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The Tribal Invasion of 1947

Andrew Whitehead
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

The Tribal Invasion of 1947

In October 1947 a fighting force of several thousand Muslim tribesmen entered Kashmir from Pakistan. Their motives were varied—in part pursuit of jihad and a sense of religious duty, in part seeking to claim Kashmir for Pakistan and frustrate its accession to India, in part revenge for the massacres of Muslims in Partition-related violence, and in part the search for booty. The invaders advanced rapidly, and within ten days sections of this tribal force had reached the outskirts of the Kashmir valley’s principal city, Srinagar. Their advance prompted the maharaja of Kashmir to flee and impelled newly independent India to airlift troops into Kashmir to repulse the invaders and confirm Indian control of the valley. These were the opening shots of the Kashmir conflict, which has never been finally resolved and which has been a persistent rallying cry for Islamic movements.

Jammu and Kashmir was one of the biggest princely states in South Asia and one of the few that bordered both India and Pakistan, giving the maharaja a real choice about which nation to join when the British pulled out from the region in mid-August 1947. Maharaja Hari Singh, part of a Hindu princely family, vacillated, attracted by the notion of an independent Kashmir. He ruled over an agglomeration of territories the population of which was, in 1947, more than three-quarters Muslim. The Kashmir valley—the political, social, and linguistic heartland of Kashmir—was more than 90 percent Muslim, though it constituted less than half the population and well under a tenth of the territory under the maharaja’s rule. While religious and commercial ties pointed to Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan, by October there were indications that the maharaja was preparing for Kashmir to become part of India.

From late August 1947, an indigenous rebellion against the maharaja took hold in the Poonch region, outside the Kashmir valley, where there was a strong military tradition as well as a host of local grievances, particularly about the erosion of local autonomy and the imposition of taxes. This armed force quickly came to control a swathe of countryside, though it posed little threat to the main population centers or to the Kashmir valley. It did however encourage some people of influence in the new nation of Pakistan to consider some form of military intervention in Kashmir, and modest direct support was provided to the rebels in Poonch, who made common cause with the developing anti-India military action. The extent of official Pakistani involvement or connivance in the invasion of Kashmir by a tribal “lashkar” or armed force is deeply contested. There is compelling evidence, however, that sections of the Pakistani military and of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) provincial government, and probably some in the national government, encouraged and abetted the invasion.

The Tribal Invasion of 1947

Photograph of Orakzai tribesmen. Frank Leeson

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The tribesmen of Waziristan in particular had a long-standing affinity with Kashmir, a tradition of armed raiding parties, and important local religious leaders, including the Pir of Wana and the Pir of Manki Sharif, who encouraged them to take up arms and head to Kashmir. The Pir of Wana told an American journalist in October 1947 that “he would lead an army of 1,000,000 tribesmen into Kashmir on a holy war. . . ‘We will march with our rifles and guns, and we will save our Moslem brothers from the whims of the Hindu maharaja’” (New York Herald Tribune, 25 October 1947). At about the same time, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and governor-general, told a different American correspondent “that he was doing his utmost to hold back Moslem tribesmen, who were demanding a holy war against the Hindus and Sikhs. He admitted that he was not sure he could restrain them overlong” (New York Times, 31 October 1947).

Brigadier Akbar Khan—a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military College at Sandhurst who served in the Indian army fighting the Japanese in World War II—had recently taken up a senior role with the Pakistan army, and took it upon himself to provide support to the tribal forces. He suggested in later years a high level of political complicity in the invasion, but a much less adequate level of military preparation. He was particularly unimpressed by Khurshid Anwar, a veteran of the Muslim League National Guard who became in effect the commander of the invading force.

By mid-October 1947 Sir George Cunningham, a retired colonial official recently brought back by Jinnah to resume his old job as governor of NWFP, was becoming aware of the movement of armed tribesmen. In his diary, he recorded being told on 13 October that “there is a real move … for Jehad against Kashmir. They have been collecting rifles, and have made a definite plan of campaign” (Diary of George Cunningham, entry for 13 October 1947, MSS Eur.D.670/6, India Office Records, British Library). Two days later, Cunningham recorded that the “Kashmir affair is boiling up.” Most of the recruitment of fighters was local, with Mahsuds and Afridis particularly prevalent in the lashkar—Wazirs were divided, with one of their most prominent religious leaders advising against military action in Kashmir. By most accounts, the fighters acknowledged only tribal authority, and there was little discipline and coordination among the different components of the fighting force.

Early in the morning of 22 October, thousands of armed tribesmen advanced into the princely state and captured the key town of Muzaffarabad, where there was considerable violence, particularly against non-Muslims, and some looting. The invaders initially faced little resistance from the Kashmir state forces, some of whose units deserted. The tribal army advanced quickly along the valley road toward Srinagar, meeting its first significant resistance at the small town of Uri. Kashmiri troops blew up a bridge to seek to delay the advance of the invaders, but this had little effect. The tribesmen entered Baramulla, the second largest town in the Kashmir valley, on the evening of 26 October. Srinagar was little more than an hour’s drive away.

Of all the many controversies surrounding the lashkar, events at Baramulla have been the most keenly contested. Muhammad Yusuf Saraf, who was in the town as the tribesmen entered, has recorded the enthusiasm of many local people for these forces fighting against the maharaja, and the rapid falling away of that support as the town fell prey to violence and looting. The tribesmen targeted the small but comparatively prosperous Sikh community in and around Baramulla, and several Sikh women were abducted. But the looting, and by some accounts the sexual violence, also extended to Muslim households, shops, and businesses. The Roman Catholic mission hospital was ransacked and six people were killed, including a Spanish nun and a British army officer and his wife. Survivors of the attack were confined by the invaders to a hospital ward for ten days before being evacuated by the Pakistani army. Most of the residents of Baramulla left the town for their own safety and assessments, at that time and since, of the level of casualties have been impeded by confusion about how many fled and how many died. “Surviving residents estimate that 3,000 of their fellow townsmen … were slain” reported Robert Trumbull of the New York Times, who entered the town in the wake of the Indian Army. In more recent years, survivors have suggested a much lower level of carnage.

One of the priests at the Baramulla mission—an Englishman, Father George Shanks—set down a few years after the event a vivid if understandably jaundiced account of the arrival of the tribal forces:

"Dirty, bloodstained, ill-kempt, with ragged beards + hair; some carrying a blanket, most completely unequipped; … with rifles of Frontier make, double barreled shotguns, revolvers, daggers, swords, axes + here + there a Sten gun—jostling one another, shouting, cursing + brawling, they came on in a never-ending stream. (Manuscript account by Monsignor George Shanks, Central Archive, Mill Hill Missionaries)"

Khan Shah Afridi was a member of the lashkar, and fifty years later spoke of his memories of the invasion:

"We were asked by the Pir of Manki Sharif to come for fighting. I was the Pir’s follower. I had a small shotgun at that time. Pir sahib told us we will fight and we should not be afraid—it is a war between Muslims and infidels and we will get Kashmir freed. (Khan Shah Afridi interviewed by Haroon Rashid, May 2003, GB 0102 OA3, School of Oriental and African Studies archive, London)"

Afridi recalled considerable violence against non-Muslims. “We shot whoever we saw in Baramulla. We didn’t know how many were killed. We forced Hindus to run for their lives.” He disputed accounts of sexual violence but accepted that there was looting.

The indiscipline at Baramulla, which included contingents of the lashkar returning home in trucks piled with pillaged goods, impeded the advance of the tribal fighters. They had been accompanied by a handful of Pakistani army officers (or perhaps, in these weeks immediately after Partition, with officers in the course of being transferred to Pakistan’s newly created armed forces). Immediate steps were taken to bolster the number of these officers, many of whom were formally given leave so they could go to Kashmir. The Pir of Manki Sharif traveled to Baramulla to appeal to the various tribal contingents to act in concert and not lose sight of their military and religious purpose.

The approach of the invading army prompted the Hindu maharaja of Kashmir to flee his capital and to sign an instrument of accession by which his princely state became part of India. At dawn on 27 October, the Indian military began an airlift to the landing strip in Srinagar. Indian troops first saw action against the tribesmen the following day outside Baramulla. The tribal fighters got the better of those initial exchanges, killing the Indian commanding officer, whose forces then staged a retreat. Over the next few days, the tribesmen continued to advance, reaching close to the air strip and within four miles of the center of Srinagar. But the military balance was shifting against them, with several hundred Indian soldiers flying in every day and Indian Air Force planes staging attacks on the lashkar’s bases and supply lines. In Srinagar itself, the Kashmiri nationalist leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah—who filled the political vacuum left by the maharaja’s sudden departure and who supported accession to India—established a citizen’s militia to help repel the invading force.

On 7 November 1947 several thousand armed tribesmen clashed with the Indian Army at Shalateng, to the northwest of Srinagar. The details of the engagement, as with so much else about the invasion, are contested, but by the end of the day the tribal forces were in rapid retreat. The following day, Indian troops took Baramulla without a fight. The prospect of a tribal takeover of the Kashmir valley had receded.

There is little doubt that key figures in Pakistan’s armed forces and government aided and abetted the tribal invasion of Kashmir. The consensus among Pakistani historians and political commentators is that this policy was mistaken. Sardar Abdul Qayum Khan—one of the instigators of the Poonch revolt and later both president and prime minister of that part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control—insisted many years later that the involvement of tribal fighters damaged the Kashmir movement. “The looting created a very bad impression among the Muslim community. They made no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. … Particularly the Wazirs and the Mahsuds were absolutely uncontrollable. … They made an absolute blunder allowing a thing like this” (Sardar Abdul Qayum Khan interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, 6 April 1997, GB 0102 OA3, School of Oriental and African Studies archive, London)

It’s not clear whether Pakistan’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, knew in advance that tribal forces were heading to Kashmir—though there is abundant evidence that his prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, and one of his provincial chief ministers, Khan Abdul Qayum Khan, were aware that an invasion force was being assembled. When India responded to the invasion with a military airlift, Jinnah’s immediate, furious response was to order the Pakistani army into Kashmir—though he was persuaded by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck to rescind that order. Jinnah was then in the awkward position that the tribal forces, with a small number of accompanying army officers, were his only means of keeping the future status of Kashmir in play. He summoned a meeting at Lahore in late October which agreed steps to support and reinforce the tribal fighters. Sir George Cunningham, who attended, recorded in his diary: “I never thought that I would become practically a member of a tribal lashkar.”

The additional support for the tribal fighters had some effect—not in capturing Srinagar, but at least in limiting the retreat, and by early December the invading forces had rallied close to Chakothi, to the west of the town of Uri. The following spring, Pakistan’s government mobilized its forces to preempt a westerly advance by the Indian Army—leading to the first of several wars between India and Pakistan either over Kashmir or in part fought there. The ceasefire line, now known as the line of control, continues to run close to Chakothi.

The tribal invasion of Kashmir provided the setting for three novels of note—all of them condemnatory in tone of the tribal fighters and their conduct. Mulk Raj Anand’s Death of a Hero: Epitaph for Maqbool Sherwani (1963) contributed to the posthumous reputation of a Kashmiri put to death by the invaders. Alan Moorehead’s The Rage of the Vulture (1948) focuses on the plight of the European population in Srinagar. The most notable literary work, H. E. Bates’s The Scarlet Sword (1950), is by a writer who never set foot in Kashmir, and is concerned with events at St. Joseph’s Mission Hospital in Baramulla, with again the greater attention being given to Europeans caught up in the violence. Several of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of tribal fighters at Abbottabad preparing to head to Kashmir can be found online, and were included in her book Halfway to Freedom as well as LIFE magazine. Frank Leeson included some of his photographs in his book Frontier Legion: With the Khassadars of North Waziristan (2003)—the most memorable, of Orakzai tribesmen heading to Kashmir, is republished in Andrew Whitehead’s A Mission in Kashmir (2007).


  • Khan, Akbar. Raiders in Kashmir. Delhi: Army Publishers, n.d. The account of one of the instigators of the tribal invasion, first published in Karachi in 1970. Find it in your Library
  • Khan, Sirdar Shaukat Hayat. The Nation that Lost Its Soul: Memoirs of a Freedom Fighter. Lahore: Jang Publishers, 1995. Reminiscences of one of the key Pakistani political figures behind the military action in Kashmir. Find it in your Library
  • Lamb, Alastair. Birth of a Tragedy, Kashmir 1947. Hertingfordbury, U.K.: Roxford, 1994. An account, with the emphasis on diplomatic and political aspects of the origins of the Kashmir dispute.
  • Lamb, Alastair. Incomplete Partition: The Genesis of the Kashmir Dispute, 1947–48. Hertingfordbury, U.K.: Roxford, 1997. A detailed account of the origins of the Kashmir conflict. Find it in your Library
  • Mehta, Krishna. Crisis in Kashmir. Calcutta: Signet Press, 1954. A firsthand account by a woman who was in Muzaffarabad as the tribal forces entered the town. Find it in your Library
  • Saraf, Muhammad Yusuf. Kashmiris Fight for Freedom. 2 vols. Lahore: Ferozsons, 1977–1979. A hugely detailed and in part firsthand account of events in Kashmir in and around 1947. Find it in your Library
  • Snedden, Christopher. The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir. London: Hurst, 2012. Includes an account of the rebellion in Poonch which immediately preceded the tribal invasion of Kashmir. Find it in your Library
  • White Paper on Jammu & Kashmir. Delhi: Government of India, 1948. The first official Indian account of events in Kashmir in late 1947, including extensive transcripts of contemporary documents. Find it in your Library
  • Whitehead, Andrew. A Mission in Kashmir. New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 2007. A comprehensive account of the tribal invasion of Kashmir and its aftermath, based in part on oral history and other personal testimony, and including a detailed bibliography. Find it in your Library
  • Zaheer, Hasan. The Times and Trial of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy 1951: The First Coup Attempt in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998. A detailed and well researched account of how the Kashmir issue shaped and influenced Pakistani politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Find it in your Library
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