Perry Anderson: How India took possession of Kashmir

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Extracts from:

Perry Anderson, After Nehru, LBR, Vol. 34 No. 15, 2 August 2012

This real achievement has, in what by now could be termed the Indian Ideology, been surcharged with claims to a largely imaginary status: the notion that the preservation by the Indian state of the unity of the country is a feat so exceptional as to be little short of a miracle, in the standard phrase. There is no basis for this particular vanity. A glance at the map of the post-colonial world is enough to show that, no matter how heterogeneous or artificial the boundaries of any given European colony may have been, they continue to exist today. Of the 52 countries in Africa, the vast majority arbitrary fabrications of rival imperialist powers, just one – Sudan – has failed to persist within the same frontiers as an independent state. In Asia, the same pattern has held, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia after two years of cohabitation not even a break with the colonial past, of Bangladesh from Pakistan enabled by external invasion. Such few sports of history aside, the motto of independence has invariably been: what empire has joined, let no man put asunder. In this general landscape, India represents not an exception, but the rule.

That rule has, in one state after another, been enforced with violence. In Africa, wars in Nigeria, Mali, the Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Congo, Angola; in South-East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Sri Lanka. Typically, military force deployed to preserve postcolonial unity has meant military government in one guise or another in society at large: state of emergency in the periphery, dictatorship at the centre. India has escaped the latter. But it has exhibited the former, with a vengeance. It is now 65 years since Congress seized the larger part of Kashmir, without title from the colonial power, though with vice-regal connivance, in the name of a forged document of accession from its feudal ruler, the assent of its leading politician and the pledge of a plebiscite to confirm the will of its people. Having secured the region, Nehru – the prime mover – made short work of all three. The maharajah was soon deposed, the promise of a referendum ditched. What of the politician, on whom now rested what claims of legitimacy for Indian possession remained?

*

Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir as he enjoyed being styled, was a Muslim leader who, like Badshah Khan in the North-West Frontier Province, had been an ally of Congress in the years of struggle against the Raj, and become the most prominent opponent of the maharajah in the Valley of Kashmir. There his party, the National Conference, had adopted a secular platform in which local communists played some role, seeking independence for Kashmir as the ‘Switzerland of Asia’. But when partition came, Abdullah made no case of this demand. For some years he had bonded emotionally with Nehru, and when fighting broke out in Kashmir in the autumn of 1947, he was flown out from Srinagar to Delhi by military aircraft and lodged in Nehru’s house, where he took part in planning the Indian takeover, to which he was essential. Two days later, the maharajah – now safely repaired to Jammu – announced in a backdated letter to Mountbatten, drafted by his Indian minders, that he would install Abdullah as his prime minister.

For the next five years, Abdullah ruled the Valley of Kashmir and Jammu under the shield of the Indian army, with no authority other than his reluctant appointment by a feudatory he despised and Delhi soon discarded. At the outset, Nehru believed his friend’s popularity capable of carrying all before it. When subsequent intelligence indicated otherwise, talk of a plebiscite to ratify it ceased. Abdullah enjoyed genuine support in his domain, but how wide it was, or how deep, was not something Congress was prepared to bank on. Nor, it soon became clear, was Abdullah himself willing to put it to the test. No doubt acutely aware that Badshah Khan, with a much stronger popular base, had lost just such a referendum in the North-West Frontier Province, he rejected any idea of one. No elections were held until 1951, when voters were finally summoned to the polls for a Constituent Assembly. Less than 5 per cent of the nominal electorate cast a ballot, but otherwise the results could not have been improved in Paraguay or Bulgaria. The National Conference and its clients won all 75 seats – 73 of them without a contest. A year later Abdullah announced the end of the Dogra dynasty and an agreement with Nehru that reserved special rights for Kashmir and Jammu, limiting the powers of the centre, within the Indian Union. But no constitution emerged, and not even the maharajah’s son, regent since 1949, was removed, instead simply becoming head of state.

By now, however, Delhi was becoming uneasy about the regime it had set up in Srinagar. In power, Abdullah’s main achievement had been an agrarian reform putting to shame Congress’s record of inaction on the land. But its political condition of possibility was confessional: the expropriated landlords were Hindu, the peasants who benefited Muslim. The National Conference could proclaim itself secular, but its policies on the land and in government employment catered to the interests of its base, which had always been in Muslim-majority areas, above all the Valley of Kashmir. Jammu, which after ethnic cleansing by Dogra forces in 1947 now had a Hindu majority, was on the receiving end of Abdullah’s system, subjected to an unfamiliar repression. Enraged by this reversal, the newly founded Jana Sangh in India joined forces with the local Hindu party, the Praja Parishad, in a violent campaign against Abdullah, who was charged with heading not only a communal Muslim but a communist regime in Srinagar. In the summer of 1953, the Indian leader of this agitation, S.P. Mookerjee, was arrested crossing the border into Jammu, and promptly expired in a Kashmiri jail.

This was too much for Delhi. Mookerjee had, after all, been Nehru’s confederate in not dissimilar Hindu agitation to lock down the partition of Bengal, and was rewarded with a cabinet post. Although since then he had been an opponent of the Congress regime, he was still a member in reasonably good standing of the Indian political establishment. Abdullah, moreover, was now suspected of recidivist hankering for an independent Kashmir. The Intelligence Bureau had little difficulty convincing Nehru that he had become a liability, and overnight he was dismissed by the stripling heir to the Dogra throne he had so complacently made head of state, and thrown into an Indian jail on charges of sedition. His one-time friend behind bars, Nehru installed the next notable down in the National Conference, Bakshi Gulam Mohammed, in his place. Brutal and corrupt, Bakshi’s regime – widely known as BBC: the Bakshi Brothers Corporation – depended entirely on the Indian security apparatus. After ten years, in which his main achievement was to do away with any pretence that Kashmir was other than ‘an integral part of the Union of India’, Bakshi’s reputation had become a liability to Delhi, and he was summarily ousted in turn, to be replaced after a short interval by another National Conference puppet, this time a renegade communist, G.M. Sadiq, whose no less repressive regime proceeded to wind up the party altogether, dissolving it into Congress.

Abdullah, meanwhile, sat in an Indian prison for 12 years, eventually on charges of treason, with two brief intermissions in 1958 and 1964. During the second of these, he held talks with Nehru in Delhi and Ayub Khan in Rawalpindi, just before Nehru died, but was then rearrested for having had the temerity to meet Zhou Enlai in Algiers. A troubled Nehru had supposedly been willing to contemplate some loosening of the Indian grip on the Valley; much sentimentality has been expended on this lost opportunity for a better settlement in Kashmir, tragically frustrated by Nehru’s death. But the reality is that Nehru, having seized Kashmir by force in 1947, had rapidly discovered that Abdullah and his party were neither as popular nor as secular as he had imagined, and that he could hold his prey only by an indefinite military occupation with a façade of collaborators, each less satisfactory than the last. The ease with which the National Conference was manipulated to Indian ends, as Abdullah was discarded for Bakshi, and Bakshi for Sadiq, made it clear how relatively shallow an organisation it had, despite appearances, always been. By the end of his life, Nehru would have liked a more presentable fig-leaf for Indian rule, but that he had any intention of allowing free expression of the popular will in Kashmir can be excluded: he could never afford to do so. He had shown no compunction in incarcerating on trumped-up charges the ostensible embodiment of the ultimate legitimacy of Indian conquest of the region, and no hesitation in presiding over subcontracted tyrannies of whose nature he was well aware. When an anguished admirer from Jammu pleaded with him not to do so, he replied that the national interest was more important than democracy: ‘We have gambled on the international stage on Kashmir, and we cannot afford to lose. At the moment we are there at the point of a bayonet. Till things improve, democracy and morality can wait.’ Sixty years later the bayonets are still there, democracy nowhere in sight.

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