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The Birth of a Nation

That partiality took several forms, and was to shape Indian attitudes toward Kashmir well after his death. By the time he met and befriended Abdullah in the mid-1930s, he had already begun to put into shape his blueprint for an independent India. In Abdullah, he saw someone who shared his conviction that the old social and economic order of India, represented by the maharajahs and big landlords, had to be destroyed through land reforms and centralized economic planning. Abdullah was also receptive to his advocacy of secularism: it was under Nehru’s persuasion that Abdullah changed the name of the Muslim Conference to the National Conference, and acquired a greater following among the small minority of Hindus in the Kashmir valley, as well as among the Hindu majority in Jammu, the southern part of the state, which, though distrustful of Abdullah, found reassuring his growing proximity to Indian nationalist leaders.


As the creation of Pakistan became a certainty, much to the heartbreak of Gandhi and others who had wanted to see a united India come into being, Nehru became determined that Kashmir and its Muslim majority should be part of the India he had envisaged and so painstakingly worked toward: an India that was committed to democracy, secularism, and socialism. He was convinced that the idea of a separate nation for the Muslims—the “two-nation” theory first proposed by Iqbal and embraced by the feudal Muslim elite of North India—was a mistake; he didn’t think it could solve the prob-lem of the Muslim community, the problem he defined as social and economic backwardness. He thought the landlords and mullahs who had kept the Muslim masses away from the benefits of education would merely consolidate their power in a new state.

Abdullah’s own view of the demand for Pakistan was more qualified and less emotional. He felt, as he confessed in his autobiography, a subconscious sympathy for it5 ; he saw it as a Muslim reaction against Hindu sectarianism, which he believed, despite his personal regard for Gandhi and Nehru, the Congress Party insidiously practiced. Indeed, he thought he could discern strains of Hindu revivalism in Nehru’s sentimental attachment to Kashmir.

He could also see that Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population and geographical location made for a natural affinity with the new state of Pakistan being carved out from the western, as well as eastern, parts of British India. At the same time, he felt himself out of sympathy with the men leading the agitation for Pakistan, particularly Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the pork-eating barrister from Bombay, who did not disguise his contempt for the Kashmiris and yet assumed that the state with its Muslim majority had no option but to join the new homeland for Indian Muslims. Abdullah also feared that the poor Muslims of Kashmir would get a bad deal in the feudal setup of Pakistan. So it was that in the years leading up to the partition of India Abdullah came to think of independence and democracy as the best option for Kashmir.

The same idea, without of course the democracy bit, had struck the Maharajah, who, as the time of British withdrawal from India came nearer, was faced, as the ruler of the largest of the 562 states under British paramountcy, with a choice between India and Pakistan.

The Maharajah’s autocratic ways continued as local opposition to him intensified. In 1946, he put Abdullah and other members of the National Conference in prison for running a highly popular “Quit Kashmir” campaign against him. Nehru’s support for Abdullah had already alienated the Maharajah from the Indian leadership; Gandhi’s questioning the legitimacy of his rule over Kashmir, which had its dubious origin in a sale deed in 1846 between the Maharajah’s ancestors and the British, made him more receptive to emissaries from Pakistan who began to visit him with greater frequency. The partition of India was three months old and he was still talking with both Indian and Pakistan representatives, hoping to buy time and preserve his regime, when a quick series of events forced him to act.

Violence and rioting during Partition had affected the southern part of the Maharajah’s state, where Sikh refugees from Pakistan joined Hindu nationalists and members of the Maharajah’s police in attacking Muslims. Tens of thousands of Muslims were killed. (Half a century later, I heard an old Sikh speak of these murders with pride at Chitisinghpura, the Kashmir village where in March this year thirty-five Sikhs were massacred by unidentified gunmen.6 ) Many more Muslims fled to Pakistan, where the news of their suffering outraged the always very volatile Muslim tribesmen of the northwestern provinces on the Pakistan border into declaring jihad against the Maharajah. In one of the impetuous and confused actions that inaugurated and forever marked the Pakistani position on Kashmir, a few officers of the Pakistani army provided a ragtag army of jihad-minded tribals with arms and helped them across the border into Kashmir—all this at the time when the Pakistan government was still trying to win over the Maharajah to join Kashmir with Pakistan.

The Maharajah’s army was no match for the energetic tribal forces, who advanced swiftly through the northwest parts of Kashmir; an older generation of Kashmiris still remembers the killings and looting and rapes that they committed on their way to Srinagar. The Maharajah panicked as they came closer and closer. His son, Karan Singh, describes in his autobiography7 the moment when the lights went out in the palace—the invaders had destroyed the power station—and the noise of howling jackals suddenly arose in the darkness and silence. The Maharajah appealed to the Indian government for military assistance; but the legalistic response from Delhi was that the Indian army could enter Kashmir only after the state had formally acceded to India. There was no choice now for the Maharajah. As the tribal army drew nearer to Srinagar, he fled the city for the Hindu- dominated city of Jammu, where he went to bed after instructing his aide-de-camp to shoot him in his sleep if the Indian government’s representative didn’t turn up with the instrument of accession. He never returned to Kashmir and died in far-off Bombay in 1962.

The Indian army finally arrived in Srinagar in late October 1947, and its offensive against the invaders became a full-fledged war with Pakistan that lasted more than a year. A cease-fire was eventually declared under the auspices of the UN on January 1, 1949, by which time the Indian army had driven the invaders out of the valley. However, the northwestern part of the princely state, which is different, culturally and socially, from the Kashmir valley and closer to the Muslim Punjab, remained under Pakistani control, and, though named Azad (Free) Kashmirå? is effectively as much a part of Pakistan as the valley is of India.

It was Sheikh Abdullah, released from prison just three weeks before the invasion, who had organized the defense of Srinagar. The National Conference came out in support of the Indian army. Abdullah not only endorsed the accession to India, but also worked up popular Kashmiri support for it, which wasn’t hard since the atrocities committed by the tribal army had put fear of Pakistan in the Kashmiris, and this fear took a long time to fade.

In retrospect, the tribal invasion seems to have spoiled everything. Now the issue of Kashmir acquired a degree of complication from which it never recovered.

Nehru took the dispute to the UN on January 1, 1948, and offered to hold a plebiscite under international auspices to confirm the accession to India. This sounds generous given that Nehru already had what he wanted: physical control of the valley. But Nehru also wanted the legitimacy of popular support for Indian rule over Kashmir. He was confident that, with Sheikh Abdullah on his side, India would win a plebiscite in Kashmir.

As things turned out, the Indian offer of a plebiscite under the supervision of the UN was never redeemed. There was no withdrawal of the Indian and Pakistan armies from Kashmir, which had to be achieved before the plebiscite could take place, and the issue got bogged down in various legalities as the years passed. Pakistan remained in occupation of one third of the state, and denounced the accession to India as fraudulent since in its view the Maharajah had surrendered all authority by fleeing Srinagar after the Muslims rebelled. The Indians kept dismissing the claim and saying that it was Pakistan that had acted illegally by invading the state and frequently raised the rhetorical ante—as they still do—by saying that the only unresolved issue for India was the return of Pakistan-occupied territories.

Positions hardened on both sides as the cold war came to the subcontinent. The State Department under John Foster Dulles always suspected Nehru of being soft on communism, and was openly contemptuous of his non-aligned position. The US drew closer to Pakistan, which it included, in the mid-1950s, in such military treaties as CENTO and SEATO. This further stiffened Nehru’s position on Kashmir; there was no more talk of a plebiscite. The Soviet Union under Khrushchev became a consistent supporter of Nehru’s line, which became the official Indian line, that Kashmir was an integral part of India, and thus not subject to any international arbitration. The cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, called the Line of Control (LOC), became a de facto international border.

This would have been the end of the dispute: the status quo accepted by all parties as an unalterable reality. Certainly, in those early years, the populations in both Indian- and Pakistani-held Kashmir seemed content to be where they were. Sheikh Abdullah was now in charge, and almost the first thing he did in his five difficult years as prime minister of Kashmir from 1948 to 1953 was to initiate a series of ambitious land reforms whereby ownership rights to lands in excess of twelve and a half acres were abolished. In effect, this meant taking land away from the Hindu landlords and distributing it among poor Muslim tenants. It was a mini-revolution, and it assured Abdullah the gratitude and support of two generations of Kashmiri Muslims.

But less than four decades later, Kashmiris were to take up arms for the first time in their long history; India was to face a popular insurgency in Kashmir, and come close to nuclear war with Pakistan. The grave of Sheikh Abdullah, eight years after his crowded funeral, was to require round-the-clock protection from vandals.


Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan had innocuous beginnings: from being a desire for a guarantee of Muslim rights in a Hindu-majority India, it developed into a demand for a confederation of India where Muslims would not have minority status but would share power with Hindus. However, the Hindu leaders of the Congress Party, so close to achieving real political power for the first time, were in no mood to share it.

  1. 5

    Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Flames of the Chinar, p. 56.

  2. 6

    See my article “Death in Kashmir,” The New York Review, September 21, 2000, pp. 36-42.

  3. 7

    Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 57.

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