'Dazzling' Knowledge, Conspiracy Theories, Antipathy for Indian State: Alastair Lamb's Work on Kashmir

By burdening a work of scholarship with deeply partisan assertions, Lamb gave the impression that his writing was about advocacy rather than careful historical inquiry.

The British diplomatic historian Alastair Lamb, who has died at the age of 93, was an eminent historian of modern Kashmir and for many years the foremost scholar of the twists and turns which led to the eruption of Kashmir as a geopolitical hotspot in 1947-8. Lamb was a careful researcher engrossed in the official archive and generous to other historians who followed in his wake. “His knowledge was pretty dazzling,” recalls Victoria Schofield, who has written well-regarded histories of Kashmir.

From his birth, Alastair Lamb was immersed in Empire. He was born in 1930 in China where his father was serving in the British diplomatic service. For several months during the Second World War, his parents were interned by the Japanese – but by then Alastair was back in Britain and in the care of his grandfather.

He was educated at the elite public school Harrow, where Jawaharlal Nehru had been a pupil some 40 years earlier, and then studied history at Cambridge University. His doctoral thesis was on India’s borders, and particularly the demarcation line with China, during British rule. Lamb was, according to the historian of international relations Srinath Raghavan, “a pioneer in his study of India’s frontiers, an area of inquiry which is now much in fashion among South Asian historians”.

For much of the 1960s, Lamb taught at the University of Malaya (and later in Australia and Ghana). During that time, he completed his first book on Kashmir’s history. In the 1990s, he self-published three successively more detailed accounts of Kashmir’s 20th century history and of the accession crisis in particular. His mastery of the diplomatic archive was exceptional; he had less time for political history and very little at all for social or oral history.

Alongside his impressive scholarship, Lamb was an advocate of sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories (or what his friends would call hobby-horses). He was also prone to waspish asides which diminished the authority of his writing.

Alastair Lamb. Photo: The Telegraph

Lamb once told me he was ‘firmly convinced’ that Nehru and the Kashmiri nationalist leader, Sheikh Abdullah, were half-brothers. While he was more cautious in his published works, he gave some hefty nudges in that direction. “Nehru saw Sheikh Abdullah almost as his political twin,” Lamb declared in Birth of a Tragedy: Kashmir 1947. And just to rub in the insinuation, he commented that “some aspects of the Nehru-Sheikh Abdullah connection have yet to be explained satisfactorily – it may well have involved more than shared political opinions”.

As with so many conspiracy theories, circumstantial evidence may give this fable a tiny sliver of credibility to those who want to believe it. But the underlying suggestion that the firm alliance between Nehru and Abdullah in the 1940s was at root familial would require both to have known that they supposedly shared a father. And that is even more fanciful.

Lamb’s writing is suffused with a deep antipathy towards the Indian state. In discussing a massacre by invading Pakistani tribesmen at a mission hospital in Baramulla in October 1947 – the central event recounted in my own book, A Mission in Kashmir – he sought to extenuate the killing and looting by asserting (in Incomplete Partition: the genesis of the Kashmir dispute 1947-1948) that “whatever happened in Baramula (sic) that day is as nothing compared to what has happened to Kashmiri men, women and children at Indian hands since 1989”.

Many might say that was fair comment. But by burdening a work of scholarship with such a deeply partisan assertion, Lamb gave the impression that his writing was about advocacy rather than careful historical inquiry. And in so doing, he gave much of his potential readership an excuse to ignore everything he said, including his carefully calibrated and well-researched arguments.

Of the accession document by which the Maharaja of Kashmir belatedly signed up his princely state to India, Lamb caustically observed in Birth of a Tragedy: “There are well informed people who deny that any such document ever existed.” So we have another conspiracy theory – that Jammu and Kashmir’s last princely ruler, Hari Singh, never actually put his name to the Instrument of Accession.

The secrecy with which the Indian government guarded the original accession document (when in 2005 I sought permission to inspect it, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed me that it had not ‘acceded’ to my request) gave oxygen to this distinctly off-beat notion. But the right-to-information campaigner Venkatesh Nayak was later successful in gaining access, and his article in The Wire some years ago demonstrated to all but the most diehard conspiracists that the document was duly signed.

As a result of such ill-considered barbs, Lamb’s books about Kashmir have been lionised in Pakistan – even though they don’t support the official Pakistani narrative at every point – and viewed with deep suspicion by many in India. That’s a pity, because much of Lamb’s research was both revelatory and persuasive.

He found in the British archive firm evidence that the official Indian narrative of the timing of Kashmir’s accession – that the document was signed in Jammu on October 26, 1947, the day before Indian troops were flown in to Srinagar to stave off an invasion force from Pakistan – was unreliable. The weight of evidence points to the document being signed the following day – so a few hours after the troops of the First Sikh regiment touched down in the Kashmir Valley. As that was diplomatically inconvenient, the Indian authorities came up with an official timeline which they knew to be misleading.

But in large part because Lamb could be portrayed by critics as adamantly pro-Pakistan in approach, this important point is still not universally accepted by scholars of Kashmir.

He had an abiding concern for Kashmir and its people and his work was widely read there. Nyla Ali Khan, a historian of Kashmir and an academic in the United States (and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah), found in his writing a reminder that “the primary goal” of rigorous historical research on Kashmir “is to ensure that future generations of the former princely state…do not forget, because if we stop remembering, we stop being”.

Lamb was convinced, though it’s not clear on what basis, that Indian official disapproval impeded his academic career. He came across as an old-style academic – bald, bearded and intense – with a distrust of officialdom of all sorts.

He earned the respect of many historians who were uncomfortable with some of his more opinionated pronouncements. For Srinath Raghavan, Lamb was “a rare scholar with whose work you deeply disagreed but [from which you] learnt a lot”.

Andrew Whitehead is a historian, an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India correspondent.