October 22, 1947, is recorded in the history books as the day when Pashtun tribals invaded Jammu and Kashmir. This set in motion a set of events that resulted in the accession to India of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir; the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan going to war; the division of the territory into two parts; and the beginning of the Kashmir dispute that still escapes a solution.

What is less well know is the violence that occurred just before the tribal incursion: the massacre of anywhere between 20,000 to 237,000 Muslims, according to varying claims, over the span of a few weeks, in the state’s Jammu province.

These killings, mentioned only in obscure media reports and recent scholarship, took place as millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were crossing the new international border created by Partition. Britain’s colonial machinations, especially its hastening the Partition Plan, precipitated widespread violence in the summer of 1947, resulting in one of the biggest slaughters and population displacements anywhere.

Most of what is called “Partition violence” took place in British India, and after the transfer of power, in the successor states of India and Pakistan, outside the over 600 princely states scattered over the subcontinent. Attacks on road convoys and trains ferrying refugees towards the borders made up the bulk of the violence. The princely states managed to escape much bloodletting.

However, scholars have shown recently that Jammu and Kashmir, Alwar and Bharatpur in present-day Rajasthan, Patiala and Faridkot in east Punjab and Bahawalpur in west Punjab were the exceptions. These researchers contend that large-scale killings took place there with state forces complicit in the violence.

These were some of the worst massacres in India’s history, involving state actors and local militias seeking the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The absence of any acknowledgment of these mass atrocities by the leadership of the new nation, let alone accountability for the perpetrators, produced a pattern of state responses to minority concerns that continues to cast a long shadow.

Members of Pashtun tribal groups head for Kashmir in October 1947. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pogroms in Jammu

The most detailed account of the killings in Jammu are provided by Australian political scientist Christopher Snedden, a long-time researcher of Kashmir, who published his Kashmir: The Unwritten History in 2013. Snedden’s marshalling of evidence of the violence based on interviews with survivors and archival research is detailed and persuasive.

From the picture that emerges, thousands of Muslim men and women were allegedly massacred in four eastern Jammu districts (of Jammu, Kathua, Udhampur and Chani Jagir) from late September through to early November 1947.

Jammu and Kashmir state troops along with Hindus and Sikhs escaping violence in West Punjab have been accused of these mass killings. Some news reports that Snedden cites claim that 200,000 Muslims were killed and 13,000 Muslim women were abducted. This was before the Pashtun invasion on October 22, 1947, and before Hari Singh’s accession to India on October 26 that year.

The motivation, Snedden posits, was revenge, but also an attempt to change the demography of the state’s Muslim-majority Jammu region. The massacre led to mass exodus of Jammu Muslims to the western parts of Jammu and Kashmir that would soon become to be called Azad Kashmir by Pakistan.

The voices that have tried to raise awareness of the Jammu killings – including the role of state forces working hand in hand with Hindu nationalist organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh – have largely been silenced.

Snedden cites a 1948 publication from West Punjab, based on refugee testimonies, recording 90 anti-Muslim incidents in Jammu and Kashmir between August 8 and December 12, 1947, with 118,459 alleged Muslims deaths and 13,360 abductions, with all incidents related to these deaths “involving state or Dogra troops”.

Snedden also quotes from an Associated Press of India interview with the former editor of Srinagar-based Kashmir Times, GK Reddy, published in the the Civil and Military Gazette newspaper of October 28. He says he witnessed “a mad orgy of Dogra violence against unarmed Muslims”.

Reddy reported seeing “armed bands of ruffians and soldiers shooting down and hacking to pieces helpless Muslim refugees heading towards Pakistan”; watching “civil and military officers directing a huge armed mob against Muslim refugee convoy, hacked to pieces” and in Jammu city, counting as many as “twenty four villages burning one night”. Reddy concluded by warning “by such methods of mass murder they cannot alter the population scales of the state”.

On December 18, the Civil and Military Gazette published what Snedden described as, “the most credible, useful and significant account” of the alleged killings. This was based on a factual report prepared by two Englishmen, Horace Alexander and Richard Symonds, of the Society of Friends Ambulance Unit, who were reported having been commissioned by the governments of India and Pakistan in November 1947 to investigate the religious violence in the state and specially the condition of Muslims in Jammu.

The report recounted ten separate incidents of violence that had occurred between the beginning of October and November 9, 1947. Two incidents involving at least 23,000 deaths occurred before the Pashtun invasion on October 22. Four incidents, involving a total of 62,000 deaths, took place before Hari Singh’s accession to India on October 26, when he was still the sole power in the state. In all instances, the killers included “state” or Dogra troops, the report said.

Hari Singh. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The incidents included 8,000 Muslims allegedly killed near Khatua, and 15,000 killed near Akhnur bridge, both on October 20, 1947. In another incident, the report claimed that state officials ordered 25,000 Muslims gathered at Maogoan, awaiting evacuation to Pakistan, to walk to the new dominion. “But as they were doing so, their women and all their personal belongings were taken away from them by Dogra troops, and the rest made to stand in a line, where they were riddled with machine gun bullet,” it said.

In a further incident involving a siege of 14,000 Muslims in Sambha village near Jammu city on October 22, all the Muslim women in the village were reportedly taken away by state troops and the men were slaughtered. There were only 15 survivors. The report claimed the incident is supposed to have occurred almost immediately after the visit to Sambha by maharaja Hari Singh.

A United Nations report on the situation in western Jammu and Kashmir repeated the allegations of Hari Singh’s direct role in the violence. A ziladar or revenue collector informed the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan that on October 20, 1947, he heard the maharaja, while visiting Bhimbar tehsil, give orders that “the Muslim were to be exterminated and had seen His Highness shooting two or three”. United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan was tasked to investigate and mediate the India-Pakistan dispute over the future of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It lasted from June 1948 to March 1950.

On August 10, 1948, The Times of London, in a report titled “Elimination of Muslims from Jammu”, claimed, out of a total population of 411,000 Muslims in the districts of Jammu, Udhampur, Kathua and eastern part of Reasi, “237,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated”, “ by all the forces of the Dogra state, headed by the Maharaja in person….”

According to the report, the elimination of two-thirds of Jammu’s Muslims entirely changed the composition of the province. Before the violence, Muslims were a majority in Jammu province (53%, according to the 1941 Census). The 1961 Census showed that the Muslim population in Jammu had been reduced to a third of that. (No census was conducted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1951.)

Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Jammu massacres several times in his public speeches. On November 27, Gandhi noted “considerable” and “unreported” Hindu excesses in Jammu. The next day, he met Kashmiri leader Shaikh Abdullah, who had visited Jammu and confirmed the atrocities. Gandhi reproached Abdullah, who by then headed the administration in the territory, for betraying his people’s trust by not having the maharaja’s powers curtailed. On December 25, Gandhi stated that he held the Maharaja “responsible for the happenings in his state, including the murder of numberless Muslims and abduction of Muslim girls in Jammu”.

The backdrop to the massacre was the anti-maharaja uprising by Muslims in Jammu’s Pooch jagir that culminated in an armed revolt in August 1947. The maharaja was not a popular figure, especially among Muslims in his state. In Jammu, the resentment was accentuated by the excessive tax burdens, with Poonchis having to pay taxes both to the maharaja as well as the local feudal master. A no-tax campaign in June 1947 invited state repression including the looting and burning of villages and allegations of some 200 persons being killed.

Snedden also claims that the Poonch rebellion and the subsequent massacres of Muslims in Jammu may have motivated the North West Frontier Province Pashtuns, who had ethnic and cultural links with Jammu Muslims, to carry out the raids from October 22. This triggered the first war between India and Pakistan.

Media attention and political discourse quickly moved to the tribal attack, the battles between the two armies and high politics, with Hari Singh signing the instrument of accession and Shaikh Abdullah’s National Conference forming the government. The mass atrocities in Jammu were forgotten.

The erasure was also made possible by the complete control that Hari Singh’s administration had on flow of information, especially in the build up to and during the violence. By October 7, it had imposed rigorous, pre-censorship on four leading local newspapers, banned entry of newspapers from outside, and forced the Kashmir Times to cease publication, whilst interning the correspondent of the Associated Press of India. This prevented information flowing to the outside world.

But contributing equally to the silence around the massacres, was how post-Independence leaders, in Delhi and Srinagar, hushed up the killings themselves. Despite acknowledging the central role of the maharaja and his troops in the targeted violence, no effort seems to have been made to investigate the violence and hold perpetrators to account.

The historical impunity in Jammu and Kashmir ensures that the cycles of violence continue unabated, across the entire state now, banishing its people to a life of constant violence, unfreedoms and insecurity.

Sajjad Hassan studies drivers and dynamics of conflicts, in the hope of finding solutions for justice, peace and diversity.

This is the first in a two-part series on violence in princely states after Independence. Read the second part here.