Nehru, Kashmir And The ‘Lost Frontier’

Kashmir is in the news these days for reasons right and wrong, and promises to persist for long. Pakistan is most upset with India’s nullifying the special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. It calls Kashmir “unfinished part” of the 1947 Partition.

But now it is being asked: was it part of the Partition at all?

New research points to the British introducing it after the Congress abandoned its government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and also conceded Balochistan.

Old records show the British, after reaching an understanding with the Muslim League, coaxed Jawaharlal Nehru to visit NWFP which the latter did despite opposition from Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Most crucially, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother and the province’s Chief Minister, Dr Khan Saheb, were not consulted, when they ran a “strong’ Congress government.

Raghavendra Singh, a retired civil servant while dwelling on his book, “India’s Lost Frontier: The Story of the NWFP Province of Pakistan, ” says that Nehru made the “fatal mistake” of visiting  the riot-hit province with approval of then Congress chief Acharya Kripalani and agreed to an election and later, a referendum. The ministry had to resign.

Once Ghaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgar were “thrown to the wolves” (in their words) the British found it easy to include Balochistan in the south and Jammu and Kashmir in the north to be incorporated into the future Pakistan.

Citing correspondence among the top British rulers in New Delhi, the British Government and records of the Department of Commonwealth Affairs of that era, Singh says: “The British approach radically changed in 1946, soon after the end of the World War II. Lord Louise Mountbatten was sent as the last Viceroy “only to complete the formalities.” 

He rejects the principle of contiguity of the two provinces that the British insisted upon. But for the ‘sacrificing’ of NWFP and Balochistan, “there would have been neither the Kashmir dispute, nor lack of access to Afghanistan that irk India today.”

Respective roles of the British and the Indian leaders stand in stark contrast. The Congress and the Muslim League were both part of this as “nobody wanted to go back to jail. They wanted to bury the hatchet for good.  Some Indians with Western education and sensibilities thought the division was temporary.”  

This reinforces what is well-known and debated ad nauseam. Never the hapless umpire, the British wanted the Partition. They played the proverbial cat distributing bread among the squabbling monkeys.

They saw Pakistan as their bulwark to retain their influence in the region and that it would help ‘contain’ the Soviet spread to the Indian Ocean region. A new chapter of the “Great Game” was thus written.

In contrast, an independent India, too big and diverse, was perceived as being not amenable to the West. The British also wanted to create a Muslim nation to guard their interests with the monarchies and the oil resources in the Middle East.

They proved right on many counts. The Middle East saw unprecedented oil boom. The rise of a communist China, in addition to the Soviet Union posed a bigger challenge. Independent India empathized with both. They were proved wrong, however, that the British Empire itself declined, almost totally, within two decades of the Partition.

It’s time to question the inevitability of the Partition, at least how it was executed. How entire provinces were divided despite their mixed populations, causing millions to flee their homes amidst bloodshed – and bad blood that persists today. Neither the British, nor Indians anticipated this, despite communal tensions. 

Opinion is emerging among select Indian scholars, especially civil servants and diplomacy practitioners who have seen the world closely. Using British records, it challenges the British-guided history of the region.  

Through them, it is possible to view larger picture of the South Asian region and also the adjoining West Asia as part of the “Great Game” that continues to be played through its many avatars.

Also, through them, it is possible to view many faults and failures of Indian political leadership of that era without getting embroiled in the current, largely uninformed debate that is besotted with a political agenda, of deifying some leaders and demonizing some others.

The problem, pointed out by Ambassador TCA Raghvan, author of “The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan” (2017) is that “we view history with contemporary eyes”.   

It is not clear how far the Subcontinent’s political leaders were able to grasp the larger – regional, if not global – worldview, of how the European colonizers, having ruined themselves fighting the World Wars, sought to draw Asia’sn national borders, intent on keeping their strategic and economic hold.  They didn’t, or at least, not enough. For, all conflicts since then have occurred in Asia.    

India’s division was preceded by a line British India drew with Afghanistan. Ambassador Rajiv Dogra  in his book, “Durand’s Curse – A Line Across the Pathan Heart”(2017), emphasizes how an invisible, but powerful line (drawn by and named after British foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand) divides the ethnic Pashtuns and continues to cause friction between Kabul and Islamabad to the detriment of both. 

To this day, in multi-ethnic Afghanistan, its dominant Pashtuns nurse an unrealized dream of Pashtun homeland.  And to this day, Afghanistan, the graveyard of many Empires, yet coveted by many because of its location, remains a nation in perennial turmoil. It is possible to foresee severe instability in Afghanistan, no matter who rules. 

Looking at the larger picture, yet another Afghanistan sub-chapter in “Great Game” may be written soon with the United States’ victory-less withdrawal. The Asians will play proxies, and the conflict will continue.

China, the emerging global power, already embracing most Asians with its multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will be a significant player, backing its key proxy Pakistan. India may be ‘friendless’, yet again.  

Back to Kashmir: Whatever be domestic compulsions and consequences, the Kashmir factor that India has introduced also promises to be part of this larger ‘game.’ The India-Pakistan rivalry will surely persist. India will not roll back Kashmir’s re-worked avatar and Pakistan will not countenance it.

Odds are heavy against Pakistan. Like it could not keep out of the Afghan imbroglio in the past, much to its detriment long-term, it cannot ignore Kashmir either.        

Pakistan’s military-civil leadership now tackle two-front turmoil of having to secure border with Afghanistan while pushing the Taliban towards Kabul, and with India — opposition its Kashmir moves while keeping the Kashmir pot boiling within the country and before the world community.

Despite pressures from within and provocations from without, India can and may ‘digest’ this if it genuinely reaches out to the Kashmiris.  If it fails, not 1947, but the year 2019 will be the base year for future historians.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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K P Fabian
4 years ago

Excellent analysis.
The partition was politically inevitable.There was a triangle of forces: the departing British imperialism, the Indian National Congress where Gandhi was being sidelined as fredom was visible, and the Muslim League led by the crafty Jinnah.In any triangle the sum of two sides is longer than the third side. The British and Jinnah worked together from 1939 onwards.

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