The BJP’s decision to pull out of the alliance in Jammu and Kashmir has led to recrimination on all sides. The junior minister for home affairs responded to criticism from the Congress president with a tweet: “Sardar Patel ji solved all other regions. Nehru ji took charge of Kashmir & created more trouble”. Kiren Rijiju was evidently taking his cue from the Prime Minister, who claimed in Parliament earlier this year that “if Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation”. Such assertions are of a piece with the larger attempt of the BJP to co-opt Patel and counter pose him with Nehru at every turn. But they scarcely comport with well-established facts of the matter.
Start with the notion that Nehru called the shots on Kashmir, while Patel dealt exclusively with the rest of the states. At the time of Independence, the future of three princely states remained unresolved in terms of their accession to India or Pakistan: Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Declassified documents, including records of cabinet and defence committee meetings, make it abundantly clear that both Nehru and Patel were closely involved in handling these three states. To be sure, they had their differences of opinion, approach and style, but these were worked through by extensive consultation.
Take the oft-criticised decision to approach the UN on Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir. Patel was, in principle, opposed to the idea of referring such issues to the UN. When Mountbatten had suggested this with reference to Junagadh, Patel had demurred: “There was a grave disadvantage in being a plaintiff in such cases. Possession was nine cases of the law”. On that occasion, Nehru had agreed with Patel. Indeed, with both Junagadh and Hyderabad, Nehru was entirely on board to use force when diplomacy failed to deliver. The case of Kashmir, however, was different.
By late December 1947, it was clear to the Indian leadership that the tribal invaders could only be rolled back if the Indian Army struck across the boundary in Punjab and hit their bases. This meant all-out war with Pakistan. Against the backdrop of the horrendous massacres and population movement accompanying Partition, Nehru felt that a war with Pakistan could unleash further waves of communal violence with disastrous consequences.
To avoid this military option, Nehru reluctantly agreed to Mountbatten’s suggestion to refer the matter to the UN. Patel went along with it despite his earlier qualms, as did other cabinet members. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Jana Sangh, would later concede in Parliament: “I was a party when the decision was taken to refer the Kashmir issue to the UNO … That is an obvious fact. I have no right and I do not wish to disclose the extraordinary circumstances under which the decision was taken”. Alas, such fidelity to elementary facts hasn’t rubbed off on his successors.
The claim that Patel would have secured all of Kashmir also flies against his own willingness to compromise at various points. Indeed, Patel believed that Hyderabad was of greater interest than Kashmir. Until late 1947, he was open to allowing Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan if the Pakistanis would tell the Nizam of Hyderabad to fall in line and join India. As he told Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, “Why do you compare Junagadh with Kashmir? Talk of Hyderabad and Kashmir and we could reach an agreement”. Patel even stated this publicly after the occupation of Junagadh on 11 November 1947: “Our reply was that one could agree on Kashmir if they could agree on Pakistan.” At another meeting with Liaquat on 28 November, Patel offered to pull Indian troops out of Poonch if it would help pave the way for a diplomatic settlement. But Nehru opposed this course.
By the summer of 1948, after the Pakistan Army was fully engaged in Kashmir, Nehru concluded that the conditions for a plebiscite in the state were unlikely to be met and hence the best solution would be to partition the state on the basis of the “existing military situation”. Patel wholly agreed. Partition, he observed, would offer “a permanent, immediate and realistic settlement”. Parts of Poonch and Gilgit could go to Pakistan, while India retained the rest of the state. The Pakistanis were, however, unwilling to countenance the suggestion.
On the internal aspects of the Kashmir issue, too, Nehru and Patel worked closely together despite their differing emphases. Take, for instance, the drafting of Article 370 of the Indian constitution that accorded special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The actual negotiations were carried out over several months between N.G. Ayyangar (cabinet minister without portfolio and former Dewan of Kashmir) and Sheikh Abdullah and his senior colleagues. These were difficult negotiations, but Nehru seldom took a step without Patel’s concurrence.
The opening meetings took place on 15-16 May 1949 at Patel’s residence in Nehru’s presence. When Ayyangar prepared a draft letter from Nehru to Abdullah summarising the broad understanding reached, he sent it to Patel with a note: “Will you kindly let Jawaharlalji know direct as to your approval of it? He will issue the letter to Sheikh Abdullah only after receiving your approval”.
Later, Abdullah insisted that the article should not extend the fundamental rights and directive principles to Jammu and Kashmir but leave it to the state’s constituent assembly to decide whether or not to adopt them. Patel was unhappy but allowed Ayyangar to proceed. At this time, Nehru was abroad. When the Prime Minister returned, Patel wrote to him: “After a great deal of discussion, I could persuade the [Congress] party to accept”. When Abdullah threatened to resign from Constituent Assembly owing a lingering disagreement, Patel asked Nehru to intercede.
Sardar Patel was thus the architect of the Article 370. Historical howlers aside, there is a delicious irony in the BJP’s attempt to claim him for itself while simultaneously seeking to overturn his effort to ensure genuine autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian constitution.