The Lashkar, Act I

By: Andrew Whitehead My mission as a historian of Kashmir started 10 years ago at the St Joseph’s mission in Baramulla. There I met Sister Emilia, an Italian nun who had lived in Kashmir since 1933, and heard her first-hand account of one of the defining moments in South Asia’s modern history. She was the last survivor at St Joseph’s of the attack by armed Pathan tribesmen in October 1947.

“There were rumours that they were coming; we were thinking they won’t do nothing to us,” she told me. “The Monday after the feast of Christ the King they reached here. Then they started to shoot. We were working still. The hospital had patients. They were on the veranda of the hospital, going from one ward to another.”

Sister Emilia offered a window on to a deeply contested episode—a moment that was slipping out of living memory. The invaders, who decades later were still disturbing her dreams, had been encouraged to enter Kashmir by elements in the Pakistan establishment to claim the Muslim-majority, Hindu-ruled princely state for Islam and Pakistan.I urgently sought out others who had lived through the attack. In England, Tom Dykes told me how he was awoken on that Monday morning by the sound of gunfire. He was five years old. He and some nuns sought refuge in a locked room at the convent hospital, but the attackers started to batter down the door. “The splinters started to fly, and I could see the wild faces through the cracks. At the back of the room there was another door, and it was not locked and I ran.” His parents were among the six people killed in the attack; he and his two younger brothers survived.In Baramulla town, a man who in 1947 had pro-Pakistan sympathies recalled how the mood had turned against the invaders. “They provided me with a guard, one of the tribal men,” he told me, his sense of outrage still undimmed. “After two days, they looted me also!” An elderly Sikh woman recounted how her three female cousins, all then teenagers like her, had been abducted and never heard of since.

A journalist colleague in the North West Frontier Province succeeded in tracking down a veteran of the tribal lashkar. “We were asked by the Pir of Manki Sharif to come and fight,” said Khan Shah Afridi. “He told us we should not be afraid—it is a war between Muslims and infidels and we will get Kashmir freed. We shot whoever we saw in Baramulla. We forced Hindus to run for their lives.” These voices offered compelling testimony about how Kashmir first came to be in the grip of conflict. It was a human perspective to what so often is presented as a dispute about territory. And there was a remarkable conjunction of dates—the day on which the tribal fighters ransacked St Joseph’s, October 27, 1947, was also the day that the first ever Indian troops landed in Kashmir.Scouring through the archives, further remarkable testimony came to light. A missionary priest had set down by hand in an old desk diary a vivid account of the attack on Baramulla. I was perhaps the first person apart from the author to have read it. Old copies of the Hindustan Times and the Times of India revealed how Sheikh Abdullah and his supporters set up an armed militia to defend Srinagar—and in recent months, I have met Kashmiri men and women who served in that force.

These rich historical sources help answer questions about how the invaders were organised, why they failed to capitalise on local disenchantment with the maharaja, and why they were unable, in spite of initial military superiority, to capture Srinagar. The events of those few days 60 years ago have moulded the region’s political geography—it’s a story too important to be left to the official chroniclers.

If the Kashmir dispute had ever been settled, then an account of how the conflict first flared up would be of academic value only.But it remains one of the world’s most enduring geopolitical faultlines, compounded by the rise of Islamic radicalism and by the nuclear power status of both principal parties.

Partisan history has been part of the problem. The Kashmir issue has been snagged by an almost theological reiteration, from one perspective or another, of the events of 1947. It’s as if, in Delhi and Islamabad (less so in Srinagar), there’s a feeling that if we can argue that our side was right 60 years ago, then it vindicates our approach to Kashmir ever since.Yet it’s difficult to see how any crisis can be settled unless it is first understood, or how it can be understood without a grasp of how it started. Once you begin to look at the complexities of the past, simple solutions no longer seem to make so much sense. And once those who care about Kashmir start to agree on a common narrative of the valley’s modern history, then broader agreement may not be too far away. (Andrew Whitehead’s account of the origins of the Kashmir conflict, Mission in Kashmir, is published this month by Penguin India.) 

%d bloggers like this: