By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
March 4, 2019
Now that the frenzy over the Pulwama massacre is abating, it is time for the government to give the lead in taking stock of the Kashmir situation on the basis of full disclosure. For instance, Indian accounts barely mention the 1947 Poonch rebellion against Maharaja Hari Singh that started it all. What began as a “no tax” campaign in a small Jagirdari led to the Pakistani invasion, the first India-Pakistan war, Kashmir’s partition, and the bloodletting that we are still suffering.
More than 60,000 demobilised Second World War soldiers were impoverished Poonch Muslims with small, hilly and unproductive land holdings. They would have tolerated their Hindu Jagirdar but Hari Singh got rid of him under some pretext or another and issued a proclamation, probably influenced by Jammu’s Rajya Hindu Sabha with its Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh links, merging Muslim Poonch with Hindu Jammu.
A public gathering passed a resolution in July 1940 expressing “profound sorrow and deep indignation and resentment” at the merger and Hari Singh’s description of Poonch as a Jagir. As a result, Poonchis had to pay the cripplingly high taxes with which the Dogra maharajas punished their Muslim subjects for being Muslim. As a historian noted soon afterwards, “There was a tax on every hearth and every window.
Every cow, buffalo and sheep was taxed and even every wife. Finally, the Zaildari tax was introduced to pay the cost of taxation and Dogra troops were billeted on the Poonchis to enforce collection.” Grievances had been mounting since 1905. Some Poonchis sought a return to their old status of a state and not a mere jagir. Some wanted the Poonch raja restored. Some worked for merger with Punjab where taxes were less burdensome and ex-servicemen treated with honour.
By 1945, the Maharaja’s administration had become deeply unpopular, especially among the families of Poonch servicemen. Since Poonch also bordered West Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, the Muslim League exploited the grievances of Poonchis like Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, with a law degree from University College, London, and called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn, who was elected to the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly on a Muslim Conference ticket in 1946.
Taking advantage of discontent, Khan held a meeting at his residence on July 19, 1947, where a resolution was unanimously passed for Kashmir to join Pakistan. In view of Hari Singh’s disapproval, Khan fled to Murree in Pakistan. There, he gathered arms and ammunition and with the backing of Pakistan’s government and army as well as of the Muslim League, organised the Poonch rebellion and “jihad” against the Maharaja.
The rebels claimed a victory over the Kashmir state forces on October 24, 1947, and Khan became the first “president” — a position to which he was elevated four times — of the so-called state of “Azad Kashmir.” Given the interlinking of cause and effect, no detail is too small to be overlooked.
Things might have been different if Hari Singh had not tampered with Poonch’s status and removed its raja, if demobilised troops had been properly rehabilitated, if an already poor people had not been burdened with expropriatory high new taxes and, finally, if the Dogra state had not oppressed its Muslim subjects as second-class inhabitants.
The contemporary equivalent is to be found in the life of the 20-year-old Kashmiri labourer, Adil Ahmad Dar, from Lethipora village, who drove his explosives-laden car into a military vehicle on February 14. Adil Ahmad’s parents say he was radicalised in 2016 after Indian troops stopped him and his friends as they were returning home from school one day and beat them up.
Inevitably, that account recalls another Kashmiri, also a Dar, Farooq Ahmad, whom an Indian officer, Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, tied to the bonnet of his jeep as a human shield to deter stone-pelters. The act was commended by the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, and praised by the Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary, Ram Madhav.
The difference seems to be that this Dar, also known as “Bitta Karate”, is believed to have been a militant already with a notorious record. For the first Dar, however, the beating he endured may have been as catalytic as being bundled out of a first class railway compartment and thrown on the tracks with bag and baggage even though travelling with a valid ticket.
Or a Cambridge graduate being blackballed for no rhyme or reason when seeking membership of a British-style colonial club. As Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian, remarked, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”
One can never predict what incident, big or small, will act as a catalyst for change. Although apolitical in itself, the nightmare chronicled in a book that was released in Srinagar on the eve of Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day, celebrated on February 23 every year, may have had a profound effect on the politics of resistance.
Titled Do You Remember Kunan-Poshpora? And published by Zubaan, it describes a cold February night in 1991 when a group of Indian army soldiers and officers swooped down on two villages of North Kashmir’s Kupwara district ostensibly to apprehend militants. What began as a military operation, apparently soon turned out to be a night of horror for the women as their menfolk were rounded up and locked up in a building while the soldiers went on a sexual spree.
According to village accounts, as many as 31 women were raped that night. The authors, Natasha Rather, Butt Ifra, Munaza Rashid, Samreena Mushtaq and Essar Batool, describe that outrage. Who knows what scars that night left, or which terrorist attack can be related to the Kunan-Poshpara horror.
The bloodcurdling threats we have heard from Narendra Modi won’t solve the problem. Neither will Nitin Gadkari’s warnings over river and canal water or Lt General K.J.S. Dhillon’s thundering. Unlike Israel bombing Iraq’s Osirak reactor or the Americans attacking Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, India has to cope with what is primarily a domestic challenge. Cross-border raids dignified as “surgical strikes” won’t resolve it.
The despatch of 10,000 additional troops, like talk of repealing Article 35-A, only compounds the problem. The former sounds to Kashmiris like an attempt to intensify violence against them, the latter adds insult to injury by imperilling the economic rights of people in their own homeland.
Kashmir calls for a more sophisticated strategy to win hearts and minds and inspire trust in a fully representative elected government. Mr Modi must prove that (as he says) “our fight is for Kashmir and not against Kashmiris.” Learning the lessons of the Poonch catastrophe might help him to do so.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.