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The Birth of a Nation

The clumsily partitioned provinces toward the eastern and the western borders of India weren’t what Jinnah has asked for—there were almost as many Muslims in India as in the new state of Pakistan—but it was all the Congress was prepared to part with. In the end, with the British impatient to depart and hustling everyone else, it was the Congress that was eager to settle for partition in order to consolidate its hold on the much bigger Hindu-majority provinces and the institutions of the colonial state—the army, the bureaucracy, and the police—that were its great inheritance from the British.

Among the people who took a harder line as a result of the demand for partition was Nehru, who, for most of a lifetime spent fighting the British, had never accepted the idea of Pakistan, and had held on to the idea of a united multicultural India. The bloodshed that accompanied the partition came as a bigger blow to him; he was now more convinced than ever of the need to have, in the colonial way, a strong central government for India, with as little autonomy as possible for the diverse communities that constituted it. He was to regard all regional assertiveness—and there was much of that across India in the Fifties—with suspicion. National unity, along with secularism, became his mantra, which was taken up by almost all political parties, and echoed by the colonial bureaucracy that was keen on holding onto its own power.

It was hard, nevertheless, to keep down sectarian demands in a country as diverse as India, where independence had released a new longing for self-expression, where millions of previously disfranchised people could find a political voice only through the community they were born to. A lesser leader would have proved disastrous here. Nehru dealt astutely with the demands for a linguistic reorganization of India, which in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, had developed into a movement for outright secession. He used a carrot-and-stick policy—a mix of limited democracy and state repression—to pacify various regional groups and keep them within India.

But his own emotional connection with Kashmir made him wield a big stick there with Sheikh Abdullah, who, soon after becoming prime minister, had come up against the problems of running a large multi-ethnic, multi-religious state—problems not unlike those Nehru himself faced, but which Abdullah was much less equipped to deal with. He was primarily the leader of the Muslims of the Kashmir valley, who represented the majority of the state’s population, 53 percent. But there were also the influential Hindu majority in Jammu to the south, who resented Abdullah’s radical politics, and the Buddhists of Ladakh, who were worried about the power of the valley’s Muslims.

As usually happens, the lack of a political opposition, partly ensured by Nehru, turned Abdullah into an authoritarian ruler. Impressed by the Soviet model, he made the party inseparable from the administration; and, as the aggrieved tone of his letters to Nehru shows, he interpreted all opposition to him as an attempt to undermine his personal authority, and, by extension, the right of the Kashmiri Muslims to run the state after centuries of foreign rule.

When the Hindu nationalists in Jammu, the forebears of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which dominates the current Indian government, organized in the early 1950s the dispossessed landlords and followers of the sulking Maharajah into a movement for greater integration with India, Abdullah became more insecure. He had bargained hard with the Indian government to preserve the state from excessive interference by New Delhi; Kashmir, he argued, needed special guarantees for the protection of its autonomy. He now revived his idea of an independent Kashmir, bringing it up with, among other visiting diplomats, Adlai Stevenson in 1953.

This was disturbing news for Nehru. He now felt Abdullah moving away from him and toward a course of action that was likely to end in India’s losing Kashmir, and losing with it its secular credentials. He was quick to act: Abdullah was dismissed in 1953 and put in prison, where he stayed, initially without trial, for all but four months of the next eleven years.

This sounds rather unbecoming of Nehru, who by then was known internationally as a statesman. But national unity had become his obsession. He had praised Abdullah’s land reforms; he had ensured that no political opposition to Abdullah could grow in the state; he had offered personal friendship to him. But now Abdullah was working against the “national interest.” The support and dismissal of Abdullah was consistent with Nehru’s belief that politics in Kashmir revolved around personalities. It was what he had told an activist who was arguing for a democratic opposition to Abdullah: there was, Nehru asserted, “no material for democracy in Kashmir.”8

The other side, then, of Nehru’s enchantment with Kashmir was a fear of losing control, a possessiveness that he gradually transformed into a national imperative: Kashmir, he began to argue, couldn’t be separated from India without exposing the Muslims in the rest of India to retaliation from Hindu fanatics. You still hear a version of this idea in liberal circles in India: that communal riots of the same scale and intensity as those during the partition of India are around the corner if Kashmir is allowed to break away.

And then, in 1953, an old protégé of Abdullah named Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed took over as prime minister of Kashmir, and did everything Nehru wanted to constitutionally integrate Kashmir into India. Promises of autonomy made earlier to Abdullah were cancelled; and fear of violence came to dictate Indian policy.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed was himself sidelined after serving ten years as the India-approved prime minister of Kashmir, and was imprisoned in 1965 when he sought to undermine an India-backed chief minister.9 Kashmir without Sheikh Abdullah reverted to being what it was for centuries under Mughal rule: a dependency, its fate controlled by a distant great power whose representatives could do what they wished to as long as no one rocked the boat. Its political life, which had really only begun with Abdullah, came to be dominated by small men with small aims of personal empowerment and enrichment, by constant intrigues and betrayals.

Elections were held periodically in order to demonstrate before the world the democratic nature of the Delhi-imposed regime. But they were farcically rigged: the nomination papers of opposition parties would be rejected or their candidates beaten up and arrested; the National Conference won most elections unopposed. A concerned Nehru had to tell Mohammed that it might look better if he were to lose a few elections to a few “bona-fide opponents.”10 The central government poured money into the state for development and education; and, for a few Kashmiris at least, the stakes for holding on to power went higher. A new elite of politicians and bureaucrats emerged out of the culture of corruption that grew around the administration.


As in the history of any dependency and its court politics, what you come to miss in accounts of Kashmir is a sense of the people, the way life went on in the villages and towns. One of the images that comes to mind is of the corrupt government official in his large house, his sons studying in the best colleges of India. The other image is of the peasant in his rice field and mud hut, living as depressed a life as he was when, in 1831, the French botanist Victor Jacquemont visited the region and found it the most wretched in all of the subcontinent.

But the image alters as you read about the rise in literacy levels in the state. In all likelihood, today the peasant’s son has gone to school—one of the hundreds opened by the Indian government—and has even gone up to the new university or the medical and engineering colleges; the peasant himself hasn’t done badly with his apple orchards—horticulture still forms the mainstay of the economy.

In less than two decades, the peasant’s son has become ready for a job, but then finds that his options are very limited. Modern education has taken him away from a life in the rice fields or the apple orchards; but there is no local industry in the valley. The only jobs are to be had with the government; and here he finds himself excluded by the culture of bribery and nepotism. In India, he finds himself a foreigner, likely to be discriminated against on grounds of religion; it is not easy for a Muslim to find a job or rent a house in a Hindu-dominated region.

It is this sense of a blocked future that educated Kashmiris came to have, along with the realization, hammered into them by repeatedly rigged elections, of their political impotence, that eventually led to the insurgency in the early 1990s.

In 1975, out of jail and once again chief minister of the state, Abdullah entered into an arrangement with the Indian government whereby he promised to give up the demand for self-determination in exchange for becoming what other men before him had been: a satrap of the Indian state in Kashmir.

There was a downside to the total investment of faith invited by charismatic individuals like Iqbal, Abdullah, even Nehru. In the absence of institutions, the welfare of a country comes to depend on a few favored ideas, and, more dangerously, on personal temperament. The success or failure of individuals has consequences, sometimes damaging, for many future generations. With Iqbal, the danger always was that his followers would go for the simplest and most emotional of the ideas he was trying out in his mind; and after the first flurry of land reforms, Abdullah wasn’t able to offer anything more to Kashmiris than his formidable rhetoric and the glamorous myth of the prisoner of conscience.

A few months before he died, Abdullah, in the style of third world dynasts, anointed as his successor his son, a UK-based doctor. Farooq Abdullah, inexperienced but enthusiastic, had barely begun when he ran into problems with Indira Gandhi, who had by then evolved her own authoritarian style. In 1975 she brought her father’s anxiety about national unity to a new hysterical pitch as she arrested opposition leaders for being “anti-national” and suspended fundamental rights.

In Kashmir, Mrs. Gandhi found herself thwarted by Farooq Abdullah, who refused her offer of an election alliance between her party, the Congress, and the National Conference. Abdullah’s victory in the elections of 1983, and subsequent hobnobbing with other politicians opposed to her, made Mrs. Gandhi determined to get rid of him. Her tactics here resembled those of the colonial state, something the British had employed to great effect: encouraging religious sectarianism in order to downplay regional disaffection with the central government. In Punjab, she had built up Bhindranwale, an illiterate Sikh preacher, as a counterweight to the province’s anti-Congress government; the preacher subsequently turned into a murderous demagogue and declared war on India. Undeterred by the setback in Punjab, she set to work on building up an atmosphere of Hindu jingoism over the issue of Kashmir.

  1. 8

    See Balraj Puri, Kashmir: Towards Insurgency (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1995), p. 47.

  2. 9

    The head of Kashmir’s elected government was no longer referred to as prime minister after 1965, but, as in other Indian states, was known simply as chief minister.

  3. 10

    Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol. 2 (Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 262.

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