How Nehru-Patel's Dithering Approach Kept Kashmir Simmering on the Back Burner
Seventy-two years later, hawks on both sides of the border should reflect upon Sardar Patel’s reported offer to barter Kashmir for Hyderabad and Liyaqat Ali’s choice of words for Kashmir as 'mountain rocks'.
Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru (Image: Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)
It took India several long years to take a firm position on Kashmir. There was a lot of sophistication in prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru government’s handling of Kashmir and reliance on Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The Nehru regime’s thrust on diplomacy and Abdullah was perhaps relevant then but appears fallacious now.
In the period between August and October 1947, when the first war broke out between India and Pakistan, Nehru and the country’s home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel seemed to be dithering on whether to hold on to Kashmir or not.
In his book ‘Pakistan – The India Factor’, Rajendra Sareen has documented a conversation between Sardar Patel and Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar, a minister in the Pakistan cabinet, in which Patel has been quoted as saying: ‘Bhai, give up this talk of Hyderabad and Junagarh, and talk of Kashmir. Take Kashmir and settle the issue.”
Sareen offers another gem on page 432 of his book when he quotes Sirdar Shaukat Hayat, a member of the Pakistan constituent assembly who was present in a meeting between Lord Louis Mountbatten and Pakistan prime minister Liyaqat Ali.
Mountbatten conveyed Patel’s message to Liyaqat Ali that if Pakistan keeps out of Hyderabad, India would leave Kashmir. Liyaqat Ali reacted sharply to Hayat, commending the proposal, and retorted: “Sirdar Saheb, have you gone out of your mind? Why should we leave a province [Hyderabad] larger than Punjab and settle for some mountain rocks?”
Seventy-two years later, hawks on both sides of the border should reflect upon Patel’s reported offer to barter Kashmir for Hyderabad and Liyaqat Ali’s choice of words for Kashmir as “mountain rocks”.
Patel’s trusted aide VP Menon, who was Secretary of States, amply corroborates Sareen’s account. Menon, who was reporting directly to Patel, chronicles a meeting between Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh and Lord Mountbatten in June 1947. The Governor General told the Maharaja, “If he (Maharaja) acceded to Pakistan, India would not take it amiss and he had firm assurance on this from Sardar Patel himself.”
V Shankar, who was then political secretary to Patel, too observed in his memoirs (Shankar: My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel, 1974) that Patel was willing to back the Maharaja. “If the Ruler (of J&K) felt that his and his State’s interest lay in accession to Pakistan, he would not stand in his way,” Shankar has quoted Patel.
Nehru was instinctively opposed to the idea of giving away Kashmir. For him, Kashmir’s separation would amount to endorsement of the two-nation theory. Nehru also remained extremely conscious of international opinion. His biographer S Gopal has quoted a letter that the prime minister had written to Patel from Paris on how France and Britain were not finding India’s Kashmir policy as impeccable as he would have liked them to believe.
At the time of the country’s independence, Pakistan eyed Kashmir as a predominantly Muslim state but Abdullah, a Kashmiri nationalist and secular in his world view, representing democratic forces, came in the way.
Abdullah’s obsession with Kashmiri nationalism and independence was somewhat misjudged by Nehru, further complicating the issue.
For years after the 1947 accession of Kashmir, Abdullah kept believing that both the USA and Britain would favour an independent Kashmir. Nehru invited Abdullah to sort out differences but issues remained unresolved.
Pakistan launched an attack on Kashmir on October 22, 1947, with its army regulars pretending to be tribals. India initially refused to bail out a beleaguered Maharaja. Five days later, Nehru agreed to Patel’s advice to rescue Kashmir. However, Mountbetten intervened, linking accession of Kashmir to an offer of plebiscite.
On October 28, Nehru went public promising a plebiscite on All India Radio and a formal complaint against Pakistan was made at UN, globalising the conflict. The prime minister was so confident of the Valley’s popular mood that he told the constituent assembly on November 2, 1947: “We, are of course, vitally interested in the decision the state (J & K) would take.”
Following Patel’s death in December 1950, the 1951 assembly elections were held in J&K. Subsequently, the Nehru government began asserting Kashmir’s “intimate connection” with the rest of India.
Govind Vallabh Pant, who was Union home minister in 1955, articulated this in most uncertain terms: “The constituent assembly of Kashmir which was elected on the basis of adult franchise has taken a definite decision. While I am not oblivious of the initial declaration made by the government of India (about plebiscite), I cannot ignore the important series of facts…”
Krishna Menon, who was the country’s defence minister between 1957 and ‘62, told the UN Security Council twice how Pakistan had failed to honour its commitment and conditions for plebiscite and how the UN resolution had become obsolete due to Kashmiris participating and expressing their democratic will in the assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
“On no condition shall we sell our heritage. On no condition shall we open the door for the disruption and disintegration of India,” he was quoted as saying in the book ‘Kashmir: Study in India and Pakistan’.
(The author is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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