07 March 2008

How Paradise Was Lost

A Mission In Kashmir
By Andrew Whitehead
Pages 285
Rs 495

Andrew Whitehead, the former South Asia correspondent for the BBC, combines his skills as a journalist and historian to draw attention to the human aspect of the Kashmir tangle. In this punctiliously detailed and balanced -- and for good reason too, for the points of divergence are over matters seemingly so minute that only a micro view of the events would do -- account, Whitehead seeks to answer crucial questions on the Kashmir conflict by interviewing some of the eyewitnesses, on both sides of the LOC, about the events that led to the genesis of the conflict.

It started with a flow of invaders, hill tribesmen from Pakistan, advancing towards Srinagar -- their aim being to capture the airfield there, so India could not land its troops in Srinagar in response to the incursion. However, right from the start the wild Pathans ran amok, unleashing a reign of terror with killing, looting, and sexual assault. This gave the then king Hari Singh just enough time to formally accede to India in return for armed assistance to repel the attack, which soon turned into the undeclared war that drags on to this day, as Whitehead notes.

Whitehead’s own quest began with a chance meeting with one of the survivor-witnesses at the first stop of the marauding tribesmen, the St Joseph’s mission in Baramulla. The 91-year-old Sister Emilia gave Whitehead access to “fresh and illuminating perspective on how the Kashmir crisis first erupted -- who the attackers were, how they were organised and commanded, and why they failed in their goal of capturing Kashmir for Pakistan”. It is an account that “challenges the established accounts of the various claimants to the Kashmir Valley.”

Many of the sisters were threatened with rape, yet Whitehead, especially on Sister Emilia’s evidence, surmises that there was “no conclusive evidence of the sexual assault of any of the women in the convent or hospital.” Whitehead’s emphasis on finding the truth about the convent rapes at first looks like a trivial pursuit. But as the narrative advances, it becomes clear that he is trying to consider the impact such reports in the Western press had in initially, albeit briefly, turning international opinion against Pakistan and in favour of India.

Whitehead sifts through first-hand narratives, official accounts, contemporary newspaper reports, and even fictional narratives dealing with the events to seek answers to key questions. Who sent the marauding Pathans and Pakistani tribesmen into Kashmir -- which in turn sent Raja Hari Singh, the Doabi dynatsy’s last ruler, scurrying into the arms of India? When and under what circumstances did Kashmir accede to India?

That the tribesmen “travelled upwards of 200 miles to reach Kashmir” at a time when fuel shortages were common might have sufficed, along with many such admissions of complicity from the Pakistani establishment, as an indication of the extent of Pakistan’s support. The official Pakistani line, however, still is one of denial. Jinnah is quoted reportedly saying to his army generals, “Don’t tell me anything about it”, though he couldn’t keep his conscience clear for long and soon became implicated in the deception. Whitehead concludes fairly: “The decision to involve large numbers of jihad-minded tribal fighters from Waziristan was not so much a matter of policy as an extempore initiative.”

As to when Hari Singh signed the accession document, the evidence largely supports Indian claims but is still open to differing interpretation. Margaret Parton of the New York Herald Tribune wrote home to say that “the Hindu Maharaja is determined to join the Indian Union.” But whether the maharaja signed the document before or after India began airlifting soldiers into Srinagar remains a mystery. One thing is clear, there was no pointing of a gun at Hari Singh’s temple by VP Menon (a Home Ministry secretary at the time), as is apocryphally believed.

At the end of the “liberation” of the Valley, Nehru said to a gathering in Srinagar, “You have had a taste of what Pakistan means.” An Indian reader would feel the same after reaching the end of the account. But Whitehead jump-cuts to the contemporary history, to show how sharply Nehru and his audiences' view contrasts with the present day view of those events as they became coloured later by myth-making, unpleasant political developments, and the consequent alienation.

All in all, if this is how an impartial mediator -- once Pakistan’s adamant demand -- views the Kashmir issue, India should have less to worry about. However, that also means the burden of redressing Kashmiri alienation is also ours, which, as Whitehead suggests, must begin with acknowledging Kashmir as a party to the conflict.

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