Freedom Files: A FERTILE BREEDING GROUND
At the time of their greatest victory, the National Conference leadership committed the greatest political blunder. They unwittingly gave their movement, which was essentially against autocracy, feudal exploitation and imperialist machination, an anti-Dogra colour

Distraught that nothing is working, one is overcome with despondency. When there is no clear option available, the best thing to do is to do nothing, for very often the sheer momentum of history takes you beyond the pale. In the Princely State of J & K, ruled by the Dogras who presided over a Muslim majority area, rising from serfdom and penury was a political movement which opposed the Maharaja Hari Singh and his suzerainty over them bitterly. They had moved heaven and earth, but all to no avail. The National Conference stock in the early 1940s was at its lowest ebb. Ever since the time, when the Muslim Conference transformed itself into the National Conference, its leadership found the loyalty of the broad Kashmiri Muslim masses shifting from itself. The reason was quite obvious. Ever since the disturbances of 1931 and the emergence of a powerful Muslim Conference, the Muslim people of Kashmir had in their naïve simplicity considered their appalling economic conditions and never ending but ever-increasing miseries was due to an oppressive land system and a usurious credit system which permitted their exploitation without any check. They identified this system with the State's brute  power which protected these exploiting interests and connived and abetted in their operation. Since the State Ruler happened to be a Hindu, and the level of political education and understanding in this country being what it was, it was quite natural for an illiterate mass of people to develop some sort of revulsion for the Hindus, who happened to be most prominent in the State services as also in the landlord and shaukar fraternity. And since the character of the Muslim Conference of Sheikh Abdullah was essentially a communal one at that time, this organization did not care to clear this confusion.

 

But in the late 1930s, the Muslim Conference leaders who were essentially a group of democrats with no bigoted communal bias, realized that the path taken by them was not the correct one. They found that there was a huge mass of Hindus and other non-Muslims who were as much oppressed and exploited as the average Muslim was. And also that there was a considerable section of Muslims who were abetting and conniving at this exploitation of the people, a huge majority of which were Muslims, by becoming a part and parcel of the oppressive State machinery. These leaders realized that the fight against exploitation could not be effectively carried out until and unless the whole mass of people, Hindus and Muslims alike, united to fight against the class of exploiters.

This truth once having dawned upon them, they proceeded in right earnest to make amends for their past mistakes.

But while the honest section of the Muslim Conference decided to take this bold and courageous step, there was a group of genuine communalists whose attempts to come to the fore-front in the organization had been frustrated by Sheikh Abdullah and his colleagues. These disgruntled elements found their chance when the Muslim Conference under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah decided to convert itself into a non-communal organization under the name of the All-Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. The new organization also established contacts with what eventually became Jawaharlal Nehru's stalking horse against the bellicose princes frat - the All-India States People’s Conference - and launched a vigorous campaign to explain and preach their new ideology to the Kashmiri masses.

The frustrated and disgruntled communalists under the leadership of Kh. Ghulam Abbas decided to secede from the organization and oppose its new progressive and secular character. They began a slander campaign against the National Conference alleging that they had sold themselves to the Hindu capitalists and exploiters, thereby betraying the Kashmiri Muslims. Because of the lack of political understanding and the confusion created by these communalists, the Muslim Conference made considerable head-way in alienating public sympathy from the National Conference. But while the Muslims drifted away from the organization, the Hindus did not respond to its call for united action, in the numbers they ought to have responded. It was a fertile breeding ground for political activity in the repressive state.

The National Conference leaders and workers kept their mental balance and stood fast to their secular, democratic and progressive ideology. They realized the importance of giving a positive programme to the people of Kashmir and demand their allegiance on the basis of that programme. They formulated the New Kashmir plan whereas they declared a fully responsible self government under the aegis of the Maharaja as their ultimate goal. They also published the blue print of a socio-economic programme which they would implement, as also the political set-up which they would bring about on assumption of power. On the economic plane they promised equality of opportunity, freedom from exploitation, poverty and hunger as also the freedom of the press.

 

This had the desired effect on the people, who responded quite favourably to the campaign launched by the National Conference leaders to propagate and explain the New Kashmir plan. An atmosphere was created whereby the people began to draw closer and closer to the National Conference. Communal prejudices were shaken and ultimately broken, and the secular ideology of the National Conference began to gain a foothold. The result was that an average Kashmiri Muslim lost all hostility towards his Hindu counter-part and began to regard him as one of his own kind.

By and by the National Conference gained so much confidence among the people that it began to be regarded as the only organization which could deliver the goods. It was at this time that the Maharaja of Kashmir announced his intention to associate the State People’s representatives with the task of administration.

On the 2nd Oct. 1944, the Maharaja made a proclamation which was read in the Praja Sabha whereby he asked the Praja Sabha to nominate a panel of six members out of which two would be selected for appointment as Ministers. He further declared that this measure was just of an experimental character and that necessary modifications would be made in the light of the circumstances which might develop.

This was positively a step forward in the right direction and the National Conference adopted it at face value. Speaking on behalf of the National Conference Mirza Mohd. Afzal Beg said in the Praja Sabha that ''His Highness’s Command had come at a time when nobody would deny that any constitutional progress would not have been insisted upon and anybody invested with power to confer constitutional reforms would easily have deferred them if he wished. That is the state of affairs prevailing in British India and the World at large…….when we see that inspite  of being able to put off any progress till some time in future, His Highness has come forward and conferred reforms on the people of this country, we feel sure of the intention which underlies the Command…….If feel that the present one is a real concrete step forward to the people of this country who can now associate themselves with the administration of the country. Opinions may differ as to how far we can influence the policy of the Government now through these reforms. Opinions may differ as to how far forward this Command can take the country, but opinions must be and surely are unanimous that this is really a step forward, and judging from the spirit underlying this step, we do hope that this will be only a first step in the progressive career of the country led by His Highness the Maharaja Bahadur.”

Muslim Conference leaders at this time realised that the policy being pursued by them would yield no dividends and therefore, their group leader in the Praja Sabha welcomed the reforms with the following humiliating and degrading words, thanking, “our beloved Ruler, who by providing an opportunity to two members of this House, to be very near the person of our beloved Maharaja, had graciously bestowed a great honour to all the members of the House”.

But in face of the growing strength of the National Conference, even this humiliating flattery could not win them a seat on the Council of Ministers.

The National Conference was offered and it accepted a seat on the Council. This reform was introduced at a time when due to the World War II, conditions had become pretty difficult for the common man, and the National Conference was desirous to lend a helping hand in solving a number of new difficulties that had cropped up and were responsible for many a hardships to the people. The acceptance of this reform was decided to work it out and render  to the country whatever service was possible under it. Mirza Mohd. Afzal Beg represented the National Conference and the other seat went to Wazir Ganga Ram of Jammu.

But as was evident later, the experiment was never intended to be worked out for the benefit of the people, by the powers that be. And ultimately it had to be abandoned.

 

First of all, great discrimination was shown in the allocation of portfolios. So much so that even Sir B.N.Rau, the then Prime Minister, was not consulted in the matter. The portfolios given to Mirza M.A.Beg, representative of the biggest political organization, were local bodies, roads, and buildings, State property abroad and Stationary and Printing. Portfolios like Education, Revenue, Co-operatives or rural uplift where there was some scope for mass contact and where the popular Minister could do a good deal to serve and inspire the people were deliberately kept away from him. And even in case of the portfolios given to Mirza M.A.Beg he was not given full powers to effect any improvement. While all the other Ministers had their separate Secretariats, Mr. Beg was not provided even as much as a Secretariat through which he could function independently. He had to function through a number of Secretariats under the control of other Ministers which made him still more ineffective. He made some proposals which would have democratised the Municipalities. But his proposals remained in cold storage and never saw the light of day.

The only saving grace was that he had the right to oppose in the Assembly any Government move with which he did not agree. But later when Pt. R.C. Kak succeeded Sir B.N. Rau as Prime Minister, even that right was sought to be denied. The idea was to blackmail the National Conference into becoming a handmaiden of the State Govt. and its oppressive policies. The National Conference refused to accept this position and quit office.

 

By the time the National Conference representatives resigned from office, the appointment of the Cabinet Mission had been announced by the British govt., who had declared its intention to transfer power to Indians and leave the sub-continent.

This new development also hastened the pace of the crisis. The National Conference along with the All India States Peoples’ Conference demanded the transfer of sovereignty to the peoples of different States. The Cabinet Mission cold-shouldered the memorandum submitted by the National Conference whereas it had demanded full transfer of power to the people. The National Conference had not as yet decided what course to adopt for its future action.

At this time the State Govt. caused an affront to the National Conference by bribing and blackmailing its party leader in the Praja Sabha, Mian Ahmed Yar Khan, into accepting the seat vacated by Mirza Afzal Beg. The National Conference declared it as an insult to the people and refused to tolerate it.

The National Conference started a campaign to explain the real import of the memorandum submitted by them to the Cabinet Mission. The National Conference leaders organized public meetings and issued pamphlets and posters to forge ahead in the campaign, now having come to be known as the famous “Quit Kashmir” campaign, whereby termination of autocratic rule and introduction of responsible self-Govt. were immediately asked for.

At this point, it will not be out of context to make a few remarks about the personality of Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah. He was a towering personality, dominating anyone and everyone in the National Conference. His ego was as strong as that of  Mr Jinnah. And that was the reason why the latter with his bullying manners and brusque ways, could not influence the former. He combined in himself, mass reverence commanded by Badshah Khan, mass popularity commanded by Jawahar Lal, sternness of Sardar Patel and the political sagacity of C Rajagopalachari, while holding the personal ego of Jinnah, but he lacked the public humility of Badshah Khan, the congenial temperament of Pandit Nehru and disciplined temper of Sardar Patel while he hopelessly lacked the subtle tact of Maulana Azad. The result was that he was very easily provoked into temper, and what was worse, he did re-gain his temper easily and quickly but instead remained upset for a considerable amount of time without regard to the consequences. Ranbirsinghpur was a typical incident, when he lost his temper for no good reason and said things without meaning them and then persisted in justifying his behaviour.

This aspect of Sheikh Abdullah’s personality had a great bearing on the events that took place in early 1946 and culminated in the “Quit Kashmir” movement taking quite an unexpected turn. It was never intended to be what it turned out to be. It so happened that at one of the meetings during the initial stages of this campaign, Abdullah lost his temper, and made an extremely bitter and critical speech against the Maharaja. After this he consecutively made a number of speeches each one more bitter than the other. This was not as had been decided earlier during the Working Committee deliberations. As a matter of fact a decision had been taken to carry on the campaign in a very moderate way. Bakshi Ghulam Mohd. and Kh.G.M.Sadiq had been deputed to India to canvass support from fraternal organizations and other elements which might be sympathetic to the demands of the Kashmiri people. They had not arrived back when Sheikh Abdullah started his speeches. After a number of speeches, he also decided to leave the State for some time to help Bakshi and Sadiq in enlisting fraternal support from friendly elements in India. But his speeches had precipitated the whole crisis and just as he was on his way to Rawalpindi he was arrested near Baramullah by the Maharajah's man Ram Chandra Kak. Immediately the National Conference Working Committee met and the Quit Kashmir Movement was in full swing. Bakshi and Sadiq remained outside to canvass support for the movement while Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Karra went underground to reorganise the Quit Kashmir Movement. Most of the other leading members including Mirza Mohd. Afzal Beg were arrested and lodged in prison.

 

A word or two must be said here about the character of this Quit Kashmir Movement. This was essentially a manifestation of the Kashmir Peoples’ tremendous anti-imperialist and democratic upsurge. It was essentially a secular and non-communal movement. Politically extremely intelligent, the Kashmiri people and their militant leadership did not take long to discover an element of genuineness in the appointment of the Cabinet Mission subsequent to the British Government’s declared intention to leave the Indian sub-continent. And with keen political foresight they could foresee that the time, when everywhere in the sub-continent the will of the people will reign supreme, was not very distant and that is what prompted them to launch a vigorous campaign for the transfer of power to the people.

On the other hand, the Muslim Conference, essentially an organization of rank communalists and reactionaries, considered it as a chance of their life-time through which they could let down the National Conference and rout it forever. True to their anti-democratic character, they collaborated with the Maharaja’s Government in pulling down the National Conference. How far they succeeded, was obvious from the active hostility of the Kashmiri people towards them at the time of raids by Pakistan marauders. The only headway they could make by their collaboration with the Maharaja, was in confirming themselves in the eyes of the people as traitors and saboteurs to the people and rank-opportunists. The stock of the National Conference rose to a level it had never reached before. Sheikh Abdullah had become Qaid-e-Azam Sher-i-Kashmir and National Conference their only organization. The people gave their all out support to the Quit Kashmir Movement and the National Conference. This was the hour of its greatest victory. But at this time, of the greatest victory of their career, the National Conference leadership committed the greatest political blunder. They unwittingly gave their movement, which was essentially against autocracy, feudal exploitation and imperialist machination, an anti-Dogra colour. Their intention was to speak against the ruling dynasty which was the Dogra House. And they started demanding the end of the Dogra rule, forgetting that there were a vast number of Dogra people who were as much down-trodden and backward as their Kashmiri brethren. Dogras, Hindus and Muslims alike, are a very sensitive lot, especially in regard to their Dogra vanity. They take great pride in being Dogras. If only this sense of pride is humoured a little, they would go to any extent in pleasing and supporting the other party. But given the slightest offence they would go to any extent in opposing the offender. That was the crux of the matter. The result of the anti-Dogra tirade by the National Conference was that the vast majority of Dogras considered this Movement to be aimed against them and as such they considered it to be their duty to oppose it. The Maharaja’s Govt. and the Muslim Conference exploited this ill-conceived sentiment to the maximum. They misrepresented the Quit Kashmir Movement as an effort on the part of “Kashmiri Hattoos”, to dispossess “the valiant Dogras” from their place of pride and honour. The result was that the Rashtrya Swayam Sevak Sangh among the Hindus and the Muslim Conference among the Muslims made considerable headway in the Jammu province.

The National Conference leaders realized the blunder they had committed and wanted to rectify it but it was too late for that. Most of the top-ranking National Conference leaders were either in jail or in exile. The remaining had been driven underground and as such had no facility of press or media platform to set the mistake right. Moreover, the powers that be, were interested in not letting this confusion be cleared. It suited them well. But the National Conference had to pay a very heavy price for this blunder of theirs. They alienated the sympathies of the Jammu people and thus the peoples’ front against autocracy and feudalism suffered a heavy set-back.

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Practically the whole of the National Conference leadership had either been jailed or exiled or else-driven underground. The Prime Minister R.B. Pt. R.C. Kak made it a point to see that whatever the measures that might have to be adopted, the National Conference and the Quit Kashmir Movement were crushed once for all. He resorted to repression. The reports reached All India State People’s Conference and other fraternal organizations. It created great resentment, that such measures should be adopted at time when transfer of power to the people was imminent.

Pt. Nehru, at that time President of the All India States Peoples’ Conference, rushed to Srinagar to see things for himself and if possible to set matters right. But he was prevented from reaching Srinagar and was arrested at Koala, the place where Kashmir territory touched British India. Later at the advice of Gandhi and Maulana Azad, Panditji agreed to go back. He, however, came back after sometime and arranged Sheikh Abdullah’s defence. He was unable to achieve a political settlement as the Maharaja’s Government were in no mood to listen to sane advice.

R.B. Pt. R.C. Kak had two intimate relations with the British Political Agent, Col. Webb, to be above suspicion. He was seen at the Residency, far too often for a Prime Minister of the State. There is evidence, which leads to the conclusion that his selection as Prime Minister was made, not only with the approval, but at the very strong recommendation of the Political Agent. Events of this period also provide a pointer towards the same conclusion. His British wife might have been a factor in the new link-up. Whenever there was some important conference, the Prime Minister immediately thereafter was seen at the Residency. So much so that when on the 10th of August, 1947 Kak was suddenly pensioned off, his first action was to ring up Colonel Webb who happened to be at Gulmarg on that day.

There are reasons to believe that Pt. Nehru’s arrest was made by Kak, at the behest of the Political Department. Panditji had made very militant statements regarding the States Peoples’ demand and had demanded complete transfer of power to the people throughout the princely India. The Political Department advised Kak to deal severely with Nehru, as any leniency shown towards him would embolden the people of other States as well and that would have serious repercussions on the princes fraternity.

It may have ended there, that although the British government had announced their intention to transfer power and leave the sub-continent, the political officers bred and brought up in old imperialists traditions were thinking in terms of a Third bloc which would play their game as distinct from the Congress and the League. And they were pinning their hopes on the princely order towards that end.

 

As the Cabinet Mission had announced that Paramountcy will lapse on the transfer of power to Indian hands, the issue that faced all princes was whether to join the Constituent Assembly of India or remain independent. In late 1946 there were two distinct groups among the princes. Firstly, those who decided to join the Constituent Assembly and the others who were undecided as yet. In the latter were those who were undecided as to what course to adopt, as also those who were thinking in terms of Independence. The Bhopal ruler Nawab Hamidullah Khan was in the vanguard of this section.

At this time, the Kak government organised sham elections in the State. The National Conference, inspite of its leaders being in jail and exile, decided to contest. But then they were so much discriminated against that they had to boycott the elections. The nomination papers of their leading nominees were rejected while polling in others were fixed in the month of December when most of the area in the State is covered with snow and no transport is possible.

Kak was seen regularly in Delhi where he was more closely associated with Bhopal in the Chamber of Princes. At that time, the Partition of the country was looking imminent. At the instance of Bhopal and through him Jinnah, Kak pumped His Highness with the idea of independence. He told him that Kashmir was strategically situated, its boundaries touching Pakistan, India, Russia and China and as such it was bound to command extraordinary importance thereby guaranteeing unlimited power and prestige for its ruler.

At the same time, Kak began to humour Muslim Conference leaders whose support he enlisted for his independence movement. The leaguers, at this time, as ever, were only too ready to step into any arrangement whereby they could pull down the National Conference. Moreover, they considered it to be the best alternative to the accession to Pakistan. Probably they had been assured by Kak that they will share power with him in case they supported his independence move.

During this period, whenever Kak visited Delhi, he was more particular to see Bhopal and through him Jinnah, than Congress leaders. It cannot be said with certainty whether he was just humouring the League leaders in order to keep them guessing or that he was actually flirting with them. But during this period when alternatives to independence were being considered, one of the suggestions made in circles close to the Maharaja was, that if internal suzerainty could be guaranteed, there was no harm in dealing with the Political Department of Pakistan just as the State had been dealing with the British Political Dept. so far.

In May, the broad outline of the Mountbatten Plan was available. And when Congress President J B Kripalani came to Kashmir to caution the Maharaja in good time. Kak maneuverered to avoid a meeting between His Highness and Kripalani by advising His Highness to stay on at Jammu for sometime although Kripalani had been told that he would see him in Srinagar. But when Kripalani insisted and said that he would go to Jammu, Kak accompanied him there. He did not let Kripalani talk to His Highness in confidence. Kripalani advised Kashmir, to send its representatives to the Constituent Assembly. To refuse this was a very great blunder. At a party given in his honour when a top official talked to Kripalani about the refusal, he is said to have commented, “if people with eyes don’t see, what greater blinds can there be”.

Then came the third June Plan and Mountbatten’s advice to the Princes to accede to one Dominion or the other. Kak’s reaction to this was that the British had let the Princes down. Kak began to look still more towards Bhopal and Jinnah. His idea was to establish independence with tacit approval of Jinnah and League. Then came Mountbatten’s visit to Kashmir and his advice about a quick decision in the Maharaja’s own interest. But his Highness could not decide anything as he was still thinking in terms of a separate entity and independence.

Then came the dramatic visit of Mahatma Gandhi. Kak tried his best to prevent a meeting between Gandhiji and the Maharaja, and he was successful in securing the Maharaja’s refusal to meet Gandhiji. But the Maharani stepped in to save the situation. She wanted his permission to visit the Mahatma in case His Highness would not invite Gandhiji to the palace. She also wanted permission for the Yuvraj to accompany her. Since the Yuvraj was not feeling well, the Maharaja agreed to invite Gandhiji to the palace. All this took place so suddenly that Kak could not even know of it. The meeting took place with only the Maharaja, the Maharani and the Yuvraj present. Gandhiji went back and announced in his Prayer meeting at Rawalpindi that he had advised the Maharaja to release the National Conference leaders and introduce responsible government.

Before Gandhiji’s arrival Kh.Ghulam Abbas, the Muslim Conference leader of Kashmir wrote to Jinnah seeking his guidance as to the course to be adopted by the Muslim leaguers during the Mahatma’s visit. Jinnah wrote back that Gandhi was an “old rogue” and advised Abbas to let Kak deal with him as he desired.

For some time differences had been cropping up between the Maharaja and Kak. On the 10th of August, he was pensioned off and General Janak Singh was appointed to succeed him. The new Prime Minister was not strong enough a man to meet the occasion. The well-wishers of the Maharaja advised the new Prime Minister very strongly against a separate entity as the State was not in a position to face any external aggression in case it was committed, since the State’s resources were enough to face an internal commotion only.

 

On the 12th, the new Prime Minister wired both Delhi and Karachi for a standstill agreement. No reply was received from Delhi, as the telegram which had to pass through Lahore did not reach Delhi in time. Pakistan accepted the offer and a standstill agreement was duly signed with Pakistan.

Although a standstill agreement had been signed with Pakistan he had no patience to wait for the events to take their own course. He began to put pressure on the State Govt. and later imposed an economic blockade and held up deliveries of essential supplies and arms. The Kashmir  Government made a request to the Joint Defence Council to release its normal quota of supplies of arms and ammunition. But the Joint Defence Council under the pro-Pakistan influence of the Supreme Commander, Sir Claude Auchinleck, refused to do the needful unless the State announced its accession in favour of one Dominion or the other. Unnerved by these developments the Maharaja tried to negotiate with the Govt of India but the latter refused point blank to enter into any sort of negotiation with the Ruler’s representatives unless popular leaders were released and a responsible Government introduced. This meant a compromise with the National Conference which the Maharaja and his Advisors did not want as that would have meant parting with at least some of the absolute power they were wielding.

It was against this background that the Government had to release Sheikh Abdullah from the prison. First of all he was transferred to Srinagar Jail in August. Feelers were sent to him for a sort of undertaking before he was released. This he declined point blank. He refused to accept any release that was not completely unconditional. Ultimately he was released unconditionally on the September 29, 1947.

(To Be Continued)

@sandeep_bamzai

Columnist: 
Sandeep Bamzai