After World War -II, as the Indian Army returned to barracks and took stock of the new situations, the Indian polity and its people strived hard for independence. Various meetings were held between the British Government in India and political leaders, and plans were chalked out for not just independence but also for the division of the sub continent on communal lines into two distinct countries - India and Pakistan. This theory did not have many takers, especially amongst those people likely to be displaced. As a result, during 1946-47 communal riots and violence of unprecedented proportions swept throughout India.
The partition came into effect on 15 August 1947, when India gained independence. Pakistan declared independence a day earlier. At the time of independence the old Indian Army stood divided between Pakistan and India. The active strength of the Army along with countrywide movable and immovable assets was shared under a complicated scheme, supervised by a British presence in the form of a Supreme Headquarters.
Instead of large scale celebrations, riots and mass killing between Hindus and Muslims in Punjab and Bengal intensified. It also led to acute suffering and misery of the displaced people, apart from colossal loss of precious human lives and destruction of property due to communal riots and retribution. The level of violence had reached civil war proportions and had to be contained rapidly. It was a grave price to pay for India’s independence, although the Armed Forces of both India and Pakistan provided yeoman service in arresting further bloodshed and ensuring smooth exchange of service personnel opting for either India or Pakistan.
The Punjab Boundary Force came into being for this thankless task. It had elements of the Armies of both countries spread thinly on the ground, and was hard put to contain the increasing levels of violence. This was to be the last time that the old Indian Army deployed jointly as one body. After six weeks of continuous violence, peace gradually returned.
While consolidating the loosely federated Princely States and Indian Provinces into one homogeneous entity, some initial difficulties were encountered. Except for three, most of the 566 odd Princely States merged with India in accordance to the laid down directives.
The three troublesome states were Junagadh (now in Gujarat), Hyderabad (now in Andhra Pradesh) and Jammu and Kashmir. While Junagarh remained indecisive, Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir bought time to merge with India by signing a ‘Standstill Agreement’ valid for one year. To quell internal strife and facilitate smooth merger the Indian Army and police forces had to be employed in Junagadh and subsequently in Hyderabad, but much before Jammu and Kashmir could exercise its option, armed Pakistani frontier tribesmen along with Pakistan’s regular troops invaded the State in October 1947 with a view to annex it.
Pakistani troops soon crossed over into Kashmir to precipitate an undeclared war with India. Before describing the war an understanding of the topography of the state may be necessary.
The provincial subdivision of Kashmir followed geographical features. The lofty Pir Panjal range, running roughly east to west with heights varying from 2500 to 4500 meters, divides the valley from Jammu region. Further towards the east, running from north to south, lies the Great Himalayan Range comprising heights above 5000 meters, which divides Ladakh from both the Valley and Jammu region.
North of the Valley and Ladakh lies Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, also known as the Northern Territories. Mainland India was linked to the Valley by a fair-weather road from Pathankot, across the 2,700 meter high Banihal Pass to Srinagar. A mountainous trade route also existed between Manali (in present-day Himachal) and Leh, the district headquarters of Ladakh. Other major routes into the Valley as well as to the northern areas run through what is now Pakistan.
The strategy employed by Pakistan to annex the state was ingenious. It was expected that before India reacted, possession of Jammu and Kashmir would constitute law. In this game plan Pakistan came within a whisker of success. With the Northern Territories overrun by 30 July 1947, by 26 October elements of the main columns were at Baramulla, 50 kilometers from Srinagar, raping and looting along the way.
The military set up in Jammu and Kashmir comprised of an Army HQ at Srinagar and four brigades. The Army HQ was headed by Brigadier Rajendra Singh, Chief of Staff of the J&K State Force. The four brigades were the Jammu Brigade, the Kashmir Brigade, the Mirpur Brigade and the Punch Brigade. These four brigades, between them had only eight infantry battalions.
The State Force had no artillery or armour. This small force was charged with the responsibility of looking after the 500 kilometer long mountainous border from Gilgit to Suchetgarh. Troops were stretched all along this border in occupying posts in varying strengths.
The Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir Hari Singh, son of Gulab Singh, had dilly dallied too long before his hands were forced by the Pakistani intruders. The tribal 'volunteers' along with Pakistani regulars had by then overrun large tracts of Jammu province and the Valley, which shared a porous border with Pakistan. It was when they had reached Badgaon, on the suburbs of Srinagar that the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession and put in a bid for India’s military assistance.
The Indian Armed Forces reacted immediately after this act of accession, when an impromptu airlift operation was put together and an infantry battalion-1 Sikh-was flown to Srinagar.
Thereafter an ad hoc brigade group built up on the initial battalion had managed to first hold and thereafter defeat the intruding forces. The serpentine, fair weather road from Pathankot to Srinagar brought in convoys of reinforcements and limited supplies.
The marauders were then hounded out of the Valley by a series of tactical engagements. Advancing to Muzaffarabad, the Indian Army came up against Pakistani regular troops as a body intermixed with Azad Kashmir battalions by May 1948, especially west of Uri and Tithwal. Till then the Pakistanis had committed their tribal groups with regulars. In the Jammu Region the garrison of Poonch remained under siege. Ridding the main portions of Jammu province and the Valley of Pakistani presence took more than a year, and the entire operation ultimately took up more than 80,000 troops. Great acts of personal gallantry and collective bravery were shown in the Kashmir operations. Major Som Nath Sharma became the first recipient of the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India's highest award for valour equivalent to the Victoria Cross.
Finding its forces withdrawing from Jammu and the Valley, Pakistan launched a fresh offensive through the Northern Territories commencing February 1948. A weak Jammu and Kashmir militia battalion put up a heroic stand and temporarily barred the enemy’s path at Skardu.
The invading force split up here, with one group investing the town and the main body continuing advance to Kargil, and yet another heading into the Shyok river valley, a northern tributary of the Indus. Extreme winter conditions made it impossible for the Indian Army to immediately contest this fresh enemy offensive beyond the 3,500 meters Zojila Pass on the Great Himalayan Range. In the interim months Indian Army reinforced Leh with a regular battalion. On 1 November 1948 an Indian brigade group supported by 7 Cavalry comprising Stuart tanks broke through Zojila Pass and relentlessly drove out the invaders from Ladakh district. Zojila was the highest point in the recorded history of warfare in which tanks had operated. The besieged garrison of Punch was relieved on 23 November 1948, a full year after its siege, and a firm grip had been established by the Indian Army on some of the major portions of the State. Before the remaining areas occupied by Pakistan could be liberated by Indian troops, a cease fire came into effect on 1 January 1949. After bitter fighting lasting 14 months, UN mediation brought about an uneasy truce. Under UN supervision, a negotiated Cease Fire Line was drawn up based on the actual holding of ground by India and Pakistan, pending future settlements. This serpentine line ran some 700 kilometers from Chhamb in the south, near the town of Akhnoor, to a map reference point known as NJ 9842 in Ladakh in the north.
This point lay beyond the Shyok valley and rested on the lower slopes of Saltoro range, an offshoot of Karakoram Range. It was added that the Line thereafter ran northwards towards the glaciers, of which there existed a surfeit. Here lay the seeds of a future conflict between India and Pakistan, the battleground being the highest glacier region in the world.
This war along with its political fallout holds enormous importance for Indian Army and the nation as a whole. Despite the accession of the state, a part of Kashmir, known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, remains under the illegal control of Pakistan, and this has remained a contentious issue for India ever since, affecting subsequent Indo Pak relations. That apart, the Kashmir war gave the Indian Army its first experience of high altitude operations amidst snow, ice and extreme cold conditions.