Amanullah Khan: A strong advocate for J&K independence

Amanullah Khan: A strong advocate for J&K independence

An ethnic Kashmiri born in Gilgit who studied in Srinagar

I first met Amanullah Khan in Rawalpindi on 22 December 2006 when I was doing research on my book on Azad Kashmir which was later published as The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir (published in India as Kashmir: The Unwritten History). I had arranged to interview the Kashmiri in his capacity as Chairman, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the organization he had founded in England in May 1977 with Maqbool Butt, who India hanged in 1984. My meeting with Mr Khan occurred relatively soon after his faction had reunified in June 2005 with Yasin Malik’s JKLF faction in the Kashmir Valley. They had split in 1995 when Amanullah sacked Malik as JKLF president for unilaterally offering a ceasefire. Malik, in turn, removed Amanullah as JKLF chairman.

I don’t recall how long I spent with Amanullah Khan; maybe two hours. However, I came away satisfied with our meeting and better informed about the JKLF. I do recall that I was somewhat perturbed lest some Pakistani official ask me why I had chosen to meet a man who strongly believed, and was advocating, that J&K should not join Pakistan but be independent. This was part of the irony of Amanullah Khan: Pakistan often, but not always, tolerated both him and his pro-independence organization, perhaps, as a lever to use against India, or maybe it was the old adage: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’

For me, Amanullah Khan’s pursuit of independence for J&K is most interesting. It is not always clear what people mean by azadi(independence) for J&K. The JKLF’s stance was very clear: all of the former princely state as it existed on 14 August 1947 should become a separate and independent political entity. One criticism of the JKLF was that it was an excessively Kashmiri body. Amanullah Khan was an ethnic Kashmiri born in Gilgit who studied in Srinagar; Maqbool Butt was a Kashmiri from Kupwara. And this is the challenge of independence for J&K: ethnic Kashmiris are its strongest, and often only, supporters, possibly overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, most other regions either appear to strongly favour joining Pakistan (Azad Kashmir; Gilgit-Baltistan) or joining India (Jammu; Ladakh). Furthermore, should J&K ever become independent, most probably ethnic Kashmiris, who, since the demise of Jammu Province in 1947, are the largest and most homogenous group in J&K, almost certainly would dominate this entity. Conversely, maybe this was why the organization that Amanullah Khan founded was called ‘Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’, not ‘Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’: he was trying to indicate that there was no separateness between the regions of J&K, that they were, or should be, one unified political entity?

Precedents exist for Mr Khan’s independence desires. Kashmir, by which I mean the Kashmir Valley, lost its independence in 1586 when the Mughal emperor, Akbar, finally captured it and reintegrated it into the Indian mainland. The other areas of what later became J&K comprised many small principalities, which Raja Gulab Singh, a Dogra from Jammu, was able to acquire and combine into the modern entity of J&K. In 1846, following periods under Afghan and Sikh rule, the British, in conjunction with this crafty Jammuite, incorporated Kashmir into an entity that had never existed before—and is never likely to exist again: the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.  By 1947, this state comprised three provinces: southerly Jammu, the most populous province; central Kashmir, the most prestigious and influential province; and the large, lightly populated Frontiers District, in the north and east, which was strategically significant because of perpetual British fears about an expansive Russia, later USSR. Most importantly, by 1947, J&K was the largest princely state in India and one of its most prestigious. As an independent entity, it would have been significant. Amanullah Khan wanted to reunify this entity and make it independent. While almost certainly never likely to happen, it would have resolved the Kashmir dispute, with neither India nor Pakistan obtaining J&K.

With the lapsing of British paramountcy over India’s princes in 1947, J&K theoretically became independent. I say ‘theoretically’ as the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and the Congress leaders, particularly Nehru and Patel, had made it clear that each princely state should choose whether to accede to India or Pakistan for defence, foreign affairs and communications. Only India and Pakistan would get the prestigious dominion status; not any princely state. Their unrelenting stance was pragmatic, with each princely state needing to access one of these larger entities to operate. Conversely, Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the All J&K Muslim Conference were equivocal about princely accessions, with the strongly pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference surprisingly supporting an independent J&K for a time. Similarly, Maharaja Hari Singh, supported by a Hindu body in Jammu, and the leading Kashmiri politician, Sheikh Abdullah, both favoured an independent J&K, with Switzerland as a model. After the British departed on 15 August 1947, however, Singh would soon become ineffectual, while Abdullah would long waver between being pro-Indian and desiring independence—and spending lots of time in jail for his independence stance. Most princes did make accessions by 15 August 1947; two important ones had not: Hyderabad and Kashmir. Theoretically and actually, therefore, Jammu and Kashmir was independent for 72 days from 15 August 1947 until Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to India on 26 October 1947.

While history may have inspired Amanullah Khan to seek independence for J&K, he certainly thrust this issue back on the agenda when the JKLF instigated its anti-India uprising in the Kashmir Valley in 1988. This exploded violently in 1989. For the first few years, the JKLF was the major anti-India force there. While India confronted the JKLF militarily, India and Pakistan both faced a serious, motivated, popular rival who demanded something that neither nation wanted to give: independence to J&K. This is the only thing on which India and Pakistan agree in their entire dispute over which should possess J&K: that neither J&K, nor any part of it, can have independence. Thus, Amanullah, despite his movement’s military strength and popularity for the first five years of the Kashmiris’ uprising, faced the massive challenge of overcoming an essentially unified India-Pakistan stance that opposed J&K independence. Concurrently, Islamabad brought the JKLF to heel by arming only pro-Pakistan militant groups. In Srinagar, Yasin Malik renounced violence to pursue peaceful ways to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

When I spoke with Mr Khan in 2006, he was still strongly committed to independence for J&K—even though seemingly this is impossible given India and Pakistan’s combined implacability. He was bitter about how Pakistan, from about 1993, had armed and supported pro-Pakistan forces, while sidelining the JKLF. He was angry about how some pro-Pakistan militant groups had killed JKLF operators and workers. He disliked JKLF candidates being unable to stand for election in Azad Kashmir because they wanted independence for J&K, rather than supporting it to become part of Pakistan, as the Azad Kashmir Interim Constitution requires. I saw him a couple more times after that, including at my book launch in Islamabad in 2014, but I did not have the chance for a long conversation. He was a complex character committed to what he saw was a just cause with the end state justifying sometimes brutal actions. His advocacy of independence for J&K is unsurpassed.

( Christopher Snedden is an Australian political scientist, politico-strategic analyst, academic researcher and author. He has authored the book The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir)