1953, a Lesson in Krisis Management
By M J Akbar
On August 8, while the same politicians spluttered in Delhi and spleened in Srinagar, Farooq and Omar Abdullah chose to ignore the 55th anniversary of a seminal event in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. On the evening of August 8, 1953, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, using the powers of the Sadar-i-Riyasat Dr Karan Singh, dismissed the government of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, authentic hero of the freedom of India and patriarch of a dynasty that has lasted three generations.
The trigger was an intelligence report, sent by the IB officer in charge of Kashmir, B N Mullik, that Abdullah had left for Gulmarg that morning to make secret contact with a representative from Pakistan. The authenticity of this claim remains in doubt, even if time has made its veracity irrelevant. But for Nehru it was part of a pattern that he could not ignore. Abdullah's unhappiness with Delhi, and Delhi's disenchantment with Abdullah had become a public fact. Abdullah was certain that India was not secular enough; Delhi was equally sure that Abdullah was not Indian enough.
The suspicion had become septic during an agitation in Jammu that summer, spearheaded by the Jana Sangh (predecessor of the BJP). The Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookerjea, a Bengali stalwart of the freedom movement and member of the first Nehru Cabinet after 1947. One of the four points on the Jana Sangh's first manifesto, released on October 21, 1951, was full integration of J&K into India. At its second annual session, in December 1952, Mookerjea announced a popular agitation for the abolition of Article 370, which gave the state specific rights.
By this time Abdullah had begun to openly flirt with ambivalence. While he had little sympathy for Pakistan, he began to crouch and leap towards the idea of independence, an option promoted by America without the camouflage of subtlety. In his biography of Nehru, S Gopal, referring to Volume 5 of The Papers of Adlai Stevenson (edited by W Johnson) notes that "some Indian leaders believed that it was Mrs Loy Henderson, wife of the United States Ambassador, and some CIA agents who encouraged Abdullah to think in these terms".
In the summer of 1950, Abdullah was confident enough to drop broad hints to Sir Owen Dixon, the United Nations representative and publicly rebuke Delhi for giving advice outside defence, external affairs and communications. When Nehru protested, Abdullah sent a letter, dated July 10, 1950, that was a rap on the knuckles rather than a gentle hint: "I have several times stated that we acceded to India because we saw there two bright stars of hope and aspiration, namely Gandhiji and yourself, and despite our having so many affinities with Pakistan we did not join it, because we thought our programme will not fit with their policy. If, however, we are driven to the conclusion that we cannot build our state on our own lines, suited to our genius, what answer can I give to my people and how am I to face them?"
Nehru's debilitating patience was tested further when Abdullah, in a speech at Ranbirsinghpura on April 10, 1952, dismissed full integration into India as "unrealistic, childish and savouring of lunacy". He personalized Kashmir's accession, saying that if anything happened to Nehru, Kashmiris would have to "provide for all eventualities". Although Abdullah tried to make amends in Delhi and at the Madras Congress session by dismissing the idea of independence as foolish, the nuances of doublespeak (a practice that still flourishes among Kashmiri politicians, and which we have been witness to in the last few weeks with increasing intemperance) increased apprehension. Nehru wrote to Maulana Azad on March 1, 1953, "My fear is that Sheikh Sahib, in his present frame of mind, is likely to do something or take some step, which might make things worse..."
America seemed comfortable with what would be worse for India. Between May 1 and 3,Abdullah met Adlai Stevenson (Democratic candidate against Eisenhower and later to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations), their dialogue ending with a seven-hour conversation at which no one else was present. Rumours of American support for independent Kashmir became rampant, and have still not quite died. (Conferences are still frequently held in Washington offering "solutions" that are akin to independence; one such coincided with the present crisis.) On July 13, 1953, Abdullah went a stage further, saying in public, "Kashmir should have the sympathy of both India and Pakistan...It is not necessary for our State to become an appendage of either India or Pakistan."
In that fateful summer of 1953, Jammu became the epicentre of a full-blown agitation in collaboration with the Akali Dal, led by Master Tara Singh. Nehru had added some fuel to this fire by conceding a psychologically provocative demand in what has come to be known as the Delhi Agreement, signed in 1952, by which J&K was granted its own flag. The agitation had a powerful slogan: Ek Desh mein do Vidhaan, Ek Desh mein do Nishaan, Ek Desh mein do Pradhaan, nahin challengey nahin challengey. On May 8, 1953, Mookerjea tried to cross the Madhopur bridge on the Jammu border in order to lead the agitation in Jammu. Abdullah ordered his arrest. On June 23, 1953, he died while still under detention in Abdullah's jail.
The decision to remove Sheikh Abdullah from office had been made at least a week before August 8, on July 31, at a closed-door meeting between Nehru, Mullik and D W Mehra, deputy director of IB, amidst reports that Abdullah was preparing to dismiss what was considered the "pro- India" section of his Cabinet, including his deputy Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. Mullik describes Nehru as "being nearly overwhelmed by emotion...we realized that he was on the point of uprooting a plant which he had nursed with great care".
There were few contemporaries for whom Nehru had greater affection or admiration. If Sardar Patel brought the rest of the princely states (barring Hyderabad) into the Union of India, then it was the political-personal friendship of Nehru and Abdullah that brought Kashmir to India.Kashmir was not simply the geographical frontier of secular India, it was also its ideological frontier —in Abdullah's words, the "stabilizing force for India".
Nehru began the process of assimilation with geography. There were two pre-Partition routes linking Srinagar to its south, one via Murree, Rawalpindi and Lahore, and the second through Sialkot. Neither would be available to India after Partition. There was a miserable third option, a dirt track via Gurdaspur vulnerable to weather. Gurdaspur was a Muslim-majority district and the whole of it could have easily gone to Pakistan. Before Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India to map partition, Nehru lobbied hard with Mountbatten to keep this dirt tract within India.
When the Radcliffe Award was announced on August 16,Gurdaspur had been split along the line of the Ravi, and Nehru had achieved his purpose. Pakistan has consistently claimed that this was done because of the "personal" influence that Nehru had on the Mountbattens. The road link proved vital when war broke out over Kashmir within six weeks of Partition. It is ironic that the first country to blockade supplies to Srinagar was Pakistan, in early October 1947, as a prelude to hostilities. The official excuse was communal disturbances.
Keeping Kashmir in India proved more difficult than its accession: against the war-energy of Pakistan, international pressure and domestic turmoil. Nehru had made one mistake, when taking, under Mountbatten's advice, the Kashmir issue to the United Nations. He was not going to make another. Friendship with Abdullah became irrelevant. There could be no compromise with the security of India. Sixty people died in the disturbances that followed Abdullah's dismissal, but a potential threat to Indian unity had been averted.
Five and a half decades later, a successor government of the Congress seems impotent as allies like Mehbooba Mufti brazenly threaten to open links with Pakistan, friends proclaim nationalism in Delhi and duplicity in the valley, and pro-Pakistan leaders like Geelani are "liberated" by crowds with utter contempt for authority.
Appeared in Times of India, August 17, 2008