One fateful decision taken by Nehru seventy years ago, much against the advice of Sardar Patel, is still creating ripples in the Indian sub-continent. India continues to suffer for the Kashmir mistake
Seventy years is a long time, but a blunder which took place in the last days of 1947, is still creating ripples in the sub-continent. I am speaking of Kashmir. On October 20, 1947, the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir was invaded by tribesmen and Pakistani nationals from bases inside the Pakistan territory.
Six days later, Maharaja Hari Singh offered to sign the instrument of accession of his State to the Indian Union. The following day, on October 27, the British Governor-General of India accepted the offer; thereafter, the State became an integral part of India.
In a separate letter to the ruler, Mountbatten expressed a wish that the people of the State should be given the right to decide whether they should remain in India or not. This was to take place at a future date when law and order had been restored and the soil of the State cleared of the invaders.
In the following weeks, the situation continued to worsen; on December 19, in a note on Kashmir, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru noted: “there has been a progressive deterioration and the initiative appears to have been with the enemy most of the time.”
Even the pacifist Prime Minister realised the seriousness of the situation: “What is happening in Kashmir State is not merely a frontier raid but a regular war, on a limited scale, with the latest weapons being used on the part of the invaders.” Nehru continued: “This type of operations can continue for months and months and years without bringing any result. The longer they continue the greater harm they cause to India.”
He agreed that only solution for India was a military action which meant hitting at the raiders, their bases and supply lines in Pakistan.
When Lord Mountbatten, the Governor General, realised the possibility of a change in India’s policy, he decided to act quickly. Since the beginning of the crisis in Kashmir, he had wanted to give the United Nations a say in the matter. But for India, the mere fact of appealing to the United Nations meant creating a ‘dispute’ where there was no dispute; the Kashmir maharaja, like more than 500 other rulers, had acceded to the Indian Union. The fact that Pakistan has organised an armed invasion of Kashmir was a separate issue; the accession of Kashmir was indeed legal, Mountbatten had himself accepted it in writing.
But if India was to declare a war on Pakistan, it would have many consequences for Great Britain and Mountbatten’s career. First, the British officers, serving in the armies of the two dominions, would have to resign; the ‘stand down’ order issued by London was clear on this. The British generals were not vital for India, since the indigenisation of the Army had made great strides since August 15; however, it would have serious consequences for the Pakistanis who were totally dependent on the British officers.
Another consequence was that Mountbatten would probably lose his job, it was impossible for a Briton to be the Head of a State at war against another member of the Commonwealth (ie Pakistan).
As Mountbatten started putting pressure on Jawaharlal Nehru to refer the issue to the United Nations, a distressing incident took place in Delhi. Though legally, the issue of Jammu & Kashmir was under the Ministry of States headed by Sardar Patel, Nehru decided to take over the Kashmir file. We shall see the consequences.
On December 23, using the excuse of 150 motor vehicles being sent from East Punjab to Kashmir by the States’ Ministry, the Prime Minister wrote to Patel: “I do not appreciate the principle which presumably the States Ministry has in view in regard to its work. That Ministry, or any other Ministry, is not an imperium in imperio, [a state with the State] jealous of its sovereignty in certain domains and working in isolation from the rest.”
This was totally unfair to Patel.
But Nehru argued that Kashmir was connected with international, military and others issues “which are beyond the competence of the States Ministry as such.”
Patel immediately decided to resign; he told Nehru that the latter’s letter “has caused me considerable pain …In any case, your letter makes it clear to me that I must not or at least cannot continue as a Member of Government and hence I am hereby tendering my resignation.”
Unfortunately, on Gandhi’s intervention, Patel had to withdraw his resignation, but thereafter he had no say on important decisions on Kashmir. This would have tragic consequences.
Once Patel was out of the way, Mountbatten could act; he asked the British High Commissioner in Delhi to inform Attlee of the catastrophic military situation for India and that if Uri and Naushara fell, there would be nothing he could do “to stop the Indian forces from marching in West Pakistan.”
The problem was that Mountbatten, as Chairman of the Defence Committee, was privy to all Delhi’s decisions. He could not tell Attlee, the British Prime Minister, to directly write to Nehru, by referring to plans that Attlee was not supposed to know. Mountbatten, therefore, suggested that Nehru should himself keep Attlee informed of the situation.
Naively, the Indian Prime Minister wrote to Attlee to explain to him that India had no alternative but to attack Pakistan; the last thing His
Majesty’s Government wanted to see was the end of Pakistan as Attlee knew very well that as soon as the war would break out, all British officers would have to leave both dominions.
He replied the same day to Nehru that his Government was very much disturbed by the fact that India believed it had the right to enter Pakistan, even in self-defense. Attlee knew Nehru well enough to play on a very sensitive point: That world opinion would condemn him and India.
Probably also influenced by Edwina Mountbatten, Nehru fell into the trap; he wrote a complaint to the United Nations. But by accepting Mountbatten’s suggestion to unveil India’s plans to Attlee, Nehru committed a major blunder, and Patel could not intervene anymore.
On December 28, 1947, in a letter to Lord Mountbatten, Nehru wrote: “In view of the great importance of the step we are contemplating regarding a reference to the United Nations, we had a special meeting of the Cabinet today to consider it.” A ‘draft reference’ was approved and a copy sent to the British Prime Minister.
The next day, Vallabhbhai Patel was informed “I am sending you separately a copy of a telegram sent yesterday to the Prime Minister, UK, in regard to Kashmir. We held a meeting of the Cabinet yesterday afternoon when we considered this telegram and the draft reference to UNO.”
Patel had been sidelined and the harm was done. Seventy years later, India is still suffering from the blunder then committed. Such a tragedy!