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Why BJP’s Allegation on Nehru’s ‘Weak’ Kashmir Policy Doesn’t Hold up

Historical facts refute the falsehoods being spread by the Sangh Parivar using the Patel vs Nehru narrative.
Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is campaigning that if Vallabhbhai Patel had been the Prime Minister of the country instead of Jawaharlal Nehru, then Pakistan would not have been able to do the same mischief and anti-India activities that it is doing with Kashmir since Independence. And the fact that Pakistan can take such an attitude is due to Nehru's ‘weak’ Kashmir policy. If he had sent troops to Kashmir on time, Pakistan would not have captured part of Kashmir.

Patel's name never came up as Prime Minister

Patel becoming Prime Minister is a hypothetical question. BJP's arguments are not based on facts. It is the work of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the driving force of this party, to mislead people by spreading falsehoods. So, people have to be reminded of historical facts time and again.

Patel was a favourite political disciple of Gandhiji. Both were Gujarati and very close on the question of ideology. Yet, why did Gandhi support the Centre-Left Jawahar Lal Nehru and promote him to the post of vice-president (i.e, the Indian head of that council and the future Prime Minister) of the Executive Council of the Interim Government formed on September 2, 1946, and Patel had to be content with the Home Office?

The answer to this question is found in the Indian Council of Historical Research's 'Transfer of Power', letter dated February 24, 1947, from Lord Archibald Percival Wavell, then Lord Chancellor of India to the King of England (Volume 9, Letter No. 460). He wrote that Gandhiji was beginning to turn against Patel, becoming increasingly critical of his interventions and ‘firing off venomous letters’ to him, despite his parental concern for his insides.

Gandhiji protected and promoted Nehru. The finance minister of that council was Liaquat Ali Khan of the Muslim League. Nehru became the Prime Minister of India after Independence. Wavell, in the same letter, thought that many ministers were also ‘strongly influenced by the Capitalists’ and Patel lived ‘in the pocket of one of them—GD [Ghanshyam Das] Birla’.

Gandhiji himself was opposed to the partition of India. But what was the attitude of the other three leaders of Indian politics, Nehru, Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah?

Let us first start with Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan. Jinnah's position on the partition of India changed from time to time. First, he wanted a strong government in Delhi, and Muslims to play an important role in it. But, as freedom seemed imminent, he frequently changed his mind. Otherwise, Jinnah, educated in England and a blind follower of English attire and way of life, became a very English sort of Muslim’, who did not ‘even know how to perform his prayers’, could not have become the leader of the Muslims.

The Muslim League did not initially join the interim government under Jinnah’s leadership. It joined later and left again. But his head turned after getting 86% of the votes in the Central Assembly and 79% in the Provincial Assemblies in the 1946 elections. He also refused to join the Constituent Assembly.

British military historian Barney White-Spunner writes in Partition, that Jinnah ‘thought that Congress and to some extent Wavell double-crossed him’. (p. 95) Although the Muslim League joined the interim government in October 1946, the intention was 'to fight rather than to cooperate’.

Jinnah’s line was ‘increasingly to push for a separate Pakistan, in other words for partition, in the hope that the reality of this might bring Congress to compromise. In February 1947, he had said very publicly that the Muslim League would not yield an inch of ground in their demand for a separate Islamic state of Pakistan and he started to raise the issue of dividing the army, the very idea of which would shock both the British and Congress. (ibid, p. 96)

The Congress leadership was already fed up with Jinnah's vacillation and had since been trying to project Abul Kalam Azad as the face of Muslims in India. Although Azad was well-educated, he was not a field leader. Besides, he was not in good health for the hard work required to become a mass Muslim leader.

Barney cites an interview with BBC's Henry Hudson of Indian Secretary of State V P Menon: “Gandhiji's attitude on the question of partition was uncompromising. He saw India as an indivisible unity where it did not matter whether people were Muslim, Christian or Hindu. It was a laudable but ultimately unrealistic position.” (ibid, p. 74) When it was seen that partition could not be stopped, Gandhiji deplored partition but even now he realised that, however unpalatable, it was the best solution on offer. (ibid, p. 168)

According to Menon, Patel was a hard, pragmatic nationalist. People like him felt that power should be handed over to a strong centre. Nehru and the socialists wanted to see India from an economic and social point of view, not from a religious point of view. Nehru was also not in favour of the partition of India for quite some time. And the extreme Right-wing paramilitary RSS wanted no compromise with Muslims. And so, were supporters of the partition of India based on religion. Because then it will be easy to make India a Hindu state.

When partition became inevitable, the Partition Commission decided in April 1947 that Bengal and Punjab had a population of 53% Muslims and 47% Hindus. So, these two provinces will not be handed over to Pakistan. The Muslim-majority East Bengal and West Pakistan would be handed over to Pakistan, and West Bengal and East Punjab to India. Votes were taken in both parts. The people here thwarted Lord Curzon's attempt to partition Bengal in 1905 by violently protesting. But this time the situation was completely different. On June 20, the Bengal Legislative Assembly voted and on June 23, a vote was held in Punjab. This time, it was seen that the Hindu-led block of West Bengal voted 58-21 in favour of partition and joining India with Calcutta. The East Bengal bloc voted 107-34 in favour of East Bengal joining Pakistan. Similarly, 91 of the 168 members present in the Punjab Legislative Assembly voted to join Pakistan. (ibid, p. 172)

Patel wanted Hyderabad for India, not Kashmir

In the book, Patel: A Life, published in 1991, historian Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Gandhiji, wrote, that Patel discussed the problem of princely states long before Independence with Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy and later the first governor-general of independent India. Patel told him he would be happy if Mountbatten brought the entire apple basket of 565 tax states on Independence Day. However, 560 apples would do. The viceroy was surprised to hear.

Rajmohan Gandhi wrote: “Vallabhbhai Patel had not forgotten, amidst the communal madness, the three apples missing from his sack – Hyderabad, Kashmir and Junagadh.”

 An area of 82,000 square miles making it the largest of the princely states, Hyderabad possessed a population of 16 million (of whom 85% were Hindu), its own coinage and paper currency and a Muslim ruler styled ‘His Exalted Highness’. Muslims controlled the army and the public services. Britain had refused to consider the Nizam’s plea for Dominion status but, largely on Mountbatten’s urging, Patel had granted Hyderabad three months’ grace after August 15 for deciding on accession. No other state had been given such a concession, but Patel had instinctively realised that he would obtain Hyderabad last. “I am striving for Hyderabad,” he had written to Gandhi on August 30, “It will take time.”

If Hyderabad is the belly of India, then Jammu and Kashmir of roughly equal size are the head of the Indian sub-continent in strategic terms. It was bordered by China and Afghanistan, and almost by the Soviet Union. Its population is one-fourth that of Hyderabad and three out of every four Kashmiris are Muslims. Hindus were the majority in Jammu and Buddhists in Ladakh.

Rajmohan Gandhi wrote, “Vallabhbhai was not quite sure whether he wanted the apple of Kashmir or not.” Though significantly located, it was, after all, primarily Muslim, and Srinagar, its capital, was 300 miles away from the nearest Indian border. So, it is not difficult to understand the reason for Patel's objection.

However, despite strong opposition from Pakistan's Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, Radcliffe’s partition of Punjab’s Gurdaspur district had given India a road into Jammu. “While taking no steps to obtain Kashmir’s accession, and declining even to conclude a Standstill Agreement with it, Patel did, on his own, authorize an improvement of this road which in places was no more than a cart track,” wrote Rajmohan Gandhi.

Earlier on June 18-26, Mountbatten visited Kashmir and told the Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh, that “Kashmir will not be considered unfriendly by the Indian Government if it joins Pakistan”. According to Menon, Mountbatten said to Hari Singh “that he had a firm assurance on this from Sardar Patel himself”.   

Rajmohan Gandhi wrote, “We should note that Mountbatten was quoting Vallabhbhai and not Nehru. Kashmir, the beautiful land of his forebears, was an apple that Jawaharlal did not want to lose.”

Just like Junagadh, Patel did not want to lose his ancestral home that was Hindu-dominated.

Nehru's interest in Kashmir was intensified by the popular leader of the state, Sheikh Abdullah. Abdullah was imprisoned by the Maharaja when Mountbatten visited Kashmir. Sardar Patel's daughter Maniben's diary shows how different Patel's and Nehru's views were about Abdullah: “Jawaharlalji came at half past two in the afternoon and informed her father of Sheikh Abdullah's release. Baba gave his opinion in a single sentence.”

Hari Singh released Sheikh Abdullah at the end of September. By then he had signed a status quo agreement with Pakistan, but not with India.

It should be noted that when Nehru went to Patel's house and gave the news of Abdullah's release, he was the Prime Minister of the country and Patel was the Home Minister.

Mahatma Gandhi hoped that Kashmir would join India. Noting Abdullah's pro-India sentiment, Gandhiji prayed that Kashmir would disprove the two-nation theory. Rajmohan wrote: “Neither Gandhi’s prayer nor Nehru’s attachment was shared by Patel, who had been unenthusiastic about a visit that the Mahatma made to Kashmir in August.”

Gandhiji declared after that visit that “Kashmir was free to join either Dominion but in accord with the will of the people”. But Patel wanted to leave the decision to the king. Patel even said that “if the Ruler felt that his and his state’s interest lay in accession to Pakistan, he would not stand in his way”.

Menon’s admission, in respect of the period before October 1947, that “if truth be told, I for one had simply no time to think of Kashmir”, confirms the impression of Patel’s ‘passivity’ at this juncture regarding Kashmir.

Rajmohan wrote: “If the Sardar was indifferent, the Maharaja was unable to decide. Unwilling, as a Hindu, to accede to Pakistan, Hari Singh seemed equally reluctant to join India. He feared that the state’s Muslim majority might not like it, and he knew that he would not like the elevation of Abdullah, which Nehru was bound to ask for. Joining neither India nor Pakistan, he hoped for the acquiescence of both in Kashmir’s independence.”

Patel's this approach toward Kashmir continued till September 13, 1947. In a letter written to Defence Minister Baldev Singh that morning, Patel indicated that “if [Kashmir] decides to join the other Dominion”, he would accept the fact.

Rajmohan wrote: “Patel’s attitude changed later that day when he heard that Pakistan had accepted Junagadh’s accession. If Jinnah could take hold of a Hindu-majority state with a Muslim ruler, why should the Sardar not be interested in a Muslim-majority State with a Hindu ruler? From that day Junagadh and Kashmir, the pawn and the Queen, became his simultaneous concerns. He would wrest the one and defend the other. He would also defend Hyderabad, to him the King on the chessboard. Had Jinnah allowed the King and the pawn to go to India, Patel, as we have seen, might have let the Queen go to Pakistan, but Jinnah rejected the deal.”

Behind sending troops to Kashmir

Now let's get down to the question of whether Nehru sent troops to Kashmir on time or not. Before that, the approach of the Maharaja of Kashmir needs to be discussed a little more. The ancestors of Hari Singh, who belonged to the Dogra community, bought Kashmir from the British in 1846 for just Rs 75 lakh under the Treaty of Amritsar.

Kashmir occupies a special place in the Indian psyche not only because Nehru was the son of a Kashmiri Brahmin scholar family. But a lengthy personal report he sent to Viceroy Mountbatten on August 1, 1947 indicated that Patel felt that Nehru considered Kashmir to be a far greater matter than anything else in India. (Transfer of Power, Vol. 12, Document No. 302)

What was that ‘greater matter’? On Sunday, November 2, Nehru broadcast to the Indian nation. “I want to speak to you tonight about Kashmir. Not about the beauty of that famous valley but about the horror it has to face.” (Andrew Whitehead, A Mission in Kashmir, p. 198).

Nehru was afraid that, as Barney wrote, “the events of late October and November in Kashmir would lead to tens of thousands — there was no accurate account — more deaths, another huge influx of refugees to Pakistan and cause the final breakdown of relations between the two countries.” (Partition, p. 305)

Maharajah Hari Singh still had not given any indication of which way he would go and till October remained undecided. As a Hindu ruler, supported by a privileged Hindu elite, his leaning might have been toward India. However, he knew that accession to India would not be popular among his majority Muslim population and he had no love for Congress. Barney wrote, “He [Maharajah] saw Nehru as a dangerous socialist, committed to democracy, who would have no use for the Dogra dynasty. Accession to Pakistan would have been in many ways the most obvious choice.” (ibid, p. 306)  

And, Nehru described Hari Singh's reign as “a poor state with an exploitative land system”. There was anger against the Maharajah's government. People considered his government to be corrupt and ineffective. The movement against this government began to gather momentum when Sheikh Abdullah, a brilliant student of Aligarh University, appeared on stage. “Nehru got what he wanted. Abdullah is a supporter of the Congress, an opponent of the Muslim League, talking about the whole of India in a Muslim-dominated state, about changing the land system, and about democratic elections. Maharajah's Prime Minister Pandit Kak was trying to fuel a Hindu-Muslim riot in the state. He hated Nehru very much. When this man saw that the Maharajah was wavering on the question of joining India or Pakistan, he convinced the Maharajah that his interests would be better served by joining Pakistan than joining India under a socialist Congress government. (Transfer of Power, Vol. 12, Document No. 302)

Nehru, on the other hand, recorded his views on Kashmir in a lengthy note written to the Viceroy on June 17, 1947. He writes, “The natural and obvious course for Kashmir seems to be to join the Constituent Assembly of India”. (ibid, Vol. 11, Document No. 229).

Nehru and Gandhi then decided to go to Kashmir to put pressure on Pandit Kak to release Sheikh Abdullah. Kak became nervous, thinking that if this happened, it would create a stir among the people. He protested to Delhi and Mountbatten, who forbade Nehru and Gandhi to go to Kashmir and went there himself on June 18. This visit has already been mentioned. After June, July ended and August also ended. But the Maharajah's intentions on the question of joining India were not clear.

Barney, quoting Richard Symonds’ book, The Making of Pakistan, writes on Raja Hari Singh's rule in Kashmir that it was “autocratic and despotic.…There was differential treatment of Muslims and Hindus. A Muslim, not a Hindu, had to have a gun license. A Hindu on conversion to Islam forfeited all interests in inherited property. The Muslims were beef eaters, but cow slaughter was punishable by a ten-year jail sentence.” (Partition, p. 307)

Communal trouble had started in Kashmir in September in Poonch district, south and east of Srinagar. By mid-September, Poonch was in open revolt, the Muslim community was organised under an Azad Kashmir Party, led by local barrister Sardar Mahammed Ibrahim. The Muslim irregular forces were led by a young landowner Abdul Qayyum Khan, whose troops were around 75% ex-regular soldiers. A large group of tribesmen, known as Lashkar, under Khurshid Anwar, reached the Kashmiri town of Uri on October 23.

As Barney observed, “The situation that confronted India was delicate. If they did not send troops then Kashmir would fall to the tribesmen, there would be much looting and killing and it would ultimately become part of Pakistan. However, if they did send troops then, given that Kashmir had not acceded to India, they were creating a dangerous precedence. They decided on a compromise. Troops would be sent but on the basis that they were there temporarily to save lives and pending a plebiscite that would be held as soon conditions allowed. In the meantime, the Maharajah should be asked whether he wanted to accede.’ (ibid, pp. 313-314)

At a third meeting of the Defence Council, the Government of India decided to accept the Instrument of Accession and confirmed the dispatch of troops to Kashmir. The military situation was as delicate as the political, both practically and in terms of relations with Pakistan.

Apart from a few Dakota, no such aircraft was in the Army's possession to carry troops. Many of them had to be flown with the help of British and Australian pilots. However, at last, in the early hours of October 27, the first air force took off for Srinagar. And it was not possible to send weapons and ammunition by road.

Nehru and the Indian Defence Council were sure that the tribesmen’s invasion was inspired and supported by the Pakistan military. “It must be,” Nehru told his colleagues, “have the full assistance of the Pakistani Authorities”. He said that he had information that…the invasion had been planned a fortnight previously at a meeting in Rawalpindi. (ibid, p. 315)  

Nehru dismissed Auchinleck, the British chief of the Indian Army, in June. But he still stayed. An outraged Patel complained to Mountbatten that Auchinleck was “obstructing the initiatives of the Indian Army Headquarters and acting as a forward force for Pakistan” (ibid, p. 316).

Barney blamed Jinnah for the Indian military action. He wrote, “The most farsighted solution would have been for Jinnah to stop the Lashkar then if he really could have done so. India would then have little justification for retaining troops in Kashmir and it may well have been possible to arrange a plebiscite.’ (ibid, p. 318)

Thus, it appears that Nehru's delay in sending troops to Kashmir led to the escalation of the Kashmir problem—but the allegation does not hold up.

The writer is freelance journalist and author of six published novels, a collection of short stories, and over a dozen dramas in Bengali.. The views are personal.

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