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Kanyakumari to Kashmir: How a few South Indians had vital links to Kashmir's modern history

South India has a few vital links to Kashmir’s modern history, and by extension, to its destiny.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Aug 18, 2019, 03.20 PM IST
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A popular Bollywood song from the 2013 film Chennai Express, shot in the swirling terraces of a tea estate with Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, has the following lines that run as a refrain: "Kashmir main tu Kanyakumari/North-South ki kat gayi dekho doori hi saari." A film song may be a wrong entry point to speak about the grim subject of Kashmir, but it has a utilitarian role in introducing an idea that has escaped attention.

There may be a distance of 3,000 km between Kashmir and Kanyakumari, the alliterative mental edges of our national boundaries, but Kanyakumari, a notional locale to mean Tamil Nadu in particular and South India in general, has a few vital links to Kashmir’s modern history, and by extension, to its destiny. These links ensure that the two are not always distant, gaping, opposite blocks, accidentally caught together in a map. Neither Mani Ratnam, who made Roja, mixing shallow intrigue and snow, during peak militancy in 1992, nor Rajinikanth, who has recently attached a convenient mythological dimension to the Kashmir subject, has touched upon these links. Anyway, they cannot be blamed, because they are in the business of dreams, not reality.

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N Gopalaswami Ayyangar (right) with Sheikh Abdullah, after hearing the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination at the UNSC where the council interrupted its consideration of the situation in J&K to pay homage to the Mahatma.

Two generations of a brilliant Ayyangar/Iyengar family from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and a genius Malayali from Ottappalam in Palakkad district of Kerala form the key support cast of the Kashmir story. They stand sufficiently tall alongside the massive cutouts of lead players like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Lord Mountbatten, Maharaja Hari Singh, Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi, yet their historical interventions have become incidental mentions.

These men did not repurpose their lives in autobiographies or memoirs, and there are no biographies that accurately flesh out their roles. They make patchy appearances in nearly all literature that discusses the Kashmir conflict. The Ayyangar family would mean the father and son, N Gopalaswami Ayyangar and Gopalaswami Parthasarathi or GP, respectively. The Keralite is a reference to the most trusted aide of Sardar Patel — Vappala Pangunni Menon or VP Menon.

The father and son not only led India at the UN in two different decades on the Kashmir matter, and chaperoned Sheikh Abdullah on the international dais, besides diligently negotiating with him locally, they remained at all times a vital policy link to the subject. Speaking at the UN on September 4, 1965, GP said: “Incidentally, it may interest the members of the Council to know that it was my father who brought the issue here. Now it has fallen to me to bring to your attention the second massive aggression against Kashmir.”

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G Parthasarathi (right), permanent representative of India to UN, presents his credentials to Secretary-General U Thant on August 19, 1965.

The father Ayyangar who began as a Madras civil servant, became the dewan of Jammu and Kashmir between 1937 and 1943. PN Dhar, a Kashmiri, who headed Indira Gandhi’s secretariat in the ’70s, met him in Srinagar in 1941 to seek a job. He describes him as a “little more grim” than he appeared in his photographs, and recalls him speaking of “haphazard times”. Post-Independence, Ayyangar was brought in by Nehru as a minister without portfolio to function under the PM as incharge of Kashmir affairs. He also drafted Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and ensured its passage in the Constituent Assembly.

"I Would Gladly Resign"
In fact, his appointment to the cabinet caused so much friction that Patel, who thought his wings had been clipped after Kashmir was taken out of the States Ministry, even offered to quit. Rajmohan Gandhi deals with this sensitively in his biography of Patel: “When he [Patel] saw a telegram from Gopalaswami instructing the premier of East Punjab to release 150 motor vehicles for Kashmir. Vallabhbhai was not pleased.” He argued it should have happened through him. Ayyangar who refused to “act merely as a post office” escalated the matter to his boss. Nehru wrote: “May I say that the manner of approach to Gopalaswami was hardly in keeping with the courtesy due to a colleague.”

Patel responded on December 23, 1947: “[Your letter] has caused me considerable pain… makes it clear to me that I must not or at least cannot continue as Member of Government and hence I am hereby tendering my resignation.” Nehru responded the same day and offered to quit too: “If unfortunately either you or I have to leave the Government of India, let this be done with dignity and goodwill. On my part I would gladly resign and hand over the reins to you.” Mahatma Gandhi stepped in at this point, arbitrated, and amicably resolved the issue between his disciples.

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VP Menon (second from left) with Maulana Azad and Sardar Patel, 1948 Courtesy: History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy, HarperCollins

What Gopalaswami was to Nehru, his son GP was to Indira Gandhi. The eclectic GP was a journalist cum Ranji-level cricketer who had turned diplomat at Nehru’s insistence. He had handled China for him besides other sensitive assignments. He became the first vice-chancellor of JNU and led a political mission that saw the return of Sheikh Abdullah to power in 1975. “GP’s adulation of his father was similar to Indira’s adulation of her father… GP’s views carried greater weight with her than those of regular members of the Foreign Service,” wrote HY Sharada Prasad, Indira Gandhi’s information advisor in a volume celebrating GP’s memory in 1998.

In the same volume, Karan Singh, the Kashmir royal, remembers meeting GP as India’s representative at the UN: “… he took me and my wife to a Chinese dinner at the famous Flower Drum Restaurant in New York, and the menu was so carefully selected that it came to be known in the restaurant as the Indian Ambassador’s menu.”

Menon & Menon
However, VP Menon was Patel’s Kashmir man. Besides getting Hari Singh to sign the accession treaty in the turbulent month of October 1947 when the Pakistani raiders were closing in on Srinagar, he developed and executed the Partition plan in the run up to Independence in 1947. He is also credited with suggesting that India should first seek dominion status for smoother transition of power. But Menon is more remembered for his monumental work of integrating the Indian states. It may not be appropriate to describe Menon as Patel’s Sancho Panza, but his native wisdom admittedly complemented Patel’s actions and utterances.

When Menon arrived in Srinagar on October 25, 1947, Rajmohan Gandhi writes, “The Maharaja was completely ‘unnerved by the turn of events and by his sense of lone helplessness.’ Menon advised him to proceed to Jammu, which was nearer India and farther away from the [Pakistani] raiders.” The next afternoon he secured Hari Singh’s signatures on the accession papers.

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There was another expatriate Menon from Thalassery who had a singular dalliance with Kashmir: VK Krishna Menon who, as India’s defence minister, spoke the longest in the UN Security Council on Kashmir.

Menon did not have an Oxbridge education or the cultural capital of the Ayyangars. He was a schoolteacher’s son in Kerala. Poverty pushed him to do odd jobs as a coolie-grade railway stoker, as a field supervisor in a coal mine and a Bangalore tobacco company clerk before he became a typist in the Home Department in 1914, at a young age of 20. His typing skills, ability to keep confidences on classified matters, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian complexities endeared him to British officials. He soon ended up working for various viceroys and at the time he joined Patel, he was Reforms Commissioner and Constitutional Advisor to the British government.

Menon writes in his seminal book Integration of the Indian States that from end-June 1947, he met Patel at least twice a day and “whenever we entered discussion we did so as personal friends rather than as Minister and Secretary”. Towards the end of his life, Patel became so protective of Menon, he wondered what would happen to him after he was gone. He knew Nehru would not warm up to Menon. Expectedly, Menon vanished from Delhi’s power circles after Patel’s death, and much later joined the Swatantra Party, founded in 1959. He passed away in 1965.

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Inauguration of the Swatantra Party in Bombay on August 1, 1959(From left) NG Ranga, C Rajagopalachari, MR Masani, HP Mody and VP Menon

There was another expatriate Menon from Thalassery, Kerala’s pepper country, who had a singular dalliance with Kashmir. That was VK Krishna Menon who, as India’s defence minister, spoke the longest in the UN Security Council on Kashmir. Unlike the Ayyangars and VP Menon, he was not the nuts-andbolts man, but with enormous clarity articulated India’s position on the “paradise” all through 1957. Writing a foreword to a book of Krishna Menon’s Kashmir speeches at the UN, former President KR Narayanan, himself a stalwart diplomat, said: “In the overheated atmosphere of the cold war Menon’s speeches in the Security Council in 1957 virtually fell on deaf ears. Though often repetitive they were marked by intellectual brilliance, legal acumen, political vigour and debating skill – a tour de force in the true sense.”

The Sheikh in the South
The "Lion of Kashmir" Sheikh Abdullah himself had a southern experience, when he was arrested in May 1965. He was kept under house arrest first in Ooty, and then shifted to the 'Kohinoor Palace' in Kodaikanal. MJ Akbar in his book India: The Siege Within quotes from an article Suraiya Ali, the Sheikh’s daughter, wrote for a Kashmir University commemoration volume: “Papa is shifted to Kodaikanal as he is a tourist attraction [in Ooty]… Not many may be aware about the culinary skills of papa. His morning hours are spent in cooking and he specialises in cooking korma, roghan josh, and a dish called shub-daig — a curry of meat and turnips cooked on simmering heat for many hours. The aroma of his cooking tickles even the nostrils of the security staff…. He engages a tutor, no doubt at government expense, to teach him Tamil… evenings are spent in long walks which enable us to visit the whole of Kodai.” Journalist Narayani Ganesh writing in The Times of India, in May 2016, recalls: “From our dormitory building just across the road from Kohinoor Bungalow, we would sometimes see Mr Abdullah writing at his desk by the window, a bowl of red apples resting near his elbow. ‘You know, those apples are specially sent to him from Kashmir,’ my dorm-mates would whisper in awe.” This way, and in many other ways that may be a subject of an entire book, Kashmir and Kanyakumari and Kodikanal, and the entire South, get into unexpected loops of history to shape each other.

There was also a time in the 1960s when the “secessionist” ideas in Tamil Nadu, and the thoughts of independence in Kashmir were spoken about in the same breath. Sheikh Abdullah’s land reforms in the late 1940s had an impact on Devaraj Urs’ thinking in the Karnataka of the 1970s. In 1996, prime minister HD Deve Gowda quietly convinced political parties of Kashmir to end their electoral boycott and take part in the assembly polls. He had promised greater autonomy. In this intertwined and infinitely shared sense, Kashmir will always be a part of India.

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