Bridging History: Poonch’s Fight for Survival and the Legacy of Brig Pritam Singh

Lost Valor or Political Pawn? Poonch Raja's Absence and the Garrison Commander's Sacrifice

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Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.) was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in December 1957. He participated in the Wars against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. He was awarded 'Mention in Dispatch' in the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. His contact details are: [email protected], Ph: 9818260900 * Views are personal.

The princely state of Poonch is located about 273 km from Jammu. It is a valley, just like Srinagar & only at an aerial distance of 60 km from there. It would have been a part of Srinagar Valley if a small portion of the Hajipir area called ‘Hajipir Bulge’ was not in POK occupation. It is a dominating feature which overlooks the road. This pass was twice wrested back by our Army after a bloody fight both in the 1965 & 1971 wars, only to be returned to them later. Life in Poonch Valley would have been quite different with this pass in our control. Jammu – Poonch axis was also the old Mogul trade route, which the royalty would take while going to & fro to the country of their origin, which was Kazakhstan.  

Prominent places enroute are Noori Chamb & Chingus. Noori Chamb is located between Poonch & Rajouri on the Suran River & derives its name after Queen Noorjehan, who used to bathe under the waterfall there & naughty Jehangir would enjoy the view, watching her reflection in a hidden mirror. Chingus is a Mogul-era fort located close to Narian, which used to be our transit camp, where we halted for the night while travelling to Jammu from Poonch. It is said that Jehangir died while coming back to Delhi in a caravan & Queen Noorjehan did not want the news to be made public for fear of losing their hold in Delhi or a possible coup. So, to preserve the body from decaying, they removed his intestines & buried it in the Chingus fort.

Another important place is Jaurian between Narian & Naushera. It is said that many accidents happened on difficult road bends when the visibility was poor. The story goes that the driver would see an MP (military police) giving directions to the driver & the vehicle would fall into a khud. So, a temple was built there & the accidents stopped happening after that. A popular stretch of road was between Jammu & Akhnoor along the canal, where the vehicles moved very slowly, not because of heavy traffic but due to the women there, who would be bathing in the canal, wearing nothing!

Poonch Palace is a majestic building spread over around 4-5 acres. It housed the Brigade Headquarters & the Officer’s Mess, where we resided too. The complex had a tennis court, swimming pool and an indoor badminton court. Well-maintained & manicured lawn, where we used to have lunch in the open when the weather was good. The source of electricity in Poonch was a hydel power station, which produced DC. With the load always being higher, the voltage we got was quite low. The result was that the lights used to be very dim. For the dining & anteroom, we found the answer & used 110 V bulbs instead, which burnt brighter, but they would get fused faster than 220 V bulbs. Voltage stabilisers were not produced then, which would have solved our problem. The fridge used to work on kerosene but used an electric bulb for lighting.

One year, the Brigade swimming competition was held in the Palace & I was responsible for the event. The source of water supply was the canal that flowed above the Palace & carried water to the power station. We decided to change the water in the swimming pool & emptied it for cleaning. The water in the canal was quite clear & there was no chance of rain. The day we started filling up the pool, it had rained up the stream & the water we got was muddy brown. Now, we had this strange problem for which a solution had to be found. In my school days, I read about the qualities of alum & its use in water purification. We just thought that if we treated the pool water with alum, it might help. First, we did a trial & took a tumbler of water & put a small lump of alum & kept stirring. We saw the dust particles separating & in some time, all the dust had settled down at the bottom. So, we bought all the alum lumps we could get in the local market in Poonch. We got around 55 kg of alum & put it in a gunny bag & lowered it into the pool with a rope. People walked around the pool slowly, holding the rope until all the alum dissolved. The next morning, when I woke up & looked out of the window, it was a lovely sight to see the pool water crystal clear & deep blue. The opening ceremony was a resounding success, with me getting the kudos for a good job. The word about how I had messed up the matter had already gone around earlier. 

Our civilians would cultivate the land right up to the border, unlike their counterparts who left a gap of around 4-500 M barren on their side. With the grazing area on our side, we always had a collection of 4-5 buffaloes that strayed across the LOC & would be captured. So, we always had fresh milk & butter in the mess. These buffaloes would be returned after a flag meeting between the two sides, at the instance of UN observers, who also stayed & dined with us. Messing for them was not free & they had to pay for it. Thus, there was no shortage of funds for messing. The menu used to be quite elaborate & with the old Maharaja’s cook in the kitchen, the standard of food was high. We made full use of the available sports & game facilities to maintain a high level of physical fitness. Those who were lax on this account had weight problems to deal with.

A view of the Poonch valley
A view of the Poonch valley. Image: Special Arrangement.

A long-range patrol used to be sent from Poonch to Srinagar every year from one of our battalions. They would carry a wireless set called RS 62, which worked on the short wave frequency and would come as an outstation on the B-1 net. The travel time was three days each way. There was a general complaint that they would go out of touch with us as soon as they crossed Gagrian Gali, the last post of our Brigade. We would only learn about them once they reached Uri, where a Brigade was. We suspected that they did not bother to establish communication on their halt as setting up radio communications involved the erection of an antenna & connecting the heavy secondary batteries for power. All this was a cumbersome job, especially when one was tired. One year, we decided to send the radio detachment from the Brigade & Young JL Puri (retired as a Brig), who was the 2IC of our unit, volunteered to go with the patrol. His experience is best described in his own words as under:-

 Many times when we had long halts in between, just to test the communications, I used to switch on the set, and to my pleasant surprise, I always got you there at the other end. Now, a word about the route. We drove from Poonch in the morning at 0700 hrs and were in Mandi by 0930. From Mandi, we started on foot and reached Gagrian Gali Post, the last post of the Brigade, by 4 PM. We spent the night there, and the next morning, we started after early breakfast at 0800 toward Yousmarg via Jamia Gali. For that, we had to return about 5 km and then go on to the track leading to Jamia Gali (height 14500ft). We walked for about 6 hours and camped just at the snow line. Since the snow gets very slippery after sunrise, we were to cross the Gali before the sun was bright. Hence, we started in the morning at 0400 hours, walked on the snow for about 4 hours, and reached the Gali. It was a flat patch of about 100 x 100 mts with sharp, huge mountain peaks on both sides. It was such a beautiful & breathtaking sight to see the Poonch Valley on one side and the Srinagar Valley on the other. We headed for Yousmarg via Tosha madaan and were in Yousmarg by 1200 hrs. We rolled down on a foot track to Srinagar Airfield, where we got on to vehicles and reached the transit camp. On our way back, we went to Baramulla Uri and then to Gulmarg by vehicle, spent the night there and one full day at Gulmarg, and slept by 6 PM. We started from Gulmarg at 0300 hrs, climbed towards Khilanmarg, and reached Gagrian Gali by 0800 hrs. This Gali was also as wide as Jamia Gali. We climbed down in the Poonch Valley and reached the same last post of the Sikhs, Gagrian Gali Post, by 1200 hrs. We stayed there for the night and started in the morning for Mandi, where vehicles were waiting for us & we were back to Poonch by about 2 PM.

We had thus proved a point that the man behind the gun is equally important & not just the gun alone.

As a reciprocal, a ski patrol used to come every year from Uri to Gagrian Gali, from where our transport would pick them up & bring them to Poonch. They would stay there for two days & return by road back to Srinagar. In 1963, there were a series of cancellations in their schedule on account of bad weather. However, one schedule was not cancelled, but staff in Poonch clearly forgot about them. Someone from Srinagar called & wanted some stuff from Poonch & the BM agreed, saying that if anyone goes that side, the stuff will be sent. When told that the Ski patrol was already there in Poonch, hell broke out. Frantic search operations were launched & search patrols were sent in all possible directions, but there was no trace of the patrol. Through the good offices of the UN reps, inquiries were made from the Pak side also, but we got no news from them either. Next year, sometime in May, their bodies were found absolutely fresh when the snow had melted. Perhaps they were caught in a snowstorm & lost their way.

The state of Poonch had its share of conflict when the Kashmir valley was invaded by the Pakistani Army, which comprised Azad Kashmir Forces, some regular troops and some tribals from the Pashtoon region.

The defence of Poonch Garrison came in the hands of Lt. Col Pritam Singh 1Para Kumaon Regiment at that time at his disposal apart from some regular troops with the state forces and some ad-hoc forces which he created out of the refugees that had formed the Poonch valley.

Poonch was connected with the rest of the country through the Jhelum district, which became part of Pakistan, and in the north with the Uri district of Kashmir Valley. Due to some confusion in the leadership, the Haji Pir Pass on Pir Panjal range through which a road existed to Uri was in the hands of the Pakistanis. Poonch thus remained isolated as no road communication existed from the Jammu region. A fair-weather road did exist up to Rajouri, but after that, only hill tracts connected Poonch to the region.

In a daring act, Wing Co Mehar Singh, accompanied by Air Vice Marshal Subroto Mukherjee (the first Indian officer to become the Air Force chief), landed in a Harward aircraft on a makeshift airstrip. This airstrip was soon developed into a regular airfield on which the Dakotas could land. Thus began the reinforcement of the beleaguered Poonch Garrison.

First to arrive were the Mountain Artillery, followed by field guns, and later, a troop of tanks also landed to bolster the defence of Poonch Garrison. The returning Dakotas would carry with them thousands of refugees who had gathered in Poonch, having been driven from Jhelum and nearby areas of Pakistan. The Poonch Garrisson was finally relieved when an Indian offensive nicknamed ‘Op Easy’ was launched by two brigade groups, one each on either side of the hills that connected Rajouri to the Poonch region. But these brigades met stiff opposition from the retreating Pakistanis, and finally, the linkup took place with the Poonch Garrison on 20th November 1948. The next objective, perhaps, would have been Haji Pir’s pass to complete the linkup with the URI sector. This did not happen as the UN-sponsored ceasefire occurred in January 1949.

Brig Pritam Singh
Brig Pritam Singh. Image: Special Arrangement

The story of Poonch would not be complete without describing the services rendered by Brig Pritam Singh. I have gone through various narratives about him – from the time of his escape as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in WW2 in Rangoon to his final assignment as the garrison commander of Poonch under siege. One thing that emerges from all the stories about him is his bravery, courage and steadfast holding of Poonch defences till the link up by the two brigades that were pushed into the area to relieve the beleaguered Indian troops. I have no idea of the political chemistry in the country at that time, which ensured that not only was Pritam Singh given the harshest punishment under the law but also ensured that his name was obliterated from the Army records. While not exonerating Pritam Singh for what he did, perhaps a lesser punishment could have been awarded, and he was not humiliated in such a ruthless manner.  

Through a marriage connection with the Jodhpur Royals, the Poonch Royalty happened to visit Mount Abu, where Brig Pritam had set up his residence. By now, he was a famous person, and they decided to pay a courtesy call to him. Their euphoria of meeting a war hero soon turned into dismay when they noticed that the objects they had lived with all their life in Poonch palace were proudly displayed in Brig—Pritam Singh’s house. The matter thus got duly reported. When one’s popularity grows, it also gives rise to professional jealousy—someone who did not like the rise of Brig. Pritam Singh may have been in an important position. The matter thus was investigated with a great deal of attention and urgency. The Court of Inquiry was held, soon followed by a court martial. Sardar Swarna Singh, the longest-serving Defence Minister of India, was his defence lawyer. He must have put up a strong defence, but that did not help. Pritam Singh was found guilty, cashiered, and dismissed from service. Without any loss of time, the govt notification was also published in the gazette. As if this was not enough, his name was also taken down from the Roll of Honour of the battalion that he commanded. The Army had thus done its utmost best to erase the name of Pritam Singh from history for good. 

My question for the Poonch Raja is simple: where was he when his kingdom was attacked? He was not there, leaving behind his subjects to their fate against the marauding Pak raiders. If he were in the Army, he would have been court marshalled for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, an offence punishable with death. Not for nothing, the state’s people regard Pritam Singh as their saviour and feel proud to display his portrait in their homes. If the Pak had succeeded, his princely assets would be proudly adorning the Pak President’s residence or their Prime Minister. Here, at least, they were in an Indian home.

 All the action against Pritam Singh was far away from Poonch. The people of the town were thus ignorant of the ignominy and humiliation that Pritam Singh faced. He was still their hero for saving them from the attacking Pakistanis by resolute and stubborn defence. They have prized out his name from the archives to honour him by installing his statue in the town to commemorate his service to the state. A charitable trust has also been instituted, entirely funded by the public, to help needy people. 

Given such conflicting views on Brig Pritam Singh, I do not know whether to salute the great warrior that he was or feel sorry for his fate. 


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