Spare a thought for those defenders of Skardu : The Tribune India

Spare a thought for those defenders of Skardu

Spare a thought for those defenders of Skardu

To fight in Skardu’s hostile terrain was tough

Harbans Singh

Even as we prepare to 'celebrate' the 50th anniversary of victory over Pakistan we once again chose to forget the heroes of Skardu. Without much resources, they defended that strategic fort from December 1947 to August 1948 and finally surrendered on August 14, 1948, to be butchered when the last bullet had been exhausted. Skardu, along with Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Bunji, Rondu, Nagar and Shigar barely exist on the periphery of our consciousness. These are part of what was the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir till October 1947, and lost to Pakistan during the ensuing events.

A part of that region was handed over by Pakistan to China after the India-China War of 1962 to facilitate easy access for mainland China to Kashgar in Xin Jiang province. Recently, when China and Pakistan announced that China would be constructing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting Kashgar with the port of Gwadar in Balochistan (Pakistan), India lodged a protest against China for a large network of roads would have passed through the Pakistan occupied region of Jammu and Kashmir. Such token protests remind the world of our claim to the region. A note written by the British Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army, General Sir Douglas Gracey about the defence of Pakistan clearly reveals the design of Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir soon after the birth of that nation. Pursuing its interest, as the focus of Indian leaders and the Army was on in the Kashmir Valley, the enemy had struck in the northern region by engineering a coup in Gilgit and triggering a series of events that led to the eventual loss of the region. Gilgit Agency was a region defended by Gilgit Scouts, trained and officered by the British. In a tragic error of judgment by the state, all British officers serving in the Agency were allowed to continue even though they had opted to serve Pakistan. 

Under Major W.A. Brown and Captain Matheson, Gilgit Scouts revolted on October 31, 1947, by unfurling the Pakistani flag. Officially, the Pakistani administration began in the third week of November, when Sardar Mohammad Alam arrived from Peshawar to take charge. Meanwhile, the defence of the rest of the region, including Baltistan, the feudatories and Ladakh, was with 6 Jammu and Kashmir (JAK) of the state forces that had two companies of Muslims and two of Sikhs. When Muslims soldiers of 6 JAK defected and killed Sikh soldiers, Major Sher Jung Thapa, stationed at Leh, was promoted as Lieut. Colonel and asked to proceed to Skardu for its defence. He was in charge of defence of Kargil and Leh.

On reaching Skardu on December 3, he knew his position was untenable and immediately sought permission to withdraw the garrison and the civil administration to Kargil and also requested reinforcements. The request for withdrawal was not only turned down but he was asked “to hold to last man last round”. Thus began the defence of Skardu with two officers, two JCOs and 75 other ranks, of whom three were Muslims who defected during the course of the siege. Meanwhile, Srinagar, under the control of the Indian Army, did assemble a Skardu relief column of two companies. According to Maj-General DK Palit, these were composed of “orderlies, bandsmen and storekeepers”, from among the available State Forces in Srinagar to travel on January 13, 1948, from Kangan on foot through the snow-covered Zoji La Pass. Fighting frostbite, insomnia and breathlessness, and covering 200 miles, the first group of the column reached on February 10, 1948, just in time to face a night attack by the enemy. Two more groups, of about 70 each, arrived soon after making the strength of the garrison about 285. In addition, there were about 200 civilians. By now, with Gilgit lost, the enemy had succeeded in raising a force of more than 2000, with the intention of not only taking control of Skardu but also the entire region leading to Kargil and Leh. However, Skardu had become the stumbling block and for some inexplicable reason the enemy did not choose to bypass it.

The next relief column also managed to cross Zoji La in severe winter conditions and was only 10 miles from Skardu when it was ambushed, suffering heavy casualties and forcing the remainder to retreat. The third relief column, again of the State Forces, with two officers of the Indian Army, Major Coutts and Lieut. Col. Sampuran Bachan Singh, was sent. Both were intriguingly recalled before they could be further exposed to the danger of battles. Skardu, in effect, stood abandoned. 

In a belated move, with the fall of Kargil and Dras, the commanders in Srinagar realising that the enemy had in a belated move decided to move towards Leh, cabled Skardu to withdraw to Olthing Thang along with all arms and ammunition. In this context, Lieut-Colonel Thapa’s frustration is all too obvious as he reminded Srinagar that two days after Skardu had been attacked, he had expressed inability to hold Skardu and had requested permission to withdraw when the enemy had not occupied the line of withdrawal and transport was available. But then the JAK forces were told to “hold to last man last round”. Now, with no mortar ammunition and other ammunition practically exhausted, the JAK force was expected to withdraw along the 80-mile route that was entrenched with hostile enemy having all necessary support. In addition, the force had the responsibility of eight stretcher cases and other male and female indoor patients and children who could not move. To avert disaster, he requested that the order to withdraw be rescinded and relief provided. In the face of ineffective relief, including air dropping of ammunition, it was a matter of time before the end neared. By mid-August of 1948, the Skardu garrison was in beggarly shape. On August 14, 1948, Pakistan got its anniversary gift when outnumbered five to one, the last box of the reserve ammunition used, the garrison surrendered. The revenge for this long resistance was frightful. Maj-General Palit writes, “mass murder and rape followed…. Women within the garrison committed suicide”. Among those to survive the mayhem were, Lt. Colonel Sher Jung Thapa and his orderly. That is because the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, General Sir Douglas Gracey, as a young Captain had known a young Sher Jung Thapa in Dharamsala as a hockey player and had inspired him to join the Army! He was probably keeping an eye on Skardu, which indicates the keenness of Pakistan to get control of this strategic region and the contrasting indifference of the Indian Army. Great nations and armies commemorate victories but they also idolise valour displayed in defeat. Britain still remembers the rout and retreat of Dunkirk as it does its criminal Gallipoli campaign that cost the Allies thousands of lives. 

The writer is the author of Maharaja Hari Singh: The Troubled Years.

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