“I can probably say I was the first man to see those people,” began Sheikh Mohammad Maqbool. He had walked painfully to an armchair in his living room in North Kashmir’s Baramulla town. At the end of his life, the 85-year-old National Conference leader, who had been law minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was almost blind. But Baramulla of 1947 seemed to hang before his eyes: “They started streaming down the mountains as if they had sprung from the earth.”

Maqbool was talking about the tribal invaders, mostly from the North West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan, who had stormed Baramulla in October 1947. On that first day, he said, a “Chiverlet car” rolled up the town’s main road. “People, in their enthusiasm, went to welcome them,” he said. “A man in a militia uniform came out and said ‘bhaago, nahi toh goli marunga.” Run or l will shoot.

Maqbool, freshly graduated from St Joseph’s College, Baramulla, had lingered in the crowd. In the dark green jacket that had been part of his college uniform, he must have stood out, for the man in khaki then barked, not very accurately, “Oi, neeley jacket waaley.” You in the blue jacket.

He had a message for Maqbool to deliver: the people of the town were to keep their doors and windows open but not invite anyone inside; if they wanted to offer the raiders anything, they must bring it outside.

“When I returned, people lifted me on their shoulders as if a hero had come,” Maqbool said. He then relayed the message and told everyone to hang something green on their doors, “just as a marker”. This last instruction was followed with alacrity.

“There was a man in the crowd, a zaildar, he was wearing a green turban. The loot of Baramulla started from his turban,” declared Maqbool, with a wheeze of laughter.

Legends of the fall

Seventy years ago, in August 1947, the British left the subcontinent divided into India and Pakistan. The fate of Jammu and Kashmir, a princely state under the rule of Maharaja Hari Singh, however, remained uncertain until October.

The kingdom had seen its own dissensions. “In Hindustan, there was a movement against the British, here there was a different struggle for a separate state,” said 82-year-old Khaliq Parvez, a writer based in Baramulla town. “Here, the slogans used to be against Maharaja Hari Singh.”

At Partition, the famously indecisive prince dithered between India and Pakistan, and seems to have dreamt of an independent state with himself as sovereign. When he finally acceded to India, part of his kingdom had already passed out of his control, with the advance of the tribal forces.

According to some accounts, the raiders stormed into the Valley on October 22, and Baramulla was the first major city they encountered. The Indian Army landed in Srinagar to drive the invaders out on October 27. The army pushed them back till Uri in Baramulla district, and a ceasefire line was eventually drawn. Seventy years later, the makeshift boundary remains the site of a long and bitter conflict.

Over the decades, the raid of Baramulla has been cast as the pivotal moment of the conflict, the subject of histories and novels, the breeding ground of myths. How many raiders? How many dead? Did the raiders get local help? Were regular Pakistani soldiers among them?

After 70 years of myth and war, these question may never be answered. The few residents who are old enough to remember the raids have fraying memories. About three weeks after he recounted the events of October 1947, Maqbool died.

Newsreel believed to be showing Indian soldiers landing in Kashmir. Image source: British Pathé/Youtube.
Newsreel believed to be showing Indian soldiers landing in Kashmir. Image source: British Pathé/Youtube.

Baramulla 1947

When the tribal invaders arrived in Baramulla in 1947, they entered a richly cosmopolitan town, which drew nobles and dignitaries of various hues. “Baramulla used to be the main town of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Parvez. “Where you have the civil lines today, there were large houses and hotels. The Rawalpindi road was open. All the nawabs and dignitaries had their houses there. Before Partition, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, all lived here.”

It was a trading hub linked by road to cities and cultures farther west, a major transit point for goods travelling east. Invading armies from the west would have to travel down the Srinagar-Rawalpindi road, which passed through Baramulla and was locally known as the Jhelum Valley Road. Residents remember it as the main thoroughfare in the Valley, turned into a “pukka” road in the 19th century. The Srinagar-Jammu road, now a national highway, was called “Cart Road” and mainly put to local use.

For Parvez, freedom meant the liberty to travel to different countries without encountering an implacable frontier. “We could go to Tashkent, Bukhara, we didn’t need a passport,” he recalled dreamily.

The raid of Baramulla may be passing out of living memory but it is inscribed in the town’s very geography. Driving into Baramulla from Srinagar, you cross St Joseph’s Hospital, where the raiders burst in and killed six people. Further up the road, a banner declares Cariappa Park, named after the general who marshalled Indian forces in 1947. Drive down further still, and you cross Sherwani Community Hall, a memorial to the National Conference worker who stalled the raiders at Baramulla. The Jhelum, which bisects the town, must still be crossed by bridges once guarded by the raiders, according to residents.

Partition meant the old road links were cut off, the Valley folded into itself and Baramulla lost its significance in the trade route while Srinagar became the undisputed urban centre of Kashmir. “From a gateway, it has become a backdoor,” lamented Maqbool.

Running

How you experienced the raids of October 1947 depended to a large extent on which community you belonged to and where your political loyalties lay; Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference or the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference.

“I can tell you what happened with the Sikhs, rest I don’t know,” said Harbans Singh, who lives with his wife in Baramulla’s civil lines. There are roses in the garden, lace curtains, a sunroom and pictures of their two sons, one in the army and the other working in London. For years, this has been home for the Singh family. Pre-1947, Harbans Singh had lived in Khadiniyar, then a primarily Sikh village, near the main town. When Partition came, he was still a schoolboy.

Reports of the bloodshed unleashed by Partition in Punjab and other parts of the mainland would have been filtering in for months. Within the princely state, the Poonch uprising of September had led to violence against Hindus and Sikhs, pushing them out of towns like Mirpur and Muzaffarabad towards Jammu. In October, there would be large-scale massacres of Muslims in Jammu, Udhampur and other districts, sending a tide of refugees towards the west.

“People say it was October 4 when we ran,” he said. “The previous evening, it was said in the village that people from Muzaffarabad were running away, so we should also run. People in Srinagar also said run.” So the village took the collective decision to run.

Singh’s father, who worked with the forest department, was away on duty. His mother and five young children - three boys and two girls - set out on foot with the rest of the village. “We took nothing,” he said.

Singh’s family went towards Kanispora, about five kilometres from Baramulla, where an aunt and her two sons lived. “We hid in the orchards for a night,” he recalled. From Kanispora, they walked to the village of Naji Bhat, now accompanied by their relatives. Then it was on to Dardpora, then Biawa and so on. At every stop, the party swelled with more fleeing Sikhs. Until they reached the village of Ichahama in the hills of Budgam district.

“It was quite a large Sikh village,” Singh continued. “There, 3,000 to 4,000 Sikhs landed up, staying in the gurudwara and houses.” A few days later, word broke out that the raiders were going to attack the village. “We had our desi rifles, some people from surrounding villages also gathered there,” he said.

The whole day, the village rang with gunfire. “Two hundred sardars died that day, including women and children,” Singh claimed. When darkness fell, the fleeing Sikhs offered their prayers and set out again towards the nearby town of Magam. It was there, according to Singh, that they finally encountered the Jammu and Kashmir Army, the bedraggled forces of the maharaja which had retreated as the raiders poured in.

“We told them, we are kafirs, be kind to us,” said Singh. “The police and army helped us with cars. Some NC [National Conference] waaley also helped. They took the injured and transported us. After seven to eight days, we reached Srinagar.”

Their father, who had gone home from work to find his house deserted, later managed to join the rest of the family. In Srinagar, a refugee camp had been set up in what is now known as the Exhibition Grounds, close to the state secretariat. That’s where the Singh’s stayed. Others took shelter in abandoned Hindu houses, said Singh. A bitter winter awaited the refugees.

St Joseph's Convent in 1947. Image source: British Pathé/Youtube.
St Joseph's Convent in 1947. Image source: British Pathé/Youtube.

Close encounters

Back in Baramulla, Muslim families were also moving to safety. Most of Maqbool’s family had migrated to a nearby village but he was staying with his uncle in the town. The morning the raiders arrived, he had been sent out to buy bread, the fluffy Kashmiri kind. “I purchased, for one rupee, 25 to 30 pieces, with the intention that if we had to leave, we would have something,” he said.

The first ominous sign was the sight of two injured soldiers from the maharaja’s forces limping by a local shrine. Maqbool pressed the bread into their hands as they hurried away. Then came the man in khaki, the herald of the invasion.

The streets emptied as the invaders advanced, but Maqbool was destined for more adventures. “I was just entering my house when someone called me, an armed man,” said Maqbool. He wanted to know the way to the market. Maqbool, left with no choice, decided to take him through deserted back alleys, where the man poked around curiously in empty houses.

Finally, on Hospital Road, they reached a chemist’s shop. It was closed but one of the planks in the entrance had been prised open so they clambered in. To the raider in Maqbool’s story, it could have been a curiosity shop. He first pocketed a bottle of phitkari, alum, but when Maqbool told him it was used as an aftershave, he threw it out. Then he found a bottle of “Zulf-e-Bangali” and asked what it was. “I said it was hair oil. He took off his turban, poured it on his hair and asked me to rub it,” laughed Maqbool.

After he had assured the man he had enough oil to last him till Srinagar, they set off again into the deserted streets. Finally, they arrived at a crossroads where Maqbool managed to escaped. “He came out of the alley and went one way, I came out and ran the other way,” he said, simply.

Not all encounters ended so well. When a man shot in the leg took shelter in their house, Maqbool was sent to fetch a doctor. It was night. Most of the district administration had fled. The only doctor left in town was on the other side of the river. But the bridges were guarded by sleeping raiders. Finally, with a kangri between his teeth and a blanket as camouflage, Maqbool crossed one of them. They returned by boat. The boatman, who knew him, said there was a body floating in the water but they had been afraid to retrieve it.

“The doctor wanted it fished out,” Maqbool said. “He said the raiders might leave but Baramulla’s people had to live. The water could not be contaminated.” They found a woman, 20 to 24 years old. From her ear hung a “dejhor”, a kind of long earring traditionally worn by Kashmiri Pandit women.

Khaliq Parvez holds up a picture of himself as a young man. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravatry.
Khaliq Parvez holds up a picture of himself as a young man. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravatry.

‘It was Eid’

Women in Baramulla would have had to deal with their own set of fears. Andrew Whitehead’s book, A Mission in Kashmir, which documents the killings at St Joseph’s Hospital, suggests that sexual violence also took place. Rumours that the raiders raped as well as pillaged still circulate in the town. But the nuns who bore witness at St Joseph’s are long gone and in the rest of the town, women’s testimonies are hard to find.

When the raiders came, Parvez recalls, Hindu girls took shelter in their house and borrowed his sisters’ clothes in order to pass themselves off as Kashmiri Muslim women.

“It was Eid,” said Parvez, who was about 12 at the time. “We had to do qurbani (sacrifice) of the goats. Just after we had slaughtered the goats and were cutting up the meat, we heard shots in the hills. My brother had seen them crossing the Jhelum in boats. My father said, take the meat and distribute it in the market.”

Parvez remembers a Hindu woman dropping her children out of her window in order to save them from marauders. “My father caught the first one. The second one was heavier so he was not able to catch the child. The Pathans saw him wiping the second child’s blood. They thought, he saves Hindu children.”

They would have killed his father that day, Parvez says, if it had not been for his brother, who had been a “pehelwan (body builder)”. “He caught the raiders like this,” Parvez wrapped his arms around himself in a tight embrace, “and said, ‘why will you kill him? He is my father, he is Muslim’. The raiders said it was because he was saving Hindu children. My brother said, ‘no, our children went into that house, it is them we are catching’. So the raiders went away.”

But the raiders might have spared the Hindus, according to Parvez. “They would not leave the Sikhs alive, because Sikhs had killed Muslims in Punjab. The Hindus - they only killed those who fought them,” he claimed.

Sikhs had gathered at a local gurudwara, he added, and were planning to strike back at the Muslims. According to Parvez, Ghulam Mohiuddin Khan, a National Conference leader, came with the army and put an end to these plans. “He warned them: if you do such a thing, we will shoot you,” Parvez reminisced.

Both Maqbool and Parvez separately pointed out that the raiders killed Muslims too. Both told the story of Habib Bhat, whose shawl had caught the fancy of the raiders. “When he resisted, they shot him,” said Maqbool.

‘Qabalis’

Who were these men who sprang from the earth and then vanished in about two weeks? Many remember that a large section of the town’s residents were happy to receive them. The National Conference, led by Abdullah, who was close to Nehru, had been strong in Baramulla at the time, but a section of its population longed to merge with Pakistan. The available accounts are hazy about whether the raiders received local help, especially in the villages up in the mountains. “There was very little resistance in Baramulla,” said Farooq Ahmed Shaal, whose family had ties with the Muslim Conference at that time.

But the pillaging that followed seems to have left a lasting distaste. “They were not liberators, they were looters. Who told them to come?” demanded Parvez. “We do not know whether it was Pakistan or [Abdul] Ghaffar Khan.” One theory circulated in the Valley is that Khan, known for his sympathies with the Congress leadership and called “Frontier Gandhi”, had deployed the raiders so that Delhi had a ruse to send in its armies and establish control over the Valley. “If the raiders had not been here, we would have got independence, the Indian Army would not have got the chance to land,” said Shaal.

Some still believe the raiders were Kashmir’s “first freedom fighters”, but popular memory has largely disowned them. In local accounts, they are called “qabalis” or “Pathans”, nameless “hooligans” who did not belong to the sophisticated Valley. A pamphlet distributed in the chapel attached to St Joseph’s Hospital describes “savage mountaineers” who were “agile as wild cats and screaming with fury”.

Maqbool gave a description that matched his story of preening savages. They were mostly young men, he said, in turbans and slippers made from ropes of grass. Some did not even have a shirt. “When the aeroplanes came, they said ‘khuda ka baccha aa gaya (the children of god have come)’”, he said.

Most accounts are also emphatic that there was no massacre in Baramulla. Maqbool remembered that one of the looters fired in the direction of the Chhatti Padshahi Gurudwara. Parvez mentioned they rounded up all the Hindus in the Old Town, and spoke vaguely of a fight in which 10 to 15 people were killed. Shaal spoke sombrely of the violence at St Joseph’s Hospital. But thousands killed, as claimed by some press reports at the time and later histories? Most think it impossible for a “rag tag” band of men.

Was it, however, an entirely anarchic mob? Maqbool vaguely recalled that the man who stepped out of the car that first day in Baramulla was referred to as “Major”. Whitehead also tells the story of a “Pathan officer” who reined in the marauders at the hospital. Several histories have referred to them as a “lashkar”, army. Whitehead, interviewing fighters of the Lashkar-e-Taiba decades later, found some of them traced back their lineage to the invading armies of 1947. The new generation would be welcomed as “mehmani mujahideen”, or guest fighters, by much of Baramulla.

Aftermath

Baramulla survived, however altered and wounded, and Maqbool, Parvez and Singh went on to pursue very different political destinies. Maqbool started teaching history at St Joseph’s College in the 1950s before rising in the National Conference to become law minister.

Parvez joined the Political Conference, a party which favoured a merger with Pakistan. One cold night in 1957, he was arrested and sent into exile in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. He returned after close to a decade and in 2007, he published Jale-ae Watan (Banished to Exile). Banishing politically inconvenient people seems to have been a common practice in the early Indian state. Shaal’s uncles in the Muslim Conference were also exiled to PoK.

Singh joined the Jammu and Kashmir Militia at the age of 18. It was the successor to the local army of volunteers formed under the aegis of the National Conference to fight Pakistani forces. Decades later, it would be absorbed into the Indian Army.

Back in 1947, Singh’s family had returned to Baramulla after two or three months at the camp. Their old house in the village had been destroyed and they rebuilt their home in the main town. Many Sikhs had proceeded from Srinagar to camps in Jammu or Garhwal, Singh said. Some returned after a few months, some after a few years. Others had taken shelter in the surrounding jungles. “When the Indian forces came, they dropped pieces of paper saying we are here, if there are any Sikhs left, they can come out,” he said.

The greater rupture with the Valley was still to come. “The Sikhs who ran in 1947 came back,” said Singh. It was in the 1990s, after militancy broke out, that many Sikh families ran for good. So did the Pandits.

It is another loss that is mourned in Baramulla, that of friends and neighbours who were forced to leave. Parvez holds up old black and white pictures reprinted in one of his books. “This was my friend, Kishen Kaul, and that’s RN Tikkoo. Both ran away to Jammu,” he sighed.

The graves of five people killed during the raid St Joseph's Convent and hospital, are still well tended. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
The graves of five people killed during the raid St Joseph's Convent and hospital, are still well tended. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty