A Forgotten Plebiscite?

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Once upon a time UN passed a resolution seeking plebiscite in Kashmir. It was response to the complaint that Pandit Nehru took to the UN against Pakistan after tribal raids divided J&K and triggered the first war on Kashmir. On the resolution’s sixty-fourth anniversary, historian Ashiq Hussain Bhat revisits the developments that prevented a takeoff

Photographs taken by legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in 1948 shows Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who headed the emergency administration in J&K after 1947, discussing issue regarding the ceasefire line with the members of United National Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP).

Photographs taken by legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in July 1948 shows Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who headed the emergency administration in J&K after 1947, discussing issue regarding the ceasefire line with the members of United National Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP).

On January 5, 1949 the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) adopted its second resolution on Kashmir – (incepted by UN Security Council on January 20, 1948 as a mediating body with a recommendatory role and no executive authority, UNCIP arrived in the subcontinent in July 1948). The resolution stated that  “the question of the accession of the State of J&K to India or Pakistan will be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite” for which purpose the UN Secretary General  “will nominate a Plebiscite Administrator” who “shall derive from the State of J&K the powers he considers necessary for organizing and conducting the plebiscite and for ensuring the freedom and impartiality of the plebiscite” and who “shall have authority to appoint such staff or assistants and observers as he may require”.

The Resolution further laid down that “a plebiscite will be held when it shall be found by the Commission that the ceasefire and truce agreement set forth in Parts I and II of the Commission’s resolution of August 13, 1948 have been carried out and arrangements for the plebiscite have been completed.”

In other words the implementation of UNCIP Second Resolution was linked with implementation of its First Resolution. Parts I and II of First Resolution (Ceasefire Resolution of August 13, 1948) laid down: (i) that India and Pakistan would issue orders of ceasefire and subsequently enter into a truce agreement; (ii) that Pakistan would withdraw all its troops from the State; (iii) that the territory (of the State thus vacated by Pakistan) would be administered by local authorities under the surveillance of the Commission; (iv) that Pakistani withdrawal would be followed, in stages, by India’s withdrawal of bulk of its forces from the State; and (v) that the Government of the State would make it publicly known that peace, law and order would be safeguarded and that all human and political rights would be guaranteed.

Thus it would be a long drawn process which would take months to complete. The process envisaged nomination of Plebiscite Administrator by UN Secretary General; dismissal of National Conference Government of the State followed by appointment of Plebiscite Administrator by the State; the Plebiscite Administrator would then monitor the withdrawal of all Pakistani troops from the State territory (called Azad Kashmir since October 24, 1947) and put that territory under his own (and by extension under UNCIP’s) surveillance. This done, he would then monitor the withdrawal of bulk (not all ) of  Indian forces from the State. The natural corollary of these measures would be that law and order situation in the State would normalize which would in turn facilitate return of refugees.

On March 22, 1949, the UN Secretary General nominated retired Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz of USA for the post of PA. The State of J&K neither dismissed National Conference Government nor did it issue formal appointment orders in favour of the Admiral.

 The situation inside the state was that it had been converted into a police state. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Jammu region had been either killed or hounded out – (what was done to Muslims in Jammu was done to Hindus and Sikhs in Muzaffarabad at the time of tribal invasion). In Kashmir Valley, majority of the people who went against the tide were terrorized. Suspected opponents were kept in lockups and jails. The NC Government led by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did not allow people even to talk about politics, or Pakistan; and also prohibited them from listening to Radio Pakistan (p.144 Sheikh Abdullah ke Naqoosh by Mohammad Farooq Rehmani).

Besides, the government forced people to declare loyalty to India. For example, when due to fighting in Jhelum Valley region the supply of rock salt from Pakistan stopped, India sent salt to Kashmir. Its distribution was controlled by NC party workers. If anyone approached them for salt they demanded that he first declare allegiance to India.

Such conditions would change only if NC Government had been disbanded in accordance with the letter and spirit of UNCIP Plebiscite Resolution. This didn’t happen when UN nominated PA on time. The State was at this time headed by Maharaja Hari Singh but it was New Delhi that ruled the roost. They knew what the consequences of appointing PA with full powers would be.

Sheikh-Abdullah-1947Sheikh Abdullah, Prime Minister of the State (Maharaja’s appointee not an elected one) did not volunteer resignation for the sake of resolution of the dispute.  A plebiscite would have ushered the end of his political ascendancy in Kashmir for ever. As always he preferred self-interest to common cause.

For this reason the Plebiscite Resolution could not be implemented beyond the nomination of Fleet Admiral Nimitz.

If NC Government had been dismissed and PA appointed, Pakistan would be left with no option except recalling its troops from Azad Kashmir. However, with Sheikh in power, they did not withdraw troops because that would place Azad Kashmir at India’s mercy.

 India at this time was better placed in J&K compared to Pakistan. It had captured Kashmir Valley and half of northern frontier (Ladakh). It was a pro-India party heading the emergency administration in Kashmir. As it seems, India was not interested in the rest of the State because in the event of capturing Azad Kashmir and rest of the northern frontier (Gilgit-Baltistan) the position of Sheikh Abdullah and his party, would be compromised as that would mean strengthening of opposition forces.

Therefore, India showed scant enthusiasm to get PA appointed in the State because that also would strengthen opposition forces as the State under the PA would be one entity and would attract the return of refugees. India at this time was only interested in getting Pakistan condemned by UN as an aggressor (p. 169 Kashmir A Disputed Legacy by Alistair Lamb).

Given the follow up, it is clear that India had invoked UN intervention in Kashmir only to gain time. On December 31, 1947 they filed their complaint against Pakistan in the UN without first waiting for Pakistan Government’s comments on the summary of the case that they had sent on December 22, 1947 to Pakistan (p.161 Kashmir A Disputed Legacy). On December 23, 1948 they took lead in communicating their acceptance of ceasefire that had been recommended by UNCIP’s First Resolution.

Acceptance of ceasefire on their part left a considerable chunk of State territory under Pakistan’s control. They let Pakistan keep the territory because their original ambition of capturing Kashmir Valley, to which purpose they had set afoot Gurdaspur Conspiracy in May 1947 (p.759, 760 & 781 Transfer of Power Vol X); and anti-Prime Minister R C Kak Conspiracy in July-August 1947, had now been fulfilled. Their invitation to UN and offer of Plebiscite in Kashmir had been devices to gain time to capture more and more territory in the State and at the same time isolate Pakistan internationally as an aggressor.

This argument gains ground when we consider what Prime Minister Nehru wrote to States Minister Patel on April 17, 1949 soon after UN had nominated PA: “Two days ago, HVR Iengar sent me a copy of a report of one of our intelligence officers who had been sent to Kashmir…In this report, among other things, a reference was made to a growing Hindu agitation in Jammu province for what is called zonal plebiscite. This idea is based on the belief that a plebiscite for the whole of Kashmir [State] is bound to be lost and therefore let us save Jammu at least. You will perhaps remember that some proposal of this kind was put forward by the Maharaja some months back. It seems to me that this king of propaganda is very harmful indeed for us. Whatever may happen in the future, I do not think Jammu province is running away from us. If we want Jammu province by itself and are prepared to make a present of the rest of the State to Pakistan, I have no doubt that we could clinch the issue in a few days. The prize we are fighting for is the valley of Kashmir (p.261-62 Sardar Patel’s Correspondence Vol. I).”

This letter also reveals that Maharaja Hari Singh was prepared to part with Muslim Kashmir provided the Hindu majority zones of the Jammu Province were saved from going to Pakistan but the Government of India was keen on keeping Kashmir Valley. For this reason they avoided giving Gandhian nationalism a test in Muslim Kashmir by allowing a vote of self-determination there. Instead they jumped on Karachi Agreement with Pakistan on July 27, 1949 on the delimitation of Ceasefire Line (called LOC since 1972 Shimla Agreement) because it left the prized Valley of Kashmir under their control.  Also they punished Maharaja Hari Singh for talking of a zonal plebiscite. They made him to abdicate in June 1949 and appoint his son Karan Singh as Regent when he should have dismissed Sheikh Abdullah and appointed Chester William Nimitz as PA.

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