Ninety years is a long time. Long enough for memory to be shredded into pieces. What then remains is the memory of memories. Fragments that you stick together to recreate the past. But the memory of one particular day remains etched on this 90-year-old’s mind — fresh as yesterday.
October 1947. It was another day of bloodshed in Kashmir. War for the control of this territory between Pakistan-backed tribal fighters and the Indian army had just broken out. “There were a dozen corpses of soldiers left for dogs to feast upon,” he recalls the graphic grotesque picture of that afternoon.
The corpses were of Indian soldiers killed by the tribal fighters.
Ghulam Ahmed Rather from Kurhama, Budgam was just 20 when he witnessed these gruesome incidents up and close. Kashmir was then invaded by the tribal fighters from the North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkha of Pakistan. They were fighting off Indian soldiers who too had just landed in Kashmir to seize the territory. The tribal incursion is popularly remembered in Kashmir as ‘Kabali Raid’ or ‘tribal raid’.
‘There was no one on the roads, only dogs and the stench of decaying bodies’
The ‘Kabali Raid’ that happened towards the end of 1947 soon triggered a full-fledged Indo-Pak war over Kashmir with each side seizing and occupying parts of this territory.
Ahmed doesn’t remember the exact date when a dozen tribal soldiers arrived in his village. But he vividly remembers the details of that day. “I was thrashing paddy along with my father when the tribals entered our village and asked for food,” he recalls.
A day before the tribals came, says Ahmed, a naked mystic named Obid Moat, had visited the village. Ahmed says he went around the village shouting, “Smoke, smoke, smoke. Handwara is burning.” The mystic was probably referring to the fighting in the northern town of Handwara and the resultant destruction there. But he was perhaps having a premonition about what was to befall Budgam. “We paid no attention to him and didn’t realise something awful is going to happen here. But Obid Moat knew it before us,” says Ahmed.
When the tribals entered the village, everything changed. They roamed throughout the village and asked for food and slept either in the courtyards of the houses or in the mud cowsheds or besides the mud walls surrounding the houses.
“The tribal fighters were tall, well built, had long hair and were tough,” recollects Ahmed. “They could spend a day on a loaf of bread and didn’t feel any hunger. I haven’t encountered such brave and tough men in my life.”
In the adjoining villages of Razwin, Dardpora, Huroo and others, the tribals had been gathering up as the days went by. The Srinagar airport is flanked by these villages and is at a distance of three to two to 1 km from these villages respectively.
Ahmed says that many people from his village and the adjoining villages “voluntarily helped the tribals to make preparations for the attack” and provided food and assisted the tribal soldiers to carry around their weapons. “Their weaponry was mostly long rifles and duck-egg shaped bombs,” recollects Ahmed.
Ahmed too chipped in as a volunteer.
The tribal soldiers had made a make-shift camp on a small hill overlooking the town. The hill is now occupied by 35 RR of Indian Army. “They chose the highest spot of the town that gave them a bird-eye view of the region and a strategic advantage for an attack. They were wise militarily and knew warfare strategies very well,” says Ahmed.
On one November day, continues Ahmed, 26 Indian army vehicles approached the town to thwart the movement of the tribals. “As the trucks approached the town, the tribal soldiers attacked them from the hill and killed them all.”
Ahmed thinks the tribal fighters must have killed around 200 army men. “I could smell the smoke of ammunition from my village and heard the shots as loud as if I was there.”
After two days of ‘terror and smoke’, the fighting apparently died down. Ahmed along with his sister thought of going around the villages to see what had happened. “I will never forget what I saw there,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed believes that the Kashmiri people lost the opportunity of liberation back in 1948, when, “some Kashmiris deceived the tribals and sold them off to the Indian Army.”
Ahmed went on foot to the village Sebdan-Galwanpora, some 5 km from his village and had to pass through the main town of Budgam. On his way, he was discouraged by villagers to travel. “They told me it was dangerous and to run back, but I didn’t listen and moved on,” says Ahmed. At around noon, remembers Ahmed, he reached the main town and his first impression was as if it was a “doomsday.”
“There was no one on the roads, only dogs and the stench of decaying bodies. There were iron pieces lying on the roads and the abandoned army vehicles.”
But as Ahmed traveled on, worst was in wait for him. On the outskirts of the town, on the road at a village Naraspora, Ahmed saw corpses of soldiers and dogs prowling around them.
“I counted around 12 corpses of the army men. I smelt a strong stench of decomposing flesh. The dogs had begun to eat some of the corpses. It was horrible,” remembers Ahmed with an edgy impression on his face as he relives the horror. He spits into a fire pot as the stench of dead bodies is getting back to him.
“I have such a vivid memory of those corpses that even today it shakes my body when I am reminded of them,” Ahmed adds.
But this isn’t the only event that Ahmed hasn’t forgotten.
Ahmed confesses to a much more horrible event in which he “blindly participated” — the loot and plunder of a Sikh hamlet adjoining his village.
After the fight at the town, the tribal soldiers retreated into the villages. And, according to Ahmed, after a week after the fight, the tribals came to know of a village, Bandaybagh, 6 km from the main town, a village exclusively inhabited by Sikhs.
“The tribals had been asking about the ‘baal waale kafir — Sikhs — and someone told them about the Sikh village. “The tribals were infuriated by what the Sikhs had done to Muslims in ‘Ambarsar’ (Amritsar) and wanted revenge,” says Ahmed.
Next day, the tribals attacked the village, housing around 40 Sikh families that time. Fortunately, many local Kashmiri Muslims intervened and helped the Sikhs to flee. The tribals accompanied by a hundred local Muslims, continues Ahmed, barged into the houses and took away whatever they could carry. “I too joined and managed to take a large tin box which was filled with seven apples , a yarn, two wooden combs and a Granth Sahab, the holy book of Sikhs,” recollects Ahmed.
According to Ahmed, many of his villagers looted whatever they could lay their hands on. “They took away clothes, jewelry, tore apart windows and took them away. They also looted wooden logs, cattle and sheep.”
Ahmed pauses to recollect details of the loot and plunder. “In two days, the village was left only with empty houses and dogs. It looked as though no one had ever lived here,” he adds.
Does Ahmed feel any guilt about the plunder he became a party to 70 years ago? “Yes, I feel guilty and regret what I did.” He blames the tribal fighters for “instigating” local Muslims to violence and loot.
But soon the villagers had to pay for their actions in a classic case of poetic justice, or so believes Ahmed.
Two months later, his village, which had taken part in the loot was gutted in a fire. “Divine justice,” explains Ahmed. “It was Allah’s way of punishing us. We couldn’t save even a needle. Everything burnt.”
Somehow the Granth Sahab, Ahmed had looted from the Sikh village, survived the fire.
But a difficult question stared Ahmed in the face: what to do with it?
He kept Granth Sahab as it was. For a long time he preserved it at his home with respect covered with a piece of cloth. Ahmed often consulted his Pir — spiritual guide — about the book. “He would tell me to keep it safe and treat it like I treat the Qur’an,” says Ahmed.
“Pir Sahab said that Granth Sahab is similar to Qur’an but written in Hindi.”
Ahmed says that he had Granth Sahab with him till 1981. “I then gave it to Sikh acquaintance,” recalls Ahmed.
During the tribal invasion, Ahmed served as a volunteer, carried rifles and other weaponry on his back and would go from village to village with the tribals. “The tribals,” he remembers, “were well received by the people of Kashmir, as they had come to liberate Kashmir.”
Ahmed claims that he also helped many injured tribal soldiers with some basic first aid. “I would wash their wounds and tie cloth around their wounds to stop the bleeding.” Ahmed recalls one such incident in particular where he used an emergency medical innovation of sorts. A tribal fighter had suffered a serious injury in a fire fight in his calf and had a huge gaping wound. Ahmed slid an unbaked brick inside the wound of the tribal soldier. “His calf had a wound as deep and big as a brick. I had no cloth to dress the wound. So I put a brick inside his wound,” he recalls.
Over the years since the tribal invasion, many myths surround the tribals, about how they looked, their food habits and what they did.
Elders who lived through the tribal invasion of 1947 have some fantastic things to say about the tribals. These stories, many of them make-believe, have been passed on to generations. Some famous rumors about the tribals are that they ate raw walnuts, mistook the copper handles of the Samovars for gold and hence looted them, that they were exceptionally tall, that they ate raw meat of horses, etc. Ahmed terms these stories as “stupid lies.” “The tribals were normal human beings like we Kashmiris are. They never ate raw walnuts or thought that copper was gold. They were tall but not giants as some people think. And they weren’t savage. They ate what we gave them to eat — bread and tea and rice,” says Ahmed.
After the tumult of 1947, Ahmed has been a witness to many moods in the political landscape of Kashmir. He was once a staunch supporter of pro-India political party, National Conference, NC. He believes that the Kashmiri people lost the opportunity of liberation back in 1948, when, “some Kashmiris deceived the tribals and sold them off to the Indian Army.”
He says that back in the winter of 1947-48, the tribals had almost occupied the Airport, which at that time comprised just few buildings and some planes. “But,” alleges Ahmed, “they were deceived.”
He says that from his side of the village, the airport was just 2 km away. “The tribal soldiers were to attack it from this side and then subsequently occupy the airport.” They took a local guide, Ghulam Ahmed Lone, of Nooru village with them. “The guide deceived them as he had been working for the Indian Army. Instead of taking them towards the airport, he drowned them into a swamp, and all were killed,” says Ahmed.
Later, according to Ahmed, Lone, was captured by other tribal soldiers and nailed to death. But after being unable to capture the airport, recollects Ahmed, the tribal fighters could never recover as more and more Indian troops were flown into Kashmir to repulse the tribal fighters as well quell local resistance. “I think that was our chance to get freedom. But it was a lost opportunity.”
—Ghulam Ahmed Rather passed away a month after speaking to Kashmir Narrator
The piece appeared in January issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy, contact [email protected] for details