Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd)
‘Dark Secrets’, Iqbal Chand Malhotra’s latest offering uniquely reexamines India’s contemporary history about the Kashmir conflict and its relationships with Britain, the Soviet Union, Pakistan and China. A deep and dark secret whose complexities are extremely difficult to fathom, which has never been a piece of the masonry so far.
Unfortunately, these facts have never been revealed in the open domain as maybe this was not aligned with policy. What the dark secret reveals is the fallout of the tracking of the Soviet nuclear quest by Britain in one of the most strategic areas – Kashmir and NWFP and how this continues to impact the region even today.
The British necessity to continue spying on Soviet nuclear activities in Soviet Kazakhstan and Sinkiang from Gilgit made it imperative for it to control Gilgit Agency, Kashmir & NWFP at the time of Partition to enable it to monitor the progress of the Soviet nuclear programme. The Soviet Union on the other hand wanted China to take over the region of Western Tibet in order to ensure a supply of rare materials. The ‘Great Game’ now transpired over nuclear weapons post World War II, the fallout unfortunately still remains.
For the Soviets access Aksai Chin’s uranium ores and transporting them by road to their uranium extraction plant in Khojand in Tajikistan was the overriding concern. They needed the Chinese government to conceal this secret and also become a third party and act as a buffer between them and the Muslim insurgents in Sinkiang, who led by Osman Bator, were privy to the Soviet designs and staunchly opposed them with covert US help.
The web couldn’t have been more intertwined. Britain desperate to be part of the nuclear club, but denied access to US nuclear secrets, by their closest ally now needed to keep a tab on Russian activities in an inaccessible region; as Aksai Chin belonged to Jammu & Kashmir but was mainly uninhabited. Further, the Soviets also wanted to break India’s hold over Tibet to include its politico-military interests in that region as they had Consulates in Gartok and Kasghar, as did Mao. Stalin’s suggestion to Mao to invade uninhabited western Tibet permitted him to build the road from Aksai Chin to Khojand and thereby kill many birds with one stone. Pakistan was the pawn, in fact, Queen Elizabeth remained the ‘Queen of Pakistan’ till 1956 and Pakistan allowed the presence of the British military including airbases from where frequent strategic missions were conducted.
Semipalatinsk the site of proposed Soviet nuclear tests posed a unique challenge as it could only be monitored by the Western powers from Kashmir. Control over Kashmir was a necessity and the British believed that a Pakistan under British supervision was better equipped to exercise this control than India.
Mountbatten was the man chosen to perform the delicate task of ‘officially’ winding down Britain’s role in India while physically retaining secure control of the Gilgit Agency-based monitoring and studying of Soviet nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk. Mountbatten’s overriding orders from his government was to secure the safety and continued existence of the three British nuclear monitoring stations in Gilgit, notwithstanding the transfer of power.
The depth of the connivance can be gauged from the fact that both the Indian and British C-in-C’s coordinated the proxy war by the invaders in 1947 to ensure that the British seismic and acoustic monitoring stations in Gilgit that were recording Soviet efforts to develop a nuclear bomb remained in London’s control. Both General Rob Lockhart and Douglas Gracey, “spoke daily on the phone, particularly so after kabailis began congregating in the Attock-Rawalpindi area in the second half of October 1947. This was prior to the invasion of Poonch. Gracey would give a fairly detailed assessment about everything to Lockhart on a day-to-day basis.” If it had not been for then Major Onkar Singh Kalkat, the then Brigade Major at Bannu getting wind of this plot and reporting the same to his superiors in Delhi after escaping at great personal risk, this invasion would have been led by British officers, familiar with the invaders and fluent in the language and maybe they would not have been distracted by their indiscipline.
However, the irony is that while the British in Pakistan changed their plans, no heed was taken in India of this intelligence. In spite of meeting Brigadier PN Thapar, Major General Kulwant Singh and Sardar Baldev Singh, the British dominated intelligence staff in Army Headquarters took no action.
Undoubtedly,” Lockhart had advance information on the strength of the invaders and their intentions. However, this information was kept hidden from his staff, Defence Minister Sardar Baldev Singh as well as Prime Minister Nehru,” as per Iqbal. In December 1947, when Nehru asked him if his sympathies lay with Pakistan, he offered to resign as he felt that there was clearly a lack of trust.
British security interests impacted by intrigue, claims, counter claims and hidden agendas had a bearing on every decision. India no doubt was the Jewel in the British Crown, and, Kashmir by its commanding geo-strategic location no doubt is the jewel in the Indian crown as it sits on the head of India and influences its defence and foreign policy. However, Iqbal’s book brings us a new perspective on the treacherous British role and why Kashmir remains a point of constant conflict. The division of Kashmir was mainly due to the British security assessments of their interests.
For the British, it was imperative that the conjoined twins of NWFP and J&K remain under their control till the Soviet bomb was built and over flights above the Soviet Union were no longer required.
While the book ends with the Russian testing of their nuclear devices in the 1950’s, what is left unsaid is Premier Chou en Lai’s desire to swap Aksai Chin with Arunachal Pradesh an area already held by India can be traced to China’s requirement for joining the nuclear club. Unfortunately, India ignored the Chinese occupation of its strategically dominant area of Aksai Chin, which not only provided fuel for its nuclear programme but is also an important water source.
The book also highlights certain important events and talks about some interesting personalities. The meeting of Younghusband and Major Grombchevsky in the remote region of Shaksgam in October 1899, an area illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963; where the gregarious Russian waved a map revealing the Russian designs in this mountainous region. This meeting set a chain reaction of events, the effects of which continue to dictate much of our attention. This meeting also forms part of Peter Hopkirk’s stellar account of “The Great Game”.
Maharaja Pratap Singh had an ‘independent streak’ about him and as a result, the state came under the Resident. The issue of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘suzerainty’ of areas such as Gilgit, Hunza and Nagar continued to remain a grey area which the British exploited to their advantage, they not only kept the Maharaja out of the picture but also neutralised any Russian forays and prevented any future alliance between the Maharaja and the Russians. He could no longer take any consequential decision without the consent of the British Resident.
Prime Minister Kak of Jammu & Kashmir was ‘the brown face of an administration controlled by the British’. His instructions from his mentors helped prepare the ground for the state to splinter. He had ‘his eyes set on striking a deal with Pakistan.’
The British convinced Maharaja Hari Singh to appoint William Brown an officer who was fluent in Pashto and had served in the Gilgit Scouts as its Commandant once the Gilgit lease was rescinded. This necessitated that he resign his British commission. Subsequently in October 1947, he led the rebellion against Brigadier Ghansara Singh; the Governor of Gilgit and declared it to be part of Pakistan. In July 1948 he was awarded MBE. An act of treason honourably rewarded! There is no doubt that he was part of the British intelligence tasked with monitoring the Soviet nuclear programme.
As per Iqbal; on Mountbatten’s orders, Major General Kulwant Singh was restrained from recovering the Gilgit Agency and Muzaffarabad – Poonch belt by Nehru. Mountbatten finally resigned in June 1948 as the British complicity became clear and once 7 SIKH supported by C Squadron of 7 Cavalry captured a Pakistani POW in May 1948. In fact, in July 1948, Major RE Sloan was killed in Tithwal while commanding a Field Company of Pakistan Engineers.
The conflict can be aptly described as ‘a war started by the British for the British’. The British never agreed to Nehru’s request for a stand-down of their officers from both armies. In all probability, the Pakistani Army would have collapsed without British Officers and the link between Bucher who replaced Lockhart as C-in -C and his Pakistani counterpart Gracey would have snapped.
Once the tanks of 7 Cavalry had crossed Zoji La, the British realised they could no longer control Kashmir and feared losing Gilgit and felt the NWFP was also vulnerable. The British now used the RIAF Chief; Air Marshal Elmhirst to convince Pandit Nehru from carrying out interdiction missions of Pakistani airdrops to Gilgit. Permission for Brigadier KL Atal to carry out a ground offensive from Kargil to Gilgit was also never accorded.
Nehru was convinced to accept a ceasefire in November 1948. Apparently, in October he spent four days in Hampshire in the Mountbatten home. While Mountbatten was away in London; ‘Edwina was to work on Nehru to accept a ceasefire in Kashmir’.
There is no doubt that the book is a remarkable piece of writing backed by rigorous research which throws light from a completely different direction on a part of our history that continues to remain in the spotlight even today. Replete with interesting anecdotes, the book refreshes our memory about various dominant personalities of the period and sheds new light on the parallel events that created the unresolved borders in Kashmir.
What the book does do is bring out certain parallel but interconnected events to the fore which have remained hidden for far too long from the public gaze and once again reiterates how a nation in this case Britain; is guided by its interests rather than values.