Pakistan, not India, rejected plebiscite in Kashmir
Pakistan consistently raises the demand for a plebiscite in J&K, but has always rejected it whenever a specific proposal has been presented
As both supporters and critics mark the second anniversary of the effective abrogation of Article 370, it is useful to document one of the biggest, but least known, inconsistency in Pakistan’s narrative on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Pakistan consistently raises the demand for a plebiscite in J&K, but has always rejected it whenever a specific proposal has been presented.
In his memoir, Mission with Mountbatten, Alan Campbell Johnson, an aide to the first governor-general of the dominion of India, has written that Louis Mountbatten proposed a “plebiscite under United Nations Organisation’s auspices” to Mohammad Ali Jinnah on November 2 1947. Jinnah, who was governor-general of Pakistan, instead suggested a plebiscite to be organised bilaterally by the two governor-generals. This was declined by Mountbatten as going beyond his remit.
Jinnah’s rejection of a UN-supervised plebiscite stands in contradiction to the subsequent narrative developed by Pakistan. The invading tribals sponsored by Pakistan looted, killed, and raped Hindus and Muslims alike in Kashmir. It was unlikely that the outcome of a vote would have favoured Pakistan.
In August 1948, the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) adopted a three-part resolution outlining a ceasefire, withdrawal of all forces under Pakistan’s control, and a plebiscite. In his first formal reply to the UNCIP chair on August 19, 1948, Pakistan’s foreign minister Sir Zafarullah Khan outlined two solutions — either confine efforts to “ceasefire, pure and simple, such as in part I of the Commission’s resolution or to attempt at the very start a complete and final solution of the entire Jammu and Kashmir situation…”.
Both options avoided mention of part two of the resolution on the withdrawal of Pakistani forces. Khan added that Pakistan regretted “to note that the Commission has not adopted the first alternative”. Pakistan’s preference for the first alternative meant that it was willing to sacrifice a plebiscite as long as it could avoid vacating the territory illegally occupied by it.
In May 1950, UN mediator Owen Dixon offered a regional plebiscite limited to the Valley. He felt that a single plebiscite across the entire state would leave pockets of minorities on either side of the divide, and lead to mass migration. In his report to the UN, he recorded that India was willing to consider it, but Pakistan refused it on the ground that this was a departure from the principle of the single plebiscite.
Dixon added, “In the course of the discussion, however, I ascertained that if the basis of the suggested settlement had been simple partition, Pakistan would consider the matter provided that she took the Kashmir Valley.” Thus, Pakistan was willing to compromise on the principle of a single plebiscite as long it got the Valley without a vote.
Within a fortnight of Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest on August 8, 1953, prime ministerial-level talks between India and Pakistan took place in Delhi on August 20. The joint communique issued after the Jawaharlal Nehru-Mohammad Ali Bogra talks included a provision for holding a plebiscite.
Alastair Lamb, in his book, Crisis in Kashmir, writes, “It is significant that Nehru despite the reluctance for a plebiscite was prepared for it, and the consequent partition of the State, even if it meant the loss of the Valley”. However, “On 1 December 1953, Mohammad Ali rejected the regional plebiscite”. Bogra cited the same reason for rejecting the plebiscite which Pakistan invoked in 1950 — even though it was clear that Pakistan would easily sacrifice the principle in return for territory. The rejection came months before Nehru finally closed the chapter in 1954.
Why did Pakistan repeatedly reject a plebiscite? In April 1950, Pakistan’s government sacked Sardar Ibrahim Khan, Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK)’s first president. This triggered the Sudhan revolt by his tribesmen. Yusuf Saraf, the chief justice of POK’s Supreme Judicial Court, has written, “By the beginning of 1951, there was practically no government in large areas of Poonch”. The Pakistani army had to resort to military operations to quell the rebellion.
In 1955, the Muslim Conference submitted a memorandum to Pakistan’s National Assembly (NA), complaining about martial law and “ruthless and random firing by mortar guns”. It mentioned mass arrests, detention and rape of women by security forces. Pakistan could hardly afford a plebiscite under the circumstances.
President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in his speech on the debate on the Simla Agreement in the assembly on July 14, 1972, stated that UN Security Council resolutions asked Pakistan to withdraw all its troops, while India was asked to withdraw only the “bulk” of its forces. He added, “That was the day, that was the moment when you jeopardised the right of self-determination in Jammu and Kashmir.” In an interview in 1994, his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, as Pakistan’s prime minister, rejected the “independence” option. This option is constitutionally banned in POK.
Pakistan’s preference in successive wars has been the use of force, not a plebiscite. When discussions on a plebiscite took place with Owen Dixon in 1950 and bilaterally with India in 1953, Pakistan did not disclose that it had already changed the territorial status quo of POK without a plebiscite in April 1949. It brought the Northern Areas, since renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan, under its direct administration pursuant to the secret Karachi Agreement. The Northern Areas account for 85% of POK. It would do so again in 1963 when it ceded 5,000 square km of territory to China. After the 13th amendment of POK’s constitution in 2018, it assumed direct legislative and executive authority over 22 subjects within POK. The plebiscite is no longer relevant and Pakistan’s game is up.
DP Srivastava is a former ambassador and author of Forgotten Kashmir: The Other Side of the Line of Control
The views expressed are personal