Millennium Post

Kashmir: Nehru’s baby, nursed by Patel

The dawn of independence came with an ordeal of division in India and Pakistan. The unity even of divided India was fraught with a perilous prospect. About 565 princely states had been left to decide their own fate- to adhere to India, to accede to Pakistan or to remain independent, as they wished.

The danger of unity was further accentuated by the ambition of the princes, different religious and internal composition of these states, and their allegiance to different leaders, their respective political parties and their area of influence. The enormity of the problem of integration of Indian states was such that even Stafford Cripps, the British statesman also thought that it would take at least ten to fifteen years to liquidate them and to merge them with the rest of India.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s main mission in life had been to build a strong and united India. He felt that the unity, integrity and development of the country was impossible unless the whole of India came under one centralised administration, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka’s dream had been rekindled in him. The lapse of paramountancy posed a challenge to his ingenuity, resourcefulness and his tact and firmness, as he spared no efforts to weld the states together with the rest of India. He coaxed the rulers, cajoled them and even threatened them reluctantly with dire consequences. Sardar Patel warned the princes that they could not exist independently in the wake of the great changes taking place in the country.

Salvaging Kashmir
Sardar Patel had successfully integrated most of the princely states through his power of persuasion but he faced acute difficulty in integrating - Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. The case of Kashmir was different from other states as it had important international boundaries- to the East was Tibet, to the North-East lay the Sinkiang province of China and to the North-West was Afghanistan.

In Kashmir, the ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh was Hindu and the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, though otherwise, the state represented multi-religious and multi-cultural population. Jammu was Hindu-dominated, Srinagar valley and Gilgit area had a Muslim majority and Ladakh was Buddhist-dominated. Such a situation made it difficult for Maharaja Hari Singh to take a decision as it would evoke strong reactions from the affected regions. Further, Sheikh Abdullah’s closeness to Nehru, caused apprehension in Maharaja’s mind towards India’s future prime minister and like other Indian Princes, he began to ponder- ‘whether to remain independent, or to accede to Pakistan under pressure or go with India, where the top leadership will be hostile to him and he also toyed with notion of an ‘Independent Jammu and Kashmir.’ Patel’s role in clearing the atmosphere of distrust and indecision and bringing Maharaja Hari Singh closer to India was of far reaching importance.

Knowing Pakistan’s intentions about Kashmir and the changing situation, Patel took initiative and a series of steps were taken immediately. Planes were diverted to Delhi-Srinagar route, and wireless and telegraph equipment were dispatched to both ends of the Amritsar-Jammu link. Telephone and telegraph lines were laid between Pathankot and Jammu as well. Sardar Patel further undertook two strategic steps. First, he ensured termination of prime minister Kak’s services and oversaw the appointment of Mehr Chand Mahajan, as the new prime minister. The second was appointment of Lt. Col. Kashmir Singh Katoch, an officer of Indian army as Commander-in-Chief of Kashmir forces.
These strategic moves by Patel placed India in an advantageous position.

These developments and changes of crucial position earned Jinnah’s wrath, as he saw in them the prospects of Kashmir slipping out of his hand, which he did not want at any cost. Jinnah started preparing for tribal invasion in large numbers. In the last week of September 1947, Nehru received reports which he passed on to Patel on 27 September that forces in Pakistan were making preparations to enter Kashmir in large numbers. Nehru had gathered that ‘the Pakistan strategy is to infiltrate into Kashmir and to take some big action as soon as Kashmir is more or less isolated because of the coming winter.’ The solution, as Nehru saw, was to bring about the accession of Kashmir to the Indian Union as rapidly as possible with the co-operation of Sheikh Abdullah.

The Pakistan invasion of Kashmir began on 22 October, 1947. Some 5,000 tribesmen from Pakistan entered Kashmir, carrying surplus arms and ammunition in nearly 300 lorries from Abbottabad in the NWFP along the Jhelum Valley Road. The same day they seized and burnt the town of Muzaffarabad.

The raiders then marched towards Baramula, their next destination being Uri. Brigadier Rajinder Singh, the Chief of Staff of the State forces, gathered together approximately 150 men and moved towards Uri. He engaged the raiders there for two days and in the rearguard action destroyed the Uri bridge. The Brigadier and all his men were killed but precious time has been gained in delaying their arrival at Baramula.

The Kashmir regime was so ill-organised that it did not inform Delhi of the attack until the evening of 24 October, when the government of India received a desperate appeal for help from the Maharajah. On the morning of 25 October, a meeting of the Defence Committee was held, which decided to send V P Menon immediately to Srinagar to take first hand information.

After collecting all the facts, Menon immediately reported the Kashmir situation to the Defence Committee and pointed out the necessity of saving Kashmir from the raiders. Sheikh and Mahajan, the prime minister also strongly urged that Indian troops be immediately sent to Srinagar. But Mountbatten emphasised that since Kashmir had not yet decided to accede to either country, it would be improper to send Indian troops into an independent country. Mountbatten who was presiding the committee meeting put two offers- firstly, Hari Singh’s accession should be secured before the troops were dispatched and secondly in view of the composition of the population, accession should be conditional to plebiscite, once law and order had been restored. Patel found neither proposal appealing but even then, yielded to Nehru’s advice.

After the committee meeting, Menon went to Jammu. He informed the Indian government’s decision to the Maharaja, who signed the instrument of accession that Menon had brought. Maharaja reiterated his request in writing for immediate military help, if the state was to be saved. Menon returned to Delhi on the evening of 26 October (with the instrument of accession and Maharaja’s letter) and went straight to the Defence Committee meeting where it was decided to fly an infantry battalion to Srinagar the next day. By the early hours of 27 October, over a hundred planes, civilian as well as military had been assembled. Weapons and supplies were airlifted and before dusk, the first battalion arrived in Srinagar.

When Jinnah heard about the unexpected and prompt airlifting of Indian troops to Srinagar, he flew into a rage. Not prepared to lose the valley, he ordered General Gracey to move troops forthwith into Kashmir. Gracey did not carry out the orders; instead he sought approval of the Delhi based Supreme Commander General Auchinleck who was in charge of all the British officers that remained on either side. Auchinleck refused to oblige Jinnah. But he did not give up his plan. He carried out an invasion of Kashmir by the Frontier tribesman.

The Indian battalion headed by Lt. Col. Ranjit Rai secured the airport and advanced towards Baramulla. In repositioning near Pattan, Rai was killed. But in a couple of days, three more battalions of Indian Army had landed at Srinagar, bringing the number of Indian soldiers to about 2,000 for defending the state’s capital. The attackers were stopped.

Patel had realised immediately that the battle would be long. The only motorable roadlink available to India via Sialkot to Jammu and Srinagar had been snapped with Sialkot having gone to Pakistan after partition. There were great difficulties for Indian troops in moving through tough terrain and difficult passes from Jammu. Patel took upon himself the task of building the road link. In the last week of October 1947, after a cabinet meeting, minister for works, N V Gadgil, recalled that Patel ‘took out a map and pointing to the Jammu-Pathankot area said that a 65 mile road between the two towns had to be made- capable of carrying the heavy army traffic before July 1948 i.e. within eight months. Within a fortnight necessary materials were assembled at worksite, around 10,000 workers were brought in special trains from Rajasthan and the entire workforce involved in round the clock job numbered over 40,000. The 65 miles were completed on time.’ Behind the success of the project lay Patel’s resolute mind.

Vallabhbhai made his first visit along with Baldev Singh, the defence minister on 3rd November and discussed the political and military situation.

Even in the judgement of Sheikh Abdullah, ‘events took a decisive turn’ after Vallabhbhai’s Srinagar visit. ‘The Sardar did not lose even one minute. He studied the situation and said that the enemy must be driven back.’ It was, thereafter, decided to establish a new divisional headquarters in Kashmir (Jammu and Kashmir Division). Indian forces occupied Baramulla and captured Uri. Later, for more effective military operation, the Jammu and Kashmir force was split into two divisional commands- Srinagar Division and Jammu Division.  Important areas like the Leh-Ladakh valley and Poonch were recaptured by the Indian army, but a cease-fire was ordered by both army commands from midnight of 1 January, 1949. Patel did not believe in carrying the Kashmir operations half way through. He would have preferred the Indian Army not to halt at Uri or at Poonch, but to go beyond- possibly upto Muzaffarabad. General S P P Thorat confirms that ‘our forces might have succeeded in evicting the invaders, if the prime minister (Nehru) had not held them in check and later ordered the cease-fire...’

V T Krishnamachari in reply to Patel confirmed the thoughts of the public. ‘It is a blessing that inspite of initial handicaps, the situation in Kashmir has now improved. Kashmir, and all Indian states generally owe a deep gratitude to you and the government of India for the timely assistance which has preserved the integrity of Kashmir.’

Differences between Nehru and Patel on Kashmir
It is true that over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir both Nehru and Patel had differences of opinion as far as the method and approach of tackling the problem were concerned. Patel had a pragmatic and practical approach in dealing with Kashmir and preferred to take timely action whereas it seemed at times that Nehru had emotional attachment for Kashmir- the land of his ancestors and for Sheikh Abdullah. It also appeared that Nehru hesitated in taking firm steps as he was weighed down by international opinion and personal friendship.

Jawaharlal Nehru had taken away the Kashmir charge from Patel and decided to manage Kashmir himself as he thought that Abdullah was the key to Kashmir’s future and believed that Patel would mishandle him. Further, Nehru’s lack of frankness with Sardar Patel, regarding appointment of N Gopalaswami Ayyangar as minister without a portfolio to assist him in handling Kashmir had, inter alia, also contributed to their differences over the issue of Kashmir. Jawaharlal’s agreement, albeit on Mountbatten’s persuasion, to make a broadcast, offering a UN-controlled plebiscite in Kashmir was also opposed to Patel’s strong view of timely action in Kashmir and instead of bringing India’s affairs into the vortex of international politics. Patel said, ‘We should never have gone to the UNO... at the UNO, not only has the dispute been prolonged but the merits of our case have been completely lost in the interaction of power politics.’

Kashmir was Jawaharlal’s baby and to avoid clashes with Nehru over it, Patel adopted a bystander’s attitude, but helped whenever the situation demanded or he was called upon to do so. As far as Kashmir was concerned, Patel was provided with limited space, nevertheless, his timely, swift, decisive action saved Kashmir from the perils of imminent danger and ruthless invaders.

Sardar Patel’s mindset about the Kashmir issue can be gauged by the following incident from when he was acting as the prime minister in Nehru’s absence.

Patel sent for Air Marshal Thomas Elmhirst, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee with whom he wanted to discuss a point relating to the Kashmir war. Elmhirst writes: ‘He was not well, and the meeting was in the sitting room of his home, and we were alone. He said something to this effect- ‘If all the decision rested on me, I think that I would be in favour of extending this little affair in Kashmir to a full-scale war with Pakistan... let us get it over once and for all.’

It is apt to mention here the findings of Jagmohan, ex-Governor of Jammu and Kashmir and close observer of Jammu and Kashmir polity, when he writes- ‘There are many ’ifs’ of history. No one can say with certainty what would have happened if a particular ‘ifs’ had materialised. But hard evidence with regard to integration of 565 States indicates that Sardar Patel’s approach would not have allowed the Kashmir problem to arise and even if any problem had arisen, it would have been nipped in the bud.’

The writer is author of an ICSSR-sponsored  forthcoming book on Sardar Patel

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