Don’t blame Hari Singh for delay in 1947 accession of J&K to India

| Updated: 21 November, 2023 11:27 am IST

History has been unjust to Maharaja Hari Singh. Even after 75 years false narratives about his role during the crucial days of June–October 1947 continue to be promoted. It is alleged that he delayed accession because he wanted his state to remain independent and acceded to India only because of the Pakistani invasion. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

When there was no option for independence, how could he even remotely think of keeping his state independent? Maharaja Hari Singh had a very good understanding of geopolitics and the historical forces at play. The Mountbatten Plan for the partition of British India and the transfer of power to successor dominion states was announced on June 3, 1947. To decide the future of 562 princely states, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten convened a separate meeting with the Chamber of Princes on July 25, 1947. It was conveyed to the states that they had to decide to join either of the two dominions by August 15, 1947. It was firmly told to them that there was no option for independence. The treaties that bound them to the colonial government for foreign Affairs, security, and communication would also lapse with the transfer of power. So in real terms, the states, by refusing to join either of the two dominions or delay accession, did not become independent.

Maharaja Hari Singh knew well that he had two options for the future of his state: to join India or Pakistan. He ruled out the option of joining Pakistan. He knew what Muslim League politics stood for and how Pakistan subjected its minorities to ethnic cleansing.

If Maharaja had made up his mind to join India, then why did he delay accession to India? Was he responsible for that? The evidence available suggests otherwise. Maharaja Hari Singh did not want to delay accession. Partly the circumstances in which he was placed and partly the role of Congress’ leadership were responsible for this. Maharaja Hari Singh had a difficult political and military situation. He had to be cautious. He took the right steps at the proper time.

Politically, his position was unenviable. Pakistan had decided, even before it came into existence, to annex the state by force. J&K was a Muslim-majority state, with 75% of its population being Muslim. Any hasty decision about accession to India could have provoked a war or internal revolt in the state. The Maharaja was certainly not in a position to face it. Secondly, the National Conference, the main political formation in Kashmir, was hostile. Its campaign during the ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement created strong distrust between the two regions and also between Maharaja and Pt. J.L. Nehru.

Militarily, the Maharaja’s position was precarious. He had a long border and a huge area to defend. 9000 troops was too small a number to manage the security effectively. It was complicated by two more issues. One Pakistani conspiracy and Muslim League propaganda had created disloyalty in a section of this force. This was reflected later in massive desertions. Secondly, the then State Forces Chief Brigadier H L Scott did not do justice to the trust and responsibility the state government had reposed in him. In the months before the invasion, he had dispersed state forces into “penny pockets” to ensure that the state forces were not able to give effective resistance anywhere. Controversial postings made by him, too made the task of Pakistani conspirators easy. Lastly, military supplies ordered by the J&K government were held up by British officers.

The Maharaja had to be very careful about the steps he intended to take. Before the Radcliffe Award for Gurdaspur, he refused to commit publicly on accession. Secondly, he kept Pakistan guessing about his choice of accession. He played some deft diplomacy. Once Gurdaspur district was awarded to India, the Maharaja began pursuing the issue of accession to India. First, he replaced RC Kak as Prime Minister and brought in renowned jurist Mehr Chand Mahajan as his new Prime Minister. The latter had better access to the leadership of Congress. The Maharaja also asked for the deputation of Col. Kashmir Singh Katoch of the Indian army to J&K as a military advisor to the state forces. At the same time, he started track-2 talks with the Congress leadership to facilitate early accession to India.

While easing the Maharaja’s difficulties and building trust in him, Sardar Patel preferred not to hasten the accession of J&K because of Junagarh and Hyderabad. His letter of September 13, 1947, to Defense Minister Baldev Singh on this issue is quite revealing. A senior Congress Leader Shiban Lal Saxena met the Maharaja and asked him to wait till the future of Junagarh and Hyderabad was decided.

Sardar Patel actively took up the case of the accession of J&K later on September 13, 1947, after Pakistan accepted the accession of Junagarh and reports about the massive buildup of troops by Pakistan in Sialkot and Abbottabad reached him.

The Maharaja’s repeated pleas for early acceptance of accession did not meet approval from the Government of India. Pt. Nehru linked his acceptance of accession to the incorporation of Sheikh Abdullah into the power structure. This was unacceptable to the Maharaja. He had valid reasons. Pt. Nehru’s failure was at two levels. One, he linked acceptance of accession to sharing power with Sheikh Abdullah. Two, he could play a visionary role by evolving a formula that would satisfy both, Sheikh Abdullah and the Maharaja. Pt. Nehru chose a partisan approach. He backed Sheikh Abdullah and did not care about the interests of the Jammu region. For this, the state and its minorities had to pay a huge price. One-third of the state territory was lost to Pakistan, and over 38,000 people were killed by Pakistani invaders. Blaming Maharaja Hari Singh for the failures of someone else is certainly bad history and politics.

*The writer is researcher on History and politics of J&K

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