PM Modi was not off the mark when he said last year, ‘…. that if Sardar Patel was the first PM of India there would not have been a Jammu and Kashmir problem.’
Napoleon once called history “a fable mutually agreed upon”. What we call history is sometimes a popular myth that is politically and ideologically convenient. The history of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s accession to India is a classic case of this myth-making. A lot of haze surrounds the historic accession of the princely state that took place on October 26, 1947. That allows for leaders in Kashmir to repeat the myth of “conditional accession”.
The final chapter in India’s Independence saga was the challenge of the accession of the 565 princely states into one of the two dominions by August 15, 1947. A single document called the “Instrument of Accession” was to be the basis for the accession. It was the same accession document that the Maharaja of Kashmir signed too.
The National Conference (NC), led by Sheikh Abdullah, held a special session in October 1948 to support the accession. It didn’t talk about any conditions. Supporting accession, it only said: “This convention has given serious thought to the question of accession…After mature consideration it is definitely of the opinion that Kashmir cannot find its proper place in Pakistan, which today has become the main citadel of reaction and decaying feudalism”.
Three people — Louis Mountbatten, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and VP Menon — played a critical role in the political integration of India. The British government’s political department was replaced with the “states department” in May 1947 to facilitate the process. Patel was made the minister and Menon the administrative head. Although all three leaders played crucial roles in the integration of states, Patel was rightfully credited with the epithet of iron man, on the lines of the German iron chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck, a Prussian general, was responsible for the integration of German-speaking kingdoms into a united Germany in 1871. Bismarck was alone in his campaign, but the kingdoms he was uniting were smaller and largely city-states. Patel was assisted in the task by Mountbatten and Menon, but he faced a much tougher challenge as he had to deal with many big princely states with armies, assemblies and treasuries.
Mountbatten, entrusted by the Cabinet with the responsibility of accession, convened a meeting of the princes on July 25, 1947, and managed to secure the accession papers signed by almost all of them before August 15, 1947. The three princely states that refused to accede — Hyderabad, Junagadh and Kashmir — became Patel’s responsibility. It is the final accession of these three, which Patel secured through various methods, that won him the title Bismarck of India.
Compared to the accession of Hyderabad and Junagadh, where Patel had to use force or the threat of it, Kashmir’s case was more complicated. Jawaharlal Nehru’s fondness for Sheikh Abdullah, on the one hand, and Maharaja Hari Singh’s ambition to remain independent, on the other, made Patel’s task difficult. Nehru and Patel wanted the Maharaja to build a friendship with Abdullah while simultaneously acceding his state to the Indian dominion. The Maharaja dithered on both the counts, until the Pakistani tribesmen from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa invaded his state on October 22, 1947, and marched towards Srinagar. Mountbatten’s conversations with Jinnah on November 1, 1947, revealed the involvement of Pakistan in the invasion.
The tribal invasion and Patel’s persuasion finally led the Maharaja to hand over signed accession papers to Menon on October 26, 1947. Patel lost no time in sending the Indian Army to Srinagar. By the end of the year, the invaders were pushed back across the Jhelum. Winter halted the progress of the operation. The Pakistan army arrived on the scene by the time the winter ended, forcing a stand-off between the two countries at what is describe today as the Line of Control. Once the Pakistan army got involved, Nehru insisted that the issue became international and removed it from Patel’s purview. The rest is a history of blunders, which the present government is seeking to ameliorate.
Patel continued with his unfinished agenda of the accession of Junagadh and Hyderabad. Junagadh came under the control of the Indian administration in November 1947, while Hyderabad needed a police action in September 1948 to fall in line. He ensured that in spite of the recalcitrant rulers and restive populations, both Junagadh and Hyderabad integrated fully with India without any difficulty. But Kashmir, taken out of his purview, would fester for long.
Sardar Patel was a loyal disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. He was not ambitious. When once Gandhi asked him about his mission after Independence, Patel’s reply was that he would become a sadhu. His modesty helped Nehru climb the political ladder easily. History doesn’t have if and buts. Yet, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi was not off the mark when he said in the Rajya Sabha last year, “It is our belief that if Sardar Patel was the first PM of India there would not have been a Jammu and Kashmir problem.”
(The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on October 31, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)