It all started in 1927 when Maharaja Hari Singh – the last king of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir – passed a law that prohibited non-Kashmiris from acquiring property in the state. Ironically, the laws were triggered by a mass influx of settlers from the original state from which Jammu and Kashmir was originally carved out of; Punjab. In fact, it was in 1846 when the first Anglo-Sikh war between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company ended, resulting in the formal conception of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Prior to the Sikh Kingdom, when modern-day Kashmir was under the Afghan Durrani Empire, it was only one of 22 states collectively referred to as the Punjab Hills.
With the property Law of 1927, what the Rajput king had accidentally (or intentionally) done is allow the emergence of an almost ethnically exclusive state; the Kashmiri state. While migrations along ethnic and religious lines were already in motion courtesy of rising communal violence before the two Indias solution, Kashmir remained an ethnically undiluted uniform state for the most part. It is this homogeneity, cultural uniformity, and hence distinctiveness that allowed ‘Kashmiri-ness’ to emerge as a strong identity marker.
In the years leading up to 1947, there were two main influential figures that held sway with Kashmiris. The first was Sheikh Abdullah who was pro-secular India and Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas who was pro-all-Muslim-Pakistan. Amongst the two, Sheikh Abdullah was simply unparalleled in popularity, to date. So much so that he was nicknamed the Lion of Kashmir. Meanwhile, Abbas held sway in the Jammu province including Mirpur, Poonch and Muzaffarabad. Interestingly, the same political preferences are still visible across the geography of Kashmir, 74 years later.
After the declaration of Independence by both India and Pakistan, Kashmir was visibly struggling with a question; to India or to Pakistan? With both sides too eager to have Kashmir ‘pick a side’, Singh had a third option in mind; independence. Hari Singh’s vision was to maintain positive bilateral relationships, economic ties, and deep friendships with both new countries, while itself emerging as the newest self-governing country in the region. Attempting to achieve that, Hari Singh offered to sign the Standstill agreements with both India and Pakistan to basically make them ‘wait’ until further notice.
Even though the Standstill agreements were immediately accepted and signed by the newly formed government of Pakistan, they were immediately double-crossed by them with the invasion of Pashtun tribesmen from Pakistan, aimed at capturing Srinagar – the capital of Kashmir. It was this Pakistani invasion of Kashmir and breach of its autonomy that ultimately triggered the first of four Indo-Pakistani wars. The invading Pakistani militias had made it all the way to Baramulla and were warded off initially single-handedly by the Jammu and Kashmir police forces. The chaos was compounded with the Poonch uprisings led by Muhammad Ibrahim Khan who managed to convince the Pakistani government to back the uprisings, ultimately resulting in the secession of one-third of the total territory of Kashmir to Pakistan. A region now known as Pakistan-administered Kashmir or Azaad (free) Kashmir – a contested term.
As the intensity of the Pashtun invasion caused the destruction of life, property, and the burning of the Mahora powerhouse which supplies electricity to all of Srinagar, Hari Singh decided to write a remarkable letter to the Colonial Governor-General of India – Lord Mountbatten – asking for urgent Indian military assistance. At that time Prime Minister Nehru was ready to send military assistance without a commitment on Kashmir’s part to join the Indian federation. Yet, Lord Mountbatten – a close friend of PM Nehru – had convinced Hari Singh otherwise. In his state of emergency and his emotional goal of wanting to spare Kashmiri lives ‘as long as he is alive’ as he writes in the letter, Hari Singh hurriedly signed the instrument of accession, formally joining the Indian union.
With the signing of the instrument of accession, the Maharaja’s intention was to end the ultimate Kashmiri dilemma; to India, not to Pakistan. But as history goes, he was very wrong. Instead of concluding it, he just wrote the introduction to an exhaustingly long book on the Kashmiri dilemma that seems to outlast its citizens. India held up the instrument of accession to justify its legal Kashmiri claims. While Pakistan held up the Poonch uprisings as representative of all Kashmiris that ‘naturally’ wanted to join an all-Muslim Pakistan. And both called for the pending UN-mandated referendum for Kashmiri citizens to pick a side, at times of convenience.