June 20, 1949. It was the day when the government of independent Bharat chose to exile the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, who had acceded his state to Bharat on October 26, 1947. The Jawaharlal Nehru-led government in Delhi, under the influence of Governor General Lord Mountbatten, did not accept the accession in full measure — it was accepted on the condition that the final accession would be decided by the people of Jammu & Kashmir by plebiscite.
Maharaja Hari Singh had merged the state with Bharat without any condition — none could have been attached as conditional accession was not warranted by the 1947 Act of Independence passed by the British Parliament. However, the strings of plebiscite attached by the Bharatiya government now came in the hands of Sheikh Abdullah, who got himself appointed as the Prime Minister of J&K. He wanted to be the absolute head of the state if the Bharatiya government wanted his favour for winning the plebiscite.
So he bargained with Nehru and sought the exile of Maharaja Hari Singh from J&K. Both Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel succumbed to this man’s design, according to Looking Back, an autobiography of Mehr Chand Mahajan, the Prime Minister of Maharaja Hari Singh and the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bharat.
In 1857, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was exiled to Rangoon for resisting a foreign power. In that case, a native was exiled by a foreign, occupying force — the Britishers. In the case of Maharaja Hari Singh, it was done by his own country’s rulers in Delhi for no fault of his. Patel assured him that his stay outside the state would be a ‘temporary phase’ and he would return after a settlement with regard to the plebiscite was finalised.
After signing a proclamation appointing his 18-year-old son, Yuvraj Karan Singh, as the Regent of Jammu and Kashmir, the Maharaja took a train to Bombay on June 20, 1949, and started living there. As events unfolded, the plebiscite never took place and only the ashes of the exiled ruler returned to Jammu in 1961.
April 26, 1961. The news of Maharaja Hari Singh’s passing away was broken by the All India Radio on April 26, 1961, plunging the region and the Dogras into a state of shock and confusion. Shock, because he was loved across caste lines in the region; and confusion since they did not know where they should go for mourning. There was no one in the palace.
Yuvraj Karan Singh and his wife were on a trip to Europe, and the Maharani was in Kasauli. The mourners marched to the residence of Pandit Prem Nath Dogra of Praja Parishad, hoping he would be able to guide them. No one knows how the decision was taken, but the mourners ended up forming a surreal funeral procession, which had neither the dead, nor the family of the deceased.
The procession proceeded to the funeral grounds by the banks of Tawi, where the funeral rites were performed. No smoke came out of any hearth that evening as a sign of love and respect for the departed soul. However, the state government refused to share the grief of the Dogras. The radio station played songs and the state flag continued to flutter.
This was provocative, and the demonstrating youth reacted. They marched to the civil secretariat and attempted to bring down the flag to half-mast, but the police responded by firing at them.
Maharaja and the Great Game
The Dogra rulers had survived the intrigues of the Lahore Durbar, and theirs was the only dynasty to emerge out of the decay and destruction of the local kingdoms. Eventually, the Dogras succeeded in extending the boundaries of their state deep into northern areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, Ladakh, Trans-Karakoram Tract and Aksai Chin.
By the time Maharaja Hari Singh took over the reins of the state on September 23, 1925, much had changed and much remained mired in the political games of the nineteenth century that came to be known as the ‘Great Game’. Most of his life was spent battling those forces, in addition to the newly emerging threat of communalism in the subcontinent.
In hindsight, the history of the post-1947 subcontinent can’t be fully appreciated without critically examining the Maharaja’s role. So far it has never been adequately narrated. Even those who have made such attempts have judged him rather harshly through the eyes of other prominent forces of the time, without applying the test of objectivity and credibility to the sources from where they drew their arguments.
Apart from not being fair to the Maharaja, historians have also been guilty of unfairly condemning the state forces for their role in the 1947-48 war with Pakistan. “Setting the record straight on both these counts was my stated purpose of writing the book Maharaja Hari Singh: The Troubled Years,” says author Prof. Harbans Singh.
The beginning of the Maharaja’s rule coincided with the rise of Mahatma Gandhi as a mass leader in Bharat and the beginning of the awakening among the rural masses. Maharaja Hari Singh introduced many administrative and judicial reforms. At the very first durbar of 1925, he had declared: “Justice is my religion.”
He stuck to this secular vision in letter and spirit all his life. He selected the ablest and experienced luminaries from British Bharat as his prime ministers. He set up a responsible government with full provincial autonomy, and a Board of Judicial Advisors with the ruler as the constitutional head. The finances of the State were governed on modern principles. He promoted diverse cultural activities of the state and patronised performing artistes.
Maharaja Hari Singh had worked hard for improving the lot of the Kashmiri Muslims. He made primary education compulsory for all subjects. Liberal stipends and scholarships were offered to Muslim students as an incentive for higher education. Sadly, the state had not taken sufficient measures to create a vibrant economic scene where jobs were created and these educated young men could have found opportunities.
Therefore, if Sheikh Abdullah was a disgruntled schoolteacher after receiving a postgraduate degree in science, there was some reason for his resentment. The disgruntled, thus found other channels to express their frustration. In a society that is largely uneducated and religious, the parables and words of saints come in handy to inspire as well as rouse. Since Sheikh Abdullah was adept at scriptures, he quickly succeeded in building a large following.
Then the developments of 1947 and the question of accession appeared. The position of Jammu and Kashmir was quite difficult, situated as it was in contiguity to Bharat and Pakistan as also to Afghanistan, Tibet and Russia. The state had several ethnic groups. The situation, therefore, required to be dealt with tact and foresight.
The Maharaja waited in vain for the turmoil of the communal frenzy in neighbouring Punjab to settle down. And before that happened, Pakistan invaded Kashmir—resulting in hurried accession of the state to Bharat.
After taking over as the Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah started usurping all powers, ignoring the existence of the Maharaja. He started issuing a series of statements intended to humiliate and malign the Maharaja, and painted him as unpatriotic.
In order to avoid embarrassment, the Maharaja wrote to Patel on May 6, 1949, and proposed that the Government of Bharat find a suitable position in Delhi where his services could be utilised in a befitting manner, but there was no response. Under pressure from Sheikh Abdullah, the Maharaja was called to Delhi and was asked to desist from returning to the state, and was finally exiled.
Thus, the Maharaja was banished from his own land, which had neither the sanction of law nor of political morality.
On June 20, 1949, the three members of the Dogra dynasty embarked upon their lonely journeys: the Maharaja took a train to Bombay; the Maharani took the road to Kasauli, and the newly appointed Regent, Yuvraj Karan Singh, flew to Srinagar to work with Sheikh Abdullah!
This caused a strain on the relationship of the father and the son; the Maharaja mollified only after Yuvraj Karan Singh dismissed Sheikh Abdullah from the office in 1953 and put him in jail, where he was to spend 11 years.
In the last phase of his life, the Maharaja lived a forlorn life, with no complaint or grudge against anyone. Only his passion for horses and the turf of Mumbai kept him going!
-by Shakti S. Chandel (The writer is a former IAS officer)
(This article was first published on The Tribune on August 18, 2019 and has been reproduced here with minor change- references to ‘India’ has been changed to ‘Bharat’)
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