Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ignore history at your own peril

Sixty three years ago, on this day, in the pre-dawn darkness and the chill of an autumn morn, 6 civilian and 3 Royal Indian Air Force C-47 Dakota aircraft took off from New Delhi’s Palam and Willingdon airports respectively. The two flights met up over the skies of Haryana and became a single armada. Each civilian aircraft had 15 soldiers of the 1 Sikh Regiment, based in Gurgaon, the military ones had 17, as well as 225 kg of supplies. The troops were fully equipped with arms, ammunition and dry rations to enable them to go into battle as soon as they hit the ground. Their destination?
Srinagar airport.

The Sikhs had been given just about two hours to get ready and emplaned after a hot meal. Their instructions were that if they could not raise the air traffic control in Srinagar airport, they were to turn around and land in Jammu and proceed by road. Fortunately, after an uneventful 3 ½ hour flight, the Sikhs landed safely and were followed by two more flights of 19 Dakotas later in the day that brought in another company of troops and some supplies.


But they had little idea what lay ahead. They spent the night in defensive positions around the airport and next morning, their commanding officer Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai led his troops and took up positions east of Baramula, 72 kms from Srinagar, occupied by a tribal backed army that had been sent into Kashmir by Pakistan. As soon as he did so, the Sikhs came under a strong attack from the tribal lashkars. Among the first casualties of the clash was Colonel Rai himself, struck by a stray bullet, as he organised a tactical withdrawal towards Srinagar. Thus commenced what is called the first Kashmir War whose consequences resonate to this day.
The reason why the Indian forces were there was because Pakistan had, in violation of the principles under which the dominions of India and Pakistan were created, sent in armed invaders to grab the state by force. On October 26 the state had legally acceded to the Indian Union and that accession had been accepted. And, so, the Indian army was sent in to protect what was now a part of India.

Contrary to perceptions in Pakistan, India had not rushed into accession. The Maharaja asked for help on October 24th when Baramula had fallen to invaders who could have reached an undefended Srinagar in three hours by the motorable road. Yet Nehru demurred. Neither he, nor Mountbatten called for accession at the Defence Committee of the Cabinet’s meeting on October 25 either. It was only after the Maharaja agreed to constitute a popular government did Nehru relent on October 26 and agree to accept the accession. The history is fairly simple, but its recounting has been clouded by events thereafter.
There are many myths about how India and Pakistan came about. Indian nationalists are wont to believe that the idea of India has always been there; Pakistani nationalists now claim that the idea of Pakistan goes back to the advent of Islam. The fact is that both the states were a creation of an act of British Parliament and their boundaries were decided by a British jurist. Rulers of princely states had the unfettered right to accede to either of the two dominions, subject to having common borders. There was no mention of religious persuasion in any of the pre-independence discussions with regard to the future of princely states. Indeed, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the strongest advocate of the absolute right of rulers to decide the future of their respective states. It should hardly be a surprise that as late as September 1947, he accepted the accession of a Hindu majority state, Junagadh.


What happened thereafter to complicate the story was the product of Cold War politics through which a somewhat na├»ve Indian complaint of aggression by Pakistan in Kashmir was converted into the “India Pakistan Question” by the United Nations, through the active machinations of the British foreign office. Even so, at no stage has the UN raised doubts about the legality of Indian sovereignty over the state. That is why it is somewhat misleading to talk of an India-Pakistan “dispute” over Kashmir.
Pakistan was probably itself surprised at its success in the UN. Indeed, in October and November 1947 it did not make a direct demand for accession of the state to Pakistan; only that India had obtained the accession by force and fraud. Indeed, in the initial weeks, the Pakistani leaders went through the charade of asking the tribal army to withdraw. Even though the boot was clearly on the other foot, the British decided to play along with Karachi.
Instead of prosecuting an all-out war on a vulnerable Pakistan which was just about coming into being, New Delhi confined the war to Kashmir and also ended it at a point where the state would be effectively partitioned in a manner that preserved Pakistan’s vital security interests and gave it a bonus of Gilgit-Baltistan. There may be no “dispute” with Pakistan, but there is an “issue” relating to the legitimisation of the status of Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and the Line of Control. This is the third-party role that India sees for Pakistan, and to see anything more in this is to seriously misunderstand the Indian perspective.


The real issue New Delhi needs to deal with is the domestic one. It is not enough to say that the state is now an integral part of India. That took place in a layered process which has given J&K a unique status. It is the only state, for example, which has its own penal code, a state constitution and flag. Article 370 has been written into our Constitution as our promise to uphold the Kashmiri autonomy. Many aspects of the autonomy that had been promised were undermined in the 1950s and 1960s as the weak Indian state sought to protect itself against domestic and external threats.
But in 2010, there is nothing that the Indian union needs to fear any more. The country— a nuclear weapons state, with a large and well regarded military and a flourishing economy— has never been stronger than it is today. That is why it is surprising to discover people who are so sensitive to alleged slights to the nation’s honour and who see seditious beasts lurking everywhere. Even while claiming to speak for the Indian identity, they adopt a mean-spirited approach towards our regional identities.
But what the country does need to do is to tidy up the clutter of the past half century and more, and there is nothing more important and immediate as the issue of Jammu & Kashmir. New Delhi needs to firmly go ahead and do what needs to be done, without worrying about those who are constantly looking back and cowering before the ghosts of the past.
Mail Today October 27, 2010

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