India was disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947
When the British left after dividing the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947, there was virtually no road, railway, or air connectivity between mainland India and the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The only all-weather road connecting the Kashmir Valley to the outside world led to Rawalpindi in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The road, which now connects the Valley to New Delhi via Jammu, passed through the 9,000 feet high Banihal pass that remained closed during winter. A tunnel through the pass was built only in the 1950s and the road is still not considered all-weather. The road via Jammu in 1947, too, connected Kashmir to Lahore and Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab.
India managed to get tenuous access to J&K via a dirt track intersected by the bridgeless tributaries and streams when Punjab’s Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district was awarded to it at the last minute. It was thus disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947.
The irregulars planned to occupy Srinagar’s lifeline airstrip to prevent the Indian army from landing there before the snow closed the Banihal Pass days before the onset of harsh Himalayan winter in November. The plan was frustrated as an Indian army contingent managed to land in Srinagar on October 27, 1947, as the irregulars’ advance from Baramulla, over 50 km away, was impeded by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah-led National Conference, which backed J&K’s accession with India.
Mohammad Maqbool Sherwani, a member of the National Conference that hurriedly raised a militia to resist the invasion from the northwest, made the irregulars believe the Indian army had arrived on Baramulla’s outskirts. He forced them to change their strategy, which delayed their advance towards Srinagar. It was too late for them by the time they realised they had been bluffed and nailed Sherwani to death.
The delay gave the Indian troops the much-needed time as the equipment and reinforcements they needed reached Kashmir nine days after they landed in Srinagar. An all-out offensive that followed drove away the irregulars from the Valley while J&K acceded to India.
A chance meeting between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Abdullah in 1938 perhaps sealed Pakistan’s fate without Kashmir. The two met for the first time at the Lahore railway station, around five km from the place where the resolution for the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims of British India was adopted in 1940.
Abdullah, 33, who founded the Muslim Conference in 1932, accompanied Punjab Congress leader Mian Iftikharuddin to meet Nehru during a layover en route to Peshawar. They got along quickly so much so that Abdullah ended up accompanying Nehru. Abdullah gravitated to Nehru’s social-revolutionary nationalism after their extended discussions in Peshawar.
Abdullah would convince his colleagues in 1939 to rename their party as the National Conference as per Nehru’s advice about the need to secularise their politics. The phraseology explaining the change was in contrast to Mohammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League’s 1940 Lahore resolution, which called Indian Muslims a nation by any definition. The resolution sought a separate homeland encompassing Muslim-majority areas including Kashmir. Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined the acronym ‘Pakistan’ in 1933 with the ‘K’ standing for Kashmir.
The condition of Muslims in J&K was much worse than that of their coreligionists in Bengal and Punjab, the two big provinces that became the mainstay of the Pakistan Movement. The socio-economic conditions of the majority of Muslims in Bengal and Punjab helped the movement take root there in the 1940s when the Hindu Dogra kingdom had ruled J&K for almost a century and reduced its Muslim majority to the status of serfs.
Abdullah burst onto the political scene as an embodiment of anger over Muslim exclusion from positions of power, jobs, and education. The Dogra rulers discriminatory policies dashed first his hopes of becoming a doctor and later a bureaucrat despite his eligibility and good academic record. Abdullah’s politics changed under Nehru’s influence when the Pakistan movement gathered steam as the Muslim League raised the spectre of post-independence Hindu-dominated India.
The traction for the movement coincided with Abdullah’s rising popularity as communists within the National Conference ranks authored Naya (New) Kashmir manifesto in 1944 promising land redistribution. The pledge capped Abdullah’s rise as the messiah of deprived masses while support for Pakistan’s creation grew in other Muslim-majority areas.
The pledge became the basis of Abdullah’s politics in the 1940s which made Nehru, a socialist, his natural ally. The alliance proved crucial in depriving Pakistan of Kashmir. Jinnah could do little to bolster support in Kashmir. He was left with no allies after National Conference’s creation. The organisational strength of Abdullah’s party gave India the much-needed edge when the Dogra kingdom collapsed as the Pakistan-backed irregulars were on their way to its summer capital Srinagar.
Hari Singh, the last Hindu king until October 1947, believed Kashmir could remain independent and maintain ties with both India and Pakistan. He ignored Nehru’s requests for accession to India as he pursued his pipedream. Jinnah banked on Kashmir’s Muslim majority and dependence on western Punjab, which became a part of Pakistan, for ensuring the accession as per his wishes.
Kashmir’s political future hung in balance when Hari Singh fled to Jammu as the irregulars closed in on his capital, making the Srinagar airfield pivotal to both sides. Armoured cars and gun carriers arrived by road nine days after the first Indian planes touch down in Srinagar. The National Conference, meanwhile, played an important role in fending off the invasion and rallying the public against it.
The Muslim League could do little with virtually no structure to mobilise the public or block the airstrip. Abdullah, who did everything to neutralise the remnants of Jinnah’s ally Muslim Conference, was flown to Delhi on October 25, 1947, to devise the Indian strategy to repulse the invasion. Women were among hundreds of Abdullah’s volunteers, who joined the National Conference militia and assisted the Indian army in Kashmir.
Nehru relied on Abdullah’s popularity to retain J&K as its accession to India was subject to a referendum, which was agreed upon after a ceasefire to end the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. Abdullah, who argued for India’s legitimacy over Kashmir at the United Nations, endorsed the accession even as virtually the entire Muslim population of the Jammu region of about half a million was displaced or butchered in the run-up to the accession.
Abdullah negotiated autonomy for J&K except in defence, foreign affairs, and telecommunications until his ties with India’s governing Congress soured within a few years. Abdullah antagonised powerful Hindu traditionalists within the Congress, including Vallabhbhai Patel, when the Kashmiri leader tried to end the dispossession of the J&K’s Muslims as per Nehru’s assurances. Abdullah formed a Land Reform Committee in April 1949 to distribute land to tillers as per his pledge in the Naya Kashmir manifesto, believing he could implement it in line with Nehru’s socialist policies.
Kashmiri Brahmins, or Pandits, accounted for less than five percent of Kashmir’s population but owned over 30% of the land and had a lot at stake to let Abdullah get his way. Patel’s tried to stall the land reforms but Abdullah managed to restrict land holdings to distribute the land among Muslims and so-called untouchables in the Jammu region while trying to placate the Pandits, who refused to take kindly to the reforms.
The differences that began over the reforms snowballed as Patel rushed top Intelligence Bureau (IB) operative B N Mullick to Kashmir in August 1949 to plot Abdullah’s removal. IB agents penetrated the National Conference to divide its ranks for the ouster of Abdullah, who was placed under surveillance. Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), separately aligned with the Praja Parishad, which Hari Singh apparently financed to launch a violent campaign against Abdullah.
These groups were livid over the land reforms and the end of the monarchy, which conformed to the Hindu idea of kingship. Kshatriya and Brahmins, which are at the top of the hierarchical caste system, helmed with Dogra state while Muslims were virtually reduced to mere outcasts. Abdullah, who upended the region’s social structure, somehow managed to finalise the Delhi Agreement in July 1952, which recognized Kashmir’s autonomy.
BJS leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee launch an agitation with the support of Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad against the accord. Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin, chose to dump Abdullah as the situation became too hot to handle. On 9 August 1953, Abdullah would be summarily dismissed and arrested at midnight.
Abdullah’s humiliation polarised J&K on religious lines as Muslims saw his unceremonious ouster as an attempt to reverse their empowerment. The Pandits wanted to see the back of Abdullah, whose short-lived rule threatened their grip over levers of power. Their hold increased greatly under the Dogra rule through land grants and their preference for government jobs.
Abdullah’s ouster marked a dramatic reversal of his fortune six years after he helped India overcome the impediments to accession—geography, Hari Singh’s pipedream, and demography—after neutralising the idea that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations. His purge marked the beginning of engineered politics in Kashmir and the installation of a series of clients as rulers sustained through patronage networks, corruption, and strong-arm tactics. It has been a slippery slope since.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan