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Secret life of Article 370: Nehru's use of ruthless force to integrate Kashmir behind veil of 'special status' offers lessons for today

Secret life of Article 370: Nehru's use of ruthless force to integrate Kashmir behind veil of 'special status' offers lessons for today

Firstpost   • Aug 19, 2019 22:14:19 IST


By Praveen Swami

From the gracious verandah of the Tara Niwas, fanned by the cool September breeze, Kashmir's prime minister would stare across the mountains, perhaps hoping imagination could transport him to the homeland he had lost. Ever since he had arrived, an uprising had swept Kashmir, pitting the state against mobs armed with rocks. Inside eight days, 37 people had been shot dead by police and troops in the days after his arrest, and 500 people had been arrested, including legislators.

He did not know this, yet: even the radio set in the palace that was now his prison had its dial locked in place with a wire, and sealed to the anodyne burbling on Radio Kashmir.

Ever since the National Democratic Alliance hollowed-out Article 370, liberals — here, as well as Pakistan and the West — have cast the action as an historical betrayal of Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional compact with an India turned Hindu-nationalist predator.

The truth is more complex: for former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmir's special status, and Article 370 were, from the outset, a fiction — one which was authored against the background of war, great-power intrigue, and terrorism.

Former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. AFP

India's first prime minister, history teaches us, was willing to use ruthless force to integrate Kashmir with India, behind the veil of its "special status". His failure gives reason for introspection today.

Even as they left behind an Empire stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Himal, Great Britain's strategists had begun to reimagine the world. The rise of Soviet power, Lieutenant-General Francis Tuker wrote, made it "very necessary to place Islam between Russian Communism and Hindustan."

"There was much therefore to be said for the introduction of a new Muslim power supported by the science of Britain", he mused.

In these thoughts the idea of Pakistan was born.

In 1947, when India began fighting the Pakistani irregulars who sought to seize Kashmir, it did so with few of the resources for a high-altitude war of attrition. Lieutenant-General LP Sen has described India's intelligenceservices as being in a "tragicomic state of helplessness", left with nothing but "office furniture, empty racks and cupboards, and a few innocuous files". There was no map, even, to match wireless intercepts with the fighting on ground.

Then, there was the geopolitical reality Lieutenant-General Tuker's words speak to. Independent India was of little strategic utility; most in the West believed it would fall apart under its organic ethnic-religous strains. Independent Pakistan, though, had real value.

Following the stalling of India's summer counter-offensive of 1947-1948 along the Uri-Titwal axis, Nehru sued for peace at the United Nations. The decision is widely criticised. However, the then spy-chief BN Mullik has pointed out military commanders backed the decision, believing that had they "been allowed to resume their offensive in the following summer, they would have not been able to go much beyond the points which they had reached in October-November, 1948".

"The decisions taken in 1947-48 cannot be judged afterwards purely in the context of the events as they developed ten or fifteen years later", Mullik has noted.

From early in 1948, Great Britain set about helping Pakistan out of the mess its invasion had created. The country sought to have the Muslim-majority areas of Kashmir policed by Pakistani troops-thus giving them what they had failed to seize in war-and appoint a United Nations administration council to govern the territory, in place of the Maharaja and Abdullah's emergency administration.

India, even at this stage, pushed back. Girija Shankar Bajpai, secretary-general of the Ministry of External Affairs, flatly said India's "offer of plebiscite could not remain open", unless Pakistan was compelled to vacate occupied territories in Kashmir. "If Pakistan wanted a decision by force, and that decision went against Pakistan, it could not invoke the machinery of the United Nations to obtain what it had failed to secure by its chosen weapon", he argued.

Put simply, Nehru had made up his mind: Kashmir had acceded to India, and the war of 1947-1948 had rewritten an agreement signed in ink into one written with blood. There was no going back.

The Instrument of Accession Kashmir's maharaja signed in 1947, allowing Indian troops to land at Srinagar airport and roll back the invasion, gave New Delhi power only over external affairs, defence and communications. It isn't widely understood, though, that the instrument of accession for Kashmirwas identical, down to its last letter, to that signed by every other princely state. In other cases, princely states went on to sign documents of merger; Kashmir was, however, to traverse a different course, involving Article 370 and a constituent assembly of its own.

Following the receipt of accession, Governor-General Louis Mountbatten wrote to the maharaja, stating it was his "Government's wish that, as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and its soil cleared of the invader, the question of Kashmir's accession should be settled with reference to the people".

Kashmiri nationalists, both secular and religious, have long maintained this letter made accession conditional-but, as the legal scholar Adarsh Sein Anand has pointed out, Mountbatten's conditional statement of intent was a mere expression of intent.

To understand how the question of Kashmir's special status arose, it's important again to understand the context. In his memoirs, spymaster Mullik states the issue lucidly, "If India could claim Kashmir purely by virtue of the Maharaja signing the instrument of accession", he argues, "then she would have to concede Pakistan's claim over Junagadh for the same reason and also tolerate Hyderabad as an independent State in its very heartland".

For obvious reasons, Junagadh and Hyderabad were of considerably more strategic significance to India than Kashmir: handing either to Pakistan would have involved creating dangerous enclaves inside the country. To avoid this trap, though, Nehru needed Abdullah's help.

Nehru and Abdullah were bound by shared values: key among them, a commitment to secularism and socialism. But behind the prime minister's decision-making, Mullik's memoirs make clear, there was also cold-blooded reasoning at work.

For Abdullah, Pakistan had appeared a dead end. In India, though, Kashmir's political patriarch, saw the prospect of a deal where he could implement his socialist agenda-and wield unquestioned power. In Mullik's words, Abdullah hoped for "a semi- independent status for the Valley would give him all that he desired-security from foreign invaders, economic prosperity due to the influx of tourists and munificence of India and yet no subservience to the Central Government".

Abdullah moved rapidly to set up his little despotism. The 1951 Constituent Assembly elections saw 45 out of 49 candidates of the Hindu-nationalist leaning Praja Parishad rejected on dubious technical grounds. The National Conference won all 75 seats-73 of them uncontested. Abdullah's five-member cabinet had just one representative from Jammu and none from Ladakh-even though Jammu made up 45% of the state's population.

Land reform and progressive social measures were instituted-but newspapers were censored; a North Korea-like community broadcasting system provided radio sets "tuned to Radio Kashmir, fixed and sealed", the scholar Navnita Behera has recorded.

In one private conversation with Mullik, Nehru made the extraordinary admission that India "agreed with the Jana Sangh's views that Jammu and Kashmir should be fully integrated with India and was taking steps in that direction. But, there were other forces like Pakistan and the Security Council which could not be ignored".

Predictably, tensions began to come to a head. In a speech at Ranbirsinghpura on April 10, 1952, Sheikh Abdullah called demands from New Delhi and the Praja Parishad for full application of the Indian constitution "unrealistic, childish and insane". "No-one can deny that the communal spirit still exists in India", he argued. Therefore, "if there is a resurgence of communalism in India, how are we to convince the Muslims of Kashmir that India does not intend to swallow them up"? In another speech, he asserted, "It is the Muslims who have to decide accession with India and not the non-Muslims".

Abdullah's renewed anti-India politics had at least something to do with his diminishing legitimacy. Elites and revenue officials were able to subvert the new land laws, enabling the relatively rich to take control of a large share of the fields which ought to have become available. Then, two successive crop failures in 1949-1950 and 1950-1951 caused enormous hardship.

Fights broke out on everything from recruitment of Muslims into the central services, to New Delhi's demand that the Kashmir militia-which fought against Pakistani irregulars in 1947-1948-be incorporated into the Indian Army. Abdullah bitterly protested the appointment of Colonel Hasan Walia as the Intelligence Bureau's Srinagar station chief, and on occasion thratened to evict the entire agency.

"It is always painful to part company after long years of comradeship", Nehru said in the face of Abdullah's stalling on terms for the India-Kashmir relationship "but if our conscience so tells us, or in our view an overriding national interest requires, there is no help for it".

From August, 1951, it became clear to New Delhi that time was running out. Led by Rawalpindi-based police officer Abbas Ali Shah, sabotage groups began targeting infrastructure across Kashmir. President Iskander Mirza authorised the Pakistan army to begin training larger numbers of insurgents, and a flow of weapons and propaganda began across the border.

Islamabad's actions came close to provoking a fresh war, with Nehru ordering troops to prepare for offensive strikes in response to Pakistan's build-up of troops in 1951-52.

Politically, Nehru voiced growing concern over Abdullah's commitment to secular democracy. "I am afraid Kashmir is heading in an adverse direction", Nehru warned in a June 28, 1953, letter. "Unfortunately, it is going to effect the Indian situation in the same manner as the Indian situation effects Kashmir".

Intelligence Bureau operatives, meanwhile, were beginning to warn of Abdullah's plans to seize independence with the help of the United States and Great Britain, pointing to a string of meetings between the Kashmir leader, western diplomats, and Pakistani officials. These allegations would, in 1958, eventually lead to prosecutions in what became known as the Kashmir conspiracy case.

Faced with this looming crisis, Nehru went to war against Kashmir's special status. Abdullah was jailed in September, 1953. He replaced him with his one-time aide, Ghulam Muhammad Bakshi, who received a unanimous vote of confidence from the Constituent Assembly-many of whose members were released from prison on that very day. In 1954, the central government gutted Article 370, passing Constitutional amendments which expanded its jurisdiction to all subjects in the Union list of powers, and giving the Governor, rather than council of ministers, the final authority to interpret the constitution.

In the years after 1958, when Kashmir passed its own constitution, these powers would see India integrate Kashmir in all but name. From the constitution's chapter on fundamental rights, to the jurisdiction of the central services, Election Commission and Supreme Court: India would exercise ever-tighter authority.

The day before Parliament abrogated Article 370, 260 of the 395 Articles in the Indian Constitution were already applicable in Jammu and Kashmir; the remaining 135 were Articles for which there are identical provisions in the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.

It's true, as Home Minister Amit Shah has pointed out, that Kashmir evaded central legislation. But even in the case of reservations for scheduled castes and tribes, or education, the state's own laws hewed close to central norms. Perhaps more important, the central government had the power to introduce new legislation whenever it ruled directly, or in coalition with local parties-notably ensuring that the national Goods and Services Tax regime applied in Kashmir.

But Nehru's project of integration didn't work out quite as planned. Chief Minister Bakshi did bring about significant economic change, funding everything from cheap rice schemes to infrastructure development projects. In 1963, though, the theft of a relic from the shrine of Hazratbal exploded into Kashmir-wide anti-Indja violence. To New Delhi, the lesson was clear: constitutional integration wouldn't end India's challenges in Kashmir.

In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to lay down new terms for competitive electoral politics to Kashmir, returning Abdullah to power after an agreement which limited the state's autonomy to legislation on "matters like welfare measures, cultural matters, social security, personal law and procedural laws".

The Jana Sangh, which had steadily expanded its power in Jammu, protested even this minor leeway; inside Kashmir, religious-nationalists like Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq cast Abdullah as a traitor. In subsequent elections, competitive communalism, and electoral malpractice, would both play an ever-bigger role, exploding eventually into the long jihad that began in 1989.

From then to his death in 1982, Abdullah said little on autonomy: he ruled like a king, but on sufferance. The slow gutting of Article 370, though, did nothing to hold back the rise of an even more toxic, religious-nationalist politics in Kashmir. New Delhi's efforts at engineering new kinds of leadership, and new terms of engagement, didn't have stellar results, either.

In the years since 1989, jihadists have repeatedly attempted to vandalise Abdullah's mausoleum in Srinagar; an Islamist-led mob sought to level it in 2010, stopping only in the face of live fire from central forces.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's despot, Abdullah died "an old man with no destiny, with our never knowing who he was, or what he was like, or even if he was only a figment of the imagination".

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