(Originally published in The Friday Times)
History is an ensemble of memorable events and it is the job of historians to unweave the mystery of those events. Some historical events can be classified as outliers or turning points, altering the course of history. In Pakistan’s context, the first decade after partition held important pointers for things to come. One of the more significant events taking place soon after partition was the scramble for Kashmir. From the embers of the first Kashmir war arose the roots of a conspiracy to overthrow the incumbent civilian government. The conspiracy, known as the ‘Rawalpindi Conspiracy’ was hatched by military officials, all of whom had taken active part in the war for Kashmir. It was one of the first attempts in Pakistan’s history, by members of the armed forces, to stage a coup d’état. It can be argued that seeds of discontent (with civilian rule) among the military were sown during this conspiracy.
The conspiracy and principal actors involved in it have received scant attention during the last few decades. Hassan Zaheer, a retired civil servant, has written an excellent book detailing the conspiracy and its background. What distinguishes the book, titled ‘The Times and Trial of The Rawalpindi Conspiracy 1951’, is the attention to detail by the author who narrates the contemporary history of Kashmir in great detail, providing a platform for the reader to understand subsequent actions after partition.
The Muslim-majority princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu Dogra Rajput. The Muslim population was not comfortable with Maharaja Hari Singh’s regime and its repressive policies. In July 1931, a commotion erupted in the Kashmir valley when Abdul Qadeer, employee of a British Officer visiting Kashmir, delivered an inflammatory speech about the sacrilege of mosques and restrictions on performance of religious rituals by the Dogra administration. In the agitation that followed Qadeer’s arrest and trial, one policeman and twenty-two demonstrators were killed. Srinagar city was placed under martial law and the agitation was suppressed brutally.
The All-India Kashmir Committee was formed in June 1933 by concerned Indian Muslims to highlight the plight of their Kashmiri brethren. The British government had to take note of the situation and the Maharaja appointed an official commission of Inquiry. The commission recommended granting a constitution to the State and safeguarding civil liberties. In the aftermath of the Qadeer agitation, two young leaders emerged to take over the leadership of popular protests.
Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas from Jammu and Sheikh Abdullah from Kashmir joined hands to organize people and in October 1932, the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference was established. Sheikh Abdullah had become the undisputed leader of the vale, but had no influence in Jammu while Ghulam Abbas’s leadership was confined to the Muslims of Jammu. In a few years, Abdullah gained power in the ranks of the Muslim Conference and changed its name to All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference to bring Hindus into the party’s fold, as advised by his idol, Pandit Nehru. Ghulam Abbas formed another party named Muslim Conference, with exclusive membership for Muslims.
In May 1944, Mr. Jinnah visited Kashmir in order to bring about a compromise between the National Conference and the Muslim Conference. In June 1944, after failure of the talks, addressing its annual session, Jinnah fully supported the Muslim Conference as the representative body of the Muslims of the State and criticized the National Conference for having opened its doors to non-Muslims.
The future of India after withdrawal was to be decided by the Cabinet Mission that arrived in 1946. The Mission presented a memorandum regarding the fate of more than 500 Princely states in India. The 3rd June Plan reaffirmed the plan discussed in the memorandum. It stipulated that states had to join either India or Pakistan after partition, there was no option of Independence. In the run-up to the partition, All India Congress took an active interest in Kashmir and wooed the Maharaja, forcing him to change his pro-Pakistan Prime Minister at one point.
All India Muslim League had a policy of non-intervention in matters of Princely States, summarized in a letter written by a Muslim Conference leader from Jail. M. Shaukat Ali wrote, “What we are surprised about is the complete indifference and nonchalant attitude of the League vis-à-vis Kashmir. Nothing should prevent the League from taking an active and positive interest in our affairs. Why can’t the League send two top ranking members, like Nishtar and Daultana, to pay a visit to Jammu?” During the same period, Patel and other Congress Leaders were cultivating high level contacts with State authorities, whereas the Muslim league had no communication with any of them.
On the eve of partition, the Maharaja tried to impose a wide range of oppressive taxes on the Muslims of Poonch. It was a Muslim-majority area and many veterans of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) hailed from this district. The refusal to pay these new taxes by villagers and landlords in June began to take the shape of a guerrilla movement, a command structure, and a network of communication between the villages and communities. In the last week of August 1947, a series of public meetings were organized by Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan and other local leaders in Bagh Tehsil of Poonch district. From the meeting at Neelabutt on 23rd August, an armed revolt against the state was launched. By the second week of September, the armed revolt had spread to whole of Poonch, as well as to the adjacent regions of Mirpur and Bhimber. Volunteers and tribesmen from Punjab and NWFP joined their kinsmen in the fighting that was going on in the Poonch areas. Most of the Muslim Conference’s top brass had managed to land themselves in jail because of a costly error of judgment. In the immediate post-independence days, the Muslim Conference failed to mobilize people and demonstrate their strength in favor of Pakistan.
An ‘Azad’ force comprising of tribesmen from FATA and Balochistan, under the command of veteran soldiers, was sent to Kashmir by the ruling government. Due to lack of discipline and training, the irregular force failed to advance upon Srinagar, having reached within a few miles of the State capital. Fearing the approaching tribals, Maharaja Hari Singh signed a document of accession to India, resulting in an influx of the Indian army to Kashmir. Mr. Jinnah ordered General Douglas Gracey (C-in-C, Pakistan Army) to move troops immediately ‘to seize the pass on Rawalpindi-Srinagar Road, and then to proceed through Srinagar, occupy Banihal Pass on the road to Jammu, isolating Srinagar and nullifying Indian intervention’. Mr. Jinnah was convinced by General Auchinlek to reconsider his orders and resolve this matter by talking to Nehru and Mountbatten. Failure of talks led to open confrontation between India and Pakistan. Brigadier Akbar Khan, a distinguished member of the British Army, had been appointed Director of Weapons and Equipment Directorate at the General Headquarters (GHQ) after Partition. He played an active role in providing arms to ‘Azad’ forces and returned to Kashmir during the first Indo-Pakistan war, which ended in a stalemate due to UN intervention. He was openly critical of the way the whole Kashmir operation was conducted. Akbar Khan’s Wife, Nasim Akbar, was inspired by communism and distributed communist literature among officers visiting their residence. The couple used to argue that ‘After the death of Quaid-i-Azam, there was no leader of his caliber to run the state, and that civil servants and police were corrupt. The people were not fully ready for a democratic state, but they had great faith in the army and there was no reason why it should not take over the government to run it honestly and efficiently’. Akbar Khan laid the blame of ‘failure’ in Kashmir squarely upon the civilian government.
During 1949, the initial planning of a coup was finalized and it was decided to arrest the Prime Minister (Liaquat Ali Khan) while he was visiting Peshawar in December 1949. Akbar Khan’s unit was based in Kohat and his co-conspirators included Major General Nazir, Bridagier Habibullah, Brigadier Latif Khan, Brigadier Sadiq Khan and Lt.Colonel Siddique Raja. It was planned that Governor General would be arrested in Lahore while the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Chief of Staff, All British Generals and Adjutant General would be arrested from Rawalpindi. All Divisional Commanders were to be summoned to GHQ, relieved of their duties and arrested. Akbar Khan gave three reasons for military action, including the economic plight of the country, weakness of government during the Kashmir issue and incompetence of government in internal and external affairs. The Prime Minister was to be forced to announce his resignation and a military council was supposed to take over the reins of power.
Due to the unavailability of one of the conspirators, the plan didn’t materialize in 1949 and was postponed. In February 1951, the plan was revised and help was sought from members of the nascent Communist Party of Pakistan. The conspirators were arrested before they could seize power and the event was perhaps one of the first attempts to undermine the civilian government. It was, unfortunately, not to be the last one.
I recently recorded a podcast on this topic, which can be heard here: