Like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, the blunders of Jawaharlal Nehru over Jammu and Kashmir continue to return to haunt Nehruvians and others. In the midst of the much-hyped birth anniversary celebrations of the country’s first Prime Minister this year, a new book by former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole, which has elaborated on the issue, made a rather quiet arrival in the stores. Titled, The God Who Failed: An Assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Leadership, it is a personal and historical critique of Nehru’s leadership. Before Nehru’s admirers and sundry like pounce on Godbole for providing a ‘skewed’ account, it needs to be put on record that the author credits Nehru with being the ‘father of parliamentary democracy’, for promoting dissent, for establishing and respecting democratic institutions, and for steering the country in times of severe crisis. A large part of the book is actually devoted to his many achievements. The title of the book – which has been derived from a chapter named similarly – is uncomplimentary because it reflects Nehru’s colossal failures, primarily on Kashmir, including the lingering controversy over Article 370.
No study on the manner in which Nehru handled the Kashmir issue, as also those others that are called to question off and on, can be complete without Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s efforts in trying to ward off the crisis. It is, thus, no surprise that Mr Godbole sets the tone for his book with a section named, ‘If Patel had become the Prime Minister’. The very hypothetical suggestion and its equally hypothetical elaboration is enough to offend Nehruvians and make the exercise sound almost anti-national. The author offers 22 ‘improved’ scenarios had Sardar Patel become the Prime Minister, and one of them is that “the problem of J&K could have been settled”.
This is not a sweeping remark by a Patel-acolyte. Godbole explains in detail, using published historical material, how Nehru, wholesomely consumed by Lord Louis Mountbatten’s charms, committed one folly upon another – all in the belief that he was doing the right thing for India. Even when he realised it wasn’t right, either his ego came in the way of correcting the errors or it was too late to undo the damage. For instance, as the author points out, had Sardar Patel been the Prime Minister, “Mountbatten would not have been asked to head the cabinet committee on Kashmir and war matters”. This is important, because Lord Mountbatten used his official position to influence Nehru on the disastrous ways to proceed with the Kashmir matter.
Associated with the issue is that of Article 370. Godbole observes, “The full merger of J and K would have been meant that Article 370, which has become a major bone of contention, would not have been necessary and would not have formed part of the Constitution. All this sounds unbelievable but, looking to his (Sardar Patel’s) record of integration of 540 other States, it could have been possible under Patel’s leadership.”
Let us now understand from The God Who Failed the Mountbatten-Nehru duo’s contribution in creating the Kashmir imbroglio and thereafter leaving it to fester and bleed India. A lot may have already been revealed through other historical accounts, but Mr Godbole has done well to highlight the pervasive influence of Lord Mountbatten and the absence of foresight in Nehru – both of which came together to create the lasting crisis. Quoting from published works, the author shows how Nehru buckled under Lord Mountbatten’s pressure. He writes, “At the meeting of the Indian Defence Committee on 20 December 1947, Nehru spoke of striking at the invaders’ camps and line of communication inside Pakistan. Mountbatten immediately intervened to suggest a reference to the UNO. ‘India has a cast iron case’, he assured.”
Thereafter Lord Mountbatten played on Nehru’s ego. Godbole quotes the former “shrewdly” suggesting that “embroilment in war with Pakistan would undermine the whole of Nehru’s independent foreign policy and progressive social aspirations.” This clinched the issue for the Indian Prime Minister who was hyper-sensitive about world opinion. Although he did continue with some sabre-rattling, he agreed for the matter to go to the UN. The author quotes Dharam Vira, who was Joint Secretary to the Cabinet, as observing, “There was every reason to believe that if the [army] operations had continued for a few days more, the entire area of Kashmir would have been liberated… He (Lord Mountbatten) advised Nehru to agree to a ceasefire and to take the case of aggression… to the United Nations. Sardar Patel was opposed to this advice.”
Dharam Vira further said Sardar Patel felt the Indian Army “should complete the job, throw the Pakistanis out of the entire area of Kashmir, and if Pakistan was aggrieved it could go to the United Nations”. The only defence the civil servant could offer for Nehru’s error of judgement was that the latter was “new to the actual working of international diplomacy”. This was a strange shortcoming for a leader connected to the worldview.
According to Godbole and those others he quotes in the book, Lord Mountbatten’s motivated advice had largely to do with the latter’s desire to culminate his tenure in India without the blemish of an escalated India-Pakistan conflict, and to end it in a manner that would project him as a statesman. It was this and not his concern for the larger good of India or for Nehru’s prestige (which was dented as a result of the then Prime Minister heeding that advice), which made him lead Nehru up the garden path.
It is perplexing that a consummate leader like Nehru, with a global perspective, should have failed to read Lord Mountbatten correctly – or perhaps he, under the English official’s spell, simply did not want to do so. Mr Godbole writes, “After the tribal invasion began, Mountbatten’s metamorphosis was significant. From being ‘almost neutral’ with even a slight pro-India edge… he began to tilt towards Pakistan.” Lord Mountbatten was, of course, simply following the signals being sent from London, which suited his larger and personalised gameplan. He had his own interests, but Nehru was so enchanted that he found nothing wrong in taking the “calamitous decision”, as Godbole calls it.
Of course, the referral to the UN is not the only blunder which Nehru committed with regard to Kashmir; his shoddy handling of Sheikh Abdullah – soft on one occasion and harsh on the other – too contributed to the mess. He clearly did not have any worthwhile idea on how to deal with the Sher-e-Kashmir’s inflammatory and often seditious utterances. The result was that the Centre’s grip on Kashmir got weaker by the day, even as the Union became more and more confused. But that is a different story altogether.