India saw major changes following the first world war. With around one and a half million Indian soldiers fighting Britain’s war in the Middle East, Indians began to increasingly call for self-governance. The British sought to cool off nationalist sentiment by increasingly involving Indians in the Indian civil service, local administration and representation in legislatures, Gandhi’s Congress and Jinnah’s Muslim League were amongst the parties willing to benefit. The outbreak of war saw the British offer a promise of independence to guarantee cooperation of the nationalists – Congress rejected it and its leadership was imprisoned whilst the Muslim League agreed an opt-out of the union for its support.
Foreign Power Politicking
Following the second world war, British strategic thinking about India in general, and Kashmir in particular, relied on its institutional memory of the nineteenth-century Great Game, its confrontation with the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. The North-Western states including Kashmir were a key part of Britain’s calculations in this regard. Given they were majority Muslim states, they would also assist with their efforts in the Middle East and Far East. Furthermore, the British hoped to effect a smooth transition for the subcontinent to the Commonwealth, an association of 54 countries with dominion status in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific developed over the twentieth century, with loyalty to the British crown.
American thinking saw India and Pakistan in the context of a newly emerging cold-war with a focus on the former Soviet Union (USSR), Afghanistan and the Middle East added to it. America’s deteriorating relations with Moscow and entanglement in China brought home the difficulties of decolonisation under the shadow of communism. Washington acknowledged, “while the Western Powers have to get out, they cannot [be] careless of what they leave behind.” In aftermath of Yalta Conference, the Americans were anxious to know ‘what part India is likely to play in the world in future’. The cryptic remark of the Soviet representative Vyacheslav Molotov that ‘India was not but would be independent’ fed into the increasing American worry about the spread of communism, and, Britain hoped this would allow for the preservation of British influence in India. America however sought to increase its presence in India. By September 1946, there were twice as many American correspondents in New Delhi as British and an exchange of Ambassadors was in place. The British saw this as America’s “shrewd idea of the importance of India as a market” accepting American attention “in view of the Russophile tendencies” of the Indians and hoping to avoid another China in India.
British regionalism and the US globalism meant there was no common Anglo-American approach to Kashmir. Kashmir’s local issues and dynamics were caught in decolonisation and Cold War policies with similar themes emerging in Greece (1947), Palestine (1948), Indonesia (1949), Korea (1950) and subsequently Vietnam (1954).
In a series of five Chief of Staff documents prepared between May 1945 - July 1947, British strategic concerns emphasised “the Soviet Menace” to India. They highlighted the strategic importance of Pakistan as part of an arc from Turkey to north-west India in meeting and countering the communist threat. A nonaligned India also could not be alienated given the economic investments and military ties. Pakistan as a regional lever could be used to dominate India, influence the Middle East and prevent Soviet advance if a united and willing India inside the Commonwealth could not be realised. Kashmir was added in a paper on the ‘economic viability’ of Pakistan prepared in April. Five weeks before partition, the Chiefs of Staff would observe:
“The area of Pakistan is strategically the most important in India and the majority of our strategic requirements could be met, though with considerably greater difficulty, by an agreement with Pakistan alone. We do not therefore consider that failure to obtain agreement with India would cause us to modify any of our requirements.”
The Royal Indian Navy mutinied in February 1946 starting in Bombay and spreading to Calcutta, Madras and Karachi was suppressed. The Indian army was becoming increasingly polarised and differences between Congress and the League were becoming unbridgeable. The British exchequer was exhausted by the war and close to financial collapse. The British were unable to manage rising tensions and restlessness across India, with no mandate at home or international support and unable to send further British troops, the new Labour government was catalysed into action. As Cripps said in the House of Commons debate, on 5 March 1947:
“There were fundamentally two alternatives facing the Government. First, they could endeavour to strengthen British control in India on the basis of a considerable reinforcement of British troops …. The second alternative was to accept the fact that the first alternative was not possible .... One thing that was quite obviously impossible was to decide to continue our responsibility indefinitely and indeed against our own wishes into a period when we had not the power to carry it out.”
The Atlee cabinet adopted a policy of drastic reduction of overseas responsibilities which included abandoning its role in combating communists in Greece and supporting the Turkish economy. In February 1947 it announced it would transfer power in India by June 1948. With the arrival of Louis Mountbatten as the last Viceroy, the pace of the “endgames of empire” in India quickened
It sent a cabinet mission to India which recommended India should be divided into three autonomous groups of provinces with a weak Centre. Whilst the League accepted the plan as it conceded a new Pakistan, Congress did not, fearing India would be balkanised.
Prime Minister Attlee then decided to send Mountbatten with the instructions, "Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out."
With the arrival of Louis Mountbatten on 22 March 1947 as the last Viceroy, the pace of the “endgames of empire” in India quickened. Mountbatten had been given until June 1948 to complete his mission. After consulting Indian leaders, Congress objected to any efforts to Balkanise India, allowing for tens of small nation states to emerge and the League wanted referendums in the recalcitrant North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. Mountbatten proposed a plan which would transfer power to two successor authorities via Congress and Muslim League. In territorial terms, the dominions of the two proposed stated, India and Pakistan, would remain within the British Commonwealth. The 559 princely states and 11 provinces would be free to join either of the two dominions. Relations of Britain with each state would finally be determined by special treaties and military, administrative and economic questions were left for future settlement.
Mountbatten gave an assurance Britain would oppose princely states becoming independent, and instead persuade them to join either of the two new nation states (ensuring 90 per cent would join India) in exchange for Congress support of a fresh 'reference to the electorate' in the NWFP and Baluchistan. The plan was agreed by both sides and Atlee’s cabinet. A commentary by Lenin on the Moscow Radio at the time observed:
“From declarations proclaiming the transfer of power to the Indians it is a far cry to true independence for India. The achievement of the latter will depend first and foremost on the strength of the national liberation movement. British ruling circles mean to maintain their economic, political and military positions in India, whatever her future constitutional structure may be. Among other things they bank on the economic ties established between the British and the Indian bourgeoisie...”
In as much as the British authorities had thought about Kashmir’s future dispensation, there was a tacit assumption that it would go to Pakistan (Messervy, 1949, 482). This reflected the logic of Partition that adjoining Muslim-majority areas would form a state for the subcontinent’s Muslims, but also patterns of transport, trade and cultural affinity.
The Hindu Maharajah Hari Singh was responsible for Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the three regions of his princely state with Kashmir containing majority Muslims. It was the largest princely state in India in terms of area, and the most strategic in terms of location—surrounded by the-then Soviet Central Asian Republics, Sinkiang, Tibet, North-West Frontier Province [NWFP], Punjab, and Afghanistan. The state had been sold to by the British to his Dogra ancestors in 1846 and he they had remained loyal to them ever since. Popular political activity in Kashmir Valley had started in 1932, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and others founded the Muslim Conference. Renamed the National Conference in 1939, it subsequently adopted a socialist programme of land and education reforms in a manifesto titled “Naya [New] Kashmir”. Close to Nehru, then a senior Congress Party leader, Sheikh Abdullah launched a “Quit Kashmir” agitation against the Maharaja in May 1946 that saw him and his associates imprisoned. His agitation had coincided with the visit of the British Cabinet Mission to India to discuss the transfer of power, which noted “increasing communist activity” in Kashmir. With the rise of nationalism, the Maharajah had sought to suppress it by suppressing or imprisoning leaders of the National Conference and Muslim Conference who in turn called for his removal.
Singh’s refusal to make a decision was premised on the British planning to remain in the subcontinent, hoping vaguely to keep Kashmir as the Switzerland of India, telling his son on July 1947, “the British are never really going to leave India.” In June, Mountbatten visited Singh, followed by Gandhi in August, however Abdullah, dithered. With two rebellions against his rule in Poonch and Gilgit, post-partition violence in the neighbouring Punjab reaching Jammu, and in late-October 1947, a tribal movement into Kashmir from the neighbouring NWFP, Singh shifted to Jammu and sought help from India. India insisted on accession to India in return for military and diplomatic assistance. Singh was reluctant to join a Muslim Pakistan so accepted and Indian troops were airlifted to Kashmir immediately and a provisional administration with Abdullah at its head was installed. The Pakistan army joined in at the start of 1948 resulting in a full-fledged war between and a ceasefire at the end of the year, the ceasefire line effecting an informal partition of Kashmir. Singh soon lost his powers and when Shaikh Abdullah later began to speak of ‘a free and voluntary association of partners’ rather than India’s goal of integration, India detained him and replaced him with his deputy and long-time close associate, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir
For India, like its British predecessor, Kashmir was of strategic value as well as ideological significance as a secular exemplar in contrast to Islamic Pakistan. Pakistan being in a more fragile condition understood Kashmir as a matter of life-and-death. Attlee’s government saw the unfolding affair putting Britain in the firing line of competing claims and expectations so Mountbatten encouraged a reluctant India to escalate the matter to the UN Security Council, a complaint being lodged on 31 December 1947. Nehru had faith in Abdullah’s popularity and wish to integrate with India, so promised a plebiscite in Kashmir under United Nations [UN] auspices. However, he never risked testing Kashmiri political allegiance and intelligence reports “disabused [New Delhi] of this mid- summer madness to believe we can win a plebiscite.”
On 12 January 1948, the American State Department’s Office of Soviet and East European Analysis noted the cooperation between Indian and Soviet delegations, contrasting Moscow’s lack of “cordial feelings towards Pakistan… on several counts Moscow [appeared] in support of Nehru and in direct opposition to Pakistan.” Regarding Kashmir it observes, “On no single issue does Communist and Congress party policies coincide more closely than in support of … Sheikh Abdullah” Kashmir to be a lever in its Indian, “Soviet-Communist cooperation with Nehru … can be encouraged with profit to the USSR. No such basis for Soviet cooperation with Pakistani leaders exists.”
Pakistan’s decision to exchange envoys with Russia in May 1948 therefore came as a shock to the British given it had been representing Pakistan in Moscow. Despite Pakistan having established diplomatic relations with Russia and China, the State Department viewed Pakistan as a strategic opportunity, “basically pro-USA”. The British were less impressed. Nevertheless, Marshall assured the Pakistani premier, Liaquat Ali Khan, that America had very much in mind the arc from Greece to Pakistan via Turkey and Iran, notwithstanding the hurdles of Palestine and Kashmir. Apart from Palestine, however, the attitude of Pakistan’s UN delegation had coincided more closely with America’s rather than India’s.
The Kashmir conflict has its origins embedded in British decolonisation in South Asia, the early Cold War priorities of the United States and Britain contextualised its evolution and international dimensions in 1948–1949. Understanding it fully comes only from situating it in a wider global context. Without this international context, Kashmir would likely have appeared as nothing other than an “unfinished business of partition.” Emerging in the twilight between the colonial and post-colonial worlds and the transition to Cold War calculations, this dispute continues today—in a very different world.
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