Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir 1947-8 (Guha Chapter 4)

(Part 3 in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi; see last week's post here. This week's post is dedicated to Chapter 4, "A Valley Bloody and Beautiful"; next week we will look at Chapter 5, "Refugees and the Republic," which looks at the problem of integrating millions of refugees into the new Indian republic.)

Guha's first chapter dealing with Kashmir, I must admit, left me with more questions than answers, but it may be that the subject of Kashmir (even restricted to two years at a time) is simply too complex to deal with in a thirty page overview chapter. Guha's goal is to provide a balanced account of what happened in 1947-8 with the Accession of Kashmir to the Indian union (October 26, 1947), and the war between India and Pakistan that followed (which is actually well-summarized at Wikipedia). Guha goes with the line that the Pathans who marched on Srinagar in the autumn of 1947 were surely armed by Pakistan, and were not exactly a "liberation" army (they were only too happy to loot Kashmiri Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs in the towns they entered). He also stresses the close ties between Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, and derides Hari Singh as just another useless Maharaja. He also acknowledges that the role of the UN in 1948 was not particularly helpful, and that effectively the whole issue was going to be punted (1965), and then punted yet again (1999).

We could go back and forth on Kashmir forever. The two major positions in the debate, I think, are the following:

  • (1) The Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh, legally joined the Indian union in 1947, and therefore the territory belongs to the Indian union, irrespective of whether Hari Singh's action represented the desires of the majority of Kashmiris. A popularly elected Constituent Assembly, led by Sheikh Abdullah, did unanimously ratify the Accession in 1951.
  • (1a) As a practical matter, the Line of Control should now be formalized.
  • (2) The people of Kashmir have the right to self-determination. When it signed the ceasefire in 1948, India promised to offer Kashmiris a plebiscite, where they could decide whether to join India or Pakistan, or remain independent. This it has never done. Moreover,
  • (2a) Sheikh Adbullah always asked for more autonomy for Kashmir, and was eventually imprisoned for it. Even if a plebiscite is not granted, the demand for autonomy should be taken seriously.

(Is that a fair characterization of the two major positions, and the ancillary points that follow from them?)

My goal here is not to reaffirm my own position, but rather to find out something I didn't know before, and explore new ways of thinking about the subject. From Guha's account, the figure I've become most interested in is Sheikh Abdullah, a secular Muslim who saw himself as the natural leader of all Kashmiris. He sided with India in the conflict with Pakistan, but was later imprisoned by the Indian government for continuing to demand autonomy for the region. His complexities are perhaps emblematic of the extraordinarily complex political problem that is Kashmir.

To begin with, here is what Guha has to say about Sheikh Abdullah:

Whether or not Abdullah was India's man, he certainly was not Pakistan's. In April 1948 he described taht country as 'an unscrupulous and savage enemy.' He dismissed Pakistan as a theocratic state and the Muslim League as 'pro-prince' rather than 'pro-people.' In his view, 'Indian and not Pakistani leaders. . . had all along stood for the rights of the States' people.' When a diplomat in Delhi asked Abdullah what he thought of the option of independence, he answered that it would never work, as Kashmir was too small and too poor. Besides, said Abdullah, 'Pakistan would swallow us up. They have tried it once. The would do it again.' (91-92)

And here is what Abdullah did, as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (a post he held starting in 1948):

Within Kashmir, Abdullah gave top priority to the redistribution of land. Under the maharaja's regime, a few Hindus and fewer Muslims had very large holdings, with the bulk of the rural populations serving as labourers or as tenants at will. In his first year in power, Abdullah transferred 40,000 acres of surplus land to the landless. He also outlawed absentee ownership, increased the tenant's share from 25% to 75% of the crop, and placed a moratorium on debt. His socialistic policies alarmed some elements in the government of India, especially as he did not pay compensation to the dispossessed landlords. But Abdullah saw this as crucial to progress in Kashmir. As he told a press conference in Delhi, if he was not allowed to implement agrarian reforms, he would not continue as prime minister of Jammu and Kahsmir. (92)

I quote that second paragraph because it's important to remember that this Kashmiri politics in 1948 was not merely a Hindu-Muslim problem. And Abdullah's ideology was not only "Kashmiri autonomy within India." He was also fiercely invested in democratization (and opposed to any vestiges of monarchy or feudalism) and land redistribution.

But here's the crucial thing. Though Abdullah accepted what he saw as "Kashmir's constitutional ties with India," he never really accepted the idea that Jammu and Kashmir was merely a state like other states, integrated within the Indian union. For him, Kashmir was always a nation, even if it ceded all military and some legal/executive controls to India. You can see this in the speech he gave at the J&K Constituent Assembly meeting in 1951, the text of which is online here:

One great task before this Assembly will be to devise a Constitution for the future governance of the country. Constitution-making is a difficult and detailed matter. I shall only refer to some of the broad aspects of the Constitution, which should be the product of the labors of this Assembly.

Another issue of vital import to the nation involves the future of the Royal Dynasty. Our decision will have to be taken both with urgency and wisdom, for on that decision rests the future form and character of the State.

The Third major issue awaiting your deliberations arises out of the Land Reforms which the Government carried out with vigor and determination. Our "Land to the tiller" policy brought light into the dark homes of the peasantry; but, side by side, it has given rise to the problem of the landowners demand for compensation. The nation being the ultimate custodian of all wealth and resources, the representatives of the nation are truly the best jury for giving a just and final verdict on such claims. So in your hands lies the power of this decision.

Finally, this Assembly will after full consideration of the three alternatives that I shall state later, declare its reasoned conclusion regarding accession. This will help us to canalize our energies resolutely and with greater zeal in directions in which we have already started moving for the social and economic advancement of our country. (link)

(I would recommend reading the whole speech, if you have a chance.) Keep in mind -- when Sheikh Abdullah says "nation" or "country," he is not talking about India, but Kashmir.

And here is what he says about Accession and the 1947-8 war:

Finally we come to the issue which has made Kashmir an object of world interest, and has brought her before the forum of the United Nations. This simple issue has become so involved that people have begun to ask themselves after three and a half years of tense expectancy. "Is there any solution ?" Our answer is in the affirmative. Everything hinges round the genuineness of the will to find a solution. If we face the issue straight, the solution is simple.

The problem may be posed in this way. Firstly, was Pakistan's action in invading Kashmir in 1947 morally and legally correct, judged by any norm of international behavior ? Sir Owen Dixon's verdict on this issue is perfectly plain. In unambiguous terms he declared Pakistan an aggressor. Secondly, was the Maharajah's accession to India legally valid or not ? The legality of the accession has not been seriously questioned by any responsible or independent person or authority.

These two answers are obviously correct. Then where is the justification of treating India and Pakistan at par in matters pertaining to Kashmir ? In fact, the force of logic dictates the conclusion that the aggressor should withdraw his armed forces, and the United Nations should see that Pakistan gets out of the State.

In that event, India herself, anxious to give the people of the State a chance to express their will freely, would willingly cooperate with any sound plan of demilitarization. They would withdraw their forces, only garrisoning enough posts to ensure against any repetition of that earlier treacherous attack from Pakistan.

These two steps would have gone a long way to bring about a new atmosphere in the State. The rehabilitation of displaced people, and the restoration of stable civic conditions would have allowed people to express their will and take the ultimate decision.

We as a Government are keen to let our people decide the future of our land in accordance with their own wishes. If these three preliminary processes were accomplished, we should be happy to have the assistance of international observes to ensure fair play and the requisite conditions for a free choice by the people. (link)

It's clear that even in 1951, Abdullah's position is not going to make the Nehru or the Indian government happy. He wants Pakistan out of the picture, but he also never wavers on the demand for a plebiscite -- which fits squarely with his obvious ideological passion for pure democracy in Kashmir, does it not?

I think Sheikh Abdullah fatally failed to realize that without political and military sovereignty, the idea of "nationhood" is meaningless. Autonomy within the Indian union is not really a meaningful solution; it could never work as a practical matter as long as Pakistani and Chinese troops are massed on the borders. My hunch is that Abdullah was so invested in maintaining his own centrality to Kashmiri politics that he couldn't see that the compromised position he was taking was destined to fail.

I do not have very deep knowledge about what happened to Sheikh Abdullah after 1953. As I understand it, he was imprisoned for eleven years, and on his release was briefly reconciled with Nehru (before the latter's death in 1964). Abdullah was in and out of detention through the 1960s, and finally in 1975 signed the controversial "Kashmir Accord," a legalistic document which gives somehow everything to the government and pays lip service to Kashmiri autonomy at the same time.