The Original Himalayan Blunder: How India Lost Gilgit-Baltistan

The Original Himalayan Blunder: How India Lost Gilgit-Baltistan

The original Himalayan Blunder was with regard to the Gilgit Agency and the Wazarat, which many don’t even remember. Gilgit-Baltistan, as we know it today comprised Gilgit Agency and Gilgit Wazarat back in 1947.

A lot has been written about the Himalayan Blunder committed by India in 1962. Even more has been written about the blunders committed in the prosecution of the Kashmir War of 1947, notably the reference to the United Nations by Jawaharlal Nehru at a time 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. The Poonch-Uri road had been secured. 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 which was not under the charge of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Kashmir was a separate Ministry under the Government of India and was directly under the charge of Prime Minister Nehru.

I would not labour the oft repeated events that pre-dated the accession of Kashmir to India.

I begin at the point of accession.

Field Marshal Manek Shaw

There is a fine account by Late Field Marshal Manek Shaw who was then the Director of Military Operations in the Army HQ in the rank of a Colonel. General Sir Roy Bucher, the C-in-C of the Indian Army sent him to accompany VP Menon who was flying to Srinagar to get the Instrument of Accession signed.

The Kabaili tribals were hardly 10-12 kms away from the Srinagar airfield. They came back on 25th Oct, and it is worth recalling in Manek Shaw’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’s forces broadly comprised 50 per cent Muslims and 50 per cent Hindus. Manek Shaw records that the Muslim elements of Maharaja’s forces had revolted.

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

A bit of background may be called for at this point.

The princely State of Kashmir and Jammu (as opposed to J&K of today), had five main regions – Jammu with Jammu as HQ, Kashmir with Srinagar as HQ, Ladakh with Leh as summer HQ, and Skardu as winter HQ, Gilgit Wazarat with Astore as HQ, and Gilgit Agency on a 60 year lease to the British from 1935.

Gilgit Agency comprised Chilas, Gilgit, Yasin, Ghizr, Iskoman, Humza and Nagar valley. All areas east of Bunji were in the Wazarat which was directly administered. As the Great Game was unfolding in Central Asia, and Britain was getting more and more obsessed with the threat of Communist Soviet Union, they thought it fit to administer this part of Maharaja’s State directly and accordingly took it on lease in 1935.

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

On the 1st of August, administration of Gilgit passed back into the hands of Maharaja, a responsibility he was simply not up to discharging. He had a British Chief of Army Staff, Major General Scott. Scott had just two battalions around Gilgit. A battalion of Gilgit Scouts which was a British force and another battalion of 6, Kashmir infantry stationed around 50 kms away at Bunji on the eastern bank of Indus in the Wazarat area.

Gilgit Scouts was a 100 per cent Muslim force. It had one HQ Company stationed in Gilgit and ten platoons contributed by the various Rajas. 6th Kashmir infantry at Bunjion the left bank of Indus had 2 Dogra and Sikh companies and one Muslim company. General Scott sought a British officer to command the Gilgit Scouts as the force was 100 per cent Muslim and a Hindu might find it difficult to command it, and for obvious reasons, a Muslim could not be trusted in the situation that prevailed.

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

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 J&K. Srinagar was accessed from Rawalpindi, through Murrie and Muzaffarabad (The road to Muzaffarabad bye-passes Murrie today).

Poonch road was through the town of Gujrat after crossing the Chenab at Wazirabad. Even the road to Jammu was Amritsar-Sialkot-Jammu. Jammu had a light railway too. It ran from Wazirabad Junction on the main Lahore-Rawalpindi 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.

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 through Bunji upto the place where GilgitRiver joins the Indus, from where Indus upstream goes further north until it hits the Karakoram Range and turns south south-east near Sassi.

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

The river Hunza meets the Gilgit River at Gilgit. The road along Hunza valley led to the vassal States of Hunza and Nagar. The present Karakoram Highway is along this alignment going further into Chinese Turkestan over the Khunjerab pass.

The Gilgit-Indus confluence has the unique geographical feature of three of the greatest ranges – Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindukush meeting 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 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.


Map of Jammu and Kashmir

Even the flights in small turbo prop planes had to first go to Peshawar from Srinagar before refueling 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 his taking over as Commander at Gilgit, he had a political agenda. When the lease of Gilgit Agency was prematurely terminated by Mountbatten and Maharaja formally resumed 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 derides him as incompetent and lazy. 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 has 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 3 battalions, one of which was a Muslim battalion. Everyone knew how Muslim battalions had deserted the Kashmir forces in the various mutinies which occurred from Poonch to Muzaffarabad to Baramula. Gilgit Scouts had an unconventional formation of an HQ company and ten platoons. These were widely distributed at Gupis, Chilas and Gilgit.

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.

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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 Army, as by the Indian Army and India’s political leadership.

Gilgit had a small air strip which could have taken small aircrafts, 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 imperative.

As things transpired later on, Major Brown led the mutiny of Gilgit Scouts as he had intended to, right from November onwards. The Kashmiri Governor, Brigadier Ghansara Singh was arrested by Major Brown. The Muslim company of 6th Kashmir Infantry also mutinied, as they had already been compromised by Major Brown.

The remainder of the 6th Kashmir Infantry were chased away from Bunji, Pakistan flag was unfurled at Gilgit on 1st November, 1947 and for 3 weeks Gilgit was an independent entity till 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.

Gen. Thimayya is on record that he considered Skardu to be the last frontier in the battle to save Ladakh. Yet, no airlift occurred till 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.

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

The hero of Skadru Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa

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

Narendra Modi and 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 POWs melt away 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 colonizing force.

We need not have any illusions about the population in these parts, but it is certain that the way to conquer Kashmir is not through Muzaffarabad, but through Khapalu and Skardu. This is true not only in territorial terms, but also in terms of minds of people.

Sanjay Dixit

The author is Principal Secretary, Ayush, Govt of Rajasthan.