November and J&K Accession: Bravehearts Who Fought Tooth & Nail To Save Kashmir

People's contention that friendly relations between India and Pakistan are impossible goes right back to 1947.

7 min read
Hindi Female

(This is part one of a four-part 'November' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part two here, part three here, and part four here.)

It is a story so replete with valour, bravery, treachery, and more that it could sound like a tale from the Mahabharata or one of the Greek classics. The events occurred 76 years ago. Yet, their ghosts continue to haunt the Indian subcontinent.

When even sober and sensible people contend that friendly relations between India and Pakistan are an impossible mountain to climb, the roots for such a dismal assessment go right back to 1947.

There are many heroes and villains in this epic tale; but the authors decided to single out the first recipient of independent India’s highest military honour, the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) for remembrance. His younger brother went on to become the Chief of Army Staff of India between 1988 and 1990, a year in which the ghosts of partition, jihad, violence, and terror came storming back to torment Jammu & Kashmir.

We are talking about Major Somnath Sharma of Kumaon Regiment who fell on the battlefield in Badgam near Srinagar, to be posthumously awarded the PVC. He led a group of about 50 troops who were almost surrounded by an enemy that was about 15 times in number.

Refusing to give up or withdraw, Major Sharma and his troops reportedly killed at least 200 Pakistani "tribesmen” and soldiers before he was himself killed instantly by a mortar burst.

How Indian Soldiers Foiled Pakistan’s Attempt To Win

Before this supreme sacrifice, Brigadier Rajinder Singh, Chief of Staff of the Kashmir State Forces owing allegiance to Maharajah Hari Singh who was the ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, was despatched to Uri, about 100 kilometres away from Kashmir to stop the marauding Pakistani invades.

He and his troops fought a brilliant defensive battle that stalled the advancing enemy forces for two full days despite being heavily outnumbered. Brigadier Singh fell on 24 October, 72 hours before the first Indian Army soldiers landed on Srinagar airfield. One of the heroes of the airlift of Indian troops from Delhi to Srinagar was the legendary maverick Biju Patnaik who went on to become a Union Cabinet Minister and a much-loved chief minister of Odisha.

If Srinagar is still part of India, the nation owes its gratitude to thousands of bravehearts like Major Sharma and Brigadier Singh who frustrated and foiled attempts by the newly formed military of Pakistan to invade and capture Jammu & Kashmir and make it a part of Pakistan. The fearful fact is that Pakistan almost succeeded in that first war with India.

Bravery and Treachery Lined the Tales of Partition

The sobering thought is that tens of millions of Pakistanis including the military establishment of the country still dream of Jammu & Kashmir as a reward that has been denied to Pakistan. J&K witnessed inspirational tales of loyalty and bravery in those days.

There is the story of a young boy named Mohammed Maqbool Sherwani who lived in Baramulla, about 50 kilometres away from the capital Srinagar. Pakistani troops (some still prefer to call them "tribesmen” or "irregulars” armed with sophisticated military equipment had already gang-raped and plundered their way from Muzaffarabad (Now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and captured Baramulla. The next stop was Srinagar just a couple of hours drive away on good, concrete roads.

Soon after Baramulla was stormed on 22 October 1947, Sherwani went all around the town informing and warning the invaders that soldiers of the Indian Army were already in the outskirts of Baramulla. This caused the invaders to pause and ponder their next move towards Srinagar. In reality, the first Indian Army troops were airlifted to Srinagar five days later on 27 October.

When the invaders discovered Sherwani had deceived them, he was shot dead and his body was literally crucified. It was brought down and buried with full respect much later when the Indian Army had taken back Baramulla. It is stirring tales like this that inspire youngsters.

But as with epic tales, where there was bravery, there was treachery too. Even before 22 October 1947 when Pakistan invaded Jammu & Kashmir, the garrison of Tharochi Fort (Now in POK) was besieged by “irregulars”. Brigadier Chattar Singh of Jammu & Kashmir Armed Forces had two units under his command, one comprising Muslims led by Major Nasrullah Khan and a Gorkha unit led by Captain Prem Singh. Khan and his troops were ordered to conduct perimeter patrol while the Gorkha troops rested.

In the dead of the night, Major Khan and his troops simply massacred the sleeping Gorkha soldiers. Barely a handful of soldiers escaped and lived to tell the story of this betrayal. Major Khan and his troops, of course, went over to the Pakistani side. But for every Major Khan, there were scores of residents of J&K who believed in India and took untold risks to help the Indian Army with vital information and intelligence.

But why did such events that still haunt India occur? The answers lie in politics, statecraft, and religion. When India was partitioned on 14 August 1947, Jammu & Kashmir was one of the three princely states which had not officially acceded to either India or Pakistan. Maharajah Hari Singh nursed illusions that he could somehow manage to keep J&K as an independent country equidistant from India and Pakistan.

How Kashmir Became a Part of India

Muslim League leader and founder of the modern nation-state of Pakistan had demanded and gotten partition based on the premise that Muslims would become a minority in independent India where the majority of Hindus would discriminate against them.

Jinnah was adamant that the Muslim-majority J&K "rightfully” belonged to Pakistan. There were many demands in India for the Armed Forces to be sent to J&K to secure the province. But both the first Governor General of independent India – Lord Mountbatten and the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru demurred.

Many critics accuse Nehru even today of needless vacillation that ended up creating the Kashmir crisis. The authors do not have the expertise in military strategy or history to sit in judgment. They only know things started moving fast when Pakistan invaded J&K. A beleaguered Maharajah Hari Singh sought urgent assistance from the Indian Army to save his "Kingdom” from Pakistani invaders. He was told that would happen only if signed the Instrument of Accession that made J&K a part of India.

A desperate Singh signed up on 26 October 1947 in his palace in Jammu. The airlift of Indian soldiers began early morning the next day by which time Pakistani troops were not very far away from Srinagar.

The Indian Army recaptured a lot of lost territory in subsequent weeks. On 31 December 1947, a ceasefire was declared with Pakistan in control of about one-third of J&K. Jawaharlal Nehru took the dispute to the United Nations Security Council on 1 January 1948. The festering wound persists till date.


Plan of Accession of J&K

India as a nation-state is still learning the ruthless use of statecraft in pursuit of strategic national interests. As a new nation infused with “pacifist idealism” in 1947, it was like a baby in the woods when it came to statecraft.

One of the most loved and admired soldiers of India is the late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. In 1947, he was a Colonel in the Indian Army and was closely involved with the mayhem in Kashmir and had accompanied VP Menon to Srinagar when Hari Singh signed up with India.

In an interview with journalist Prem Shankar Jha, this is how Manekshaw describes what happened on October 26 1947 in Delhi: “On arriving at Delhi) the first thing I did was to go and report to Sir Roy Bucher. He said, ‘Eh, you, go and shave and clean up. There is a cabinet meeting at 9 o’clock. I will pick you up and take you there.’ So I went home, shaved, dressed, etc. and Roy Bucher picked me up, and we went to the cabinet meeting. The cabinet meeting was presided over by Mountbatten. There was Jawaharlal Nehru, there was Sardar Patel, there was Sardar Baldev Singh…At the morning meeting, he handed over the (Accession) thing. Mountbatten turned around and said, ‘Come on Manekji (He called me Manekji instead of Manekshaw), what is the military situation?’ I gave him the military situation and told him that unless we flew in troops immediately, we would have lost Srinagar, because going by road would take days, and once the tribesmen got to the airport and Srinagar, we couldn’t fly troops in. Everything was ready at the airport.

As usual, Nehru talked about the United Nations, Russia, Africa, God almighty, everybody, until Sardar Patel lost his temper. He said, ‘Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away’. He (Nehru) said,’ Of course, I want Kashmir. Then he (Patel) said ‘Please give your orders’. And before he could say anything, Sardar Patel turned to me and said, ‘You have got your orders’."


The Valour and Prowess of Biju Patnaik

But that’s history for historians to fight over. The authors are more fascinated with the characters involved in this epic. And Biju Patnaik stands out. A nationalist born in Odisha and a born maverick, the father of Naveen Patnaik used to fly Dakotas for the British Indian Air Force and yet managed to get arrested for supporting freedom fighters.

In July 1947, the daredevil, who was also a full-time politician by then (elected in provincial elections in 1946), risked his life and airlifted most leaders of the Indonesian nationalist movement out of the country despite explicit threats from the Dutch colonial powers that any "outsider” would be shot.

Patnaik is the only "foreigner” to be officially recognised by Indonesia as a “Bhumiputra”. In October and November, Patnaik flew many times from Delhi to Srinagar to ferry Indian troops to J&K to fight the Pakistani invaders. Folklore has it that he was ready to do the same when the Nizam of Hyderabad stubbornly refused to accede to India.

In a previous column in this series, the authors have described how the Nizam of Hyderabad, the largest and richest princely state of India tried everything possible to accede to Pakistan in 1947. The idea was obviously preposterous enough for him to settle for an independent Hyderabad as a nation-state.

In September 1948, Sardar Patel virtually overrode the apprehensions of his friend and colleague Jawaharlal Nehru and ordered the Indian Army to "integrate” Hyderabad with India.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  J&K   Indian Army   Mohammad Ali Jinnah 

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