Articles

The Plebiscite in Kashmir

A Searchlight on Fundamentals

English language in India
Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna), 1904-2011

This was originally published in the monthly journal ‘Mother India’ sometime between 1949–50, and is currently excerpted from the book “India and the World Scene

India has been profusely garlanded for her success in securing that a plebiscite be held in Kashmir on the issue of accession. The garlands are deserved, but they must not be given with an eye fixed only on the immediate and the obvious.

Democracy and the Plebiscite-Principle

Nobody seems to realise that in this case the very principle of plebiscite is utterly irrelevant. You will ask: “Is not the voice of the people echoed in a plebiscite and would not the turning of a deaf ear to it be most undemocratic?” The answer is not so simple as you might imagine. Let us be quite clear about the functioning of democracy. Democracy must function within the right context. There is something called the indivisibility of a country based on an essential commonness of culture and singleness of spirit. This indivisibility is further strengthened by certain geographical features like, for instance, Great Britain being an island. Not only are England, Scotland and Wales knit close by a singleness of spirit but also held together by a surround of seas. To cut off Scotland or Wales from England on the score that the majority there are Scots or Welsh and not English is to apply democracy within a doubly wrong context.

The Plebiscite-Principle and Nationhood

India is also a distinct geographical unit marked by mountains and rivers at the top and by seas on two sides. This unit includes what is Pakistan today. Within it there has been throughout history a common culture which assimilated all civilisations that came inside the geographical boundaries. The Muslim invaders were the most difficult to assimilate and there seem to be some characteristics of the Muslim mind which perhaps can never be Indianised, but prior to its recent confusions and clamours a potent harmonising was achieved of the finest and most important strains in it with the symphony of a thousand moods that is the Indian spirit. Moreover, even the difficult Muslim mind recognised, till lately, the geographical individuality of India and never dreamt of cutting up the country into two parcels. Owing to insufficient development of the political consciousness India was never a genuine political unity, except to some extent when under the stress of a common danger there was an attempt to bring all kingdoms under one presiding rajah or badshah. Now that the political consciousness has fully developed, there should have been a federal union of the various provinces as a political counterpart of the many-sided common cultural spirit; there should never have been partition. A plebiscite in provinces within a federal union, to decide the composition and form of local government, is legitimate once we accept the democratic formula. But a plebiscite to settle whether a province should be torn apart from the rest of the country is democracy gone astray and annulling something greater than itself: indivisible nationhood. Just because certain areas in Punjab and Bengal had a Muslim majority by a small margin, there was no reason to grant them the right of breaking with the rest of India instead of the right of being autonomous provinces within the whole1. To believe that a plebiscite should determine the Kashmir issue is also a gross mistake in fundamentals. We have been fooling ourselves with that blessed word “plebiscite”. Why is not the U.S.A. divided up into Protestants and Catholics and Jews or else into English Americans and Italian Americans and German Americans? The U.N. Commission would be scandalised at such a question. But we are quite content to have allowed part of Bengal and of Punjab to be hacked away and now we are willing to suffer another operation which if we are not very careful, might sever Kashmir from us or, at best, slice it into two. Instead of being ashamed we take pride and think we are being democratic and doing what must commend itself in the eyes of the world. Our whole outlook has become unbalanced. No true democrat ever dreams of sacrificing nationhood or of weakening his country both economically and militarily by throwing away chunks of it. The area constituting Pakistan was not a foreign country unjustly annexed: it was an organic member of the geographical body of Mother India. And Kashmir is as much an organic member. There is nothing intrinsically honourable or genuinely democratic in submitting her fate to the mercy of a plebiscite.

The Alternatives Before Us

What then is the right course? Theoretically, a decision by arms in our favour would be perfectly justified. The terrain in which our jawans have fought is a difficult one and progress would always be slow; but in the long run victory would surely be ours. Yes, in the long run — which means a good deal of expense in life and money. Is there no alternative? The sole alternative to a costly decision by arms is a political decision by the Kashmiris themselves to throw in their lot with India. It so happens by great luck that the balance of Kashmiri opinion is favourable to us. Although we can justifiably set aside the plebiscite-principle, it is not on the present occasion necessary to do so. Sheikh Abdullah2 has a huge following in the regions that are not under Sirdar Ibrahim’s3 so-called Azad forces, and if we may judge from the expression of intense gratitude by those districts which we have freed from our enemies three-fourths of Kashmir held by the rebels is also anxious to join India. A plebiscite will certainly bring Kashmir into our fold. But here too we must be firm on a few fundamentals. It must be repeated that if we are not very careful we shall either lose Kashmir or get nothing more than her partition. Against both possibilities we must set our faces like flint.

The Stand of the Indian Government

Most creditably the Indian Government has taken a strong stand. Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel seem to be fully aware that there should be no repetition of the political aberrancy which a year and a half ago mutilated the body of Mother India4. They are too straightforward in statesmanship to go back upon the ruling by which they submitted, though with severe heart-burning, to this mutilation: unless attacked, they are not likely to harbour aggressive ambitions as regards the Pakistan which they conceded. But when the very ruling accepted by them is actually promising to integrate Kashmir with India they will never countenance any conditions which may rob them of its present advantage. Whatever the past mistake, they appear to feel that, within the terms of policy which are now operative, they should not yield an inch where the solidarity of post-Pakistan India is concerned. This is admirable and, while we refuse to blink the enormity of the past mistake and to grant the plebiscite-principle any basic relevance to Kashmir, we must also give the utmost support to our Government’s refusal to let the plebiscite be so arranged as to hamstring the definite pro-India movement of the majority in Kashmir.

The Single and Straight Issue

Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel have clearly declared that the plebiscite should be on the single and straight issue of joining either Pakistan or India. In such a plebiscite the pro-India bent of Kashmir’s majority will prevail. If any complications are introduced, India will withdraw her case from the cognizance of the U.N.O. and retain Kashmir by her own means and even, if necessary, by a fight to the finish. If further military action can be avoided, she will certainly avoid it; but not the least interference with the wish of the Kashmiri people as a whole will be brooked6. The interference will be at its maximum if the Azad forces are allowed to remain in arms in the places they now occupy. They will turn the plebiscite into a farce. Dr. Lozano’s Commission6 sees eye to eye with India on this point, though Pakistan has put on the Commission’s somewhat unemphatic statements an interpretation to the contrary. The Azad forces must be disarmed. There can be no compromise about the matter. Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel will resist compromise to the bitter end, and all India should steadfastly back them up. A united front must also be presented against any suggestion of partitioning Kashmir. Weak hearts will argue: “Why prolong a dispute? Why not let India and Pakistan keep those portions in which they already are in power?” But to these appeasers we must say: “ No true Kashmiri can forgive Pakistan for aiding and abetting the savage Afridis who have made a hell of the most beautiful and happy province in our sub-continent. The majority in Kashmir has always been behind Sheikh Abdullah, he has always been the people’s leader, and those who have co-operated with the Pakistan-helped frontier tribes are a small horde of adventurers. Just because these adventurers can terrorise the regions in which they have joined hands with the invaders, Kashmir must not be baulked7of her desire to join the Indian Union. Partition would be the acme of injustice and unwisdom. The course adopted by the Government deserves whole-hearted endorsement by the Indian public.

It is to be sincerely hoped that nothing will induce our leaders to deviate from their correct position.



[1] The word ‘Punjab’ refers to the pre-partition state, part of which is now ‘Pakistan’; Similarly, ‘Bengal’ refers to the pre-1947 state. The British moved to partition Bengal in 1905 for strategic reasons; the hindu-majority ‘West’ Bengal was vociferously against this division, notably Tagore’s fervent song ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ written in 1905 emoting against the partition is the national anthem of Bangladesh, which like Pakistan, also has division & partition along religious lines as its founding principle.

[2] Leader of Kashmir’s largest political party, a progressive democrat; His son = Farooq Abdullah, who’s son = Omar Abdullah, current C.M of J&K

[3] The founder of the ‘Azaadi’ movement; died in Pakistan in 2003; led guerillas against the State for ‘Azaadi’; represented Kashmir at the U.N; The little area of ‘Azad Kashmir’ is of course, not free, but under Pakistan control.

[4] the partition of 1947

[5] brooked = put up with, tolerated

[6] Chairman of the U.N Commission (1948)

[7] Baulked = blocked from

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