Book: A Mission in Kashmir

Author: Andrew Whitehead

A Mission in Kashmir: Penguin/Viking,284 pages, Rs495

Yet, the significance of these skirmishes cannot be overemphasized. They led immediately to a further—and highly contentious—redrawing of boundaries on the Indian subcontinent, and consigned the people of the state to the status of pawns in a larger geopolitical battle.

BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead, in his book A Mission in Kashmir, seeks to provide the definitive (and non-partisan) account of the murky events in Kashmir in the last days of October 1947. At that stage, although courted assiduously by both countries, Kashmir was one of the princely states that, like Junagadh and Hyderabad, had not made up its mind about accession. In fact, the kingdom’s sovereign, Maharaja Hari Singh, dreamed of Kashmir as an independent mountain state, “the Switzerland of the East".

At the same time, a degree of popular resistance to his rule— that of a Hindu king in a Muslim-majority state—was swelling. As Whitehead shows, the chain of events that followed lend themselves to many contrasting interpretations.

In late October, even while the Kashmiri state forces were quelling an uprising in the Muslim-dominated district of Poonch, an army of a few thousand tribesmen crossed over from the Pakistan side into Kashmir and advanced towards Srinagar. Fearing a takeover, Hari Singh turned for help to India. On the advice of Lord Mountbatten, then the governor-general of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made the deployment of Indian troops in Kashmir conditional upon immediate accession, which would make the move an act of national defence rather than aggression in a neutral territory.

The official narratives of both India and Pakistan with regard to these days, claims Whitehead, are skewed. Broadly, Pakistan understates the extent to which it was complicit in providing state support and reinforcements to the tribal invasion, while India maintains that it moved to defend Kashmir after Hari Singh had signed the instrument of accession, when this is probably not so.

This is one side of the story, the military and diplomatic side. But, Whitehead also recreates the heat and confusion of the battle from the inside by sourcing written accounts and tracking down eyewitnesses in both India and Pakistan. By doing so, he makes for a very vivid story, told from shifting points of view.

Karan Singh, then the crown prince of Kashmir, recalls “the terrible cacophony of jackals, howling in the darkness" after all the lights went off in the royal palace when the raiders captured the power station. Margaret Parton, a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, then fortuitously on vacation in Kashmir, writes: “Here we are—the only foreign correspondents in Kashmir, and 150 newsmen in Delhi panting to get here and completely frustrated!" Khan Shah Afridi, a raider from Peshawar, now more than a hundred years of age, recalls how “we shot whoever we saw in Baramulla".

Whitehead does his best to be non-partisan but, sometimes, I found myself wondering if he is not too non-partisan. Several chapters concentrate on the siege of the town of Baramulla, where hundreds were killed indiscriminately and a convent was ransacked. Despite the obvious brutality, Whitehead does not utter a word of condemnation, preferring instead to offer a detailed account of the martial history of their race, as if this somehow explains their actions.

Again, some of the repetitions of different sources tend to clog up Whitehead’s narrative. Neither does he help his cause with a tedious—and, to my mind, unnecessary—chapter analysing the portrayal of the conflict in various mediocre and now unread novels by Indian and British writers.

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