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Kashmir Plebiscite Explained, But Is the Debate Still Relevant?

A plebiscite will allow the people of Kashmir to decide if they want to live in India, Pak or remain independent.

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
A plebiscite will allow the people of Kashmir to decide whether they want to live in India, Pakistan or remain an independent state.
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Snapshot

Merely three days after the Pulwama terror attack, which claimed the lives of at least 40 troopers of the CRPF, politician-turned-actor Kamal Haasan stoked controversy after he asked why the Indian government was “afraid” of holding a plebiscite (referendum) in Kashmir.

Haasan received a lot of flak for his comment but the question that he left was – What is the narrative surrounding the issue of plebiscite? And where does it stem from?

A plebiscite will allow the people of Kashmir to decide whether they want to live in India, Pakistan or become an independent state. However the outcome of a plebiscite may or may not be legally binding on the government.

Since independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety. The two countries have also been involved in several skirmishes over the control of Siachen glacier since Independence.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) in 1948 called for a plebiscite “as soon as possible” on the future of the state but it was never held. A UN peacekeeping mission has also been in the region since 1949, to supervise the ceasefire between the two countries.

So what is the history behind the demand for a plebiscite? When did it enter the conversation? What has been India’s stance and has it changed over time?

Kashmir Plebiscite Explained, But Is the Debate Still Relevant?

  1. 1. History of Plebisicite: The India Story

    After the British Raj ended in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh faced an uprising and lost control of large parts of his kingdom in Kashmir. The Pathan tribes, supported by Pakistan, started entering Kashmir.

    Singh soon turned to India for help, but Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten advised the Maharaja to accede to India. As a result of this, he signed the Instrument of Accession to the Dominion of India on 26 October 1947 and India entered the conflict.

    However, the issue of a plebiscite first entered the conversation to resolve the Junagadh dispute with Pakistan. In 1947, the Muslim ruler of Junagadh acceded to Pakistan. This enraged the Indian leaders and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel proposed a plebiscite which was held in 1948 and the people of Junagadh chose to join India.

    A similar offer was made to settle the Kashmir issue in 1947. In November, Mountbatten went to Lahore to propose a plebiscite to decide the fate of Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Mountbatten had even assured Jinnah that the UN will oversee the process.

    However, Jinnah rejected the deal and as Historian AG Noorani argues, Jinnah couldn’t accept any formula that included Hyderabad as he was “besotted with Hyderabad and neglected Kashmir”. According to Noorani Jinnah Jinnah insisted that Hyderabad be excluded from the proposal.

    Noorani also says that Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, had indicated that “he would be willing to ask tribesmen to pull out of Kashmir if this were recommended by UN commission” but was overruled by Jinnah.

    In 1948, India approached the UN Security Council and the talk of plebiscite started, once again.

    In 1953 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggested a plebiscite as a way to resolve Kashmir issue, though he never intended to actually carry this out, Noorani argued in his article titled ‘Kashmir: Bridge, not a battle ground’.

    Expand
  2. 2. UN Intervention in the Kashmir Conflict

    On 1 January 1948, the Government of India formally introduced the Kashmir issue in the UN under Article 35 of UN Charter, which permits any member state to bring any situation that is likely to endanger international peace and security to its attention.

    India said that Pakistan was invading Kashmir and asked the UNSC to take measures to prevent it.

    The UN passed a resolution and formed the United Nation Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) to investigate and mediate between the two countries. Another resolution was passed in April 1948 which increased the size of the Commission established through the earlier resolution.

    The resolution recommended a three-step process to end the dispute:

    • Withdrawal from the State of Jammu and Kashmir of tribesmen and Pakistani nationals.
    • Government of India was asked to reduce its force from Jammu and Kashmir.
    • Government of India was also asked to appoint a plebiscite administration to hold a plebiscite.

    Though both the sides accepted the recommendations, according to the ‘Kashmir: The True Story’, a position paper published by MEA in 2004, Pakistan never fulfilled the assurances it made. Pakistan, too, blames India for not honouring its commitment.

    The UN commission was able to achieve a ceasefire in 1949, but with respect to the Kashmir issue, it declared its failure in 1949.

    Security Council President General AGL McNaughton’s mediation in December 1949 had suggested demilitarisation of Kashmir as a precursor to impartial plebiscite.

    In 1951, with the termination of the mandate of UNCIP, United Nations Military Observer Group in India & Pakistan (UNMOGIP) was established to monitor the ceasefire line (now called Line of Control) in Kashmir.

    But with the Simla agreement in 1972 (in the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pak War), India and Pakistan maintained that the Kashmir dispute was a bilateral issue and would be solved through bilateral negotiations. This denied any third party intervention, including that of the United Nation.

    However, the UNMOGIP still maintains its presence in both, the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistan-administered-Kashmir but India has not lodged any complaint since January 1972 limiting the activities of UN observers.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Political Discourse Pertaining to Plebiscite in Kashmir

    The autonomy of Kashmir started dwindling post 1953 when the National Conference (NC) leader Sheikh Abdullah, who was the first prime minister of Kashmir, was jailed.

    After 1953, a president’s order stated that any matter related to national interest or enemy aggression can be implemented through a presidential ordinance which doesn’t need ratification by state Assembly.

    Experts argue that Abdullah fought for Kashmir’s “autonomy” and not “against accession”. And according to Noorani, Nehru was opposed to “autonomy, except in name”.

    Though the Instrument of Accession had only given power related to telecommunication, defence, foreign affairs and currency to India and the rest of it remained with the state.

    But after the presidential order, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and Election Commission of India was extended. The state powers were reduced. In fact, earlier the state had a president instead of a chief minister and a prime minister but in 1965 the J&K Assembly’s nomenclature was changed.

    In 1975, Sheikh Abdullah and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed an accord which was a result of the promise that the pre-1953 position of Kashmir be stated, which limits India’s control to affairs like defence, telecommunication etc.

    Speaking to The Quint, Noorani said the 1975 accord spoke about restoration of autonomy, but it ended the conversation about a plebiscite and Kashmiris regarded that as a betrayal.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Do the Political Parties Want?

    Now the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and NC both want the restoration of the pre-1953 position. PDP calls it self-rule while NC calls it autonomy.

    Whereas the separatists demand the right to decide the fate of Kashmir on their own as promised at the time of accession. They want the people of Kashmir should decide if they want to live in India, Pakistan or become independent.

    However, the central governments in Delhi (both Congress over the years and now the BJP) have always maintained the stand that Kashmir is an “integral” part of India and no one can seize it.

    Expand
  5. 5. What is the Future of a Plebiscite in Kashmir?

    Experts believe that there is no possibility of a plebiscite for Kashmir in the future.

    Speaking to The Quint, author Ashok Pandey said, “I don’t think there is a possibility of a plebiscite firstly because of the 1972 accord and secondly because both, India and Pakistan, didn’t honour their commitments back in the time.”

    He further said that it is more of an emotional issue for the Kashmiris.

    Noorani too holds a similar view who says, in his article titled ‘Kashmir: Bridge, not a battle ground’, where he goes on to say,

    “Plebiscite is dead. Independence is a mirage”.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

History of Plebisicite: The India Story

After the British Raj ended in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh faced an uprising and lost control of large parts of his kingdom in Kashmir. The Pathan tribes, supported by Pakistan, started entering Kashmir.

Singh soon turned to India for help, but Governor-General of India, Lord Mountbatten advised the Maharaja to accede to India. As a result of this, he signed the Instrument of Accession to the Dominion of India on 26 October 1947 and India entered the conflict.

However, the issue of a plebiscite first entered the conversation to resolve the Junagadh dispute with Pakistan. In 1947, the Muslim ruler of Junagadh acceded to Pakistan. This enraged the Indian leaders and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel proposed a plebiscite which was held in 1948 and the people of Junagadh chose to join India.

A similar offer was made to settle the Kashmir issue in 1947. In November, Mountbatten went to Lahore to propose a plebiscite to decide the fate of Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Mountbatten had even assured Jinnah that the UN will oversee the process.

However, Jinnah rejected the deal and as Historian AG Noorani argues, Jinnah couldn’t accept any formula that included Hyderabad as he was “besotted with Hyderabad and neglected Kashmir”. According to Noorani Jinnah Jinnah insisted that Hyderabad be excluded from the proposal.

Noorani also says that Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, had indicated that “he would be willing to ask tribesmen to pull out of Kashmir if this were recommended by UN commission” but was overruled by Jinnah.

In 1948, India approached the UN Security Council and the talk of plebiscite started, once again.

In 1953 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggested a plebiscite as a way to resolve Kashmir issue, though he never intended to actually carry this out, Noorani argued in his article titled ‘Kashmir: Bridge, not a battle ground’.

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UN Intervention in the Kashmir Conflict

On 1 January 1948, the Government of India formally introduced the Kashmir issue in the UN under Article 35 of UN Charter, which permits any member state to bring any situation that is likely to endanger international peace and security to its attention.

India said that Pakistan was invading Kashmir and asked the UNSC to take measures to prevent it.

The UN passed a resolution and formed the United Nation Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) to investigate and mediate between the two countries. Another resolution was passed in April 1948 which increased the size of the Commission established through the earlier resolution.

The resolution recommended a three-step process to end the dispute:

  • Withdrawal from the State of Jammu and Kashmir of tribesmen and Pakistani nationals.
  • Government of India was asked to reduce its force from Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Government of India was also asked to appoint a plebiscite administration to hold a plebiscite.

Though both the sides accepted the recommendations, according to the ‘Kashmir: The True Story’, a position paper published by MEA in 2004, Pakistan never fulfilled the assurances it made. Pakistan, too, blames India for not honouring its commitment.

The UN commission was able to achieve a ceasefire in 1949, but with respect to the Kashmir issue, it declared its failure in 1949.

Security Council President General AGL McNaughton’s mediation in December 1949 had suggested demilitarisation of Kashmir as a precursor to impartial plebiscite.

In 1951, with the termination of the mandate of UNCIP, United Nations Military Observer Group in India & Pakistan (UNMOGIP) was established to monitor the ceasefire line (now called Line of Control) in Kashmir.

But with the Simla agreement in 1972 (in the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pak War), India and Pakistan maintained that the Kashmir dispute was a bilateral issue and would be solved through bilateral negotiations. This denied any third party intervention, including that of the United Nation.

However, the UNMOGIP still maintains its presence in both, the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistan-administered-Kashmir but India has not lodged any complaint since January 1972 limiting the activities of UN observers.

The Political Discourse Pertaining to Plebiscite in Kashmir

The autonomy of Kashmir started dwindling post 1953 when the National Conference (NC) leader Sheikh Abdullah, who was the first prime minister of Kashmir, was jailed.

After 1953, a president’s order stated that any matter related to national interest or enemy aggression can be implemented through a presidential ordinance which doesn’t need ratification by state Assembly.

Experts argue that Abdullah fought for Kashmir’s “autonomy” and not “against accession”. And according to Noorani, Nehru was opposed to “autonomy, except in name”.

Though the Instrument of Accession had only given power related to telecommunication, defence, foreign affairs and currency to India and the rest of it remained with the state.

But after the presidential order, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and Election Commission of India was extended. The state powers were reduced. In fact, earlier the state had a president instead of a chief minister and a prime minister but in 1965 the J&K Assembly’s nomenclature was changed.

In 1975, Sheikh Abdullah and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed an accord which was a result of the promise that the pre-1953 position of Kashmir be stated, which limits India’s control to affairs like defence, telecommunication etc.

Speaking to The Quint, Noorani said the 1975 accord spoke about restoration of autonomy, but it ended the conversation about a plebiscite and Kashmiris regarded that as a betrayal.

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What Do the Political Parties Want?

Now the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and NC both want the restoration of the pre-1953 position. PDP calls it self-rule while NC calls it autonomy.

Whereas the separatists demand the right to decide the fate of Kashmir on their own as promised at the time of accession. They want the people of Kashmir should decide if they want to live in India, Pakistan or become independent.

However, the central governments in Delhi (both Congress over the years and now the BJP) have always maintained the stand that Kashmir is an “integral” part of India and no one can seize it.

What is the Future of a Plebiscite in Kashmir?

Experts believe that there is no possibility of a plebiscite for Kashmir in the future.

Speaking to The Quint, author Ashok Pandey said, “I don’t think there is a possibility of a plebiscite firstly because of the 1972 accord and secondly because both, India and Pakistan, didn’t honour their commitments back in the time.”

He further said that it is more of an emotional issue for the Kashmiris.

Noorani too holds a similar view who says, in his article titled ‘Kashmir: Bridge, not a battle ground’, where he goes on to say,

“Plebiscite is dead. Independence is a mirage”.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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