KASHMIR’S CHOORA MASSACRE, AN UNTOLD STORY
A lot has been written about the exodus of people from East and West Bengal and Punjab during the 1947 partition of India, but hardly anything is available on the expulsion and the killings of a minuscule Sikh community in Kashmir. This untold story is about the innocents who got massacred in a Tribal attack on Kashmir in 1947. Their woeful tale never made it into any newspaper columns, nor attracted a mention in any of the chronicles or celebrated autobiographies of the time. In the dead of silence on wee hours of October 22nd, a convoy of about five hundred lorries carrying ten lashkars armed with military arsenal and logistics, under the overall control of Pakistani army had been stealthily ferried to the outskirts of Muzaffarabad town. Each Lashkar comprised of roughly a thousand men driven from pashtoon tribes of the northwest frontier of Pakistan.
Before the beginning of operation, code named ‘Operation Gulmarg’, in war room briefing these tribal leaders are told in clear terms that they need to capture Srinagar Palace and other vital installations in Kashmir in a week’s time before Eid. While doing so they can lay their hands on anything belonging to kafirs (infidels), be it beautiful women or other valuables as war booty.
It was the year 1947. On 22nd October, the moment clock ticked 4 AM, ‘Operation Gulmarg’ is signaled to annex the independent princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the next few hours all the vital border posts of Muzafarabad town fell easily, opening state borders to a saga of gruesome atrocities and the worst kind of brutality, that would later be called 1947-Tribal invasion of Kashmir, locally called Kabali raid. The chances of any resistance from state forces got neutralized as Muslim component of the force guarding border outposts defected, joined raiders and got their sleeping outnumbered buddies killed.
Muzafarabad had a sizeable population of Sikh and Hindus, who unaware of the happenings around got trapped. The next three days this besieged town was in full control of ruthless tribals, slaughtering men, raping women and setting properties on fire amidst loot and plunder. Muzafarabad bore the looks of a ghost town with smoke simmering out of burnt houses, dead bodies scattered all around while hundreds of women had preferred a death of dignity diving into the ferocious waters of river Jehlum, flowing through the mid of town. Others who couldn’t get a chance of ‘dignified death’ were gang raped and driven to the base camps in Pakistan to be ferried further to their tribes as war booties. By the evening of 24th, commanders of these uncontrolled tribal groups were made to discipline and assemble their lot by their regular army masters to march towards Baramulla, another major town on the way to Srinagar.
On 25th morning a small contingent of Jammu and Kashmir State forces headed by its chief tried to engage the marching swarm of tribals at a place called Uri, a hundred kilometres from Srinagar. Altough they fought gallantly but were badly outnumbered. This brief skirmish ended in the killing of all the men of this contingent. By evening invaders entered baramulla town, 54 kilometres from Srinagar with no resistance from any quarter. Baramulla used to be a striving summer resort for elite Sikh and Hindu families of Rawalpindi and Lahore. Big splashing bungalows built along the Baramulla-Srinagar highway would add grandeur to this town where these elite families would come to spent pleasant summer months. For the next five days Muzafarabad was repeated again in Baramulla, a mayhem of death and destruction was let loose. With Sikh and Hindu dwellings burnt and raised to ground the whole town wore a horrible look.
Merciless tribals were seen running amok, uncontrolled and unhindered, relentlessly looking for valuables, women and girls, ruthlessly killing males. Some Muslims whom they suspected to be national conference party cadre were also killed. Meanwhile, at St. Joseph’s convent, some christian nuns and an English family were lined up and shot dead ruthlessly. Although the majority of the Pundits of Baramulla town had made it to the safety of Srinagar well before the attack, still some families who couldn’t move out got killed. Incidents of some Muslims risking their lives to save their Sikh and Pandit neighbors also popped up. The Sikh population of Baramulla was scattered around in peripheral villages who couldn’t sense the grievance of the situation and got stuck. Groups of armed tribals guided by their local sympathizers from Muslim conference, a fanatic group fanned out to each and every Sikh village in Baramulla, getting hold of the male members and killing them with all the brutality, sometimes with swords and axes to save bullets. Desperately looking for women to drag them to their base camps, these ferocious tribal groups seemed in competition with one another and would lose no time in out-beating each other for claiming war booties. Sitting around evening campfire gathering at makeshift camps set up at St. Joseph’s school’s ground in Baramulla town, they would arrogantly boast of their achievements, staking claims as who succeeded in raping maximum number and who had more of the girls and heads of kafirs. “Surviving residents estimate that 3,000 of their fellow townsmen, including six Europeans were slain” wrote a New York Times correspondent. During all this muddle, on 27th a caravan of around five thousand helpless Sikhs from Rafiabaad villages comprising of bhatpora, wampora, panzilla, yarabugh, charaligundi, chak gojri, hard chanam, hatcipora, madna etc managed to escape and assemble on the grounds of Khalsa school in village Satrna, 42 kms north of Baramulla. After offering ardaas, the evening prayer it was decided to head towards the safety of Srinagar via Sopore once darkness accented. Trekking on foot a distance of 40 kilometres, crossing river Jhelum on small boats these fleeing families in the mid of chilly dark night assembled at an open place called “Sarkari nursery” in Choora, 39 kms from Srinagar along Baramulla- Srinagar highway. Reports had started pouring in that Sikh army of Maharaja Patiala had landed at Srinagar Aerodrome and were heading for Baramulla to stop this attack. These fleeing families decided to carry along the highway as it seemed safer than passing through the possible dangers of habitations. It was the mid of night, people tired of walking all the distance with their belongings and families lay down, resting on the open Choora nursery ground, waiting for others to join. In next two-three hours half the caravan that started from Satrna that evening had successfully made it to Choora.
All of a sudden they saw glistening headlights of lorries and mistook them as advancing Sikh army. In order to further verify they shouted Sikh slogan of ‘Bole so Nihal’ to be properly responded by ‘Sat Sri Akal’ from the other side. Lowering their guard everyone joyously and hurriedly ran towards approaching lorries to be greeted by showers of bullets. In fact, it was kabali convey who had good numbers of punjabi speaking Pakistani regular army personnel who deceitfully responded the jaikara by saying ‘Sat Sri akal’ and succeeded in neutralizing Sikhs before they could realise and react. In next few minutes hundreds of defenceless people: children, women, men, young and old lay dead on the ground. Injured, who couldn’t run were shot dead from close range. For next few hours blood thirsty tribals and their army masters were seen chasing survivors, killing them randomly and snatching their belongings. It was a gruesome scene, a “Butchery of the Innocent”. Others who managed to flee preferred jumping into the chilling waters of a nearby river to avoid ruthless tribals. A few had to kill their daughters and women folk with their own hands as ruthless mercenaries would rape and drag them to waiting lorries. In one such incident thakur singh had to kill five women folks of his family to save them from the wrath of kabalis.
In this chaos few survivors started running towards Srinagar through the parallel paddy fields of highway while others who were yet to reach the nursery ground after hearing gunshots panicked and started running back to their villages. This was the biggest massacre of people in a single night when estimated three to four hundred innocent kids, women, men, old and young were killed. The brutality of the massacre can be gauged by the fact that blood thirsty tribals slit the throats of people who were still alive and bleeding profusely, they tucked their heads on tree branches. Coming days would see corpse of kids, old and young floating along the riversides and nursery ground to be pounced by scavengers. A week later some left out bones and remnants were collected by people to be kept at Gurdwara Chatti Patshahi Baramulla as a symbol of this gruesome massacre. More than half the Sikh population got wiped off at places like Muzaffarabad, Karnah, Bagh, Kotli and Baramulla during these 10 days of merciless carnage. Today, after seven decades of this havoc some questions still haunt the Sikh psyche that desperately seeks answers.
A quote, vaguely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi is quoted time and again that “when the whole subcontinent was engulfed in frenzy of death and destruction during partition, in Kashmir, he saw a ray of hope”, if it holds true then who were the people who got massacred between October 22 and 2nd of November? What compelled politicians to downplay the massacre of these innocent people is a question that still haunts the affected families. None of the politician dares admit publicly that yes thousands of innocent were killed in Kashmir. Dozens of autobiographies written by people who handled Kashmir during this turbulent moment are available on shelves, but none could do any justice. Only one fragmented account is available in one of the writings of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an octogenarian separatist leader where he daringly but candidly admits that cases of locals attacking and killing helpless Sikhs in Baramulla villages happened during tribal raid. It shows the hypocrisy on the part of politicians who on one hand went about granting official reverence of ‘state martyrs’ to twenty two people who got killed in incident of police firing during an anti-monarch protest rally in 1931. With the day marked as State holiday and functions held every year but on the other hand not even a eensy bit mention could be made, forget about raising a memorial in memory of the biggest ever massacre of innocents in modern day history of Kashmir at Choora. This selective approach of successive governments on the death of its innocent citizens speaks a lot, a question continually being raised, is martyrdom of Choora any less than martyrs of 1931? What made writers, intelligentsia and politicians keep mum all along, what stopped them in documenting this important chronicle of history in which one third of Kashmir’s Sikh population got wiped off. Today, even after seven decades no official acknowledgement of Sikh killings has been made or record of deaths, kidnappings and losses collected so far.
Special BALBIR SINGH