How would Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel have handled the Kashmir problem if he, instead of Jawaharlal Nehru, had been India’s first Prime Minister? The picture of Patel’s thoughts that emerges from his letters and conversations are complex and multilayered.
Last week, in the course of a strong attack on the Congress party and its leadership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Lok Sabha: “Had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel been India’s first Prime Minister, a part of my Kashmir would not have been with Pakistan today.” Over the years, Modi and the BJP have positioned themselves as the true inheritors of the legacy of India’s first Home Minister, while stressing the alleged injustice done to Patel by Jawaharlal Nehru and his political and biological heirs. A criticism of Nehru’s alleged pusillanimity on Kashmir, and the celebration of Patel’s strength of character and commitment, has been at the core of this narrative.
What exactly were Patel’s thoughts on Kashmir, the problem that he said gave him a “severe headache”, but which he never addressed in detail, barring the recording of some thoughts in official and unofficial communication?
Two months before Independence, on a visit to Kashmir between June 18 and 23, 1947, Lord Mountbatten told Maharaja Hari Singh “that if Kashmir joined Pakistan, this would not be regarded as unfriendly by the Government of India”. The Viceroy added that “he had a firm assurance on this from Sardar Patel himself”, wrote V P Menon, the former political adviser to Mountbatten, who had played a key role in drafting the Indian Independence Bill. (Menon: Integration of the Indian States, 1956, p. 395)
At the time, Mahatma Gandhi had hoped that Kashmir would join India, and that it would disprove the two-nation theory. According to V Shankar, who was then political secretary to Patel, the Sardar was content “to leave the decision to the Ruler (of Jammu and Kashmir)”, and that “if the Ruler felt that his and his State’s interest lay in accession to Pakistan, he would not stand in his way”. (Shankar: My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel, 1974, p. 127)
According to historian Rajmohan Gandhi, author of a definitive biography of Patel, “Vallabhbhai’s lukewarmness about Kashmir had lasted until September 13, 1947”. In a letter that morning to Baldev Singh, India’s first Defence Minister, he indicated that “if (Kashmir) decides to join the other Dominion”, he would accept the fact. (Gandhi: Patel: A Life, 1991, p. 439)
However, Gandhi has written, Patel’s attitude changed later that same day — when he heard that Pakistan had accepted Junagadh’s plea for accession. OPINION | Why Nehru vs Patel
“If (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah could take hold of a Hindu-majority State with a Muslim ruler (Junagadh), why should the Sardar not be interested in a Muslim-majority State, with a Hindu ruler (Kashmir)? From that day Junagadh and Kashmir, the pawn and the Queen, became his simultaneous concerns.
“Had Jinnah allowed the King (Hyderabad) and the pawn (Junagadh) to go to India, Patel… might have let the Queen (Kashmir) go to Pakistan, but Jinnah rejected the deal.” (Jinnah’s remarks to Mountbatten, Lahore, November 1, 1947, in Sardar Patel Centenary Volume 1, p. 74)
Gandhi has quoted from Patel’s speech in Junagadh, reported in the Hindustan Times on November 14, 1947: “If Hyderabad does not see the writing on the wall, it goes the way Junagadh has gone.” Also, “Pakistan attempted to set off Kashmir against Junagadh. When we raised the question of settlement in a democratic way, they (Pakistan) at once told us that they would consider it if we applied that policy to Kashmir. Our reply was that we would agree to Kashmir if they agreed to Hyderabad.” (G M Nandurkar (ed.): Sardar Patel Centenary Volume 2, p. 62)
In the last week of September 1947, Nehru passed on reports to Patel that forces in Pakistan were “making preps to enter Kashmir in large numbers”. On October 26, at a meeting held in Nehru’s house, Mehr Chand Mahajan, the Prime Minister of Maharaja Hari Singh, demanded the instant presence of Indian soldiers in Srinagar, and declared that if India did not respond, Kashmir would seek Jinnah’s terms. An annoyed Nehru told Mahajan to “go away” — but Patel stepped in. “Of course, Mahajan”, he said, “you are not going to Pakistan”. (Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991: p. 442)
According to Gandhi, “Patel was unhappy with many of India’s steps over Kashmir, including the offer of a plebiscite, the reference to the UN, the ceasefire that left a fair part of the State in Pakistani hands and the removal of the Maharaja. But though occasionally dropping a remark or a hint, he never spelt out his own solution.” (p. 518)
Here are some references to Kashmir that Patel made in his correspondence, published as a book by the National Book Trust in 2010 (Nehru-Patel: Agreement Within Differences, Select Documents and Correspondences, 1933-1950):
* “Political agitation should, as far as possible, be kept apart from communal questions. The two should not be mixed up… I understand that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is himself coming there (Kashmir) as a messenger of peace to bring about honourable settlement of this vexed question. After all, he is also a Hindu and that a Kashmiri Hindu, and he is one of our foremost patriots and one of the greatest leaders of modern India. He is, as all human beings are, liable to err. But all his actions are governed by considerations of highest patriotism. Therefore, you need not be afraid of him or his actions. Let us hope this unfortunate trouble in Kashmir will end soon and it will leave no bitterness behind.” (Patel Papers: To Pandit Jiyalal Kaut Jalali, retired assistant general, J&K, June 16, 1946)
* “…I do not think that anything which could have been done for Kashmir has been left undone by me; nor am I aware of any difference between you and me on matters of policy relating to Kashmir. Still it is most unfortunate that persons down below should think that there is gulf between us. It is also distressing to me.” (Patel Papers: To Nehru on Dwarkanath Kachru’s letter, October 8, 1947)
* “Kashmir is, of course, of vital significance to this picture of India. What happens in Kashmir will affect the rest of India. For us, therefore, Kashmir has a double significance. On no account do I want Kashmir to become a kind of colony of foreign interests. I fear Pakistan is likely to become that if it survives at all. It may well be that the Pakistan people look upon Kashmir as a country which can yield them profit. This can be done, I suppose, by allowing foreign vested interests to exploit Kashmir directly for a substantial consideration…” (J N Papers at NMML: Nehru to Sheikh Abdullah, October 10, 1947)
* “There are RSS as well as Hindus and Sikh refugees of West Punjab who have gone to Jammu and are being used for propaganda against the Congress Government, Sheikh Abdullah and the Muslim residents of Jammu Province. The propaganda being carried on in the Frontier Province and the West Punjab border districts is that the Indian Government has sent Sikh troops to exterminate the Muslims in Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah is attacked as being a party to this…” (J N Collection: Nehru to Patel on RSS escalating communal tension in Jammu, October 30, 1947)
* “With regard to Kashmir we say it is better to have an open fight than to have disguised warfare. It was for this reason that we went to UNO. If Kashmir is to be saved by sword, where is the scope for plebiscite? We shall not surrender an inch of Kashmir territory.” (Speech in Calcutta, January 3, 1948)
* “Here we are having a grudging time, both with the weather and the problems which are arising; Kashmir, in particular, is giving us a severe headache.” (Patel to G D Birla, May 1949, quoted in Ramachandra Guha: India After Gandhi, The History of the World’s Largest Democracy)
* “Kashmir too might have been solved but Jawaharlal did not let the troops go from Baramula to Domel (during the First Kashmir War of 1947-48). He sent them towards Poonch.” (Patel to Dr Rajendra Prasad in Dehra Dun, June 29, 1949)
* “Events (in Kashmir) seem to be indicating the wisdom of the line which you suggested in December 1947 but we had not accepted for reasons which you know.” (Patel in a letter to Mountbatten on March 16, 1950. Mountbatten was for the State’s partition.)
* “I can solve Kashmir in six months. I would send Sikh settlers to the Valley.” (Patel to Achyut Patwardhan, founder of the Socialist Party of India; Patwardhan to Rajmohan Gandhi, Madras, March 24, 1987)
* “In Kashmir we are spending crores, (yet) if there is a plebiscite in the Valley, we are bound to lose.” (Patel to R K Patil, member of the first Planning Commission, September 28, 1950)
Gandhi describes these remarks by Patel as “impromptu and contradictory”. He records that in August 1950, Patel told Jayaprakash Narayan that “Kashmir is insoluble”. After Patel passed away, JP observed that even those who had been close to him could not have guessed exactly how he would have tackled Kashmir. “The Sardar”, JP said, “might not have disclosed his mind or, maybe, practical-minded as he was, he might have thought it pointless to apply his mind to the problem unless he was called upon to handle it”. (Nandurkar: Sardar Patel Centenary Volume 1, p 314)
Gandhi writes: “Kashmir was Nehru’s baby and Vallabhbhai made no move to pick it up.” Speaking to us, however, Gandhi was clear that, “Broadly speaking, Nehru and Patel stood together on most issues, including on Kashmir.”