(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected])
Amit Shah, the Home Minister of India, has opened up a new discourse on the ongoing Kashmir issue by holding Jawaharlal Nehru squarely responsible for the decades-long controversy. The charges levelled by Shah are there in public domain for a long time but for the first time so direct an accusation has come from such a high-level government functionary. Under the circumstances the responsibility of not only Jawaharlal Nehru but the other principal actors of the Kashmir imbroglio might also be judged in their historical perspectives.
Amit Shah has held Nehru responsible on three counts — ordering a ceasefire in 1948, imposing Article 370 and accepting the proposition of a plebiscite in Kashmir. So far as the ceasefire was concerned General Cariappa, the then commander-in-chief of the Indian army, was not certainly at one with Nehru’s decision to halt fighting. Writing in the Hindustan Times journalist Karan Thapar has argued that Nehru’s decision to order ceasefire might have been influenced by two factors — the adverse nature of the terrain beyond the line where the Indian army stopped and secondly the fact that beyond that line the Indian military would have had to fight the regular Pakistan army instead of tribal Lashkars.
Karan Thapar’s arguments have several loopholes. According to an article in Mainstream by B. Vivekanandan, a professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Major General Kulwant Singh, another commander of the Indian army’s operations in Kashmir at that time, informed Nehru that there was no worthwhile opposition from the Pakistani side anywhere in Kashmir and therefore clearing the state of Pakistani intruders was very much possible. He sought five days from Nehru for accomplishing the job which the Indian Prime Minister refused. Secondly there is no reason to believe that the infiltrators in 1948 were solely tribal Lashkars and not Pakistani soldiers in mufti. On the other hand, available historical evidences point out to the presence of a good number of regular Pakistani soldiers. As the Indian army overwhelmed the Pakistanis in the first phase of the operation, they could have done the same in later stages too.
Amit Shah’s second charge against Nehru, i.e. in regard to the latter’s culpability for imposition of Article 370, has solid legs to stand upon. Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, was not the only Indian Prince to have signed the Instrument of Accession. There were other Princes who did the same. Why didn’t these states enjoy the privilege of Article 370? Moreover, the provision was incorporated into the Constitution much later. What was its necessity? Neither did Nehru nor the Congress ever explain it properly. It was a temporary provision and there cannot be any justification behind Nehru’s failure to annul it simply because the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly had been dissolved before recommendation of doing away with it.
The only arena where Nehru has some amount of history on his side was his decision to agree to a plebiscite. Historian Mridula Mukherjee, quoted by Karan Thapar in his article, avers that Vallabhbhai Patel had also agreed to the same in the case of Junagarh. But the realpolitik suggests that agreeing to a plebiscite in Kashmir was dicey. In addition, Nehru made another mistake by going to the United Nations. There is virtually no justification and a terrible lack of sense of history in Mridula Mukherjee’s argument that that if India did not go the UN Pakistan would have gone there surely.
Legally speaking, India was on a sound ground. It had the Instrument of Accession signed by Hari Singh in its hand. Pakistan was the aggressor and India was only defending its own territory. The National Conference, the largest political party representing the people of J&K, was on New Delhi’s side. So what was the necessity of going to the UN?
However, Kashmir’s woes have been compounded by other political leaders also and the two names that come to the mind first are Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Gulam Mohammed. Sheikh Abdullah, the undisputed leader of the National Conference, presented two contrasting faces in the wake of his becoming the Prime Minister of J&K. In the beginning he was all praise for the plural polity of India and thus justified Kashmir’s accession to this country. But soon realizing that there were many spanners in front of his own plan for attaining ‘complete autonomy’, he became open to questionable overtures from outside. However, his imprisonment and the coup against him by his deputy and next Prime Minister Bakshi Gulam Mohammed were not taken in right spirit by the people of Kashmir.
It has to be admitted that Bakshi’s eleven-year-long rule was a period of stability and prosperity for Jammu and Kashmir. But he was unable to mould the people’s opinion in favour of a total integration with the mainland of the country. Neither did he nor his successor GM Sadiq raise any banner of protest when, in 1965, the Central Government unilaterally changed nomenclatures of the two most important functionaries of the state — the Sadr-i-Riyasat became the Governor and the Prime Minister became the Chief Minister. The then the Central Government might have felt it necessary to effect the changes but subsequent developments proved that the NC’s even indirect acceptance of it had made the party unpopular.
The National Conference and its supremo Sheikh Abdullah were victims of circumstances and confusion. In his heart Sheikh always cherished the ultimate goal of an independent Kashmir and thus the NC always harboured in its womb extremist elements who formed the Plebiscite Front when the Sheikh was in jail and gave Bakshi Gulam Mohammed endless troubles. But from the Plebiscite Front to the Indira Gandhi- Sheikh Abdullah accord in 1974, it was another volte face by the NC when the accord firmly endorsed the terms of the Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘full integration’ with India.
The Congress, always a junior player in Kashmir politics, has not always played its game fairly. Whatever may be the mistrust between the NC, the Plebiscite Front and the Muslim United Front on the one hand and the Central Government in Delhi on the other, separatist politics in Kashmir never crossed a limit till the latter half of 1980s when allegations of riggings in elections were first heard. This critical period, which ultimately merged into the widespread militancy of the later times, witnessed the National Conference in a very poor light. In June 1984 the Farooq Abdullah government, in spite of having won a thumping victory in the 1983 general elections was brought down through defections. Although there was no proof, accusing fingers were directed towards the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government at the Centre. A new government of defectors led by G.M. Shah, Sheikh Abdullah’s brother-in-law, was enthroned. But this government was also sacked in 1986 using Article 356 of the Constitution. Now it was Farooq Abdullah’s turn to make a somersault. He felt no qualms of conscience in making a deal with the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress and becoming the Chief Minister again with the Congress’ help.
But is everything lost for the mainstream parties? The last parliamentary election does not point out to this direction. This year the Kashmir valley, containing three constituencies namely Srinagar, Baramullah and Anantanag, witnessed a little more than 19 per cent polling, way above the 7 per cent voting which the Srinagar parliamentary by election of 2017 had witnessed. There is also another interesting feature. From the 1990s till the present period Assembly elections in Kashmir valley have always recorded much higher voting percentages than in parliamentary elections. Is it because of the fact that the common people have greater expectations from the participating parties whenever they are judged in local perspectives?
Still the spectre of separatist militancy is looming large. Voting patterns in parliamentary elections in the Kashmir valley are stark pointers to it. In the 1996 parliamentary poll the valley experienced 46 per cent polling. Since then it went down steadily with simultaneous growth of separatist militancy. In the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls the figure went up to 31 per cent again only to fall to an abysmally low level of 7 per cent in the 2017 by-election. It must be kept in mind that in 2019 even more than 80 per cent voters chose to stay away from polling booths.
So circumspection and sagacity are the two key words necessary at this hour.