The evolution of Kashmir’s accession to India, post the abrogation of Article 370, merits revisiting. While the widely known narrative outlines the sequential negotiations between Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, and the Indian leadership, a certain bias has tainted this historical account. Efforts to singularly attribute the credit to Jawaharlal Nehru, potentially sidelining Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, have been apparent. This endeavour seems aimed at preventing Patel from overshadowing Nehru in the narrative of integrating princely states into the Indian Union.
Historian and columnist Patrick French, in his book “Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division,” sheds light on a perspective that common sense, considering the limitations of the 1940s, could have made it feasible. Maharaja Hari Singh, acknowledged as a generally progressive ruler with limited political reforms, faced a crucial juncture in the weeks leading up to Independence.
The last Viceroy of India, Mountbatten, attempted to persuade the Maharaja to address the future of Kashmir, a topic the ruler adamantly avoided. Maharaja Hari Singh’s reluctance to delve into the matter, as revealed by French, seemed rooted in his conviction—expressed to his son, Yuvraj Karan Singh, as late as July 1947—that the British were unlikely to truly depart from India.
The Maharaja, however, found himself overtaken by events and the changing dynamics within his state. On August 15, 1947, Hari Singh confronted a challenging political landscape. Sheikh Abdullah, leader of the pro-Congress All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference and closely associated with Nehru, displayed open animosity towards the Maharaja.
Simultaneously, a rebellion erupted in the south-western region of Poonch, historically at odds with Hari Singh’s rule. Muslim laborers, in opposition to their Dogra landlords, initiated violence, targeting local Hindus and displacing them from their homes. This marked the onset of post-Independence anti-Hindu violence in Jammu & Kashmir. As a response, Maharaja Hari Singh gradually shifted his inclination towards India, recognising the peril his state faced if aligned with Pakistan.
Kashmir found itself plunged into a severe crisis by mid-October 1947. The rebellion in Poonch, initially a local affair, escalated as Pakistani armed brigands joined the fray with explicit encouragement from the Pakistani regime. Contrary to appearances, India was not unaware of the impending danger. Behind the scenes, Delhi had been clandestinely providing weapons and ammunition to the state’s armed forces, preparing for a potential military intervention.
The critical moment arrived when several thousand Pathan tribesmen, acting on direct orders from Pakistan, invaded the region. On October 22, accompanied by a motley group of a few hundred Poonchis, this makeshift army advanced toward Srinagar. Despite Pakistan’s denial of involvement, the Pathan raiders left a trail of violence – murder, rape, and looting – in Baramulla, Uri, Pattan, and Muzaffarabad. Even the British nuns of the Franciscan convent at Baramulla were not spared from the brutality.
Kashmir, India, refused to succumb to despair, even as Hari Singh’s royal dynasty mourned the apparent loss of the territory. The newly independent Indian government, resolute in reclaiming the region, took decisive action. Mountbatten, reportedly convinced of the justifiability of India’s stance, shared insights with Patel.
According to Mountbatten, a British officer, informed by another, attested to the organised nature of the invading Pathans. Two weeks later, in a letter to King George VI, Mountbatten emphasised the imperative nature of Indian troops intervening to prevent the pillaging of Srinagar by invading tribesmen and the potential massacre of the few hundred British residents in Kashmir. Recognising the urgency, Mountbatten overrode the obstacles raised by the Commanders-in-Chief, solidifying the acknowledgment of India’s pivotal role in saving Kashmir from the outset.
Military thrust into a territory, especially one with challenging accessibility in those days, demanded weeks, if not months, of meticulous planning. Only later did Viceroy Mountbatten grasp the comprehensive preparations made by India, and the credit for this strategic foresight rested with Patel. Evidently, Patel had chosen to keep Nehru in the dark regarding the intricate procedural details.
An Indian Army officer, present at a subsequent meeting of the Defence Committee in New Delhi on that day, recounted Nehru’s lingering hesitations about intervention. The officer noted that Nehru extensively discussed options involving the United Nations, Russia, Africa, and various other considerations. However, Sardar Patel reached a breaking point and, losing his temper, confronted Nehru with a straightforward question, “Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away?” Nehru promptly asserted, “Of course, I want Kashmir.” Without allowing further deliberation, Patel turned to the officer and declared, “You have got your orders.”
The Indian Army successfully expelled the Pakistani Pathan raiders, pursuing them until Mirpur. With a strong military advantage that could have enabled the recapture of the entire state, Nehru, prioritising his international image, made a significant error by bringing the matter to the UN. This decision resulted in a prolonged stalemate that plagued India for seven decades. With the Modi administration putting Article 370 to rest, it becomes imperative to acknowledge Patel’s pivotal role in securing Kashmir for India.
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