Kashmir is no stranger to uprisings but even by its own tumultuous standards, the current agitation is unprecedented. The police have had to flee south Kashmir and to maintain the presence of the state, the Indian army has had to move in. For the first time in recorded history, Eid prayers were banned in the Valley’s major mosques and prayer grounds. Mainstream politics has also been frozen, as the mood on the street rejects symbols it considers as representing India.
Reacting to the troubles, the third player in this sordid drama, Pakistan has proposed that India conduct a plebiscite in Kashmir in order to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people. As is also par for the course, India rejected the demand.
This bit – Pakistan demanding a plebiscite and India sticking to its stand that Kashmir is non-negotiable – has been done so many times that it now barely makes the news. Given how wedded both India and Pakistan are to their positions, it is interesting to point out that they had polar opposite stances in 1947. In that year, just a few months after the birth of the two dominions, it was India that proposed a Kashmir plebiscite. And it was Pakistan – in a move that might count as amongst the worst ever in international politics – that rejected it.
As the Raj ended, Kashmir entered into chaos. The Maharaja lost control of large parts of his kingdom and, in panic, even attempted to ethnically cleanse Muslims from some regions. By September 1947, Pathan tribals, supported by Pakistan, started to stream into Kashmir. Soon the Maharaja acceded to India and the Indian Army entered the conflict.
The concept of a plebiscite first entered into the equation in September 1947, not in relation to Kashmir but with respect to the tiny Gujarati principality of Junagadh, whose Muslim ruler had acceded to Pakistan. This infuriated India, given that Junagadh was in India and wasn’t contiguous with Pakistan. As a result, India toppled the ruler’s administration and proposed a plebiscite to solve the matter (a vote that India would easily win). Of course, this also set a precedent and Nehru accepted that this would also apply to other states. The concept of a ruler deciding accession was now on shaky ground – a decision that would of course apply to Kashmir. In the meeting where this was decided, British bureaucrat HV Hodson noted that, “Liaquat Ali Khan’s [the Pakistan Prime Minister] eyes sparkled” at the possibilities this opened for Kashmir.
This though was not that much of a surprise. The Congress had for a long time held that the princely states should be decided as per the wishes of its people. In November, 1947, therefore, the Governor General of India Lord Mountbatten headed to Lahore to conduct talks with Pakistan’s Governor General, Mohamed Ali Jinnah.
While Governor General Mountbatten, a Britisher and the last Viceroy of the Raj, technically held a constitutional post, in actuality he had a fair bit of power even after August 15, 1947 – he even supervised Indian military operations in Kashmir. For these talks with Jinnah – that could have changed the subcontinent’s history – he went with the Indian cabinet’s approval to offer something that has now been Pakistan’s demand for the past seven decades: a plebiscite in Kashmir.
On November 1, in Government House, Lahore, Mountbatten put forward India’s proposal: a plebiscite to decide the fate of Junagadh, Hyderabad – and Kashmir. This was the exact wording of India’s proposal:
The Governments of India and Pakistan agree that, where the ruler of a State does not belong to the community to which the majority of his subjects belong, and where the State has not acceded to that Dominion whose majority community is the same as the State’s, the question of whether the State should finally accede to one or the other of the Dominions should in all cases be decided by an impartial reference to the will of the people
To sweeten the deal, Mountbatten even assured Jinnah that the United Nations would be allowed to supervise the process.
Jinnah rejects the plebiscite
Amazingly, Jinnah actually rejected this proposal. He could never accept any formula that included Hyderabad since (at the time) the princely state wished to remain independent, argued the Governor General of Pakistan.
Mountbatten then pointed out that this was as a good a deal as Pakistan would ever get given Pakistan’s much weaker position militarily relative to India. This was sound advice: India and Pakistan have fought four wars and India’s vast military superiority has ensured that the position of the Kashmir Valley remains unchanged.
Historian AG Noorani claims that Jinnah’s inexplicable stand was because he was “besotted with Hyderabad”. Noorani also points out that Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was more open to the idea but was overruled by Jinnah.
The inability of Jinnah to process India’s military superiority was not unexpected – he had shown a similar failure to deal with realpolitik in the negotiations leading up to Partition, thinking mostly as a lawyer and not as a politician.
In hindsight, this was a terrible decision – especially given the fact that modern Pakistan has been near-obsessed with Kashmir. Not only has the pursuit of Kashmir cost Pakistan a lot of money, it has corrupted its society. Its military has grown to control the state, propped up by the bogey of India. Kashmir has also allowed Islamist militants to grow, giving them popular legitimacy in the 1990s. Today, those same militants have turned on Pakistan itself, tearing to shreds law and order in the country. And this is not to even begin to go into the human cost of seven decades of conflict in Kashmir.
Another real shot at a plebiscite never came again. Although a 1948 United Nations resolution called for plebiscite (and as a first step, asked Pakistan to withdraw its troops, which it refused to do), after 1971 this was a dead letter: the Simla Agreement of 1972 ensured that the entire Kashmir dispute would see no third-party intervention, not even the United Nation’s. Today, the Indian stand is that Kashmir is an “integral part” of the Union, which of course rules out a plebiscite even in theory.
On June 3, 1947, the Congress had accepted the communal division of Punjab and Bengal in return for stable, centralised rule. Mountbatten’s November 1947 offer to Jinnah for a Kashmiri plebiscite was a part of the same thought process. In the chaos of 1947, it seems the Congress was prepared to allow Kashmir the option of a plebiscite in order to stitch up the massive hole that Hyderabad represented in the map of India and ensure the new dominion’s stability.