25 November 2004

Kashmir at Partition, 1947

In August 1947, Kashmir's autocratic ruler, His Highness Maharaja Sir Hari Singh Indar Mahindar Bahadur Sir Hari Singh, was faced with a momentous decision. The imperial government in London had always allowed some major landholders on the subcontinent a degree of autonomy and, technically, Kashmir had never been part of British India. The maharaja's antecedents had secured the right to govern some of their own affairs by recognising the paramountcy of the British Crown. The compact between the British and the maharaja's family was symbolised by the payment of a tribute: each year Hari Singh had to provide the British government with a horse, twelve goats and six of Kashmir's famous shawls or pashminas.

When the British left, the maharaja had three options: Kashmir could become independent or join either India or Pakistan. The rulers of over 550 Princely State rulers faced the same decision but in the case of Kashmir the issue was especially sensitive. Its large population and proximity to both China and Russia gave the state considerable strategic importance. The matter was further complicated by religion: Kashmir was one of a handful of Princely States in which the ruler did not practise the same religion as most of his people. While the maharaja was a Hindu, over three-quarters of his subjects were Muslims. The fact that Kashmir was not only predominantly Muslim but also congruous with Pakistan convinced Mohammed Ali Jinnah that the maharaja's decision would go in his favour. 'Kashmir', he said at the time of partition, 'will fall into our lap like a ripe fruit.' It was a naive misjudgement of Himalayan proportions.

The maharaja had most of the foibles associated with India's decadent aristocracy. He was a hedonist and a reactionary whose main interests were food, hunting, sex and, above all else, horse racing. As his own son put it: 'Quite clearly, my father was much happier racing than administering the State ...' On one occasion, he had been tricked by a prostitute in London's Savoy Hotel who proceeded to blackmail him. He showed a similar lack of judgement in matters of state. In July 1947, with the transfer of power just weeks away, he took the view that 'the British are never really going to leave India'!

The maharaja's ancestors had been blessed with greater political acumen. The State of Jammu and Kashmir had been established in the first half of the nineteenth century by a relatively minor Jammu chieftain, Gulab Singh. A combination of adept military conquests and astute financial deals enabled him to create one of the largest Princely States on the subcontinent. By 1850 he had moved on from Jammu (with its Hindu majority population) and had added Ladakh (Buddhist majority), Baltistan (Muslim majority) and the Kashmir Valley (Muslim majority). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Gulab Singh's successors extended their control to another Muslim majority area, Gilgit.
SOURCE: Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, 2nd ed., by Owen Bennett Jones (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), pp. 56-57

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