“Nothing is as admirable in politics as a short memory’’
Nation building is an ‘ongoing’ phenomenon and in the case of India’s quest for nationhood, it is definitely ‘work in progress.’ In the light of this (grim) reality check, the raking up of the (unnecessary) debate on the revocation of Article 370 from the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K), a pointless and ill-timed controversy has been generated. It is even more unfortunate that a debate on a subject that has both external and internal dimensions; an issue that has plagued the strategic progression of the sub-continent for six decades has been sparked in such a ham-handed manner for short term electoral gains.
…at the time when Article 370 was framed, India was under immense pressure of the self inflicted wound of ‘plebiscite,’ which would have been impossible to win without the support of the Sheikh.
On the contrary, the debate needs to be vilified as on one hand, it hopes to encash on India’s recent democratic victory and on the other hand, Kashmir’s political parties have been quick to take up cudgels with the centre, since this gave them a rabble-rousing issue for milking in the forthcoming state elections. On the other hand, the spectacular electoral victory of a Hindu Rightist Party by a mandate rising above the spectre of caste and religion needs to be seen as the real victory for secularity as envisaged by the framers of India’s constitution and the protagonists of pseudo-secularity and political wheeler-dealers and their ilk need to note this positive change in the mood of the nation. Having said that, since like Mr. John Galbraith, the well-known US Ambassador to India has observed, public memory in politics is notoriously short; certain facts from the not too recent history of India’s tryst as a nation-state, as pertaining to Article 370 are recounted. Since the drama of the accession of the Princely State of J &K is generally well- known, only important points of what makes the story of Article 370 are highlighted as without them, the debate on the revival of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution could take off on a tangent, as done by India’s over-active media.
Apropos, the tribal invasion by Qabalis (tribals) in October 1947, Pakistan was quick to prop up an ‘Azad Kashmir’ government in Muzzafarabad on 25 October, i.e. even before the Indians had militarily intervened in Kashmir (27 October). Around the same time, the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region of North Kashmir had also been taken over through a clinical coup engineered by English officers favouring Pakistan. Faced with such strategic losses and the wanton brutality of the tribals let loose by Pakistan in Kashmir, credit for setting the stage for India to take on the Pakistan sponsored marauders cannot be denied to Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference volunteers. It was largely in recognition of the contributions made by the Sheikh firstly in rejecting Mr. Jinnah’s religion based ‘two nation theory’ and later in the first of the Kashmir Wars, that he was entrusted with control of the interim government of J & K.
While this was to be expected in the political environment that prevailed, it needs to be pointed out that in order to legitimise the unique character of the state (only Muslim dominated and being the largest Princely State with contiguous borders with both Pakistan and India), the Sheikh managed to extract concessions that not only went against the essence of secular India, but also against the secularity professed by his own National Conference party. However, these were extra-ordinary circumstances and the events and developments as they were enacted, need to be viewed through the prism of the times. These were considered politically expedient at a time when the nation was still finding its feet, and the credibility of secular India to stay united without the glue of religion was debatable.
Within the promulgation of the Indian Constitution on 26 January 1950, Article 1 made it abundantly clear that J & K was an integral part of India and Article 370 merely defined the state’s ‘special status’ within the Union.
Apart from the uniqueness of the accession of Kashmir, it is also important to highlight that at the time when Article 370 was framed, India was under immense pressure of the self inflicted wound of ‘plebiscite,’ which would have been impossible to win without the support of the Sheikh. This was a reality of the times that was not only known to Pundit Nehru and Sardar Patel, but also to Messer’s Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan of Pakistan. It was at this time of swinging fortunes that Sheikh Abdullah, the rallying point and figurehead for the verdict expected to go in India’s favour, was ready to hitch the fate of the state with the secular cauldron that was India in the making. Under the circumstances when the eyes of the world were riveted on India, and the fact that Pakistan enjoyed the favour of her western benefactors due to the compulsions of the Cold War, Article 370 was (skilfully) crafted as a ‘compromise’ between ‘total autonomy’ as demanded by Kashmir (Sheikh and even Maharaja Hari Singh) and ‘full integration’ with secular India.
It was based on this reassurance that on 18 January 1948, Sheikh Abdullah said, “We the people of J & K have thrown our lot with the Indian people, not in the heat of oppression or a moment of despair, but by deliberate choice.” As a quid-pro-quo, the Government in New Delhi respected the state’s character by enacting Article 370. Within the promulgation of the Indian Constitution on 26 January 1950, Article 1 made it abundantly clear that J & K was an integral part of India and Article 370 merely defined the state’s ‘special status’ within the Union. It then went on to stipulate that the Legislative Authority of the Indian Parliament was confined to matters specified in the accession instrument – Defence, External Affairs and Communications. It may be of interest to the readers that the wording of the Accession Instrument was the same as demanded from the other 561 other Maharaja’s, Rajas, Nawabs Nizams and the like of the Princely states.
What makes the integration of the state of J & K different is the fact that despite the impassioned words of Mr Omar Abdullah (Parliament debates), that Kashmir is part and parcel of secular India, it is India, who has been unsuccessful to create conditions for the Kashmiris to feel that they are equal partners in this ‘secular’ nation and stake holders in her progression. Actually, J & K is not the only state to harbour such feelings; there are also other regions that despite sixty-seven years of India’s independence are not overly proud to identify with the largest secular nation of the world. It was because of this disparateness, the government of the times felt it prudent to extend (similar) constitutional concessions (Article 371, ranging from ‘A’ to ‘I’) to many (other) parts of India. Since, the desired results have not been achieved, as is the case in J & K, it is a collective failure of successive governments to assuage their feelings of ‘deprivation’ leading to separatist feelings and it is this failing of New Delhi that needs urgent attention by those now entrusted with India’s political destiny.
…it was rumoured that he (Sheikh) had sought US support for the independence of the state, in return of promising military bases in the state.
Getting back to Kashmir and the debate on Article 370. October 1951, marked the first elections in India based on the principle of ‘universal adult suffrage.’ In view of the immense popularity of the Sheikh, the results in J & K were predictable and all 75 seats were swept by his National Conference. In the opening address itself Sheikh Abdullah again ruled out the notion of independence on the Swiss model, calling it ‘impractical.’ He then went on to elaborate his reasons for not wishing to join Pakistan. “This claim of being a Muslim State is of course only a camouflage. It is a screen to dupe the common man, so that he may not see clearly that Pakistan is a feudal state in which a clique is trying to maintain itself in power.” Sheikh Abdullah, the undisputed Kashmiri leader was appointed as the Prime Minister as scripted in Article 370 to maintain her unique character.
The Delhi Pact that followed on 24 July 1952 was another compromise that helped Sheikh Abdullah to further his hold and permitted the state to have a distinctive identity under its own constitution and flag. The agreement was a follow up to Article 370 that had been framed as a ‘temporary’ provision to be replaced as and when ‘the wishes of the people’ of J & K had been ascertained on the larger issue of merger. Hence, while accession of J & K per se was similar to the ones signed by other princes, the merger was constitutionally formalised through Article 370 and this was to be ratified ‘as and when’ the people spoke in favour of accession. On the other hand, the state was brought under limited jurisprudence of the Indian Constitution, which now included the provision of taking over governance, in the eventuality of breakdown of law and order – this was a significant move towards closer integration of the state with India.
Notwithstanding, the Sheikh was to shift from his stance taken on plebiscite due to political expediency and in May, 1953, the National Conference set up an internal committee to capitalise on the uncertainty over the issue. In the terms of reference given to the committee, the option of independence was included for the first time and this was seen as treason by the Indian government. The relationship had travelled a full circle as despite espousing the finality of the Kashmiri accession in the UN and the all-out support to the war effort, Sheikh Abdullah did a volte-face. As a result, his relations with the centre now became one of love and hate, despite his personal equation with Pundit Nehru. By 1953, the honeymoon was over and marked a watershed in state’s relationship with the Centre and (unnecessarily) placed the accession under a cloud. Rumour mills in Delhi speculated on the motive of the Sheik’s meetings with Mr Adlai Stevenson, the US Presidential candidate in Srinagar and it was rumoured that he had sought US support for the independence of the state, in return of promising military bases in the state. The situation exacerbated after his meeting with Prime Minister Chou-en-Lai at Algiers and the Sheikh was eventually arrested in August 1953, on charges of ‘inciting communal disharmony; fostering hostile feelings towards India and treasonable correspondence with foreign powers.’
Whatever be the truth, this led to acrimonious relations between Srinagar and New Delhi, and the people of Kashmir were given the feeling that it was the Indian Government who had gone back on her assurance of providing Aazadi to the state. Sheikh Abdullah played politics and balanced ‘Greater Autonomy’ for the state and the finality of accession with India, and this sowed fresh seeds of alienation in the masses. For New Delhi, while the accession remained non-negotiable, they maintained an ambiguous stance. On the other hand, the opposition leader, Mr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee was vociferous in the Parliament regarding the disintegrative consequences of the Sheikh’s actions and in his words, ‘revolting against the Centre.’ On the other hand, Nehru told him that he understood Kashmir (his reason to keep Sardar Patel out of the negotiations) better and compounded the situation by refusing to meet Mookerjee before he left for Kashmir, where he was detained by the Sheikh. It was his mysterious death that made Nehru realize the mistake of backing the Sheikh blindly.
The same Sheikh who had stood steadfast against Mr. Jinnah and his marauders was now placed on a pedestal and his arrest invoked renewed calls for a jihad in both Pakistan and POK.
Mr. Ajit Prasad Jain, an Indian Parliamentarian who was sent to Srinagar by Pundit Nehru recounts the circumstances of the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah and has narrated the high drama that was enacted at Srinagar and Gulmarg. He starts with his briefing by Mr. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, who handed over papers and transcripts of the correspondence exchanged between Pundit Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah unveiling the acrimony that prevailed. Mr. Jain was tasked to proceed to Kashmir backed by the authority of Nehru under which he could even arrest the Sheikh, if warranted by the situation. Since this was a carte blanche on a highly explosive issue, Mr. Jain took his instructions from the Prime Minister himself. His brief was clear-the Kashmiri politicians were divided. Heavy weights like Abdullah and Afzal Beg were on one side, while Bakshi, Dogra and Shamlal Saraf were on the other; the former were considered Anti-Indian, as demonstrated by the Sheikh. On the other side, the other group under Bakshi was considered Pro-Indian.
Mr. Jain records that on reaching Kashmir, the tension was perceptible and he apprehended that the Sheikh might announce ‘Independence’ and he records, “I was left with no doubts that the hazards of inaction were greater than wrong action.” In the meanwhile, Mr. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, based on the internal party differences submitted a memorandum to the (first and last) Sadar-e-Riyasat, Yuvraj Karan Singh (son and heir of Maharaja Hari Singh), stating that Abdullah had lost the support of the Party and the Assembly; hence should be removed. In the light of the circumstances, Bakshi was nominated as the Prime Minister, and Abdullah, lacking the support of his own party, was dismissed and it was only then that he was arrested on charges of treason. Surprisingly, despite the apprehensions, Abdullah’s arrest was a tame affair and the only demonstrations that flared up were limited to the valley. However on the other hand, this was just the development that Pakistan had prayed for. The same Sheikh who had stood steadfast against Mr. Jinnah and his marauders was now placed on a pedestal and his arrest invoked renewed calls for a jihad in both Pakistan and POK.
Though Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed proved to be a man of great ability and energy, his political outlook was less radical than the Sheikh. He lost no time in declaring Kashmir as an integral part of India and stating that no power on earth can separate the two, and this was mandated in the same resolution where Sheikh Abdullah lost the trust of his party. In February 1954, the Kashmir Constituent Assembly not only confirmed the legality of the accession but also accepted the new bi-cameral constitution that became operational on 26 January 1957. This allowed the jurisdiction of the Indian Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General, thereby cementing the ties of the state and the Union of India further, and in doing so, the state was ‘almost’ brought at par with other Indian states, especially in terms of Centre – State fiscal relations. After the military victory of 1971 over Pakistan, the same Sheikh was brought back to power, but this time not as the Prime, but Chief Minister, reflecting the changes that came in with the times.
Another issue that often obfuscates issues of the state is the restriction of Indian citizens from outside the state to buy property in Kashmir. This has nothing to do with Article 370, and the state government is simply preserving the law laid down by the Maharaja in 1921.
What followed the second innings of the Sheikh were to prove the most productive years and the state’s prosperity levels and growth charts shot up, even above the figures turned in by the most prosperous states of the union. However, what followed his demise, especially after the two decades of Pakistan sponsored militancy and terror, retarded the progress of the state. After much bloodletting, the current phase in the long and drawn out Counter-Insurgency campaign has seen the situation change for the better. It would be prudent for both the centre and state to build on their ‘collective’ success, without letting differences induced by short term electoral gains cloud their judgement and place another shroud on the fate of the state. If this is allowed to happen, Pakistan definitely would have the last laugh, and like it happened in 1989, the people of Kashmir and the Indian state would be the ones who would have to pay a heavy price.
Another issue that often obfuscates issues of the state is the restriction of Indian citizens from outside the state to buy property in Kashmir. This has nothing to do with Article 370, and the state government is simply preserving the law laid down by the Maharaja in 1921. At that stage, it was important to prevent the Punjabi Mussalmans, of what eventually became Pakistan to take control over the valley. Whatever be the merits under the current dispensation, by continuing with the law, the state, like many others is simply maintaining the character of the state.
The recent history of the state as of the story of the integration of the Indian nation is sadly one of lost opportunities and unfortunately this continues because of India’s self-induced doubts and electoral politics. The politico-economic-social plight of erstwhile Princely State that threw in its lot with India has many external fractures and internal fissures and need to be addressed in a mature and dignified manner. Amongst others, the case of expulsion of Kashmiri students from educational institutes, simply because they cheered for Pakistan in a cricket match does not behove modern and secular India who eulogises ‘inclusivity’ in intellectual discourses. Amongst others, and there are many, these need to be addressed by imaginative politics and pro-active diplomacy and it is this which is the larger of the challenges that faces the new political set-up in New Delhi – that is what the expectant electorate of modern India expects from their leadership.
Since the cast is set with regard to the accession, let the future of Article 370 also be decided as it was deemed to be – by the people of J & K. Let them make their own decision that the benefits of revocation of the article would be better for them and their future generations. Let not irresponsible statements and rabble-rousing debates do more damage that what has already been done over the last sixty-seven years. As Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, the American President reminded his people: “cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance. On the other hand, a national debate on Kashmiriyat, which is a unique gift of secularity by Kashmir would be more productive for the inclusive growth of the myriad regions and people of a disparate nation like India. This portends to be a beacon of hope for secularity and for the future of India. Let these become the desired aims and objectives of an inclusive debate, not Articles 370 or even 371 – these debates are already closed and it is for the people of the regions, including the Kashmiris to decide and ask for their revocation ‘as and when’ deemed desirable from their point of view.