PLEBISCITE IN KASHMIR: Stillborn or Killed?- Part 1

PLEBISCITE IN KASHMIR: Stillborn or Killed?- Part 1

Did plebiscite ever stand a serious chance? The answer is that it did, if at all, in November 1947. Thereafter the window of opportunity was shut. The battlefield was used by each side to force a decision by a clash of arms. It is not only the people of the State who have suffered. So have the people of India and Kashmir, far more than their leaders care to admit.

Ask any Kashmiri what he wants and his answer will be "azadi". Ask how does he seek to secure that and he will reply "through a plebiscite". He is justifiably, understandably pained and offended if told that a plebiscite in the State of Jammu & Kashmir is no longer practical or possible today, and that both Pakistan and India have been discussing alternative solutions for long. He will pounce on those alternatives as products of betrayal of the people and will assert that a plebiscite in the State still remains the only solution to the Kashmir dispute. He has little patience for history or politics; his concern is solely with political morality and his rights

Sadly, history cannot be brushed aside. It yields lessons for the politics of today as well as for a morality that reckons with the past as well as the present. The record is recalled with a purpose. As Winston Churchill wrote in the very first pages of his Five Volume memoirs of the Second World War "it is wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future" (The Gathering Storm; p. vii).

It is for the reader to judge how sincere the two adversaries, India and Pakistan, were on holding a plebiscite; whether it was a still-born proposal or was killed shortly after its birth. 

On one point there can be no dispute. In 1947 Plebiscite in Kashmir was a democratic necessity as well as a moral imperative. A plebiscite was held in Junagadh on 20 February 1948 after the administration of the State was taken over by the Government of India in November 1947. It was called a ‘referendum’ (White Paper on Indian States 1950: p. 114), and was conducted by an ICS officer, C.B. Nagarkar. Out of an electorate of 201,457, a total of 190,870 cast their votes. Only 91 voted for Pakistan. Of the 31,434 votes cast in Junagadh’s five princeling areas, only 39 voted for accession to Pakistan (V.P. Menon Integration of Indian States; 1.142). 

A referendum was also held in Sikkim. The Election Commission of India conducted it on 14 April 1975 to confirm the resolution passed in the Sikkim Assembly on the State’s merger with India in 1973-74. Nari Rustomji, ICS, whose services were in 1954 placed with the Chogyal for appointment as his Prime Minister, opined that it would be "injudicious to assess, however, that the resolution respecting Sikkim’s merger with India … necessarily represented the wishes of the people." He recorded the demand for a completely impartial authority to conduct the poll, and added that the army and the heavy Indian presence in Sikkim were also factors that inevitably weighed in influencing the vote (Rustomji 1987: Sikkim: The Himalaya Tragedy, pp. 148-150).

To be sure, in both these cases in which the democratic principle was formally applied, the result was a foregone conclusion. So was it in the case of Kashmir – which is why a plebiscite was never held. Indira Gandhi warned her father Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter from Srinagar on 14 May 1948, while the war was on, that ‘they say that only Sheikh Saheb is confident of winning the plebiscite’ (Sonia Gandhi, ed. 2005: Two Together, Two Alone] 2005: p. 517).

The issue in 1947 was who was to exercise the choice, the ruler Hari Singh or the people? It came to the fore on 13 June 1947, just ten days tier the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League had accepted the partition plan of 3 June 1947. On 13 June, leaders of both parties met under the Chairmanship of the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. ‘Mr. Jinnah said that in his view the States were fully entitled to say that they would join neither Constituent Assembly. Every Indian State was a sovereign state. Pandit Nehru said he differed altogether. He spoke as. a lawyer. Mr. Jinnah said that he spoke as a lawyer also’. (The Transfer¬or Power 1942-47, Vol. XI: 320-26).

On 17 June 1947, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah went public with his stand in a formal statement. "Constitutionally and legally, the Indian States will be independent sovereign States on the termination of paramountcy and they will be free to decide for themselves to adopt any course they like; it is open to them to join the Hindustan Constituent Assembly, or decide to remain independent. In the last case, they enter into such arrangements or relationship with Hindustan or Pakistan as they may choose. The policy of All-India Muslim League has been clear from the very beginning. We do not wish to interfere with the internal affairs of any State, for that is a matter primarily to be resolved between the rulers and the peoples of the States." (Jinnah: Speeches and Statements 1947-1948; Oxford University Press, Karachi p.5). He reiterated his stand in another statement on 30 July 1947 (ibid.; p.20).

This caused grave disquiet among his supporters in Kashmir. A Note by the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference, dated 25 August 1947 and addressed to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, stated: "Quaid-i-Azam has declared his policy towards the States a number of times – that they can join this or that Dominion or remain independent. He has not even mentioned geographical contiguity, which a State should at least consider when joining this or that Dominion. It follows, therefore, that Kashmir can join Hindustan and Quaid-i-Azam cannot have any objection to it, though geographically Kashmir may be contiguous to Pakistan. Not only that, but even though Kashmir is a nerve centre of defence of Pakistan. The policy of the Muslim League has all along been that of absolute non-intervention in the affairs of the States. In contrast to this policy of Quaid-i-Azam and the Muslim League, the Congress has directly intervened in the affairs of the States, particularly that of Kashmir.

"The National Conference Musalmans are triumphant and they now talk in the terms of a party which is victorious after a "war" and dictates its own terms. They are going so far as to suggest that Quaid-i-Azam should mend his previous attitude and should issue a statement upholding the "Quit Kashmir" slogan and placing the same interpretation on the Treaty of Amritsar as Gandhiji has done. Then, they say, they will consider helping Muslim Conference to persuade Maharja to join Pakistan. … They argue that the Muslim League stands for the sovereignty of the rulers whereas the Congress stands for the sovereignty of the people.

"As far as the Muslim Conference followers are concerned, though they resisted to believe that the Muslim League was disinterested in them, yet they are now openly giving expression to their feelings of disgust. They feel as if they are left in the lurch and that the Pakistan Government has absolutely no interest in them – at least now for her own sake, when such an important issue is there as to whether Kashmir should join Pakistan or Hindustan.

"In conclusion, the situation as at present demands most immediate attention of the Pakistan Government and her leaders to allay the fears of Musalmans of Kashmir and assure them that they are not forlorn and forgotten. The Muslim Conference is faced with a grim situation and they want to act before the Maharaja decides to join Hindustan as, if he once decides, nothing can be done. But what will be the attitude of the Pakistan Government and her leaders? That is not certain. … If, God forbid, the Pakistan Government or Muslim League does not act, Kashmir might be lost to them and the responsibility for this would be theirs." (Z.H. Zaidi, Editor-in-Chief; Jinnah Papers; Quaid-i-Azam Papers project, Government of Pakistan; First Series; Vol IX; pp. 213-216).

The All India Congress Committee passed a resolution on 15 June 1947 which said that "the lapse (of British paramountcy) does not lead to the independence of the States" and "it is clear that the people of the States must have a dominating voice in any decisions regarding them." (The Times of India; 16 June 1947). Since most of the States were in Indian territory and their independence was ruled out, this was not a plea for plebiscite which implies a choice.

It was first mooted after Junagadh acceded to Pakistan, on 15 August 1947. India objected and proposed a plebiscite; but on two conditions; namely, cancellation of the accession and plebiscite "under the joint supervision of the Dominion of India and Junagadh" (Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru’s telegrams to Liaquat Ali Khan of 12 September and 4 October 1947; A.G.Noorani, The Kashmir Dispute’, Tulika Books; Vol. II and V.P. Menon: The Integration of Indian States; p. 140).

Indian troops entered Junagadh on 6 November 1947 after a "’Provisional Government" was set up in Bombay on 15 September 1947. On 22 October tribesmen from Pakistan entered Kashmir which acceded to India on 26 October. However, well before that India’s leaders had begun laying plans for its accession without any mention of a plebiscite.

Nehru tried to secure Kashmir’s accession to India while Sheikh Abdullah was still in prison, regardless of his wishes or those of the people of the State. His stand was revealingly summed up in his blunt, pithy assertion to Liaquat Ali Khan "I want Kashmir" (Lionel Carter (Ed.); Weakened States Seeking Renewal: British Official Reports from South Asia, 1 January – 30 April 1948; Manohar; Part I; pp. 176 and 416). Even before the Partition Plan was announced on 3 June, 1947, he began his campaign with a mention of Kashmir as "a difficult problem" at a formal meeting with Mountbatten and advisers on 22 April 1947. He followed it by a long note to Mountbatten on Kashmir dated 17 June 1947 in which he concluded: "If any attempt is made to push Kashmir into the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, there is likely to be much trouble because the National Conference is not in favour of it and the Maharaja’s position would also become very difficult. The normal and obvious course appears to be for Kashmir to join the Constituent Assembly of India. This will satisfy both the popular demand and the Maharaja’s wishes. It is absurd to think that Pakistan would create trouble if this happens." (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Vol. 3, p. 229). Pakistan did not count. He lavishly praised Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. On 4 July he wrote to the Maharaja, whom he detested, requesting a meeting and suggesting accession "1 appreciate your difficulties" (ibid., p.253). No talk here of releasing Abdullah.

The sinister aspect of the plan became apparent when the Maharaja asked for a standstill agreement on 12 August 1947. Pakistan agreed; India declined and asked for negotiations. Nehru had himself revised the draft standstill agreement with all the States to include "foreign affairs" (item 7); a virtual Instrument of Accession. Had the Maharaja agreed, Abdullah would have been confronted on his release from prison, the very next month, with Kashmir’s accession to India – behind his back.

Nor were Nehru’s later references to the Sheikh justified. His following was confined to the Valley. In Jammu and Azad Kashmir, Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas’ Muslim Conference held sway. Even in the Valley Abdullah’s voice was not decisive on the crucial issue of accession (see Ian Copland’s essay "The Abdullah Factor: Kashmir Muslims and the Crisis of1947"). The people followed him upto Kohala (that is, locally) and Jinnah beyond it.

Chitralekha Zutshi holds that the Muslim Conference "reigned supreme in Poonch and Jammu in 1946" while the Valley was split. Shops displayed photographs of Jinnah, Iqbal and Abdullah side by side (pp. 298 and 303). What is clear is that on the issue of accession the overwhelming view was for Pakistan. India’s leaders knew that very well. The Defence Committee of the Indian Cabinet, Nehru in particular, knew that. Hence his advice to Kashmir’s Prime Minister, Meher Chand Mahajan, even as late as on 21 October 1947, just a day before Pakistan’s tribal raids into Kashmir: "I feel it will probably be undesirable to make any declaration of adhesion (to India) at this stage" (.Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Vol. 4; p. 274). Kashmir’s PM Janak Singh opined on 13 August 1947 that "the bulk of Muslims will not accept (a) decision to accede to India." Nehru told the Committee on 25 October 1947 "The question was whether temporary accession would help the people in general to side with India or whether it would

Only act as an irritant. There was bound to be propaganda to the effect that the  accession was not temporary and tempers might be inflamed"; :.i e. the people would resent Kashmir’s accession to India. The next day N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar said that "immediate accession might create further opposition". Nehru opined that he would "not mind Kashmir remaining an independent country (sic.) under India’s sphere of influence". It was then decided to accept the accession "subject to the proviso that a plebiscite would be held in Kashmir". The Ministry of States was directed to prepare a letter to the Maharaja on "the temporary acceptance of the Instrument of Accession" (Prem Shankar Jha; Kashmir 1947 Oxford University Press; appendices IV and V).

This explains why Mountbatten told the visiting UK Minister Arthur Henderson, on 9 January 1948, that Kashmir’s accession was "on a temporary basis and subject to a plebiscite" (Carter; Part I; p. 154).

Vallabhbhai Patel added his bit to get the ruler to accede to India; significantly even before the Radcliffe Report, which awarded to India the connecting link through Pathankot, was out. "You are aware that on 15 August, India, though divided, will be completely free, and you also know that by this time a vast majority of the States have joined the Constituent Assembly of India. I realise the peculiar difficulties of Kashmir, but looking to its History and its tradition, it has, in my opinion, no other choice." (Durga Das; Sardar Patel’s Correspondence; p. 32. Emphasis added throughout).

He played the communal card on 18 June. "The Kashmiri Pandits and the Hindus form a very small proportion of the population, and as they are comparatively better off, the poorer majority which is getting conscious, is trying to assert itself and the conflict of interest is creating a situation in which the minority finds itself in an unenviable position and lives in a state of perpetual insecurity and fear, resulting in demoralisation. The State being a Hindu State, situated in Muslim surroundings, finds itself in a very delicate and difficult position …" In a letter of 16 June he wrote of Nehru "After all, he is also a Hindu and that a Kashmiri Hindu" (ibid. p. 3).

The Secretary in Patel’s Ministry of States, V.P. Menon, kept his head. At a meeting on 1) May 1947 Mountbatten noted that there were some States "which were geographically and ethnically almost bound to throw in their lot with Pakistan". Nehru said that "the people of almost every State had openly declared in favour of joining the Union of India." He asked "what would happen if Hyderabad wanted to join Pakistan”. That is when V.P. Menon fired this deadly salvo. "It would produce a very similar situation to Kashmir joining the present Constituent Assembly of India" (i.e. of India) (Transfer of Power, HMSO; Vol. X; p. 764).

During talks with the Secretary-General of Pakistan’s Cabinet, Mohammad Ali, in November 1947, the latter asked whether a plebiscite was really called for as Kashmir had a Muslim majority. V. P. Menon replied that "he entirely agreed that Kashmir would go to Pakistan", but emphasized in view of what has passed, a "formal" (sic.) plebiscite was essential. On 3 November 1947, V. P. Menon met a delegation from Hyderabad. The minutes read: "Mr. Menonopened the discussions by making reference to the Kashmir problem … the States falling within the Dominion of India should join the Indian Union and those adjoining Pakistan should go with that dominion … he believed that Kashmir should have joined the Pakistan Union and the Government of India never desired the accession of Kashmir to the Union of India. But it was impossible for the Government of India to sit silently when Kashmir and Jammu were being raided and ruined by marauders and freebooters. (Constitutional Discussions, Government of Hyderabad; Vol. 2: p. 193).

In a taped interview to his predecessor as Reforms Commissioner, H.V. Hodson, in September 1964, V.P. Menon said: "As for plebiscite, we were absolutely, absolutely dishonest." Less than a month after Kashmir’s accession and its accompanying pledge to its people of reference to them and of plebiscite, Nehru had decided to back out.

He wrote to Abdullah on 21 November 1947: "You will appreciate that it is not easy for us to back out of the stand we have taken before the world. That would create a very bad impression abroad and more specially in U.N. circles. … If we said to the U.N.O. that we no longer stand by a referendum in Kashmir, Pakistan would score a strong point and that would be harmful to our cause. On the other hand, if circumstances continue as they are and the referendum is out of the question during these next few months, then why worry about it now. … There is no difference between you and us on this issue. It is all a question of the best tactical approach. 1 would personally suggest to you not to say anything rejecting the idea of a referendum…." (SWJN; Vol.4; pp.336-337). This makes one doubt whether he ever intended to hold plebiscite.