The Narendra Modi government’s recent moves on Kashmir has sparked a great deal of curiosity about the history and sequence of events in a story that lives on even after 70 years of Independence. Among its many turning points, the most contentious is the fighting that took place between India and Pakistan in 1947-48. It is also what the younger generations today are the least familiar with.
How close were the Pakistanis to capturing Srinagar in November 1947 when the first units of Indian Army landed in IAF Dakotas on Srinagar’s makeshift airstrip? What was the role played by Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and even Mahatma Gandhi? Who were the key military leaders involved? Where and how did the Kashmiri leadership, Maharaja Hari Singh, Sheikh Abdullah and his two key lieutenants Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq (both of who became chief ministers after him), play?
We have mined some of that invaluable information in the words of somebody who was in the thick of it all, and also led the first Indian brigade in Kashmir.
Lt Gen. Lionel Protip (nicknamed Bogey) Sen was from the exalted, Anglicised generation of Sandhurst-trained, pre-Partition, King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs). He retired after being southern and eastern Army commander, but the high point of his service was his sudden airlift to Srinagar on 5 November 1947 during the Kashmir confrontation, when Pakistani raiders were about to reach the airfield and the capital city, after having sacked, pillaged, burnt, looted and raped in Muzaffarabad, Uri and Baramulla.
A panicky Maharaja Hari Singh abandoned his efforts to somehow become independent, signed the Instrument of Accession to India, and the Army was ordered to save Srinagar and then evict the invaders.
India had very few troops in Kashmir then. The Maharaja’s state army had more or less collapsed. Its British chief left, the next in line killed by raiders close to Baramulla, Muslim troops defected and thousands of others just hid in fright.
India and Pakistan both had British army chiefs then as well as a large sprinkling of British officers. As war became inevitable between the two new nations, just 11 weeks old, the British decided none of their officers or personnel would fight. Yet, the British chiefs remained in control.
There was a need to airlift troops to save Srinagar from falling. It had only a dirt airstrip. A brave airlift was set up with Dakotas filled with troops and equipment raising an incredible air-bridge between Delhi and Srinagar. The first brigade commander sent there, Brigadier J.C. Katoch, was wounded in the leg and had to be evacuated. A new Indian brigadier had to be found right away.
L.P. Sen, then a mere colonel, was the No. 2 in the Directorate of Military Intelligence under Brigadier P.N. Thapar (later Army chief in the 1962 war). General Sir Rob Lockhart, then India’s Chief of Army Staff, summoned Sen and ordered him to take over the defence of Srinagar and the Valley at once. Because he was still a colonel, he “promoted” him to brigadier temporarily, until Katoch recovered, “in 10 days or so”.
That was not to happen. Sen continued there for almost two years, defending Srinagar, liberating Baramulla, Uri, even Haji Pir Pass and linking it up with Poonch.
He wrote his story in brilliant, graphic detail in the first real military memoir by an Indian soldier post-Independence. As with any general in those times, there are controversies and questions about his claims.
Controversy apart, however, this book is the first definitive account of those fateful days and months. Quite fittingly, and displaying a fine literary mind, Sen named his memoir, as the commander of the legendary 161 Brigade, ‘Slender Was The Thread: Kashmir Confrontation 1947-48’.
The book has been out of print for a very long time. ThePrint expresses its gratitude to publishers Orient BlackSwan for finding a copy in its Kolkata godown and making it available to us.
We bring you a few key extracts, selected and edited by ThePrint’s journalist Taran Deol.
— Shekhar Gupta
Borrowing a couple of stars from his Staff Officers
How Col Lionel Protip (‘Bogey’) Sen became a ‘Brigadier’ commanding 161 Infantry Brigade in doddering Srinagar
In the evening of 31st October came further bad news. Brigadier J. C. Katoch, while proceeding to visit 1 Sikh at Patan in a jeep, was hit in the leg by a bullet. Fortunately it had been fired at long range and did very little damage. It was assumed that he would be able to carry on, but at mid-day on 1 November, a signal was received that he was suffering from shock and was being evacuated. Once again, the troops in the valley were being left without the appointed commander.
At 5 o’clock that evening, the military secretary, Brigadier Thapar, accompanied by Brigadier Rudra, entered my office. Assuming that they have come in for a meeting, I gave them the latest situation report and awaited the questions they may have wished to ask. After a silence that may have lasted a minute, Brigadier Rudra asked me to go see the Commander in Chief immediately. When I enquired what it was all about, I was informed that the Chief would tell me. As I walked down the corridor to the Chief’s room, I wondered what I had done. I could only guess that it had something to do with the Press briefing I had given that morning, in which I had perhaps divulged more than I should have.
General Lockhart received me almost immediately, and his opening remark was, “Well I suppose you know why I have sent for you?” I informed him that I have no idea at all. “I have selected you,” he replied “to go to Kashmir to command 161 Infantry Brigade. I want you to leave first thing tomorrow. You will be given the temporary rank as Colonel and return to your present appointment. Go and see General Russel right away, and he will tell you the latest regarding the troops he has earmarked for Kashmir.”
I went from the Chief’s room to the DMO’s office and informed him of what I had been told, and asked to whom I was to hand over Military Intelligence. He informed me that Colonel Chand Narain Das took only a few minutes as my Staff knew as much about everything as I did. I borrowed a couple of stars from one on my Staff Officers, rearranged my badges of rank to conform to those worn by a Brigadier, and set off to meet General Russell.
I borrowed a couple of stars from one on my Staff Officers, rearranged my badges of rank to conform to those worn by a Brigadier
General Russell was having tea in his drawing room when I reported to him. He congratulated me on my promotion, and then glancing at my shoulder said that he was very glad to see that I had put on the badges of rank as it was essential that on my arrival everyone should be well aware of who the Commander was. He informed me that a new formation to be designated Jammu & Kashmir Force, or Jak Force for short, was being raised and Major General Kulwant Singh has been named as the Commander.
161 Infantry Brigade would eventually come under the command of Jak Force. Then he told me what units would move into the Valley. When I asked him for advice as to how I should go about my task, he thought for a few moments and replied: “You know much more about what is happening than I do, and I am not allowed to enter the Valley. You will have to find your way about when you get there. The only advice that I can give you is that if you get a chance of hitting them, hit hard with all you have got and don’t let up.”
Vague though General Russell’s word may sound, it was in fact advice of solid worth. A practical commander and a veteran of many campaigns, he made no vain or rash statements. There was no attempt to hedge the issue, a failing of many less brilliant soldiers, with the cliché ‘when you get there, send me your appreciation of the situation of your plan’, thereby giving the impression that he would vet them and advise one accordingly.
With his wide experience of warfare, he knew that it was not possible to fight a tactical battle in Kashmir off a map pinned on boards in Delhi, and he made no attempt to do so. What he did so, in a short chat as we had a cup of tea, was to raise my morale and confidence to the ceiling.
When Mahatma Gandhi told me wars are inhuman, utterly senseless
He also said go ahead and fight in Kashmir with all means at your disposal
As I was leaving General Russell’s house, I received a message to the effect that Brigadier Thapar would be waiting for me at the southern entrance to South Block of the Secretariat. When I arrived he informed me that Mahatma Gandhi wished to see me and be given an intelligence briefing. We drove to his residence and I told him everything that was known to us. He listened most intently and when I finished and asked whether he has any questions he would like answered, he replied “No, no questions.”
After a few seconds of silence he continued, “Wars are a curse to humanity. They are so utterly senseless. They bring nothing but suffering and destruction.” As a soldier, and one about to be engaged in battle in a matter of hours, I was at a loss to know what to say, and eventually asked him: “What do I do in Kashmir?” Mahatma Gandhi smiled and said: “You’re going in to protect innocent people, and to save them from suffering and their property from destruction. To achieve that you must naturally make full use of every means at your disposal.” It was the last time I was to see him alive.
You’re going in to protect innocent people, and to save them from suffering and their property from destruction
The Tiger was not asleep
“Of course Srinagar must be saved,” Sardar Patel opened his eyes and snapped
In the morning of 4th November, while engaged in reviewing the grim situation that had faced the Brigade the previous evening and during the night, and making the necessary adjustments to the troop dispositions, I received a message that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister of India, and Sardar Baldev Singh, the Defence Minister, had arrived in the Valley and were on their way to my Headquarters.
On arrival, I led them to the Operations Room and briefed them on the situation. I explained what had happened at Badgamand stressed that it was only sheer good fortune that had seen us through this crisis. I then emphasised that Srinagar must now be viewed as being very definitely threatened. Sardar Baldev Singh was wide awake and had taken in all that I had said. Sardar Patel had, however, closed his eyes, assumed that he was feeling the effects of the flight journey and had fallen asleep.
The briefing completed, I therefore looked at Sardar Baldev Singh and asked him a direct question: “Am I expected to eject the tribesmen from the Valley regardless of the fate that may befall Srinagar, or is the town to be saved?”
Sardar Patel stirred. The Tiger had not been asleep, and had heard every word of the briefing. A strong and determined man, and one of few words, “Of course Srinagar must be saved,” he snapped.
“Then I must have more troops and very quickly,” I answered, adding: “And if it is possible, I would like some artillery.”
“Of course, Srinagar must be saved,” Sardar Patel snapped
Sardar Patel rose. “I’m returning to Delhi immediately,” he said, “and you will get what you want as quickly as I can get them to you.” On reaching the vehicle park, I called forward my jeep and asked him whether I would drive him to the airfield. “No, Brigadier,” he replied, “don’t bother to come to the airport to see me off. You have got more important things to do than wasting your time doing that.” He then climbed into his own vehicle and with a wave of his hand, was off.
That evening I got a message that two Battalions of Infantry, one Squadron of Armoured Cars and a Battery of Field Artillery were being dispatched to the Valley by road. The Engineers had bridged the numerous culverts on the road from Pathankot to Jammu, and the Valley could now receive large bodies of troops by surface transport. This was heartening news, as the airstrip was beginning to look like a ploughed field. Sardar Patel had lived up to his reputation as a man of action.
When Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed were shooed by Brigadier L.P. Sen
Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, who had gone to the airfield to see Sardar Patel off, apparently decided to visit the Brigade Headquarters on their way back to Srinagar. Having them denied the opportunity of meeting them the evening before, because of the road being blocked by the people heading for the airstrip, I had no idea what they looked like.
They arrived when I was busy on a wireless set, and Major Kak, the Liaison Officer, had led them to the Brigade Operations Room and had proceeded to explain the situation to them, pointing out the deployment of the Brigade. When I entered the room and was greeted with the sight of two unknown civilians carefully studying the map, I was furious. I did not ask who they were, but ordered them to leave the room immediately and never to set foot in it again.
I did not ask who they were, but ordered them to leave the room immediately
They left hurriedly. It was only when their vehicle had disappeared into the distance that Major Kak told me who they were.
The bait of retreat to beat the tribesmen that made Sheikh ask Nehru to sack Sen
During the day— 4 November— information poured in from all sorts of sources to the effect that the enemy was here, there and everywhere. With the limited number of troops available, it was quite impossible to engage them, and in any case, as they had split into parties of varying strength and were constantly on the move, it would have been tactically unsound to do so.
It was clear that to bring the tribesmen to battle and to defeat them, it was essential that they concentrate. Unless some method could be evolved to achieve this, they would inflict immense damage with hit-and-run raids. I therefore decided that the very best way to effect such a concentration would be to give them incentive to do so, and this could only be achieved by giving them a very attractive bait.
The bait, I felt, could only be on the road— freedom to use which, I was convinced, would act like a magnet. The tribesmen had been tempted to come to the valley because of the loot that they would be able to take back, and with the use of the main road denied to them they could not move the vehicle which were so essential to carry back their booty. 1 Sikh at Patan was the stumbling block, and I decided to withdraw this battalion and throw open the roads to the tribals. The withdrawal from Patan, coming in the wake of the Badgam battle, would, I hoped, give the tribal leaders the impression that we had taken a crippling knock at Badgam and were pulling in our horns.
The withdrawal from Patan would, I hoped, give the tribal leaders the impression that we had taken a crippling knock at Badgam
Before rushing headlong into an action based on a hunch, the relevant factors had to be given serious consideration. There was a live possibility that 1 Sikh might be segregated from the rest of the brigade by the enemy, who could very easily interpose himself in between 1 Sikh and Srinagar.
If this materialised, the maintenance convoys to 1 Sikh at Patan would either have to run the gauntlet of enemy fire or face ambushes. It was also not improbable that the enemy would pin down 1 Sikh in the Patan area and move past the flanks of the battalion and on to Srinagar, thereby reducing the attacking potential of 161 Infantry Brigade to just one battalion, 1 Kumaon, or if a risk was to be taken and 1 Punjab removed from Humhom, to two battalions.
This would be totally inadequate to ensure the safety of Srinagar. Although there was never any doubt that 1 Sikh, a strong battalion with two extra Rifle Companies, would be able to hold Patan, its withdrawal and with it a temporary loss of territory which could be recovered in a matter of hours was accepted as a justifiable gamble on the chance of the enemy biting the bait and presenting us with a concentrated target. Orders were issued to 1 Sikh to evacuate Patan and withdraw to Srinagar.
The Commanding Officer of 1 Sikh, Lt. CoJ. Sampuran Bachan Singh, was most unhappy when he received the order to withdraw to Srinagar. He stated that he would find it very difficult to break contact with the enemy, who were now active along his front and possibly in his rear. But firmness was employed and 1 Sikh evacuated Patan after darkness had set in, and withdrew to Srinagar without any interference from the enemy.
The gamble worked like magic.
Penny packets of the raiders disappeared from our front and information poured in throughout the next day that they were all heading back towards Baramula. That evening, while 1 Sikh was preparing to evacuate Patan, I went to call on Sheikh Abdullah. He had taken up residence in a small house next to Nedous’ Hotel, and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and D.P. Dhar were closeted with him in a room lit by candles.
Major Kak introduced me, and I apologised for the rough treatment that I had meted out to them that morning, explaining that an Operations Room is more or less a ‘holy of holies’, access to which is strictly limited. In the flickering light of the candles we then studied a map that had been laid out on the table and discussed the situation. The National Conference Volunteers, carefully chosen individuals from the political party headed by Sheikh Abdullah, who volunteered to carry out reconnaissance missions ‘many of which were very dangerous, had brought in a great deal of information relating to the movement of the tribesmen.
I was shown on the map the concentrations that had been located and were stated to be obvious targets attack. I listened patiently, making notes and stating that I would do what could. What I did not say was that with the limited number of troops at my disposal I could do nothing at the time to engage the concentrations, nor did I mention that I had, only an hour previously, ordered 1 Sikh to withdraw from Patan.
I knew they would learn of it sooner or later, but to have mentioned it at that moment, when I was being urged to move out and engage the raiders, would have been catastrophic. During the conference I had noticed a definite tinge of bitterness in the hearts of the three men in the room, and as Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed who, unable to restrain himself, brought the reason to the surface. “Brigadier,” he said, “may I ask a question?” I answered in the affirmative. “What,” he continued, “would you do to a commander who left his troops and ran away?”
“Court-martial him,” I replied, “on a charge of cowardice.”
“Well, that’s just what our Maharajah has done,” he said slowly. “He is the Commander in Chief of the State Forces, and when the tribesmen arrived at Mahura he collected all his valuables, loaded into all the trucks he could lay hands on, and bolted with his family to Jammu.”
The Maharajah of Kashmir had not ‘bolted’, as Bakshi had put it
Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed’s statement was not wholly accurate. The Maharajah might have been the Commander in Chief of the State Forces, but he was the titular head and not the executive commander. That position was held by the Chief of Staff, who, unfortunately, had been killed at Diwan Mandir. Nor had the Maharajah ‘bolted’ as Bakshi had put it.
He had been persuaded for political reasons to leave Srinagar and take up residence in another part of his State. Had he remained in Srinagar and fallen into tribal hands, his functions as the Maharajah would have been dictated to him.
There was very little movement along the roads and no motor vehicles were operating as I made my way back to my Headquarters. Srinagar, with the dull glow of candles behind the windows of the houses, gave the impression of a city that knew it was doomed but was trying to postpone the dread fate by hiding itself under a blanket of darkness. The streets were deserted, but not due to any curfew or other order warning people to remain indoors after dark. At no time were such restrictions placed on Srinagar, as doing so might create panic which anti-social elements and fifth columnists would exploit to embarrass the Emergency Government.
When Sardar Patel didn’t let L.P. Sen be sacked
D.P. Dhar took Sheikh’s demand to Nehru, who agreed to sack the Brigadier, but Patel’s view prevailed, there was to be no change of commander
As I expected, my signal to Jak Force Headquarters – it had meanwhile been established at Jammu – that I had withdrawn 1 Sikh from Patan created a furore. Major General Kulwant Singh sent a message that he would be arriving by air early the next morning, 5th November and wished me to meet him at the airfield. He arrived at ten o’clock, and having driven him to my Headquarters, I explained to him in detail my reasons for having ordered the move. He was not in a receptive mood, and not one bit impressed with my arguments. He told me in no uncertain terms that he entirely disagreed with me, that the tribals would never move towards Baramula but would surge forward to Srinagar, and that my opinion was not a calculated risk but sheer suicide.
He made it very clear that as Jak Force Headquarters had not been approached before the order was issued, I must accept full responsibility for what I had done. Further, he insisted that I give it to him in writing, and in triplicate, that I had withdrawn 1 Sikh without his approval and without consulting Jak Force Headquarters. This I did, and having placed the three copies in his pocket he stormed out of Headquarters and drove to Srinagar to make a courtesy call to Sheikh Abdullah.
Nehru had immediately agreed, but Sardar Patel was adamant that no change of commander was called for
Major Kak, who accompanied Major General Kulwant Singh, returned to Brigade Headquarters after a short while and stated that neither Sheikh Abdullah nor Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed were present. They had received information about the withdrawal from Patan, and had left to visit various areas to ascertain for themselves the effect that it had on the population.
P. Dhar was, meanwhile, in an aircraft heading for Delhi. It was he himself who, six weeks later while lunching with me at Uri, apologetically told me the object of his flight to Delhi. It was to interview the Prime Minister personally and to request him to despatch another Brigadier to command the troops in the Valley.
Pandit Nehru had immediately agreed, but Sardar Patel, who was also present, was adamant that no change of commander was called for, regardless of the merit or demerit of withdrawing from Patan. Sardar Patel’s view prevailed.
Crisis of intelligence as Kashmir was invaded by Pakistani raiders
IB chief of undivided India opted for Pakistan, and on his way out, transferred every sensitive file there
The Intelligence Bureau of the Government of India, manned by personnel of the Indian Police Service, were indeed expected to cover the State. They would naturally have been interested in keeping abreast of happenings within and along the border, in so far as they might have repercussions in India. But they were in a tragi-comic state of helplessness.
The Director of the Intelligence Bureau of undivided India, during ‘the months preceding 15 August 1947, was an officer who was about to opt for Pakistani citizenship. This individual, who was earmarked for appointment as Director of the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau, took full advantage of his position to transfer across to Pakistan every file of importance dealing with Intelligence, leaving behind for his counterparts in India the office furniture, empty racks and cupboards, and a few innocuous files dealing with office routine. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that on 15 August, Pakistan came into being with a well-established Intelligence Service, while India had only a semblance of one.
On 15 August, Pakistan came into being with a well-established Intelligence Service, while India had only a semblance of one
The reticence of Maharajah Hari Singh about the hostile actions being launched against his State in Jammu, specially in the Poonch area, is understandable when viewed in the light of his ambition to retain his sovereignty. Moreover, he was perhaps unaware of the magnitude of the threat that was developing, and thought that his State Forces were capable of coping with what might have been assessed by him as minor border incidents. Whatever it was, his silence resulted in India’s truncated Intelligence, both Civil and Military, remaining unaware of what was happening.
While the Indian Intelligence Services may have been blind, it is difficult to imagine that Pakistan’s intention, preparation and plan of action could have escaped detection by the numerous British personnel who were holding key positions in both the Dominions. Strangely enough, Lord Mountbatten, the Governor General of India, and General Sir Rob Lockhart, the Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, apparently knew nothing about the attack on Kashmir until after the tribal raiders had sacked Muzaffarabad.
Was Lord Mountbatten considered an outcast by his British colleagues?
Before the division of the sub-continent into two Dominions, it had been suggested that the Viceroy of undivided India, Lord Mountbatten, should be the Governor General of both India and Pakistan. Mr. Jinnah, the architect of Pakistan, would not have it.
He became the Head of the State of his creation, while India accepted Lord Mountbatten as its first Governor General. That Mr. Jinnah disliked Lord Mountbatten is true, but surely Lord Mountbatten’s British colleagues in service with the Dominion of Pakistan, the Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Sir Frank Messervey, in particular, would not have been swayed by Jinnah’s animosity towards Lord Mountbatten so far as to withhold from him such vital information as Pakistan’s intention to take Kashmir by force. They must have been fully alive to the fact that it would place Lord Mountbatten in a most invidious position if, as the Governor General of India and even more as the creator and pilot of the Mountbatten Plan, he knew nothing about it.
Lord Mountbatten’s ignorance of the plot that was being hatched against Jammu & Kashmir State can only point to one conclusion: his British colleagues in Pakistan did consider him an outcast. What is even more amazing is the treatment accorded to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck.
In order to ensure that the partition of the Armed Forces and their assets were fairly and correctly conducted, both India and Pakistan had agreed to the formation of a Supreme Headquarters, with Field Marshal Auchinleck as the Supreme Commander. The Headquarters, staffed entirely by British officers, was located in New Delhi.
Lord Mountbatten’s ignorance of the plot that was being hatched against Jammu & Kashmir State can only point to one conclusion
As a neutral body, Supreme Headquarters owed its loyalty to both Dominions. In his role as a neutral, Auchinleck had free access to both Governments and their Armed Forces Headquarters, and was in constant touch with them, either by personal visits, telephone or wireless, or through couriers.
It would not have called for a great deal of thought on the part of the Supreme Commander to arrive at the inference that the induction of a large body of tribals into a Princely State that had yet to make its choice of accession could have serious repercussions, not excluding a clash between the two Armies of which he was the Supreme Commander.
General Sir Frank Messervey, the C in C of the Pakistan Army, would also certainly have arrived at the same conclusion, and it is, therefore, difficult to believe that he did not brief Auchinleck fully on the events taking place in Pakistan, the intention behind them, and the serious repercussions that were bound to follow.
This excerpt from L.P. Sen’s Slender Was The Thread: Kashmir Confrontation 1947-48 (1994 edition) has been published with permission from Orient BlackSwan.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.