The Lead The Raj Bhawan Story With Zafar Choudhary

Nehru and Patel, Sheikh and Hari Singh: The conflict begins

Nehru and Patel, Sheikh and Hari Singh: The conflict begins
Nehru and Patel, Sheikh and Hari Singh: The conflict begins

We often come across an uncanny comparison between new India and the old India. The new India is sought to be represented by the Narendra Modi era and the old India everything before 2014. The old India, we are told similarly, had two thought processes -one represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and the other by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. If a competitive narrative did exist between Nehru and Patel, that must also have played out on the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. It is therefore not without reason that the Congress and allies say Kashmir was such a delicate matter that kept it under his personal charge and didn’t allow even Patel to interfere. The BJP and its allies say there would not been any conflict to deal with in future if Nehru had allowed Patel to to handle Kashmir affairs the way he wanted. These are all semi cooked stories. This is fact that Nehru had keen interest in Kashmir but it is not that Patel didn’t have a role. The conflict was actually around a person: Nehru held Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah in high esteem and close to his heart while Patel never made secret of his disliking for him.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah and Maharaja Hari Singh had a very uncomfortable relation right from the beginning of 1930s. In the most defining months of 1947 when the Partition of India was being formalised and the Princely States were looking at the options of joining either Dominion, Sheikh Abdullah was in Maharaja’s jail since the previous year. It was only in October 1947 when the Pakistan tribal raiders had reached close to Srinagar, after fall of Muzaffarabad, that Maharaja released Sheikh from prison on the advise of V.P. Menon who was indeed acting at behest of Sardar Patel. Sheikh’s presence at that moment was crucial. The tribal raiders and their supporters in Pakistan were trying to forcibly annex Jammu and Kashmir primarily for the fact that it was a Muslim majority state. On the other hand, the most popular leader of the Muslims of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah was deeply committed to the idea of India, both morally and politically. Sheikh’s presence at the political scene mattered even though Maharaja had to be the legal signatory to the Instrument of Accession.

Soon after Accession, Patel advised Maharaja to form an Emergency Administration under Sheikh so as to give him the much required authority to deal with the evolving situation. In March 1948, Sheikh was formally appointed as Prime Minister. Now he was the de facto leader of Jammu and Kashmir, India and the world was to deal with. This marked transition of executive authority which has since been interpreted in many ways -the end of Dogra rule, the transfer of power from Jammu to Kashmir, from Dogras to Kashmiris and from Hindus to Muslims. But technically, Sheikh was Maharaja’s appointee under his monarchic constitution and the latter always wanted the former to accept and recognise this fact in public.

Sheikh was essentially a political person, there was a background of his rivalry running over with Maharaja since the early 1930s, and now he was also an important figure for the whole country. Sheikh’s popularity surged within Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country. He was seen as that Muslim leader who stood against all odds to support Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India. His personal friendship with Nehru raised his stature furthermore.

The Maharaja’s reputation and position suffered on many counts. His indecisiveness on Accession was widely questioned. If he had taken an appropriate decision on the future of his State before August 15, 1947, the situation would have been different. Within Jammu and Kashmir there was campaign against the Maharaja for the violence that happened in Jammu. The space for Maharajas was in any case shrinking as the country was now getting on to a journey of democracy. In these circumstances, Hari Singh had only person in the country to fall back upon in the moments of distress and that was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

Conflict continued to deepen between Sheikh and Hari Singh with former becoming more powerful and latter getting isolated in all spheres of life. This was a complicated matter since Hari Singh was technically the boss of Sheikh and constitutional head of Jammu and Kashmir. There were also people in prominent positions who had an interest in widening this gap between Sheikh and Hari Singh further.

What Hari Singh was presided over those days eventually evolved into the institution of Raj Bhawan in the following years. In this episode, I go into details of evolving relationship between Sheikh Abdullah and Hari Singh and also offer you an insight into how Nehru and Patel navigated these matters.



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Nehru and Patel, Sheikh and Hari Singh: The conflict begins

About the author

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Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch