Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Mahatma Gandhi’s First Trip to Kashmir

Hari Singh in 1931

Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, had in his personal capacity invited Mahatma Gandhi to visit his state at a time when the First World War was still going on and the latter had returned from South Africa. Gandhiji accepted the Maharaja’s invitation after more than 30 years, and decided to go to Kashmir in the first week of August 1947. At that time, India was hurtling towards independence and division, and a civil war was raging between Hindus and Muslims throughout the country. 

Why was Gandhiji going to Kashmir at a time like this? The answer to this question is not clear. Hari Singh did not want to receive Gandhiji in the state at this time. He wrote to Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, requesting that Gandhiji should cancel his trip. But Gandhiji insisted on going to Kashmir. On July 29, before leaving for Kashmir, he declared at a meeting in Delhi: “I am not going to tell the Maharaja to join India and not Pakistan. The people of Kashmir are the true owners of Kashmir.”  But there was certainly a political agenda behind his visit.

Gandhiji arrived in Srinagar, via Rawalpindi, on August 1, 1947. At that time it was not clear which way Kashmir would go. Hari Singh wanted the state to become an independent country, but the most popular politician in the state, Sheikh Abdullah, was in prison and he had not clarified his position. While he was in the state, Gandhiji had meetings with the prime minister of Kashmir, Ramchandra Kak, and with Hari Singh and his son Karan Singh. He also met Sheikh Abdullah’s wife, Begum Akbar Jahan, who requested him to get her husband released from prison. 

Kak was hostile towards the Congress party. He was responsible for arresting Sheikh Abdullah. When Jawaharlal Nehru tried to appear as Abdullah's counsel, Kak barred Nehru from entering the state. On August 11, within days of Gandhiji’s visit, Hari Singh fired Kak and placed him under house arrest. The senior officials in the state, such as the Chief Secretary, the Chief of the Army Staff, and the Inspector General of Police, were also fired. Janak Singh, who was close to Nehru, was nominated as Kashmir’s new Prime Minister.

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