Harbans Singh’s ‘A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir’ portrays Hari Singh in different light : The Tribune India

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Harbans Singh’s ‘A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir’ portrays Hari Singh in different light

Harbans Singh’s ‘A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir’ portrays Hari Singh in different light

A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir, Vol I by Harbans Singh. Speaking Tiger. Pages 424. Rs 799

Book Title: A Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir, Vol I

Author: Harbans Singh

Rekha Chowdhary

‘Modern History of Jammu and Kashmir: The Troubled Years of Maharaja Hari Singh (1925-1949)’ is part of a trilogy on the contemporary political history of Jammu and Kashmir. Focused on the role of Maharaja Hari Singh during the period leading to Kashmir’s accession to India, this volume is meant to present a counter-viewpoint to the available historical narratives. In the opinion of the author, Harbans Singh, the existing narratives are heavily influenced by colonial sources and therefore not fair to Maharaja Hari Singh. With the intention to correct the ‘historical error’, the author focuses on his life and times.

Projecting Hari Singh as a forward-looking modern king, the author lists his varied contributions towards initiating basic reforms like throwing open temples for Dalits, banning child marriage, legalising widow remarriage, introducing compulsory and free primary education, abolishing ‘begaar’ and also responding to the demands for opening of public sphere by lifting the restrictions on freedom of press and establishing a legislative assembly (Praja Sabha). The author argues that despite his pro-people policies, the Maharaja became a victim of colonial design (especially after his speech in the First Round Table Conference where he showed his ‘nationalist’ streak) and got caught up thereafter in ‘pincer of a clearly communalised agitation and British complicity’.

In order to clear the ‘mist’ around the persona of the Maharaja, the book seeks to deal with various controversies that have stuck to his name, particularly those related to the accession and Muslim killings in Jammu region. These controversies, the author argues, rather than being based on documentary evidences, are opinions formed on the basis of perceptions and prejudices which became fixed over the period.

The author acknowledges that the killings did take place (along with the killings of many Hindus and Sikhs) and that these were ‘heart wrenching’, but points at the lack of evidence about the complicity of the Maharaja or the state forces in these killings. He rather points to the concern that the Maharaja had for his Muslim subjects and the trust that he reposed in the Muslim soldiers even when attempts were being made to subvert their loyalty by communalists within the state and across the borders.

The issue of accession — the Maharaja has been routinely accused of procrastinating — the author notes, is more complicated than the way it is presented from the perspective of Kashmiri leadership. The difficulties before the Maharaja were multiple. Such as, the demographic situation of the state; the divergent perceptions; Pakistan’s pressure tactics through blockade of supplies and trouble created by it (Pakistan) in Poonch-Mirpur area. Even in this situation, the Maharaja, the author argues, had clearly showed his willingness to sign the Instrument of Accession. The problem, however, lay in different priorities of Sheikh Abdullah, who insisted on transfer of power before the accession. What ultimately delayed the signing of the accession was the Indian pre-condition of handing over power of administration to Sheikh, a difficult proposition for Hari Singh since he was not convinced that he (Sheikh Abdullah) represented all the voices in the state.

Besides these controversies, the book also seeks to counter what the author calls ‘malicious propaganda’ related to the Maharaja fleeing the Valley on the arrival of tribal raiders, leaving Kashmiris to their fate by citing new evidence in the form of a memorandum written by the Maharaja in 1952 to Dr Rajendra Prasad, then President of India. The Maharaja, the author clarifies, left the Valley on the advice of VP Menon, Secretary of the States Ministry, who was assisting Sardar Patel.

Though mainly written in defence of the Dogra ruler, the book has many academic nuances — not only in presenting an alternative narrative of history, but also in pointing towards the internal diversity and divergence within the state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the historians mainly interested in the Kashmir question, the impact that the 1947 turbulence had on Jammu and Ladakh regions has generally remained out of their purview. The book provides detailed information about the disastrous ramification of the tribal invasion and the Pakistani occupation of the civil population and the violence and dislocation faced by them. The book also provides in-depth knowledge about the role played by the Jammu and Kashmir state forces in combating the raiders and Pakistani forces in various places, in controlling violence and helping civilian population and refugees.

It contains chapters focused on the battle in Poonch, Gilgit and Skardu as well as a chapter on the heroics of Brig Rajinder Singh, who played a major role in saving the Valley by holding the raiders for four crucial days.