Right from August 1947, Pakistan had its eye on the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose ruler had been vacillating on its political future. After subversion and blockade, the Pakistanis mounted a full-borne, though proxy, invasion by Pashtun tribals, who easily overran a considerable stretch of territory, but two gallant soldiers — one each of the state forces and the Indian Army — saved Srinagar from capture.
The actions of Brig Rajinder Singh Jamwal, the Chief of Staff of the state forces, and Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, the commander of the first unit of Indian Army troops to reach the Valley, may have been tactical in scope, but they helped upset the invaders’ schedule and forestall their advance, earn time for a political settlement, and subsequent pouring in and build-up of Indian forces.
Brig Rajinder Singh was ordered into action right after the tribal lashkar entered the state and captured and ransacked Muzaffarabad on October 22, aided by a mutiny of the state forces unit there.
A worried Maharaja Hari Singh called up the Brigadier that afternoon and ordered him to stop the raiders – “save the state till the last man and the last bullet” till help from the only available source – India – could be obtained.
Brigadier Rajinder Singh just saluted and walked away. He collected a body of men from the Badami Bagh cantonment – though why he took only a group, spanning 150 to 250 odd, as per various estimates – out of the over 1,000 available, even after taking out a group of troops from Poonch whose loyalty was suspect, is not known.
His makeshift force reached Uri early on October 23, where they clashed with the enemy, though the latter’s superior numbers forced them to withdraw – despite the Maharaja’s command to hold Uri – back to Mahura and further. However, before retreating, Brig Rajinder Singh accomplished the destruction of the Uri bridge, which stopped the raiders who depended on motorised transport.
Over the next three days till October 26, Brig Rajinder Singh and his force fought a number of rearguard actions along the Jhelum Valley Road as they were forced to withdraw, and though they did not make much of an impact on enemy strength and intent, they severely disrupted the timeline and stopped them from an unhindered advance down to an unprotected Srinagar.
On October 26, as the force, severely depleted by now, was falling back towards Baramulla, the Brigadier was hit and severely wounded, and asked his men to leave him and withdraw.
He was placed under a culvert early on October 27, and that was the last ever seen of him – fulfilling his commitment to only let the enemy pass over his dead body. In the process, the raiders who planned to reach Srinagar by October 26 were only at Baramulla on that date.
Meanwhile, the four days grace Brig Rajinder Singh had obtained saw important developments, especially Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India on October 26, and the Indian government’s decision to send troops forthwith.
It is here that Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai’s role came into focus.
Amid the chaos and unsettled conditions across the newly-Independent India in the wake of the Partition and the communal blood-letting, most of the Army was placed on internal security duties and there was a small reservoir that military commanders could draw on to send to Jammu and Kashmir.
One of this was 1 (first battalion of the) Sikh Regiment, then deployed across then Gurgaon district in internal security role, and this was ordered on October 26 to leave for the Kashmir Valley early the next day.
Lt Col Rai’s orders were simple and short – he was first given an intelligence briefing that just boiled down to the fact that there were thousands of well-armed raiders in the Uri area, understood as bent to reaching Srinagar but with no idea by when. Thus, he was to report to the Safdarjung airport in Delhi the next morning with whatever troops he could muster, land in Srinagar and organise the airfield’s defence, while further troops would be sent when available.
Dakota aircraft piloted by civilians, said to include Biju Patnaik, who were flying the route for the first time, were placed at their disposal. With uncertainty about the location of the raiders, Lt Col Rai was instructed to abort the mission and return to Jammu if they had any inkling if the enemy had reached there.
However, he went on undaunted to land on the dusty Badgam airstrip with one company at around 9 a.m. on October 27 and by mid-day, the battalion HQ and most of the battalion was in place.
However, Lt Col Rai did not dig down for static defence but personally led his men towards Baramulla, with an eye on holding a line there to prevent any further enemy advance. However, they encountered a well-armed and bigger enemy force, and despite valiantly clashing, had to withdraw. Lt Col Rai was wounded and then shot dead by a sniper, along with a platoon commander.
The force returned to the Srinagar airport where his second-in-command, Major Sampuran Bachan Singh, reformed them and advanced again to Pattan where they formed a defensive position. However, no attack came as it appeared the enemy had been spooked.
On Lt Col Rai’s decisions and fate, Lt Gen L.P. Sen, who, then as a Brigadier, was soon to arrive in the Valley in command of the 161 Brigade, held in his memoirs that there were both pros and cons but, on the whole, his actions were “bold, but certainly, not foolhardy”.
“If it was said by some at that time, he strayed from the orders given to him, it was extremely fortunate he did so, although it cost him his life. He deserves full credit for having had the initiative and the courage to do what he did. It was a sound move by a gallant soldier,” he held.
Though Srinagar had been saved for the time being and more troops were arriving, the raiders were still in the Kashmir Valley and the danger was by no means over yet.
(To be continued)
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)