“The Kashmir dispute is the uncompromising and perhaps uncompromisable struggle of two ways of life, two concepts of political organisation, two scales of values, two spiritual attitudes that find themselves locked in a deadly conflict.”
With the above words, political scientist Josef Korbel in his path-breaking work, ‘Danger in Kashmir’ published in 1954, quite accurately captured the complexity of the trouble that had been brewing in Kashmir since the 1940s. When the British declared their decision to hand over power to the divided territories of India and Pakistan, the fate of more than 500 princely states was hanging mid-air. Yet of these, the most important was the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Territorially the largest among the states, Kashmir was strategically located in the middle of the newly created nationalities. The importance attached to its geography increased manifold after August 15, 1947. Since then, it was Kashmir that, to a large extent, determined the foreign policy decisions of both India and Pakistan, that led to two wars between the countries and that continues to be the most defining factor deciding relations between the two nations.
“The anomaly of a Hindu ruling a mostly Muslim population was compounded by an accident of geography,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book ‘India after Gandhi’. The reigns of Kashmir’s governance in 1947 was in the hands of Hari Singh. He had taken over the throne in 1925 and spent a large amount of his time in race courses and hunting. In his autobiography, Hari Singh’s son and politician Karan Singh noted his mother’s complaint against Singh: “He just sits surrounded by fawning courtiers and favourites, and never really gets to know what is going on outside.”
Kashmir in the 1940s
Throughout the 1940s, though, it was Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Singh’s long-time bete noire, who predominated much of the political scene in Kashmir. Highly educated and yet unemployed, Abdullah started questioning the Dogra rule over Kashmir. “I concluded that the ill-treatment of Muslims was an outcome of religious prejudice,” he is noted to have said. Throughout the 1930s, Abdullah was consolidating a large group of followers and then formed the ‘National Conference’ that included Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs and demanded a representative government in Kashmir. At about the same time, he also grew close to Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress (INC).
By the 1940s as Abdullah’s popularity kept escalating, so did the bitter relationship he shared with Singh. While he kept asking the Dogra dynasty to ‘quit Kashmir’, the monarch of the state responded by sentencing him to jail on more than one occasion. By mid-1940s, Hari Singh himself was undergoing changes in his personal life.
In his autobiography, Karan Singh notes that sometime around 1944, a certain religious leader named Swami Sant Dev came to be intimately associated with the Dogra king’s household. “I feel that his influence of my father’s personal life was all to the good. He urged him to cut down on his smoking and drinking,” he wrote. However, Singh goes on to write that it was in the sphere of politics that “Swamiji’s influence proved to be disastrous”. “It was on the feudal ambition that Swamiji astutely played, planting in my father’s mind visions of an extended kingdom sweeping down to Lahore itself,” writes Singh. Hari Singh’s dream of an independent Kashmir was further pressed upon by his prime minister Ramchandra Kak. On July 15, the Maharaja announced that Kashmiris would “work out our own destiny without dictation from any quarter which is not an integral part of the state.”
While Singh was dreaming of an independent Kashmir, Abdullah was thickening his relations both with the Kashmiri youth and with Nehru. Unsurprisingly, when Singh got Abdullah imprisoned, Nehru rushed to his rescue. However, he was prevented from entering by the Maharaja’s men and arrested. “I have no doubt that his arrest was the turning point in the history of the state,” writes Singh.
Kashmir in 1947
In April 1947 Lord Mountbatten took over as the Viceroy of British India. “As it turns out, he was an old acquaintance of Maharaja Hari Singh,” writes Guha adding that “in the third week of June 1947, after the decision was taken to divide India, Lord Mountbatten set off for Kashmir.” Mountbatten’s visit to Kashmir had a specific political purpose. “Mountbatten, in fact, had come to persuade my father to make up his mind well before August 15, and had brought an assurance from the Indian leaders that they would not take objection to his deciding in whatever way he thought fit, even if it was accession to Pakistan,” writes Singh.
In Srinagar, when Mountbatten enquired about Kashmir’s decision, prime minister Kak promptly responded that they wanted to stay independent. The Viceroy then fixed an appointment with the Maharaja. “On the appointed day, the last of Mountbatten’s visit, Hari Singh stayed in bed with an attack of colic, this most probably a ruse to avoid what would certainly have been an unpleasant encounter,” writes Guha.
“A typical feudal reaction to a difficult situation is to avoid facing it, and my father was particularly prone to resort to this,” writes Singh of his father’s decision to avoid the meeting with Mountbatten. “Thus the last real chance of working out a viable political settlement was lost,” he writes.
On August 15, Jammu and Kashmir had not yet acceded to either India or Pakistan. “If he had acceded to Pakistan the Hindu areas of the State would have been virtually liquidated in the wake of the communal frenzy sweeping across north India at the time,” writes Singh. He adds that “if on the other hand, he had earlier acceded to India he would have run the risk of alienating a large section of his Muslim subjects.”
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, there was hardly anyone who celebrated Independence in Kashmir. “On the day of Independence, there was a blackout here. Only Sheikh Abdullah and his workers celebrated in the secretariat. Apart from them, no one else could come out of their homes,” says Kashmiri poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef who was ten years old on August 15, 1947.
Two months later, on October 22, a force of several thousand armed men entered the State. It is believed that most of these raiders were Pathans from a province of Pakistan. However, it is still disputed as to how they came in and how were they supported. The raiders soon took over parts of Kashmir, creating disaster of the kind that shook up the social fabric of the State. “The raiders were pouring in from across the border, pillaging, looting and raping as they came,” writes Singh. Hari Singh along with his family soon left their residence at Srinagar to take refuge in Jammu. “When the next evening he finally reached Jammu and pulled up at the palace he uttered but once sentence- ‘We have lost Kashmir’,” notes Singh.