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Colonel Blink's Conspiracy

It's declassified: how the Raj's leftovers played foul in Kashmir, circa '47
War And Diplomacy In Kashmir, 1947-48
By C. Dasgupta
Sage Rs250, Pages:240
It couldn’t have been timed better. Dasgupta’s work, extracts from which appeared on the eve of Tony Blair’s visit, describes what happened during the early days of the Kashmir troubles and examines the British role in manipulating the tribal invasion of Kashmir to a stalemate and internationalising the issue. He draws heavily on documents that have now been declassified and reveals the role played by Mountbatten and the service chiefs in India and Pakistan (all British nationals) who owed their loyalty not so much to the governments of the dominions they served but to the British government.

The work seeks to answer questions that have haunted Indians: why did India not carry the war into Pakistan, as in ’65? Why did we take the issue to the United Nations? Why was no serious effort made to clear Pakistani forces from the western areas of Poonch and Mirpur? Why did India accept a ceasefire when she clearly had military superiority? When Pandit Nehru, in his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech said "we have almost attained independence", he didn’t elaborate how incomplete that independence was and how costly it would prove in the long run.

The armed forces were still led by British officers and the vital defence committee of the Indian cabinet was presided over by Mountbatten, a British naval officer. Understandably enough, their loyalty was to their British sovereign and affected the manner in which they discharged their duties and carried out—or in some cases failed to carry out—orders of the government in whose pay they happened to be. By manoeuvring himself at the head of the defence committee, Mountbatten was able to influence India’s policy and, where necessary, undermine it.

During the Junagadh crisis, the service chiefs addressed a joint letter to the Indian defence minister declaring their inability to participate in the operations should an Indo-Pak conflict ensue. India reacted sharply to this invasion of political domain by the armed forces and the letter was withdrawn.

In the initial stages of the conflict, counselled by the supreme commander for India and Pakistan, Field Marshal Auchinlek, ‘Indian’ commander-in-chief Gen Lockhart refrained from sending supplies requested by Maharaja Hari Singh. He also withheld from the government intelligence received from his "Pakistani" counterparts about impending infiltration by "tribesmen".

The process of decision-making was soon taken over by Whitehall, which had come to the conclusion that on greater strategic considerations "a tilt towards Pakistan" was necessary. Mountbatten was required to act as mediator between India and Pakistan and when these attempts failed he, acting in collusion with Lockhart, sought to thwart India’s plans to take the war to Pakistan’s border with J&K.

The book examines the dubious role played by two persons—Mountbatten and Philip Noel-Baker, secretary of state in the Commonwealth Relations Office. At this point, Britain needed Pakistan more than India for what were perceived to be British oil and strategic interests in the Gulf region.

Thus UK policy—somewhat even-handed in the first month of the Kashmir troubles—began to take a strong pro-Pakistan turn with Noel-Baker exceeding his brief and managing to get a UN Security Council resolution and obtain a ceasefire on the basis of inducting Pak troops into J&K. Gen Bucher, who had succeeded Lockhart as C-in-C, was similarly engaged in a collusive exercise with his Pakistani counterpart. After Mountbatten’s departure, the task of conveying British advice to Bucher fell on the British High Commissioner in Delhi.

The book has drawn heavily on British archives to conclude that the British general and diplomats coordinated their moves "to ensure that any India advance stopped well short of the Pakistani border". An interesting case was the attack by an iaf craft on a Pakistani Dakota air-dropping supplies to Gilgit. The officiating air chief justified this action saying he had ordered any unidentified aircraft flying over J&K to be shot down. Under "advice" from the British High Commissioner, Air Chief Elmhirst was persuaded to ignore the Pakistani air-drops.

It was only after the departure of senior British military officers that any meaningful contingency planning could take place. But by then Kashmir had become an intractable problem. In ’48 the Americans had seen the legitimacy of Kashmir’s accession to India. It was only with the Cold War that the US began to woo Pakistan.

Could India have fared better had it not accepted Mountbatten as governor-general and, like Pakistan, picked a senior Congress leader to that post? Could India have done away with the services of British officers? The answer to the first question is yes. To the second, perhaps. Bucher et al brought little benefit to us and many handicaps. The goi writ didn’t run fully in some sensitive matters. Perhaps India was much too dependent on the UK for military hardware but even that could have been obtained at a price. Whatever be the case, Kashmir became a festering sore thanks to these men. One can only hope we learn from our mistakes and trust no strangers in matters of national security.

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AUTHORS: Aravinda R. Deo
SECTION: Books
SUBSECTION: Reviews
OUTLOOK: 28 January, 2002
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