Books

Book Review: Strategic Competitions and Domestic Chicanery Shape Kashmir’s Destiny

A review of 'Kashmir’s Untold Story – Declassified' by Iqbal Chand Malhotra and Maroof Raza.

Over 50 years ago, Sisir Gupta, in his magnus opus on Kashmir, noted: “The State can, perhaps, claim distinction in relation to other parts of India in the number of invasions, the magnitude of tyranny, the depth of anarchy, and the cruel exploitation it has undergone during different phases of its history.” These unfortunate features continue to define the state as it contends today with external interventions and domestic conflicts that have wreaked death and destruction and severely damaged its political, economic and cultural ethos.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir, politically unified only in the mid-19th century, has been influenced by its unique crossroads location that made it attractive to successive invaders, but also placed it at the heart of the great commercial, doctrinal and philosophical movements across the Silk Road over several millennia.

This imparted to its people a unique identity – Kashmiriyat – that embraces diversity of belief, ethnicity, language, diet and conduct and moulds it into a warm and accommodative amalgam that has endured for centuries. It is this identity that has been assaulted by narrower assertions over the last seven decades and today lies shattered and dishonoured, giving little evidence of its pristine glory.

Hardly any major player comes out well in this sorry story of chicanery, corruption, selfishness, short-sightedness, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Recent history

The unified state itself was born of greed and betrayal. A Dogra general in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, Gulab Singh, betrayed the Sikhs in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46) and was rewarded with overlordship over Jammu. He then purchased from the British the valley of Kashmir and all areas east of the Indus and west of the Ravi, becoming the Maharaja of the state of Jammu and Kashmir that included a tenuous hold over Gilgit. The British retained paramountcy; at his coronation, the ruler was happy to describe himself, with folded hands, as their zar kharid ghulam (‘purchased slave’).

Later, in 1856, Gulab Singh’s son Ranbir Singh retook Gilgit and added to his state the northern principalities of Puniyal, Hunza and Nagar, acquiring common borders with Russia, Sinkiang and Tibet. Periodically, the British intervened directly in royal family matters, taking advantage of or creating family feuds to determine successions and even maintaining direct control, as in 1889-1905.

Iqbal Chand Malhotra and Maroof Raza
Kashmir’s Untold Story – Declassified
Bloomsbury, New Delhi, 2019

Kashmir’s Untold Story – Declassifiedby two distinguished media personalities with solid academic credentials – Iqbal Chand Malhotra and Maroof Raza, is the latest attempt to examine the factors that have led to the terrible situation today. It moves away from the well-trodden path of the province’s history and narratives relating to its tortured 30-year insurgency and instead draws attention to some less-known facets that have made important contributions to the ongoing strife.

Kashmir’s strategic value

The book highlights three factors in the Kashmir imbroglio: one, the strategic significance attached by the British to Jammu and Kashmir due to its location at the heart of Central Asia, particularly the borders it shared with China and Tibet to the north and Afghanistan and Iran in the west, and its close proximity to the Russian empire, later the Soviet Union. These geopolitical factors influenced the British role in the state from its inception.

Following this, the authors trace the British role in the context of the Pakistan-sponsored invasion of the state just after independence and the subsequent accession of the state to India. Finally, the writers discuss the present-day strategic importance of the state for Chinese interests, which, in their view, explains China’s role in the state and its close ties with Pakistan.

In the 1930s, concerns in Delhi that the Soviet Union could take advantage of unrest in Sinkiang to absorb this region and meddle in Indian affairs across the border, led the ruler Hari Singh in March 1935 to lease the Gilgit wazaret and its vassal states, together constituting the Gilgit Agency, to the British for 60 years (mentioned as 75 years on p 31). The authors point out that, of the eight known passes between Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, six are within a week’s march from Gilgit. This strategically important territory became part of British India and was headed by a Political Agent.

Also Read: MEA Doesn’t Want 1947-49 Kashmir Files of Then Indian Army Chief to Be Public

The authors then discuss at length the efforts made by British officers on the ground to ensure that after Partition, the agency acceded to Pakistan. Despite the agency having been formally returned to the ruler four months earlier, once the ruler acceded to India in October 1947, the Gilgit Agency was successfully transferred to Pakistan in November. This was achieved through an active role being played by British officers who, in a military action coordinated with senior British and Pakistani officers, evicted the ruler’s representative and handed over this territory to a Pakistani Political Agent.

The book then provides a detailed account not just of the Pakistani but also of the British role in facilitating the invasion of Jammu and Kashmir from mid-October 1947, known as “Operation Gulmarg”. This is based on a wide variety of sources, offering both hard information as also the piecing together of different events to present a convincing portrait of British perfidy.

Kashmir’s contemporary significance

The third point relating to Kashmir’s significance relates to its contemporary strategic value. The authors contend that China aims to become the world’s leading microchip manufacturer, an item that is of crucial importance in numerous hi-tech applications. Microchip manufacture needs two raw materials – sand and freshwater: a 30 cm silicon wafer needs 10,000 litres of fresh water. While China’s Taklamakan Desert provides a lot of sand, its own water resources are already under pressure.

Here is where Kashmir comes in: the Shaksgam valley, part of the old Gilgit Agency which came under Pakistani control in 1947, has 242 glaciers and is the world’s most glaciated region. In 1963, Pakistan transferred the Shaksgam valley to China to facilitate the construction of the Karakorum Highway. China’s annexation of Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1962 war with India has provided it with a convenient route to the water-rich valley.

This quest for water by China, the authors believe, explains the tightening of Sino-Pakistan ties through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Among other projects, this includes the construction of five dams, constituting the North Indus River Cascade that China has undertaken to construct in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), thus ensuring its water requirements for the microchip manufacture project.

Editing problems

Given the important insights provided in the book, it is disappointing to see how badly the authors have been let down by poor editing on the part of the publishers. Though strategic factors are central to the author’s arguments, the maps in the book are entirely dark grey and black, making it impossible to understand the political significance of the geographical features being discussed in the text.

Again, several important assertions are not supported by references, nor are answers provided to questions raised by the writers in several places. Quite often, the reader is ambushed by fresh events or personalities, without any indication being given about their background or context. Thus, while referring to a succession dispute in the royal family, the text simply refers to “many historians” (p 11), without clarifying who they are. Similarly, the authors assert that “many believe” that Churchill, with two other British officers, finalised in 1946 the “red line of the Indian Partition” (p 41), without clarifying who these “believers” are and what was the “red line”.

At the time of Hari Singh’s accession, the text refers to an organisation promoting education of Muslims, without any background being provided on why this was a major issue at that time. Later, there are references to the alienation of Muslims from the ruler, but this important matter is never discussed in the detail it deserves.

The last Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are several references to the role played by Hari Singh at the Round Table Conference in London in 1930, which had upset the British, but no details of this role are provided anywhere in the book.

While discussing British interests in the Gilgit Agency, the authors wonder what the British archives reveal about this issue, but give no answers. Similarly, the authors raise several questions about Mountbatten’s decision to advance independence from June 1948 to mid-August 1947; they wonder whether this was part of a conspiracy to give Kashmir to Pakistan, but give no answer.

Also Read: When Gandhi Argued in Favour of Kashmir’s Right to Self-Determination

The authors assert that the 1939 state constitution provided for elections based on universal adult suffrage (p 100); but earlier they had said that this constitution “only permitted the electoral participation of 10 percent of the population” (p 38).

At one place, the book refers to the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a “consolidated whole”, but on the previous page it describes the state as being made up of five parts which were “ethnically, religiously, and linguistically different from each other”. Again, at one place (p 38), the book says that the National Conference, in alliance with the Congress, “had almost total control in the Kashmir Valley”; but three pages earlier (p35), we were told that at this time, following the imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah, the National Conference was “leaderless and in disarray”.

Ruler versus Sheikh Abdullah

Besides editing problems that figure throughout the book, the authors, possibly in response to the wave of present-day national politics, are generally soft on the ruler, Hari Singh, and particularly harsh on Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah.

As noted above, beyond brief statements, the book fails to provide a substantial discussion on the deep alienation of the Muslim community from the royal family, does not give details of the rise of the political opposition to this family led mainly by Sheikh Abdullah, and does not explain the ruler’s failure to accede to India before mid-August 1947, a failure that led to the Pakistani invasion and the subsequent partition of his state, which has condemned India to the festering sore of the Kashmir issue, with problematic domestic, regional and global ramifications.

At the beginning of the book, the authors concede that the early rulers of the state “continued to exclude ethnic Kashmiris from the army and the civil services” (p 10). Later, while describing Jammu and Kashmir as a “composite state”, they contradict themselves in the very next sentence by saying: “For the Dogras, the Muslims of the valley were colonial subjects ruled by a Hindu Jammu elite aided and abetted by the Pandit community” (p 93).

They would have done well to recall Sisir Gupta, referred to at the beginning of this review, who has quoted a former diwan of the state, Albion Banerjea, describing the situation in the state thus:

Jammu and Kashmir state [has] a large Mohammedan population absolutely illiterate labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages and practically governed like dumb driven cattle. … There is no touch between the government and the people … It [government] has at present little or no sympathy with the people’s wants and grievances.

Despite this scathing indictment, Malhotra and Raza refer to the National Conference’s hostility to the ruler as the result of “15 years of British Machiavellian intrigue” rather than a fervent response to a century of misrule!

Malhotra and Raza provide no detailed bio-profile of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, though he looms large in Kashmir’s recent history. They make only one sarcastic reference to him after his release from the ruler’s prison in September 1947 as a “middle-class shawl-maker’s son [who] had come a long way in his political struggle” (p 77).

What we get instead are several negative references to him, often loaded with insinuation, without supporting evidence. For instance, in October 1947, when the invasion was raging and Sheikh Abdullah was in prison, the authors state, without proof, that: “Both Nehru and Patel were unsure if Abdullah wanted to accede to Pakistan” (p 80).

The book fails to highlight Abdullah’s crucial role in ensuring the accession of the state to India and the robust opposition of the Muslim community led by him to the Pakistani invaders. And this, at a time when the ruler’s senior ministers were pro-Pakistan and were urging the ruler to accede to Pakistan, while the ruler himself seemed open to Pakistani blandishments.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Photo: Oxford University Press

Sheikh Abdullah’s reform agenda

In support of their hostile position relating to Sheikh Abdullah, the authors even suggest that, at the time of the invasion and just after the accession, he might have been inclined in favour of Pakistan. This position is completely unfair to the Sheikh. In the 1930s, while still a member of the Muslim Conference, Sheikh Abdullah spoke sharply against communalism and focused instead on a socio-economic agenda that would transform his feudal state.

In June 1939, the Muslim Conference became the “National Conference”, affirming, in Sisir Gupta’s words, “the secularization of Kashmir politics” and the building of bonds with the national freedom movement led by the Congress.

Later, in 1951, despite the strident communal rhetoric of that period, his speech at the J&K Constituent Assembly was his finest hour. On the matter of accession, he dissected the issue threadbare and spoke in favour of India. He recalled the “kinship of ideals” between his state and the Indian Union, and that the Indian Constitution had “set before the country the goal of secular democracy based upon justice, freedom and equality for all without distinction”.

He examined the implications of joining Pakistan and rejected the idea that religious affinities could determine the political alliances of states. He also raised the question of the fate of the state’s one million non-Muslims in Pakistan. Above all, he castigated Pakistan for the “reactionary character of her politics and State policies”.

Also Read: ‘I Am Deeply Sorry’: A Letter to a Kashmiri Acquaintance

Malhotra and Raza are particularly harsh on Sheikh Abdullah’s economic programme, titled “Naya Kashmir”, and devote considerable space to the communist proclivities of the Sheikh and his associates. Neither of these criticisms is fair to the Sheikh.

Sisir Gupta points out that the “left-wing outlook in Kashmir [had grown] at a much greater pace than in India”, even as socialists of different shades at that time had limited success in influencing the Congress. In 1944, the National Conference set out its “Naya Kashmir” programme that provided for the economic, political, social and cultural reconstruction of the state.

It called for an “egalitarian society” to be achieved through implementing charters for peasants, workers and women. The Peasants’ Charter called for wide-ranging land reforms which included: land-to-the-tiller, end of feudal levies, agricultural credit, social insurance, and educational and medical facilities. It is surprising that the authors rail against this programme and bemoan that land acquisition was to be carried out by the Abdullah government without payment of compensation to the feudal lords.

While there is no denying that Abdullah’s National Conference had a reformist programme and some of his associates were more left-wing than others, was this not in accord with broad mainstream national politics after independence? And, can it be simply dismissed as “communist”?

Abdullah demonised

While Sheikh Abdullah did have a left-wing agenda and several sources at that time did accuse him of proximity to the communists, there is no evidence that he actively cavorted with the Soviet Union in pursuit of his independence vision. In fact, some sections of the left-wing media even accused him of accepting American money to achieve Kashmir’s independence! The authors themselves note that the US political leader, Adlai Stevenson, who met Abdullah in May 1953, reported that Abdullah “had sounded entirely partial to India” (p 109).

There is no denying that, after 1951, Sheikh Abdullah became more strident in seeking independence for the state and increasingly made intemperate remarks on the subject, which led to his arrest in 1953 and detention up to 1975.

In discussing the run-up to the Sheikh’s arrest in August 1953, the authors devote considerable space to Abdullah’s communist leanings and to the increasing alienation of the Hindu community in Jammu which, they note, came to view the National Conference as an “Islamic communal party” and a “cover for the extension of communist ideology” (p 105).

This hostile perception can perhaps be explained by the sense of loss of power on the part of the Dogra community in Jammu, aggravated by the National Conference’s socio-economic programme that attempted to reshape the state’s feudal order through wide-ranging reforms that naturally encroached on the inherited privileges of the Hindu ruling elite. Thus, not surprisingly, the agitations against the Abdullah government were led by the Hindu right party, Praja Parishad, and had a stridently communal content and approach.

Unfortunately, the authors align themselves with one side of this communal binary: ignoring Abdullah’s socio-economic programme, they refer to his “single-point agenda” of ousting the royal family. They also speak of Abdullah’s “controversial role” in the death in detention of the leader of the newly formed Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on June 23, 1953, and then state that, with Abdullah’s arrest in August 1953, “the death of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee had been avenged” (p 108).

Given that all issues relating to Kashmir continue to have a contemporary resonance, Abdullah’s role in Kashmir-related matters is bound to be debatable. However, nearly 70 years later, a more balanced approach might have been more appropriate rather than the regurgitation of old communal animosities.

In his book, War and Peace in Modern India, published in 2018, Srinath Raghavan has given a more nuanced account of the events leading to Abdulla’s arrest and detention in 1953. While noting the Sheikh’s intolerance of dissent and opposition, his harsh measures against his political opponents, and his “continued interest in an independent Kashmir”, Raghavan says that “regional dissensions” in the state, aggravated by the land reforms that had alienated Hindu land-owners in Jammu and Buddhist land-owners in Ladakh (mainly of the ecclesiastical order) had generated fears of a nation-wide resurgence of Hindu communalism in Abdullah’s mind. These were exacerbated by concerns that the central authorities in Delhi, with their regular policy interventions, were diluting the autonomy of the state.

Thus, Abdullah became more strident in his criticisms of the centre and more insistent in asserting claims for independence. Raghavan notes finally that Abdullah’s arrest “looked almost as bad in prospect as it does in retrospect”.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

Some quibbles

There are a number of important issues which need a fresh look by the authors.

One, the matter of plebiscite. The authors note that after Mountbatten accepted the accession of the state, he added a caveat – that the accession would have to be ratified by means of a plebiscite seeking the consent of the people of the state. The writers suggest this could have been a deep British conspiracy “to keep the issue of Kashmir alive in international forums forever” (p 70).

This is a misreading of this matter. In fact, fearing the likelihood of the ruler opting for Pakistan, it had been a consistent position of the Congress that Kashmir’s future be decided by consulting the wishes of the people of the state. Sisir Gupta quotes Mahatma Gandhi as saying in May 1947 that, in relation to Kashmir, “it was not the Maharaja … that would count but the Muslims who were the majority there”. Nehru in a letter to Begum Abdullah said in June 1947: “I have firm conviction that the will of the people will prevail in Kashmir.” Jayaprakash Narayan, then head of the socialist wing in the Congress, said in October 1947 that “a referendum of the people should decide whether Kashmir would join India or Pakistan”.

In fact, the story of Kashmir as narrated in this book would have greatly benefited from a detailed discussion by Malhotra and Raza of the pro-Pakistan posture of Ram Chandra Kak, the ruler’s prime minister in 1945-47, which is briefly mentioned in the book. Referring to the situation in early 1947, the authors say: “For reasons best known to himself, Kak was pursuing a pro-Pakistan agenda and sought to irrevocably manoeuvre the Maharaja to accede to Pakistan” (p 42). Looking at the situation in March 1947, the authors say that, after transfer of power, then scheduled for June 1948, the ruler Hari Singh “would prefer to opt for independence from India”. Later, the author’s note that “Kak had set his eyes on striking a deal with the emerging state of Pakistan” (p 46).

It can hardly be anyone’s case that Kak was acting on his own; he was clearly following the instructions of his master who was interested in obtaining the best possible terms from Jinnah for his state’s accession to Pakistan; this “deal” would retain him in power, an arrangement that was simply not possible with India, given the secular, democratic and pro-India position of Sheikh Abdullah.

Two, the Standstill Agreement. In the context of the Pakistani-sponsored invasion of Jammu and Kashmir from October 1947, the authors ask: If India had signed the Standstill Agreement proposed by the ruler on August 12, 1947, could India not have come to the aid of the state without waiting for the Instrument of Accession? And, linked with this, did not the failure to sign this agreement not encourage the subsequent invasion from Pakistan?

These speculations carry little value. The authors themselves note a little later that the ruler “wanted the protection of the Indian Army but still wanted to retain his hold on the state” (p 69). The Indian government decided not to reply, but instead opted examine the implications of the proposal; V.P. Menon, secretary in the Ministry of States, has said that the centre then had other more immediate concerns. Sheikh Abdullah later clarified that the centre could not conclude any agreement without the concurrence of the representatives of the state.

Sisir Gupta’s thoughtful observation explains the situation best: “… much of the story of Kashmir in this period can be told in terms of the ruler’s attempt to isolate his State from what was happening all around.”

Three, Dogra violence. While discussing the early media career of G.K. Reddy, then resident editor of Kashmir Times, the authors say that in mid-October 1947 Reddy was detained and then expelled from the state, after which he went to Lahore, where his editor was located. There, the writers quote him as describing “the mad orgy of Dogra violence” against Muslims in Jammu. The authors make no further comment of this topic, leaving the reader wondering whether there was any truth in Reddy’s remarks.

Postscript

To impart topical value to the book, the authors have added a hurriedly-written four-page “Postscript” to the book. In keeping with their sensitivity to prevailing political winds, the chapter reads like a government handout justifying the legal measures initiated by the Centre of August 5, 2019. These included the dilution of Article 370 and the end of the “special status” that the state had enjoyed since it acceded to India in October 1947.

The authors repeat uncritically the view that the people of Jammu and Ladakh have finally been “freed from the tyranny of majoritarianism that politicians in the Valley had subjected them for the last 72 years”; these new initiatives, they assert, end the “feudal rule of the minuscule minority” and its associated “implementation of an austere brand of Wahhabism” (p 173).

These triumphalist assertions, while not even factually accurate, appear to be an after-thought; for, earlier, when the authors were more thoughtful, they had noted:

… politicians in New Delhi and Srinagar have failed to address the core issues of the Kashmiri people’s grievances …

Peace and dialogue to restore their autonomy, perhaps even more than the freedom to lead a life of their choice, seems to be what most Kashmiris want. (p. 147)

It is regrettable that the authors have failed to assert their academic credentials and end their work on a more reflective note by moving forward on the observations they have themselves made. Should such meditation have been abandoned at the altar of political expediency?

A jawan stands guard in a street early morning during restrictions in Srinagar, September 27, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Clearly, while the territory that became the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the 19th century had experienced severe onslaughts from diverse aggressors, it did shape a unique eclectic and pluralistic culture that for several centuries came to encompass doctrinal, ethnic and linguistic diversities in a broader cultural ethos which was best expressed in the peoples’ shared Sufic tradition.

These traditions were corroded by the systematic divide-and-rule communal politics of the rulers of the state and their British patrons. The climax of this short-sighted and destructive chicanery was most sharply evident in the communally charged environment just before and after independence, when the Hindu ruler of the state sought to retain his privileges by affiliation with Pakistan, while his Muslim majority population sought its salvation in India!

After this, the main source of malaise in the state has been misgovernance by successive politicians. They, with the connivance of their sponsors in the Central governments, were venal and corrupt, driving their beleaguered people away from their inherited pluralist and accommodative traditions and into the arms of the very Pakistani soldiers and spies who have coveted this state for decades, largely to justify their own privileged positions at home.

The ongoing Pakistan-driven insurgency has killed thousands of Kashmiris and security personnel, severely damaged the principles and edifices of the state’s and the nation’s democratic and secular order, and alienated thousands of young people from the warm embrace of India’s accommodative cultural ethos.

Three months after the legal initiatives of August 5, there is little evidence in the state of engagement and dialogue and the optimism that comes from mutual understanding and respect. The authors believe a “new chapter” is being opened in Kashmir; sadly, the first words of this chapter are yet to be written.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune and is consulting editor, The Wire.