrounding the invasion was to play a crucial role in negotiations between both the nations and the respective positions occupied by them in the United Nations.  

While an ideal solution for the Indian leadership could have been a military victory over the tribal forces within the state, this outcome proved difficult to come. This was due to the rough nature of terrain, where the tribal forces, considerable local support for tribals in Poonch and Mirpur and on account of the Indian army being already over-stretched. The situation within these areas was expressed by N.G. Ayyangar, a former Prime Minister of the state to Douglas Gracey:

“In Gilgit, Poonch and Mirpur, no power on earth can prevent them from  voting for Pakistan by an overwhelming majority. It would, therefore, be a great weakness to India to try to keep them within Kashmir which acceded to India.” 

While India could attack the base of the incoming tribal forces in Pakistan, such a strategy carried the risk of a full scale war with Pakistan which according to Nehru both the newly formed states could not afford. Consequently, the other available option for India was to go to the United Nations and seek out a favourable solution for the ongoing conflict. While Nehru was initially reluctant to involve international actors within the dispute he finally agreed to this approach on the advice of Mountbatten as the military situation in the state showed no signs of an imminent Indian triumph.  

Once the issue was in the United Nations, India failed to receive the result that it desired from the organisation despite Nehru believing that India had a stronger case. This outcome was primarily because of India’s expectation that the UN would treat Pakistan as the ‘aggressor’ which was not met and Pakistan was considered as an equal party in the negotiations with India. This was primarily due to the acknowledgement of Pakistani position by Britain and the US, both of whom were keen on not antagonising the Muslim world after the partition of Palestine. 

Further, the delegations sent under the auspices of the United Nations failed to reconcile the divergent opinions that prevailed within the leadership of both the nations. While India could not accept the Pakistani demand of removing Sheikh Abdullah (called ‘quisling’ and ‘puppet of Congress’ by Liaquat Ali Khan) to form a neutral administration and simultaneous removal of security forces in the disputed territory; Pakistan found India’s demand of retaining the security forces within the valley to maintain order and prevent any further aggression from troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir unacceptable. With both nations not completely sure of the outcome of a plebiscite, they were not willing to conduct one unless the conditions for the same would be completely favourable to themselves. This condition was extremely difficult if not impossible to satisfy amidst mutually contradicting demands of both the nations.

With an impasse that reached in the negotiations and later with a UN sponsored ceasefire between the Indian army and the Azad Kashmir troops on 31st December, 1948, the status quo started materialising. This deadlock would mean that India would have to maintain a pro-Indian leadership in its part of the state and maintain the rhetoric of it being supported by the ‘popular’ government. This was needed to bolster India’s legitimacy to rule over the state on the account of no lasting international agreement. 

Consolidation of a pro-Indian state government:

Jawaharlal Nehru much before independence had recognised Sheikh Abdullah as the ‘popular’ leader of the state. As the note written by him to Maharaja in June 1947 stated:

“Of all the people’s movements in the various States in India, the Kashmir National Conference was far the most widespread and popular . . .  The National Conference has stood for and still stands for Kashmir joining the Constituent Assembly of India.” 

This statement showed a simplification of the National Conference’s political stance and also the assumption on it being ‘widespread’. His position on National Conference’s stance flowed from his decade long stance on Kashmiri struggle as expressed in a letter to Prem Nath Bazaz:

“So that the larger struggle for Indian independence governs the situation and the more or less local struggle in Kashmir must be viewed in the light of the Indian struggle.”

Although Abdullah did have a considerably strong following in Kashmir, there were significant pockets of opposition to his leadership in the valley and he had considerably less influence in Jammu and Ladakh. But due to his affinity with the Congress, these groups continued to be ignored by the Congress, who believed or wanted to believe that Abdullah represented the popular opinion within the state. In his visit to Kashmir in 1945, Nehru stated that the people complaining about representation of minorities within the National Conference are merely making excuses for their ‘reactionary’ ideas. This trend would continue on the part of Indian leadership whenever pockets of political resistance emerged in the state as evidenced during the Praja Parishad agitation of 1953.

Even before the signing of the instrument of accession Maharaja had replaced his Prime Minister Ram Chandra Kak with Mehr Chand Mahajan, a former judge in Punjab high court and with close relations with Congress members. But after the accession Nehru and the Congress leadership expected him to be replaced by Abdullah as expressed by Nehru in a letter written to the Maharaja on 11th November, 1947. With Abdullah’s appointment as the Prime Minister in March 1948, he emerged as the most powerful figure in the politics of the state and was expected to consolidate India’s position within the state.

But despite these close links the expression of Kashmiri nationalist position was not clearly subsumed within either the positions occupied by the Muslim League or the Congress. With a fairly autonomous expression of Kashmiri identity that had taken place in the decades long struggle of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference, there was a certain degree of ideological flexibility vis-a-vis Pakistani and Indian nationalism inherent in the movement. As a result Abdullah fluctuated frequently between the positions of accession to India and independence to Kashmir, much to the displeasure of the Indian leadership. 

But while democratic process might have been able to accommodate aspirations of various groups within the state, it was compromised in order to ensure a pro-Indian leadership within the state. First, with with Sheikh Abdullah and later with his successor, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad as Balraj Puri recalls the stand of Nehru on asking him about democracy within the state:

“India’s Kashmir policy revolved around Abdullah and nothing could be done to weaken him.”

Hence, India’s challenge while consolidating its position within the state essentially boiled down to ensuring that a political leadership with a pro-Indian stance remains in place until the territorial issue with Pakistan could be resolved. In such a scenario a democratic leadership may or may not have ensured a pro-Indian stance. While Sheikh Abdullah cannot be called the ‘popular’ leader of the state in strict sense because of the dubious nature of the election in 1951 that confirmed him to be so, his dismissal showed that Indian leadership was willing to let go of democracy in the state in ‘national interest’.   

By establishing this precedent of dismissal of state’s leaders, Indian leadership could ensure that political leadership would show conformity with New Delhi but in the process instilled alienation within the residents of the state whose democratic aspirations and unique forms of nationalism and identity could not be expressed through the ballot. This denial of democracy in the state would lead to the genesis of insurgency in the state, feeling of regional antagonism towards Kashmir by the other regions of the state and alienation of Kashmiris from the political process. 

The Indian union might have accepted dissent from the leadership of the state within certain limits, the dispute with Pakistan constrained this process as India had to maintain its claim that its position is supported by the popularly elected government of the state. The legacy of this dichotomy between democracy and national interest in the state continues to this date.

Samarth Gupta is a fourth year student at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations. 

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