This is the text of a keynote talk which I was invited to give at a symposium on 'India @ 70: historical and cultural perspectives on 70 years of Indian independence' at the University of Nottingham on 21 September 2017. This was a PowerPoint presentation and the images used have been interpolated into the text. AW
The volume and indeed the thoughtfulness of the coverage of the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan's independence - or as it's more often seen here in the UK, of Partition and the human catastrophe that resulted - has been heartening. More and better than ten or twenty years ago. Newsnight devoted an entire programme to the topic, which included a sofa-full of historians - the Guardian canvassed the views of a galaxy of leading writers about Partition and its legacy - Radio 4 serialised Midnight's Children in seven bites through August 15 - the Ten O'Clock News sent Reeta Chakrabarti to Lahore and Amritsar - BBC2 put on an hour-long docudrama in the sought after 9 pm slot - the Telegraph published an article promising 'everything you need to know about Partition' - Kavita Puri's radio series 'Partition Voices' captured the experiences of British Asians in 1947 - Woman's Hour was still examining the entrails of Partition the following week.
And this wasn't simply 'cod liver oil' broadcasting - the BBC providing content which it considered 'good' for the audience never mind whether it was wanted and regardless of the aftertaste. I left the BBC a couple of years ago, but just occasionally, in national emergencies, I am dragooned back into service a bit like some none-too-nimble army reservist. I was asked to do what's called an 'explainer' for the BBC website - what was Partition, why did it happen, what is the legacy? These things don't normally attract huge numbers. That piece got a million page views - one small indication of the interest out there in understanding what happened seventy years ago.
At the crescendo of the anniversary coverage, some perhaps unlikely news titles felt a need to join in. In mid-afternoon on August 14, I got an email from the features desk of the tabloid Daily Mirror - from a journalist I didn't know on a paper I'd never written for. He wondered if I could do a thousand words on Partition for the following day's paper. Given that the features pages are the first to go to the printers, I had about a minute for each intervening year to get the article done. It was published across two pages. For a topic which isn't in any way news - and which was focussed more on what happened then than why it matters now - the extent and prominence of the coverage was remarkable.
Why so much? Well, the 70th anniversary is a moment when events are slipping out of living memory, often the last big anniversary where there's a substantial number around with adult recollections; the surge of activity in gathering oral histories of Partition has come very late; perhaps more than that, here in Britain the South Asian diaspora is both curious about its history and wants it to be understood as part of Britain's shared story; in the news media, journalists, commissioners and editors of South Asian origin are much more numerous and influential than a decade ago - that extends the intellectual range that informs editorial decisions; and I do wonder whether as the moment of Brexit looms, a political decision which has triggered more national introspection than any event since the Suez crisis of 1956, there is a heightened curiosity about the what, how and why of Britain's last big retreat - from Empire.
Today's deliberations are evidence that the 70th anniversary season is not yet over. Indeed, there's one Partition-linked, independence-linked, anniversary still to come. October 27 1947: the day that the first ever Indian troops landed in Kashmir to repulse Pakistani irregulars - they have been in the Kashmir Valley ever since; also the day that the force from Pakistan ransacked a convent and mission hospital at Baramulla, a massacre which was not the bloodiest of that autumn but became the most notorious; probably the day that the maharaja signed the instrument of accession making Jammu and Kashmir part of India; certainly the day that Lord Mountbatten, as India's Governor General, accepted Kashmir's accession, albeit conditionally.
So next month, we're seventy years on from the inception of the Kashmir conflict. There's not a lot to celebrate.
I was last in Kashmir in April - I was struck by the deep alienation of the educated young in Srinagar: from India, and the Indian army; also from the constitutional, pro-India, Kashmiri parties; and more surprisingly perhaps, from the established separatist leaders and from Pakistan. The anger is intense, but rootless. In any seventy years on reckoning sheet, Kashmir has to be India's biggest failure. Almost everywhere in the country, the idea of being Indian - the sense of belonging - is intense. For such an immense and diverse nation with such an unpromising birth, it's a huge achievement. But the failure to accommodate and make comfortable different religious and national traditions on the country's flanks - in Manipur and Nagaland in the north-east and in Kashmir in the north-west, all of which have suffered insurgencies - is grievous. And in Kashmir the more so because Kashmiri nationalism was, in the years during which its political ascendancy in the Kashmir Valley was established, so closely aligned with Indian nationalism.
I am careful to say the Kashmir Valley. There are many Kashmirs - the whole of the maharajah's dominion in 1947, as shown in the map below .... the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is in lilac ... the Kashmir Valley, marked out in orange, the linguistic, cultural and political heartland. The valley constitutes one-fourteenth of the princely state in area with a little under 40% of its population - but this is what the conflict, internal and external is about.
The initial stages of the conflict - the war between India and Pakistan, the first of three wars that have been fought in or about Kashmir - are seen as a battle for territory between new, rival, nation states. That's true. But there was another struggle - between progressive, reform-minded forces gathered in the National Conference, Sheikh Abdullah's party and the strongest political force in the Kashmir Valley, and the old, feudal order of the maharaja Hari Singh, a Dogra and a Hindu.
In Srinagar, the autumn of 1947 was a time of political empowerment: highly politicised and excited crowds on the streets; a popular militia formed; a moment of regime change as the maharaja fled the Kashmir Valley and Sheikh Abdullah, recently released from the maharaja's jail and now in formal terms his 'emergency administrator', came to the fore. The militia was portrayed as fighting not just for India but for democracy and progressive values.
This April, on the day of a Parliamentary by-election, Farooq Ahmed Dar was tied to the front of an army jeep and driven for five hours through several villages at the head of an army convoy. He was a human shield. The sign attached to him read: 'This is the fate that will befall stone pelters'. It seems likely that Farooq Ahmed Dar wasn't a stone thrower - indeed he was one of the few local people to cast a vote in a by-election which separatists had urged Kashmiris to boycott.
This image circulated rapidly on social media, and intensified an already profound sense of grievance among many in the Kashmir Valley. Amnesty International was among international organisation to denounce what appears to be an indefensible sanction against a civilian. The Indian government announced an inquiry. Before it was complete, the officer responsible for Farooq Ahmed Dar's fate, Major Leetul Gogoi of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles, was awarded a medal of commendation for his 'sustained efforts during counter-insurgency operations'.
It felt like an abasement of democracy - a declaration by the Indian state that Kashmiris were the enemy, their rights were of no consequence and could be violated with impunity.
I got to know Kashmir, almost 25 years ago, as a news reporter - I am now a historian of Kashmir. I am invested in Kashmir, I care about the place and still more its people, without seeing myself as co-opted into a cause or movement. I think that's something that both historians and journalists best avoid. I can't within the constraints of the next half-hour or so offer a comprehensive account of why India has failed to establish its legitimacy in the Kashmir Valley. But what I aim to do it to look at the high water mark of Kashmiri nationalism, that is of largely pro-Indian Kashmiri nationalism; how Kashmiri and Indian nationalisms started to take different paths; and the impact of Nehru's most illiberal decision in his long years in power, the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953.
And then I'm going to do something more. I came to the history of Kashmir through reporting Kashmir in the grim days of the 1990s; many of those who have delved into Kashmir's recent past are similarly either motivated or influenced by the conflict that has played out there. In talking about Kashmir in the context of 1947, we do need to look at where we are today - and why.
On October 27, 1947, when the first Indian troops landed at the very basic airfield on the outskirts of Srinagar, they came to the Kashmir valley with the keen support of the leading Kashmiri political figure of that era. Sheikh Abdullah, a Kashmiri nationalist, was also at this time an Indian nationalist. He endorsed the princely state’s hurried accession to India.
His supporters organised a volunteer militia to help Indian troops in repulsing an invading force of Pakistani tribesmen. Their presence on the streets of the Kashmiri capital was an emphatic demonstration that the old princely order had been banished. The alliance between Kashmiri and Indian nationalisms was both personal - there was a deep bond of friendship and common purpose between Abdullah and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru - and political, with a shared allegiance to a progressive agenda. Yet six years later, Nehru oversaw the dismissal and arrest of his old ally. The national aspirations and imperatives of Kashmir and of India, as expressed by their political leaders, were in conflict.
Jammu and Kashmir was slow to feel the new political breezes blowing after the First World War. The Kashmir valley was geographically and intellectually isolated. There were in the 1920s no newspapers to speak of, no political parties, and no secular intelligentsia of consequence apart from those who relied on the patronage of the ruling princely family. The schools administered by the maharaja and the handful established by Christian missionaries disproportionately served the small and privileged Hindu minority in the towns. Across the princely state, Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims by three-to-one - in the Kashmir valley the ratio at this time was thirteen-to-one - but few Muslims held positions of any importance in the Hindu maharaja’s administration. Those Kashmiri Muslims with ambition tended to migrate south to towns in Punjab to seek their way in the world.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's personal story reflects the lack of opportunities available to Muslims of talent and ability. He was born in 1905 just outside Srinagar into a middle-class family in the shawl business. He secured a college place in Lahore, and then at one of north India’s most prestigious places of learning, Aligarh Muslim University, but was angered that the state administration would neither fund his studies outside Kashmir nor support his ambition to become a doctor. He was eventually given a teaching post, but quickly gave it up in favour of politics. Much of the passion which Abdullah displayed throughout his long political life may well have been fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.
Political activity in Kashmir did not, as is sometimes suggested, emerge from a clear blue sky in 1930. But the establishment in that year by Sheikh Abdullah and a handful of other young, educated, Srinagar-based Kashmiris of the Reading Room group was an important step in the development of a more assertive political leadership which sought to represent the marginalised and poor. This was, as the name suggests, more of a discussion group than a political movement - but it had an agenda, that the humiliations endured by Kashmir’s Muslim majority would only be remedied through political reform.
The following year, a combination of issues - more religious than political - prompted demonstrations in the streets of Srinagar, which resulted in some communal attacks on Hindus and their businesses. On 13 July 1931 - the anniversary is still marked in Kashmir as Martyrs’ Day - twenty-one protestors were shot dead by the maharaja’s security forces, who also resorted to mass arrests (Abdullah himself was held for three weeks). The unrest spread to other towns in the Kashmir valley, and beyond to Jammu province where several hundred British troops were drafted in to help the maharaja restore order. For the first time, politics in Jammu and Kashmir attracted wider attention, with some newspaper headlines speaking of a Kashmiri ‘revolt’ or ‘uprising’.
These violent protests, among the most serious anywhere in India between the wars, changed Kashmiri politics in two ways, occasioning a measure of reform and allowing an opening to a popularly-based opposition. The 1931 uprising had no central leadership, nor indeed a common purpose. But it was the moment when Sheikh Abdullah emerged in Srinagar as a popular leader among the city’s Muslims, reinforced by the way in which he advocated political reform and demanded concessions about religious practises and sites from the government.
The year after the protests and repression, in 1932, Sheikh Abdullah took the lead - along with Muslim activists in Jammu - in establishing a political party, the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, of which he became the founding president.
Sheikh Abdullah’s particular achievement was to instil in the Muslim Conference a progressive and outward-looking political approach. Its founding had been rooted in a community’s sense of grievance - against the manner in which the Hindu princely state was run, and defining Muslims’ interests against those of their more privileged Hindu neighbours. But within a few years, Abdullah began to adopt a language that emphasised national rather than religious identity. In the mid-1930s, he met Jawaharlal Nehru, the leading figure in the Indian National Congress. Nehru’s family were, several generations earlier, from Kashmir - they were Pandits, high caste Hindus - and while Nehru's visits there prior to 1940 were infrequent, his affinity with Kashmir was profound. ‘Kashmir affects me in a peculiar way’, Nehru confided to Edwina Mountbatten, ‘it is a kind of mild intoxification’. When he addressed Sheikh Abdullah’s party activists in 1945 as ‘my brother and sister Kashmiris, people of the same blood and kith and kin’, he meant it.
This remarkable photograph was taken at the 1945 annual session of the National Conference, in Kashmir. It shows a remarkable galaxy of political talent, From the left there is: Mridula Sarabhai; Achakzai, a Baluch leader; Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed; Nehru; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi; Sheikh Abdullah; in front of him, Indira Gandhi; then a couple who I haven't managed to identify; B.P.L. Bedi; and largely obscuring him Freda Bedi, clearly pregnant, hose biography I am writing (Kabir Bedi was born in Lahore in January 1946). And the child in Khan's arms? Well, Rajiv Gandhi was born in August 1944.
Sheikh Abdullah was increasingly attracted to Nehru’s style of politics: ‘The position of the Congress was in favour of the people of the [princely] states, whereas the Muslim League leaned to the rulers of the states. This had an impact on us too, so we were spontaneously drawn to the Congress’. Abdullah attended annual sessions of the Congress and was given a senior position in the Congress-aligned All India States’ People’s Conference, which represented political movements in the princely states. He began to develop a profile beyond Jammu and Kashmir.
In 1938, Sheikh Abdullah, swayed by Nehru, proposed renaming the Muslim Conference as the National Conference. This was intended to demonstrate that the party sought to represent the interests of all subjects of the princely state, not simply the majority community. It was an important statement that the party saw political identity as based on nation and not religion - echoing Nehru’s Congress rather than Jinnah’s Muslim League. There was opposition to the change of name and Abdullah described the ‘conversion’ as a ‘painful process’ - but also as ‘a revolutionary act in the Kashmir politics’.
While Sheikh Abdullah achieved a personal and political alliance with Nehru and the Congress, there was another pole of attraction for Kashmiri nationalism: the left. Communist influence within the National Conference helped to shape both the tone and the agenda of its nationalism.
Communists were responsible for the 1944 ‘New Kashmir’ document which gave detailed expression to the goals of the National Conference and came to be the shorthand by which Sheikh Abdullah’s ambition for a transformation of Kashmir was known.
Communist activity in Kashmir dated from the late 1930s, and was encouraged by summer gatherings in Srinagar of left-leaning intellectuals from Lahore and elsewhere. By the early 1940s, the Communist Party of India had identified Kashmir as a political issue worthy of active support, and a small but significant number of local recruits had been made. ‘New Kashmir’ has been described by Sumantra Bose as ‘the most important political document in modern Kashmir’s history’. It was written in response to an initiative by the maharaja to establish a commission to consider constitutional change. The National Conference prepared as its submission a comprehensive proposed constitution-cum-manifesto for Jammu and Kashmir. The English edition amounted to forty-four pages. A much more comprehensive document than anything issued by Congress at this date. 'To compile the manifesto we requisitioned the services of a famous progressive friend from Panjab [sic], B.P.L. Bedi’, Abdullah recalled. Bedi had been attracted to communism at Oxford, where he also met his wife, a fellow student, Freda Houlston.
The conventional wisdom is that Bedi, with help from communist colleagues in Lahore, wrote ‘New Kashmir’. In fact, the document was largely lifted from the constitution Stalin had introduced in the Soviet Union and which Bedi knew well, having republished it in full in 1937 in a political quarterly he edited in Lahore, Contemporary India. There were some concessions to Kashmir’s particular circumstances - notably an acceptance of a constitutional monarchy - but it was an immensely radical prescription for the state: freedom of conscience, worship, speech, press and assembly were to be enshrined in law; there was to be free and universal elementary education conducted in the mother tongue; the gender aspect extended beyond the cover - women were assured of equal rights, including equal wages; there would be a planned economy; and a National Assembly was to be elected by secret ballot, with everyone aged over eighteen able to vote.
Alongside this draft constitution, ‘New Kashmir’ contained a national economic plan, influenced by the approach of the kisan sabha, the peasants' progressive movement, with which Bedi had been closely associated. It embraced the abolition of landlordism and a detailed policy of agrarian reform encapsulated by the phrase ‘land to the tiller’.
In his introduction, Sheikh Abdullah made explicit the inspiration that the National Conference took from Moscow: ‘In our times, Soviet Russia has demonstrated before our eyes, not merely theoretically but in her actual day to day life and development, that real freedom takes birth only from economic emancipation’. To reinforce this revolutionary hue, the cover of the document when published in pamphlet form was in red - showing a pheran-wearing woman with her head covered brandishing the National Conference flag of a plough in white on a red background (which, as the British communist Rajani Palme Dutt noted had more than a passing similarity to the hammer-and-sickle). It's a striking image - a woman, politically active not quiescent - with a clear echo of Delacroix's representation of flag-waving Marianne on the Parisian barricades.
The woman on the cover of 'New Kashmir' was a representation of Zuni Gujjari a National Conference activist from an non-privileged background. She's also here with Begum Abdullah and Lady Edwina Mountbatten - she was sometimes rolled out as an exemplar of the National Conference's popular appeal and social reach. We will be seeing her again.
‘New Kashmir’ was, said Sheikh Abdullah, ‘a revolutionary document’. He was sensitive to charges that he had relinquished his party’s policy strategy to the left, just as he was keen to rebut suggestion that he was too close to the Congress:
One aspect of communist ideology is that it sides internationally with labourers and oppressed people, a fact that the National Conference has always appreciated. It has illumined its conscience not only by the Russian revolution but also by the ideals and emancipatory principles of the French revolution. Indeed, we too favoured combining the communist ideology with democracy and liberal humanism.
New Kashmir now became the National Conference’s rallying cry. And while much of the policy prescription it contained was not acted upon, in certain crucial aspects, notably the outlining of a comprehensive plan for land redistribution, it gave notice of what a future National Conference administration would implement.
In Kashmir, as in the rest of India, the tone of politics changed after the end of the war, when it became clear that the newly elected Labour government in Britain was committed to granting independence. Sheikh Abdullah was not in Srinagar when a British cabinet mission visited in April 1946, but he sent a telegram to express the National Conference’s increasingly forthright point of view: ‘Today the national demand of the people of Kashmir is not merely the establishment of a system of responsible government, but their right to absolute freedom from the autocratic rule’ of the maharaja'. This was a notable hardening of political attitude from the New Kashmir manifesto. Sheikh Abdullah was no longer arguing for a constitutional monarchy but making a ‘national demand’ for the sovereignty of the people of Kashmir.
A matter of weeks later, the National Conference adopted the slogan ‘Quit Kashmir’ - a deliberate echo of the ‘Quit India’ campaign pursued by the Congress during the war. While Indian nationalists had been calling on the British to leave, the Kashmiri nationalists’ target was their own princely family. Sheikh Abdullah insisted that one campaign was a ‘logical extension’ of the other:
When the Indian freedom movement demands the complete withdrawal of British power, logically enough the stooges of British Imperialism also should go and restore sovereignty to its real owners - the people. ... Sovereignty is not the birthright of a ruler. Every man, woman and child will shout ‘Quit Kashmir.’ The Kashmiri nation has expressed its will
Quit Kashmir saw protests across much of the Kashmir valley, though with less support elsewhere in the state. The maharaja’s administration responded with repression. Sheikh Abdullah was arrested in May along with many other National Conference leaders. His key lieutenants managed to get to Lahore from where they sought to lead the movement from a distance. Communists and those working with them were active underground in Kashmir. And for the first time, women came to prominence within the Kashmiri nationalist movement. ‘When [the] male leadership was put behind the bars or driven underground, the women leaders took charge and gave a new direction to the struggle’, recalled Krishna Misri, then a teenager living in Srinagar. ‘However the leaders addressed no controversial woman-specific issues for they did not want to come across as social rebels’.
The pursuit of the Quit Kashmir campaign caused an overwhelming difficulty for the National Conference - almost all the leadership was under arrest or out of the picture at a time of political turbulence and crisis. There was, however, a key dividend for Sheikh Abdullah. The Quit Kashmir agitation, and Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest and the widespread condemnation that attracted, confirmed his party as the most determined opposition in the Kashmir valley to an unpopular and unwise maharaja. Abdullah himself, with his charisma and undoubted political courage, was unrivalled in his popular support.
Sheikh Abdullah was put on trial by the maharaja's administration for sedition and exciting disaffection. Nehru tried to get to Srinagar to take part in his defence. On the first occasion, he was stopped and detained by the Jammu and Kashmir state authorities. A few weeks later in July, Nehru managed to reach the Kashmiri capital. Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading British communist who had enormous influence in the Indian party, also met Sheikh Abdullah in court and described Kashmir as ‘the political storm-centre of the Indian fight for freedom’. In the valley, communists organised discretely within the National Conference; Sheikh Abdullah ‘was very sensitive about any parallel political activity’, one communist veteran told me. Indian communist publications, championed both the Quit Kashmir movement and Sheikh Abdullah.
In the turbulent politics of the mid-1940s, there was little open discussion of how the Kashmiri nationalism of the National Conference would coexist with the Indian nationalism of the Congress. In September 1946, Nehru provided the introduction to an account of Sheikh Abdullah’s trial in Srinagar earlier that year which sought to address the relationship between these two nationalisms:
Just when we find that India is on the verge of independence, we find the Kashmir authorities, totally oblivious of this fact, seeking to crush their own people and their desire for freedom. A real people’s movement can never be crushed in this way, much less can it be crushed when India herself is putting an end to foreign rule. ...The story ... will go on till it reaches the logical end which can only be the establishment of freedom in Kashmir within the larger frame-work of a free and independent India.
The same volume carried Sheikh Abdullah’s speech from the dock which ended with a peroration looking to a future ‘in which we as free men and women, linked organically with the rest of India, will build the New Kashmir of our dreams’. The subtle difference of emphasis here would have been regarded as inconsequential at the time, but it exposed a fault line which would later become much more pronounced. Abdullah was talking of a relationship between Kashmir and India based on mutual esteem; Nehru’s comment implied an element of hierarchy.
Kashmiris often complain of a lack of agency in determining how they are governed. The much repeated adage is that Kashmir has not been ruled by Kashmiris since 1586, when Mughal rule was established over the valley. That sense of grievance is profound - and understandable. But the tumultuous events of the autumn of 1947, when Sheikh Abdullah was released from jail and within weeks found himself effectively in command in Srinagar, were a rare moment of mass political mobilisation during which the actions of Kashmiris shaped events, rather than merely registering a protest against them.
The departure of the maharaja and most of his administration left a political vacuum which the National Conference was quick to fill. National Conference volunteers took to the streets - and with Nehru’s support, and with weapons and training provided by the Indian army, were transformed into a national militia. The depredations of the tribal fighters in Baramulla had deeply alarmed many in Srinagar, and the immediate goal of the militia was to defend the Kashmiri capital.
In the most startling innovation of the new era, a Women’s Self Defence Corps was raised in Srinagar, consisting disproportionately of Pandit women and teenage girls, but extending across communities. They featured on the cover of Kashmir Defends Democracy - and there on the cover, Zuni Gujjari. The artwork was by the noted progressive artist Sobha Singh.
The women volunteers drilled in public and were trained in the use of rifles and grenades. Nehru inspected them. Among their number was Freda Bedi.
The Kashmiri capital, by the accounts of those witnessing the new order, pulsed with political energy. The Times of India correspondent in an article published on 8 November 1947, the same day that Indian troops took Baramulla, gave a sense of the mood of the moment:
The National Conference red flag ... decorates every public building in the city. In the main square in the heart of the city, which has been renamed “Red Square”, a giant red flag flutters from a tall mast under which workers and ordinary people foregather at all hours of the day to hear the latest news of the war and exchange political gossip. Here also is located the National Militia’s ‘guerilla operational headquarters’ and the National Conference H.Q.
The square was renamed as (and is still known as) Lal Chowk or Red Square. Communists also initiated a cultural front by which progressive writers and artists from across India sought to celebrate the popular mobilisation which had secured Sheikh Abdullah’s rise to power. While what Srinagar experienced was not a classic revolution, it was a popular mobilisation which hastened and confirmed a change of regime; but as it was also an endorsement of Indian rule, this chapter in Kashmir’s modern history does not easily fit any of the competing nationalist narratives, and so has been largely written out of the historical record.
At Nehru’s insistence, Sheikh Abdullah was appointed by the maharaja as head of the emergency administration, working in tandem with his prime minister. This awkward, and short-lived, constitutional dispensation could not disguise that political authority in the Kashmir valley rested with the National Conference - where of course it was buttressed by the presence of the Indian army. Within six weeks of his release from jail, Sheikh Abdullah had come to power - though not of an independent nation-state, but of a constituent of newly-independent India. Kashmir’s status was not finally resolved by the maharaja’s signature on the instrument of accession. Lord Mountbatten, the first governor-general of independent India, accepted accession, but subject to ‘a reference to the people’ of Jammu and Kashmir once law and order had been restored.
A few days later on 2 November 1947, with the struggle for Srinagar still unresolved, Nehru made two commitments which the Indian government failed to honour: that India’s military presence in Kashmir would end once ‘Kashmir is free from the invader’; and that Kashmir’s future status would be determined by ‘a referendum held under international auspices like the United Nations’. Nehru visited the Kashmir valley nine days later, addressing a rally alongside Sheikh Abdullah at Lal Chowk and visiting the devastated town of Baramulla. The National Conference leader, still becoming accustomed to his new-found power, was not initially enthused by the prospect of a popular vote. ‘After what happened in these places’, he was quoted as saying in the Hindustan Times of 12 November 1947, ‘the people of Kashmir may not bother about a referendum.’
Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues took power in Jammu and Kashmir under the shadow of war. While the Indian army repulsed the invading forces from the Kashmir valley, it failed to secure control of the entire princely state. In the spring of 1948, Pakistan - worried about the prospect of a renewed Indian offensive - openly deployed troops to Kashmir. The two neighbours were at war. A ceasefire was achieved at the end of the year, and the ceasefire line - which has changed remarkably little down the decades - entailed an informal partition of Jammu and Kashmir, with the greater part in terms of population, including all the Kashmir valley, coming under Indian control.
It was not an easy backdrop to achieve the idealism of New Kashmir. The leaders of the National Conference had next-to-no experience in administration. Sheikh Abdullah had proved himself to be a hugely effective political mobiliser, but he was not an instinctive pluralist. He did not come to power through the ballot box. The party did not need to organise a significant election campaign until polls for Kashmir's Constituent Assembly in 1951. The new administration’s task was further complicated by the sharply varying political cultures of the constituent parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir - the Jammu region, almost as populous as the Kashmir valley, had (after 1947) a Hindu majority which broadly supported full integration with India.
In all the circumstances, it is remarkable that Sheikh Abdullah’s administration - he formally became prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir in the spring of 1948 and the monarchy, by then of no real authority, was abolished in 1952 - made any headway in building a progressive Kashmir. His great achievement, and one in which he took pride, was the implementation of perhaps the most far-reaching land reforms in independent India. In the early 1950s, several thousand large and medium-size landowners, most non-Muslims, lost much of their estates without payment of compensation. The implementation was not without flaws, nevertheless 700,000 landless cultivators became peasant proprietors, albeit often with small plots, and the profound problem of rural indebtedness was also alleviated. In an agrarian society, this really was a revolution - for most Kashmiris, this was the most emphatic demonstration of New Kashmir in action.
Kashmir’s new leader had less success in achieving unity of purpose within his movement. While Sheikh Abdullah had been happy to have the left’s support in his years in opposition, he was instinctively uncomfortable with the communists, not least because their loyalty was not unwaveringly to him. Rather than agree to the communist call to turn his volunteer force into a ‘People’s Militia’, in 1948 he reorganised the militia to curb communist influence. By then, the Communist Party of India had lurched towards ultra-leftism and largely abandoned work within ‘national bourgeois’ political forces.
Factional infighting and complaints of corruption also troubled the state administration and tarnished the reputation of its leaders. Opponents of the state government were harassed, and some were jailed. Alongside all this, Sheikh Abdullah became increasingly critical of Delhi’s attitude towards Kashmir. For the Indian government, keeping hold of Kashmir - as a statement of its secular nationalism and to deny its neighbour and rival, Pakistan - became a greater priority than securing the good governance of the state and the popular legitimacy of its rulers. Or to put it another way, Indian nationalism trumped Kashmiri nationalism.
The Indian constitution which came into effect in the early 1950s contained a provision, Article 370, which codified the distinct status of Jammu and Kashmir. This limited Delhi’s direct authority over the state and allowed for Jammu and Kashmir to have its own constitution. In practical terms it meant that the authority of some India-wide bodies such as the Supreme Court and the Election Commission did not automatically extend to the state; that Kashmir’s flag could fly alongside the national flag; and that some idiosyncracies in titles and procedures could persist. In a broadly federal system of government, in which the states have considerable power, it meant that Jammu and Kashmir had a measure more autonomy than other states. In practice, it has had less autonomy. Many of the provisions of Article 370 have been unravelled - though its totemic political importance remains - and Delhi has interfered more persistently in Jammu and Kashmir than probably any other state. It is now, in the apt words of Christopher Snedden, ‘fully integrated into India administratively, economically and politically - although not emotionally’.
From Delhi’s perspective, Sheikh Abdullah appeared to be arguing with growing vehemence that if India did not respect Kashmir and its institutions, then the issue of accession might need to be revisited. Sheikh Abdullah angrily insisted that he was not, as alleged, working with outside powers to detach Kashmir from India. But for all his protestations, his impassioned rhetoric - in public and in private - could give rise to such suspicions.
Sheikh Abdullah told a British journalist in 1949 that ‘independence - guaranteed by the United Nations - may be the only solution’ to the issue of Kashmir’s status . Of even greater concern in Delhi was Abdullah’s conversations with diplomats. In January 1948, while in New York to press India’s case at the United Nations, Abdullah had a conversation with an American diplomat who put on record the substance of their meeting. ‘It is possible that [the] principal purpose of Abdullah’s visit was to make it clear to [the] US that there is a third alternative, namely independence. He was overly anxious to get this point across.’ This was not an isolated act. In September 1950, the American ambassador to India sent a telegram to Washington about ‘two secret discussions’ with, and at the initiative of, Sheikh Abdullah: ‘He was vigorous in restating that in his opinion [Kashmir] should be independent; that [the] overwhelming majority [of the] population desired this independence’.
When addressing local audiences, Sheikh Abdullah was more circumspect, and in his inaugural address to Jammu and Kashmir’s Constituent Assembly in May 1951, he specifically set his face against independence. But when he later began to speak of ‘a free and voluntary association of partners’, a partnership between Kashmir and India rather than Delhi’s goal of integration, the Indian government began to lose patience.
In August 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed as prime minister and detained. His deputy and long-time close associate, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, took over as prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. In public, Nehru kept a distance from the decision, but the memoirs of his intelligence chief leave no doubt that India’s prime minister was party to the arrest of his onetime friend. Sheikh Abdullah spent most of the next twenty years in Indian jails, under house arrest, or banned from his home state. He was eventually reconciled with Nehru, after a fashion, but in his memoirs, the Kashmiri leader’s bitterness at what he called a ‘coup’ seeps through, made more intense because the two men had once been such staunch allies. ‘For me’, Abdullah laments regarding Nehru, ‘he proved more oppressive and dictatorial than the Maharaja’. The brutal response to the protests prompted by Abdullah’s dismissal - Nehru recorded that his intelligence service said there had been forty-nine deaths in ‘police and like action’ - were more reminiscent of the maharaja’s rule than of the promise of New Kashmir. Abdullah’s successors necessarily relied on Delhi for their position, so much so that the National Conference was at one point merged with the Congress party. Sheikh Abdullah regained power in Kashmir a little over twenty years after his dismissal, but then only because he had made an inelegant deal with Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi.
India’s action in replacing Sheikh Abdullah, and the habit of interference in Kashmir affairs it initiated, tarnished the legitimacy of state governments in Jammu and Kashmir for half a century. Some would argue that its shadow still hangs over Srinagar. Kashmiri nationalist parties committed to constitutional politics have been compromised by the deeply unequal relationship with Delhi. The broad Kashmiri nationalist current has at times made accommodations - sometimes out of principle, at others largely tactical - with the Indian state. But there has been no enduring settlement between Kashmiri and Indian nationalisms, no agreement about the extent of autonomy for the state.
In 1989, the Kashmir conflict took a new shape with the eruption of a separatist insurgency. This was encouraged, trained and armed by Pakistan. But its roots were local. It was not a re-run of 1947 and 1965, when outsiders were sent in to liberate Kashmir; this was an indigenous insurgency. When I first got to know Srinagar in 1993, it felt like a city under occupation. The conflict was brutal. And by-and-large, India won. In military terms, the first generation of armed separatists was eliminated; the next generation of young Kashmiris, just as alienated by the lack of political agency, saw taking up guns and simply filling up graveyards.
Those engaged with diplomacy over Kashmir talking of a golden moment, roughly between 2003 and 2007, when it felt as if there was an opportunity for India to win the peace as well as the war. Levels of violence were sharply down, there was a measure of local political stability, Pakistan's President Mushharraf was engaging with India and if not turning off the tap of support for insurgents, it was becoming little more than a trickle. We now know the outlines of the deal that was on the table - Musharraf's four point plan:
no change in borders, so accepting the line of control as a de facto border, but with free movement across the line
autonomy for both Kashmirs
a phased troop withdrawal
and a joint supervising mechanism with Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri involvement
But the deal was never closed; Musharraf was forced from power; the moment was lost.
In 2010, a new style of protest erupted: what Kashmiris call stone pelting. The response of the security forces was determined - they used counter-insurgency measures against unarmed protestors. About 120 young Kashmiris were killed over that summer. And a new generation of young people in the Kashmir Valley was radicalised. That radicalisation was what lay behind the response to the killing in July last year of Burhan Wani, a young local commander of Hizbul Mujahideen who had a huge profile through social media. The sustained mass protests amounted to what even the normally cautious BBC described as an uprising. Militant groups - including Lashkar-e-Toiba - started recruiting again, particularly in south Kashmir. The unrest has continued into this year, though at a lower level. The Indian media says that more than a hundred armed militants have been killed in Kashmir so far this year - which is testament to the rigour with which Indian security forces have been pursuing local militant leaders - and to the militants' success in replenishing their ranks.
Currently, the BJP is a junior partner in the Jammu and Kashmir state government - but the dialogue with all parties that it promised when the coalition took power simply hasn't happened. Indian leaders come to Kashmir and utter soothing words, but there is no sign of a political initiative. And Kashmiris - who do not feel Indian, are often not regarded by other Indians as Indian, and feel they have no agency within the Indian state - get angrier. Srinagar is a much more peaceful place than in was in the mid-1990s, but - in the words of an, I suppose, pro-India figure I met in Srinagar in April: 'In the early 1990s, young Kashmiris were angry but scared. Now they are angry and fearless.'
It is not as if this has gone unnoticed in Delhi - at least in some quarter. In April one of the more thoughtful political figures, P. Chidambaram, who was at various times home as well as finance minister in Manmohan Singh's Congress-led government - wrote in the Indian Express: “The writing on the wall is clear. The alienation of the people of the Kashmir Valley is nearly complete. We are on the brink of losing Kashmir. We cannot retrieve the situation through a ‘muscular’ policy – tough talk by ministers, dire warnings from the Army Chief, deploying more troops or killing more protestors.”
Just this month Wajahat Habibullah, a senior Indian civil servant who was a particularly wise and sensitive divisional commissioner in Kashmir in the early 1990s, expressed similar sentiments: “My life’s mission to win over the people of Kashmir for India is lost, irretrievably. … There can be little doubt that the insurgency of 1990 has run its course – nothing illustrates this better than the marginalisation of the separatist leadership. But we have failed to earn the trust of youth – educated, talented and consumed with hatred of the Indian state – who will lead Jammu and Kashmir into the future.”
But Kashmir doesn't determine the outcome of Indian election. There are no votes to be won - and perhaps many to be lost - from a political initiative in Kashmir. Kashmir is a marginal factor in Indian politics - just as, once, Northern Ireland barely impinged on UK-wide politics
In the 1990s, Indian cabinet ministers used occasionally to say to me that sooner or later there would have to be a settlement in Kashmir - because of India's global ambitions. How we can take a bigger place on the world stage - they would say - if we are chained by association with perpetual conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir? - we need to sort it one day.
But India now seems to have made a settled decision that it can live with a low level insurgency in Kashmir - that it does not in fact constrain the country's global ambitions - that India's size and economic power means that Kashmir is not so much excused as overlooked much as China escapes effective censure over Tibet.
In military terms, the Indian army is able to keep a lid on Kashmir; in political terms, the Indian government is willing to ride out the rough periods. Delhi's deals past and present with both of the constitutional Kashmiri nationalist parties have tainted those parties in the eyes of many Kashmiris. India's lavish disbursement of money and favours has diminished the standing and perceived integrity of some separatist leaders too. The young in the Kashmir Valley don't know who to trust.
Some of the more shadowy figures in Delhi's corridors of power will see this as an achievement. They should be careful what they wish for.
A substantial part of this talk is based on my chapter 'The Rise and Fall of New Kashmir' in a book edited by Chitralekha Zutshi, Kashmir: history, politics, representation, to be published imminently by Cambridge University Press