WHEN I received the then BBC Correspondent in India, Andrew Whitehead’s article for publication about a decade ago, I was in a dilemma. It made poignant reading but it was by no means an opinion piece that could go on the editorial page. The write-up dealt with the attack on the Catholic mission in Baramula by the armed tribes from Pakistan soon after Independence. I was not sure how my editor would react if the article was published.
Eventually, I took the risk and published the story of the sacking of St. Joseph’s mission run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and the Mill Hill missionary priests. Whitehead developed the story into a full-fledged book A Mission in Kashmir (Penguin-Viking). On receiving the book for review, the first thing I did was to check whether there was an acknowledgement of my little contribution in the making of the book.
Let me quote Whitehead, "I wrote an article about my visit to the mission for a daily newspaper in Delhi. I received several letters in response. One came from an Indian Army veteran who had been involved in beating back the tribal invaders, and another was from a relative of one of those killed at the mission. I was on my way". I do not know why Whitehead reduced the multi-edition Indian Express that I worked for those days into a "newspaper in Delhi". It was like referring to the BBC as a "radio station in London".
All the same, this digression should not detract from the merit of the book which I would have read in one go. Though it centres around the attack on the St. Joseph’s Convent and Mission hospital on the Jhelum Valley Road that links Srinagar with Muzaffarbad, the two capitals of the "divided" Jammu and Kashmir, it goes into various questions like whether Maharaja Hari Singh had signed the Instrument of Accession before the Indian Army was airlifted to Srinagar or not.
Trained in the famed "neutrality" of the BBC, the author carefully steps back from the mines the two nations have laid on both sides of the Line of Control while trying to unravel the truth. It must be said to his credit that he has succeeded in presenting a convincing, non-partisan account of what happened in the two weeks or so when the Pakistani raiders sliced away a large chunk of the erstwhile princely state.
In Whitehead’s account, October 27, 1947, "the Monday after the feast of Christ the King", is a day of three cataclysmic events that shaped the India-Pakistan discourse on Kashmir for the last 60 years. The tribes attacked the mission station and killed six people, including the 29-year-old Spanish nun, Sister M. Teresalina Joaquina, in its sacred precincts. Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession and the first contingent of the Indian Army landed in Srinagar.
Since Whitehead is as much a historian as he is a journalist, he uses both faculties to give an absorbing story of treachery, heroism, plunder, rape and murder that Kashmir witnessed during the fortnight when both India and Pakistan came to the brink of a war.
The author begins his own mission by meeting Sister Emilia Montavani, an Italian, who witnessed the sacking of St. Joseph’s by Muslim Pathan tribesmen, who came as a lashkar, a tribal raiding party, from Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province. In a few minutes, they killed a patient, Mrs Motia Devi Kapoor, Lt. Col D.O.T. Dykes and his wife Biddy, who had come to the hospital to give birth, the husband of the hospital doctor, Mr Baretto, a nurse Miss Philomena and Sister Teresalina.
One by one, Whitehead met all those who witnessed the murder and pillage like Dyke’s children and Baretto’s daughter Angela in places as far away as Bangalore in South India and Johannesburg in South Africa to piece together the story. He has done a commendable job. The eldest of the Dyke children, Tom Dykes, told him how he was woken up 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 battered 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".
Earlier, Urvashi Butalia in her The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India had plunged into the memories of people who experienced the rigours of the Partition to present a realistic story of what happened when a nation was sliced into two pieces like a Christmas cake. Memories can be deceptive unless they are cross-checked with extant evidence as both authors would have realised while doing their work.
Sixty years have passed since the horror of Baramula has been consigned to the psyche of a people but the authorities at St. Joseph’s still are wary of "intruders" as harmless as The Tribune photographer Amin War, despite his not-so-peaceful name. I had to make a long-distance call to Fr Shaiju Chacko, who is in charge of the mission, to let him click the graves of the six which are maintained in the best Christian tradition.
As is the practice, the graves of Lt. Col Dykes and his wife should have been beside each other. It was because the raiders had carried away a body and thrown it into an abandoned well that they could not be buried together. But for the intervention of a Pakistani regular Saurabh Hyat Khan, who had been educated in a Catholic school, more would have been killed in the mission compound that day.
The invaders did not just rob the priests and nuns, they pilfered everything valuable, including door handles, in the hospital. In one incident, a Pathan on whom a minor operation had been done grabbed the forceps and scissors from the doctor, whose husband he and his colleagues had killed a few days ago.
The murder of Sister Teresalina and others proved costly for the invaders, who found, as a result, that their so-called campaign to liberate Kashmir from the clutches of a "despotic" Maharaja had little credibility in the civilised world. Not just the Western media which went to town with the story, even Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited the Mission centre soon after the last lashkar was ousted from the Valley, used it to remind the Kashmiris of the kind of fate that would have befallen them if the Pakistanis had succeeded in their attempt.
Whitehead clearly mentions that when the raiders took the Jhelum Valley road to reach Baramula, there were many Muslims who welcomed them as "liberators". But the raiders, who were brought together by a Muslim cleric, Pir of Manki Sharif, and who transformed them into jehadis, on reaching Baramula got down to doing what they relished most, looting and raping.
A veteran of the lashkar narrated how the Pir had "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 Baramula. We forced Hindus to run for their life". An elderly Sikh woman recounted how her three female cousins, all of them teenagers like her, had been abducted and never heard of since. Countless are the women the raiders took away from the Valley.
But they did not confine themselves to non-Muslims as anybody with anything valuable was game for them. The local Muslims could not believe that a force which had come to liberate them could indulge in such barbarism even against fellow Muslims. Little surprise, at the call of Sheikh Abdullah, Muslim women enlisted themselves in large numbers in the women’s detachment of the National Conference militia to resist and defeat the invaders.
For India, the looting spree was a blessing in disguise. Had the hardy tribes quietly moved towards Srinagar, from where the Maharaja and his entourage had already fled under the cover of darkness, it would not have been difficult for them to seize the Capital. By the time they pillaged Baramula and inched towards Srinagar, the Indian troops had started arriving there by the hundreds.
Of course, there are many ifs and buts in the story. For instance, if the Indian Army had pursued the retreating invaders beyond Chakothi, the last Pakistani post on the LoC, Muzaffarabad would surely not have been with Pakistan. Probably neither country wanted a full-fledged war at that point of time. It is a different matter that the tribal invasion was not suppressed until about a year later.
Whitehead is convinced that when the airlift started, the Maharaja, who fancied becoming the head of an independent mountain state, the ‘Switzerland of the East’, had not signed the Instrument of Accession. He is also convinced that it was not just a spontaneous uprising of the tribes as Pakistan has always been claiming. There are evidences that point to the Pakistani complicity in the tribal invasion.
Being a foreign journalist, Whitehead could visit both sides of the LoC and get a feel of the situation as the other views it. One person who gets compliments is Sardar Abdul Qayum Khan, who instigated the people in Poonch against the Maharaja and became the tallest leader of the Kashmiris in Pakistan becoming the Prime Minister and President of its Kashmir.
The author is not wide of the mark when he says about Qayum that "he has been willing to talk about possible solutions to the Kashmir issue than simple accession to Pakistan, and his views have extended beyond demonising India and its armed forces". We, a group of journalists from India who met him at Muzaffarabad three years ago, too, felt the same about the grand old man.
Yet, the nightmare the citizens of Baramula went through still rankles the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The bus in which we were returning from Gilgit broke down on the Karakoram Highway at a place called Chilas. As I went out to take photographs of the Indus that flowed parallel to the Highway, a journalist friend from Jammu whispered into my ears, "Remember this is the area from where the most brutal invaders had come in 1947". Suddenly I remembered Andrew Whitehead’s article.