It is important to examine the past to make sense of the present, and nowhere is this more relevant than in Kashmir, which is in the eye of a political storm.
The momentous decision to repeal Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave Jammu & Kashmir special status, marks a full circle in the region’s troubled history. The truth is, matters have come to this pass as a result of a series of little ironies, and the situation is much more complex than it may appear.
What exactly do we mean by this?
The present borders of Jammu & Kashmir were drawn when the Treaty of Amritsar was signed between the British East India Company and Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu in 1846. Gulab Singh, the Raja of the then small principality of Jammu, infamously bought the Kashmir valley for Rs 75 lakh from the British, who in turn had annexed it from the Sikh Empire led by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In addition, Gulab Singh’s armies, under General Zorawar Singh, had also captured Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan, and incorporated them into the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Maharaja Gulab Singh’s successors ruled the kingdom which had been thus carved out, with the help of fellow Dogras as landlords (chakdars) and Kashmiri Pandits as administrators. Historian Mridu Rai in her book Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir (2004), writes about how the local Muslim population in Kashmir was marginalized and had little or no say in the administration. They also lived in abject poverty.
In 1925, Maharaja Hari Singh ascended the throne at a time when winds of change were sweeping across India. A generation of young men and women, armed with modern education and a wider world view, were demanding their rights. Among them was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a Kashmiri shawl seller’s son who had braved poverty to get himself a decent education. He was the first Kashmiri Muslim to matriculate in Chemistry, and went on to acquire a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and a Bachelor’s degree in Law at Aligarh Muslim University.
While the now repealed Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, that defined ‘state subjects’ and barred non-Kashmiris from owning land in Kashmir is much reviled, its origins lie in two orders promulgated by Maharaja Hari Singh, in 1927 and 1932. Ironically, this was done to protect the rights of the Hindu ruling elite, who feared that highly educated Punjabis, who were now moving into the state in search of employment, would take over their jobs.
Meanwhile, through the 1930s, the local Kashmiri Muslims began agitating for their rights under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah. Kashmir-based historian, Prof Altaf Hussain Para, mentions in his book The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State (2018) how in 1938, Sheikh Abdullah renamed the ‘Muslim Conference’ as ‘National Conference’ to broaden his base among all Kashmiri communities including Hindus.
A socialist, he developed close relations with Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who meanwhile seemed to have taken a great dislike to Maharaja Hari Singh. The feeling was mutual. Given Nehru’s closeness to Sheikh Abdullah, it wasn’t surprising that the Congress party itself seemed to consider the National Conference as a representative of the Kashmiri people.
As India walked towards freedom from the British in 1947, the princely states of the subcontinent were given an option, to either join India or Pakistan or remain independent. As a Hindu Maharaja ruling over a predominantly Muslim population in Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh was unsure of which way to go. While the Dogras were vehemently against Pakistan, Maharaja Hari Singh was also hesitant to join India due to his personal grouse against Nehru and the Congress’s support to the National Conference.
While negotiations were still underway, in October 1947, Pakistani tribals invaded Kashmir. As they marched towards Srinagar, killing and destroying everything in their wake, the desperate Maharaja succumbed and signed the ‘Instrument of Accession’ on 26th October 1947. On Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence, Sheikh Abdullah was released from prison and put in charge of the administration.
While it is often argued that under the Instrument of Accession, Maharaja Hari Singh had agreed to allow the Indian government to take charge of only three areas/subjects – defence, external affairs and communications, making Kashmir ‘special’.
– The truth is that concession wasn’t made only for Kashmir.
All princely states, from Mysore and Travancore to even Mahatma Gandhi’s own hometown of Porbandar and the tiny Pataudi in Haryana had joined India while surrendering rights to only these three subjects.
While a Constituent Assembly was created for Kashmir in 1951 to prepare Kashmir’s Constitution, a similar Constituent Assembly had also been created in Mysore (in 1947) to create a separate Constitution for Mysore. It was only through subsequent agreements that these other states were fully integrated with India. These facts have been confirmed by V P Menon, head of the Indian 'States Department' and a close confidant of Sardar Patel, in his book Integration of the Indian States (1956).
So what was a temporary arrangement for most of the other royal states came to be seen as a reflection of Kashmir's special status. But National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah was happy to keep it that way. Remembering those days, Sheikh Abdullah penned his thoughts in his autobiography The Flames of Chinar. He wrote, “I thought that if I assured the (Kashmiri) Muslims that there would be no interference from India, they would be mollified”. Accordingly, after much debate, Article 370 was incorporated as a ‘temporary provision’ into the Indian Constitution. But there were murmurs of protest in the Congress party about Nehru having put all the ‘eggs in one basket’ in Kashmir, that is, by solely backing Sheikh Abdullah.
The years that followed added complexities to the case. Sheikh Abdullah, who had fought the repressive rule of the royal court, continued some of their most repressive policies.
– Press freedom was curtailed, political opponents jailed, and Maharaja Hari Singh was exiled from Kashmir despite the opposition from the state’s Hindu population.
The Hindus of Jammu and Kashmir , by now in confusion and turmoil, found little solace in Sheikh Abdullah or even India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Subsequent policies only made things worse.
In 1950, Sheikh Abdullah launched land reforms that took land away from landlords without compensation and gave it to the tillers. While it seemed like a progressive move, there was a loophole. Orchards were exempted from the act, which meant that the predominantly Muslim fruit merchants, who were the main financiers of the National Conference, were unaffected, while Hindu landlords lost all their land.
In Jammu, the Hindus organised themselves and created the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Praja Parishad’ under the leadership of Balraj Madhok, an activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They launched an agitation against Kashmir’s autonomy, demanding complete integration with India.
– Their slogan was ‘Ek desh mein do Vidhan, do Pradhan aur do Nishan nahi chalenge’.
The Praja Parishad agitation was met with great repression from the Sheikh Abdullah government. American diplomat Josef Korbel (father of former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright) was then the head of the 'United Nations Commission' on Kashmir. In his book, Danger in Kashmir, Korbel writes about how Sheikh Abdullah crushed the Jammu agitation to increase his grip on power. In Jammu, the Praja Parishad had 16,000 members while the National Conference had only 6,000. But during the 1951 elections, the nominations of Praja Parishad candidates were rejected on flimsy grounds, leading to a clean sweep for the National Conference.
Surprisingly, the concerns of Jammu & Kashmir’s Hindu minority found little sympathy with Nehru, who dismissed them as ‘reactionary and communal’. There was little outreach towards the state’s Hindus, either from Sheikh Abdullah or Nehru, and the situation continued to deteriorate.
– From 1947, Indian citizens needed a special ‘permit’, like a visa to enter Jammu & Kashmir, despite the state becoming a part of India.
To protest this unjust rule, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, entered Jammu & Kashmir without a permit on 11th May 1953, and was promptly placed under arrest taken to Srinagar Jail. On 22nd June 1953, Mukherjee suffered a heart attack and passed away, while still under arrest. This created an uproar across India.
Meanwhile, pressure was building on Nehru, and vague statements made by Sheikh Abdullah about Kashmir’s ‘independence’ made matters worse. On 8th August 1953, the Abdullah government was dismissed and he was placed under house arrest. This came to be famously known as the ‘Kashmir Conspiracy Case’. From 1954, a number of Indian laws were extended to whittle down Kashmir’s autonomy, and the hated ‘permit system’ for the entry of Indians into Kashmir was abolished.
All that remained, to give ‘special’ status to Jammu & Kashmir were Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. The Praja Parishad, which had staunchly fought this clause, merged into the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1963, which in turn evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was this early history of the party's fight against Kashmir's autonomy that would make Article 370 such an emotive issue for the BJP.
Now, with the revoking of the special status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and its bifurcation into two union territories – J&K and Ladakh – a new chapter in the region's history has begun.