The politics, military tactics & geography behind how Pakistan won Gilgit-Baltistan from India

The region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, as we know it today, comprised of Gilgit Agency and Gilgit Wazarat back in 1947. The original ‘Himalayan Blunder’ (Himalayan Blunder is one term) was with regard to the Gilgit Agency and the Gilgit Wazarat, a fact that many might not remember today.

A lot has been written about the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ committed by India in 1962. But even more has been written about the blunders committed in the prosecution of the India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1947-48 — notable is the reference to the United Nations by Jawaharlal Nehru at the time when India was gaining momentum in the war. Poonch had been secured. Enemy forces had been chased away from the outskirts of Leh, and Kargil had been won back. India only needed a last push to capture Skardu back and take Muzaffarabad and Mirpur.

History would also tell you that Jammu and Kashmir was also the only princely state that was not under the charge of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In December 1947, J&K was removed from the State Department under Patel and moved under the PM. Gopalaswamy Aiyangar, a minister without portfolio, was made in-charge. This led to Patel resigning from the Cabinet. Mahātmā Gandhi had to intervene and effect reconciliation.

Kashmir became a separate ministry under the government of India and came directly under the charge of then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in December 1947.

I would not belabour the oft-repeated events that predated the accession of Kashmir to India. I will begin from the point of accession.

Sam Manekshaw’s account
There is a fine account by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, then-director of military operations in the Army headquarters in the rank of a Colonel. General Sir Roy Bucher, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, sent Manekshaw to accompany V.P. Menon who was flying to Srinagar to get the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir signed.

The Kabaili tribals were hardly 10–12 kilometres away from the Srinagar airfield. They came back on 25 October, and it is worth recalling in Manekshaw’s own words what happened the next morning in a meeting of the cabinet defence committee:

“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 (emphasis in original). 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’.

I walked out, and we started flying in troops at about 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock. I think it was the Sikh regiment under Ranjit Rai that was the first lot to be flown in. And then we continued flying troops in. That is all I know about what happened. Then all the fighting took place. I became a brigadier, and became director of military operations and also if you will see the first signal to be signed ordering the cease-fire on 1 January (1949) had been signed by Colonel Manekshaw on behalf of C-in-C India, General Sir Roy Bucher. That must be lying in the Military Operations Directorate.”

One more event of great momentous consequence had already taken place.

Maharaja Hari Singh’s forces broadly comprised of 50 per cent Muslims and 50 per cent Hindus. It is well documented that a large part of the Muslim elements of Mahārāja’s Army had revolted and joined the Pakistani Army in Poonch and Mirpur area.

This position was known both to the Army and the political leadership. However, they got so busy looking after Srinagar that they completely forgot about the Gilgit Agency and the Wazarat.

Some history about J&K ::

A bit of historical background of Jammu and Kashmir may be called for at this point.

The princely state of Kashmir and Jammu (as opposed to J&K of today), up to the point of the partition had five main regions — Jammu with Jammu as headquarters; Kashmir with Srinagar as headquarters; Ladakh with Leh as summer headquarters, and Skardu as winter headquarters; Gilgit Wazarat with Astore as headquarters; and Gilgit Agency on a 60-year lease to the British from 1935.

Gilgit Agency comprised of Chilas, Gilgit, Yasin, Ghizr, Iskoman, Hunza and the Nagar valley. All areas east of Bunji were in the Wazarat which was directly administered by the Mahārāja, with Astore as the HQ. The Deosai plains, Minimargh, the Burzil Pass, and parts of the Shingo Valley were in the Gilgit Wazarat. As the ‘Great Game’ was unfolding in Central Asia, and Britain was getting more obsessed with the threat of communist Soviet Union, so they thought it fit to administer the areas of Maharaja’s province lying west and south of Bunji directly and accordingly took it on lease in 1935, and named it Gilgit Agency.

As the Indian Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament on 13 July 1947 (received royal assent on 18th) and the date of transfer of power to India and Pakistan was set to 15 August, Lord Mountbatten decided to let go of the Gilgit Agency lease.

On 1 August, the responsibility of administration of Gilgit was passed back into the hands of the Maharaja — a responsibility he was simply not up to discharge. He had a British Chief of Army Staff, Major General Scott. Scott had just two battalions around Gilgit – Gilgit Scouts, which was a British force; and the 6th Kashmir Infantry. Its two battalions were stationed around 50 kilometres away from each other at Bunji on the eastern bank of Indus river in the Wazarat area.

Gilgit Scouts was an all-Muslim force. It had one headquarters company stationed in Gilgit along with ten platoons contributed by the various Rajas. The 6th Kashmir Infantry at Bunji on the left bank of Indus had two Dogra and Sikh companies and one Muslim company. General Scott sought a British officer to command the Gilgit Scouts as the force comprised of only Muslims and a Hindu chief might have found it difficult to command it, and for obvious reasons, he felt a Muslim could not be trusted in the situation that prevailed.

So, Scott marshalled his resources and got a British Captain who was then posted in Chitral, and also accepted his recommendation to have another British officer work under him at Chilas.

Pakistan’s advantage ::

The biggest advantage that Pakistan had over India in Kashmir was that there was not a single road or rail route that connected India with Jammu and Kashmir. Srinagar was accessed from Rawalpindi, through Murrie and Muzaffarabad (the road to Muzaffarabad bypasses Murrie today).

Poonch road passed through the town of Gujrat (in present-day Pakistan) after crossing the Chenab river at Wazirabad. Even the road to Jammu passed through Amritsar-Sialkot. Jammu had a limited railway transport link too. It ran from the Wazirabad railway junction on the main Lahore-Rawalpindi broad gauge line through Sialkot to Jammu. Gilgit and Skardu were both accessed through Rawalpindi-Abbottabad road, which crossed into Gilgit Agency at the 4200-metre Babusar pass and joined the Indus at Chilas, the headquarters of Diamer district today in Gilgit-Baltistan.

If the Babusar pass was closed due to snow, then there was the alternative route along the Indus valley which is the present alignment of the Karakoram Highway.

From Chilas, the road went up to Bunji on the left bank and crossed the Indus at Bunji, then went up to the place where the Gilgit river joins the Indus, from where Indus upstream goes further north until it hits the Karakoram range and turns south-east near Sassi.

Indus then goes on to Skardu, from where another road along Indus, Shingo and Suru valleys joins it with Kargil. The other route took off from the Gilgit-Indus confluence and went up to the Shandur pass in the West from where it crossed into Chitral, a Muslim Princely State.

The Hunza river meets the Gilgit river at Gilgit. The road along Hunza valley led to the Maharaja’s vassal states of Hunza and Nagar. The present Karakoram Highway is along this alignment going further into Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) over the Khunjerab pass.

The Gilgit-Indus confluence has the unique geographical feature of three of the greatest mountain ranges — Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindukush converging at one place.

The route from Jammu to Gilgit and Skardu via Srinagar was open only during summers as it was not possible to cross the Pir Panjal during the winters. Also, going to Gilgit Wazarat’s capital Astore involved crossing the rivers Sind and Kishanganga, before going up to the Burzil Pass through Mini Margh.

The big blunder ::

Even the flights in small turboprop planes had to first go to Peshawar from Srinagar before refuelling and taking the route up along the Indus valley.

It is here that the big blunder took place.

Major William Alexander Brown, the commander of the Gilgit Scouts, had one singular merit, not unlike many other Englishmen. He kept a diary. This was later published as his memoirs.

A look through the memoirs reveals his mindset. Right from day one of him taking over as the commander at Gilgit, he had a political agenda. When the lease of Gilgit Agency was prematurely terminated by Lord Mountbatten and Maharaja Hari Singh formally resumed control over his territory, Major Brown was inducted as an officer of the Kashmir and Jammu Army.

Brigadier Ghansara Singh of the Maharaja’s Army was sent in as the governor. Brown derided him as an incompetent and lazy person. Brown’s memoirs cannot be taken at their face value as he was always scheming against the Maharaja.

In early September, he had decided to support Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. He mentioned in his diary that he had his mind made up that in case Maharaja decided to accede to India, he would be with his Muslim soldiers and would mount a mutiny.

Brigadier Ghansara Singh did not size up the situation well. The 6th Kashmir Infantry based at Bunji had three companies, one of which was a Muslim company. Everyone knew how Muslim elements had deserted the Kashmir forces in various mutinies that were staged from Poonch to Muzaffarabad to Baramula. Gilgit Scouts had an unconventional formation of a headquarters company and ten platoons. These were widely spread over Gupis, Chilas and Gilgit.

India’s gaffe ::

After the accession had been achieved and Indian troops had taken control, Gilgit should have been immediately secured through an air bridge as was Srinagar.

Had Gilgit been secured, every other garrison in Gilgit-Baltistan would have become safe, including Skardu and Ladakh Agency. This blunder was committed as much by the Kashmir forces as by the Indian Army and India’s political leadership.

Gilgit had a small airstrip, which could have taken small aircraft, but Skardu had a fairly long airstrip. An airlift of the size which occurred in Srinagar was militarily not possible, but induction of Indian Army and its commanders was an urgent task, that could have been achieved through small planes.

As things transpired later on, Major Brown led the mutiny of Gilgit Scouts, as he had intended to, from November onwards. He arrested Kashmir’s Governor Brigadier Ghansara Singh. Even the Muslim elements of 6th Kashmir Infantry mutinied, as they had already been compromised by Major Brown.

The remaining members of the Kashmir Infantry were chased away from Bunji, and Pakistan flag was unfurled at Gilgit on 1 November 1947. For three weeks, Gilgit was an independent entity until Pakistan sent its governor there. Thus, the way was opened for the whole of Gilgit and a major part of Baltistan to be occupied by Pakistan.

Major Brown directed the entire operations into Gilgit-Baltistan until he was relieved in January 1948. After the fall of Gilgit, every man in Kashmir knew that Skardu would be the next target.

General Thimayya is on record that he considered Skardu to be the last frontier in the battle to save Ladakh. Yet, no airlift occurred until the Kashmir forces in Skardu under that great soldier Sher Jung Thapa had been besieged in February by Gilgit Scouts and Chitral Bodyguards.

This failure to resupply and relieve the garrisons at Gilgit and Skardu immediately after the airlift of Srinagar were great military blunders, besides political ones.

A sagacious Army commander, which General Sir Roy Bucher probably was, should have proceeded to defend Skardu and Gilgit through an air bridge. We are, however, not sure how much of his heart he had in this war. He is also blamed to this day for not moving on Mirpur when Poonch was under siege in 1947-48.

Pakistanis similarly blame General Sir Douglas Gracey, the Pakistan Commander-in-Chief. It was a great error of judgment on part of the Maharaja to entrust his forces to British officers, and to place trust in Muslim companies and battalions when they were deserting everywhere.

The present situation ::

The saga of rape and murder of Indians in Bunji and Skardu need to be retold today so that people would know how Pakistani forces fight, and how misplaced their sense of fair play is when it comes to Pakistan, whether with their forces or their public.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have sized up the situation correctly. I am sure that if it had been Modi and Doval in 1972, they would not have let the advantage of having 90,000 prisoners of war go without wresting away some major part of Pakistan, or without breaking up Pakistan. A War Crime Tribunal would have broken up Pakistan at that time.

My two bits about the present situation is that this great Ummah feeling has completely disappeared from Gilgit-Baltistan today. Shias and Ismailis are persecuted, and Sunnis are being increasingly seen as a colonising force.

We need not have any illusions about the population in these parts. But it is certain that the way to conquer Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not through Muzaffarabad but through Khapalu and Skardu. India will have to militarily conquer PoK not through the Jhelum, but through the Shyok.

This is true not only in territorial terms but also in terms of capturing the minds of people. The areas of Baltistan conquered by the Ladakh Scouts in 1971, under the redoubtable soldier Colonel Chewang Rinchen, are today completely amalgamated in the Indian Union. If the 1971 war had lasted another week, Ladakh Scouts would have liberated Skardu as well. The Nubra segment in the parliamentary constituency of Ladakh overwhelmingly voted for a BJP candidate in the 2019 general elections.

Let us hope for taking the Khapalu, Skardu, and Shigar area in the Indian Union soon. After that, Shaksgam Valley, ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963, would be thrown open.

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