Looking back at those momentous years, one cannot but feel the irony of the subject of the debate of the National Constituent Assembly that day in May 1949. During the course of his speech, Gopalaswami Ayyangar justified the nomination of the Jammu and Kashmir representatives by the ruler on the advice of the Prime Minister of the State, on the pretext that the Praja Sabha – the Legislative Assembly of the State – though elected in December 1946, was “dead” and had become a “rump” body. Little did he know that the elected Constituent Assembly of the State would have 73 unopposed representatives out of 75, as the main opposition party in Jammu, the Praja Parishad, had boycotted the election. Moreover, the nomination of those aspiring to contest in the Valley had their candidatures rejected by the returning officers at the behest of Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference. On such an ominous note began the tryst of the State with Republicanism.
It is only of academic interest today to wonder if the Praja Sabha of Jammu and Kashmir was really a “dead” and “rump” body. It is true that the constitutional progress in the State was never revolutionary, however, as a result of the demand made by the people and the conviction of the State’s ruler, small steps were taken towards shouldering the responsibility of making a responsible government. In this, the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution Act, 1939 was significant and relatively far ahead of its times.
The Constitution gives the lie to all those who accused Maharaja Hari Singh of autocracy, for even in as important a matter as an appeal in civil and criminal matters, he did not make arbitrary decisions. He had a Board of Judicial Advisors who expressed their opinion on all cases, and the Maharaja would accept their advice. In the matter of legislature, there was a provision for constituting a Praja Sabha consisting of seventy-five members. It included forty elected and thirty-five nominated members, including the ex-officio members, who were not to exceed eight. They were nominated by the Maharaja. As it was in the rest of the country, the franchise was limited. The Praja Sabha’s term was three years from its first meeting. However, the ruler could dissolve the Praja Sabha before the expiry of the term, and he could also extend the term, if in special circumstances he thought it fit.
Although in matters of constitutional reforms, the State of Cochin was far ahead, it cannot be denied that Jammu and Kashmir was not too far behind. Justice AS Anand notes in his book, that in the Nizam’s “Hyderabad a Legislative Assembly was set up in 1946 but the Muslim members had by official orders, a majority of 10 over the Hindus in a House of 132, though the population was 85 per cent Hindu.
“Scindia of Gwalior only announced his intention of granting responsible government in December 1946, and in May 1947 he summoned an interim government of popular representatives as well as the Constitution-making body.
“In Jaipur, the first Legislative Assembly was established only in 1944.”
By no stretch of the imagination can it be claimed that the Constitution of 1939 measured up to the democratic values that later came to be the pre-condition of a civil society. However, it has to be conceded that it was, in many ways, far ahead of many big and influential states. It is also unclear how and why the Maharaja did not exercise his power of extending the life of the Praja Sabha in 1947, considering the fact that India had suffered a similar fate in losing some members to the fallout of Partition. In India, the reduced number of the Constituent Assembly members – those who had migrated to Pakistan – had not deterred it from going ahead to finalise the Constitution of India. But in Jammu and Kashmir, a similar body had been declared “rump” and “dead”. Nevertheless, this statement went uncontested in the Constituent Assembly and was accepted by everyone in the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the Constituent Assembly of India was grappling with the challenge of giving the people a Constitution that reflected the aspirations of the people, guaranteed them fundamental rights, became a tool that would bring socio-economic justice, and help the country take a respectable place among the comity of nations. For the leaders of the National Conference, there was a different kind of challenge. With the Valley having been cleared of invaders, the issue of accession referred to the United Nations, the eagerness of the Central leaders to keep Sheikh Abdullah appeased, and with the unwavering support of Prime Minister Nehru, favourable conditions evolved for Sheikh Abdullah to pursue his goal step-by-step.
Soon after the removal of Maharaja Hari Singh from the scene, the National Conference leaders, who had by now assumed complete control over the government of the State, began to extricate themselves from the agreement reached by Sheikh Abdullah with the Central leaders in Delhi in May 1949. Hectic activity marked this period, and the agreement was subjected to intense debates. Soon this style was to become the hallmark of the National Conference. Not used to doublespeak and prevarication, it was also to exasperate a leader like Sardar Patel.
This period also put under the scanner the role of the Hindu and the Sikh leaders of the State who were deliberately excluded by their Muslim counterparts in the deliberations that took place. The fact that these meetings were organized secretly was proof enough of the sinister design. During this critical period, leaders like Girdhari Lal Dogra and Sham Lal Saraf from the Jammu region were guilty of acquiescing to the treachery of the Muslim leaders of the party. Most of the Hindu leaders with the National Conference, like Girdhari Lal Dogra, Balraj Puri and Ram Piara Saraf, were part of the left or left of the centre politics. They can perhaps be excused for their presence in the National Conference because of the party’s stated commitment to the socio-economic ideology that included “land to the tiller” policy.
But they could not have remained completely unaware of the consequences of the malignant moves that were afoot. It would not be wrong, then, to suggest that the presence of the Hindu leaders at the National Conference was ceremonial and a result of the planning of Sheikh Abdullah and his advisors in order to identify willing collaborators among the minority community.
This was not all. The seeds of converting the State into a playground for extraneous forces that created fifth columns were also laid during this period. According to the scholarly Mohan Krishen Teng, prominent and influential Muslims who opposed the accession of the State to India and senior Muslim officers of the State government who were opposed to the National Conference when it seemed to be supporting the accession, were believed to be specially invited to attend these meetings. Reports suggested that many among them were in clandestine contact with the so-called “Azad Kashmir” authorities on the other side of the ceasefire line. They were also suspected of working for the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, which had developed a wide network in the State as a result of the apparent official patronage. These meetings were productive and the general consensus that emerged was then conscientiously implemented.
Excerpted with permission from A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir Volume Two: The Karan Singh Years (1949-1967), Harbans Singh, Speaking Tiger Books.