Sardar Basant Singh was barely 13 when Pakistanis attacked the border villages of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in September 1947. The invaders, who were led by the Pakistani army, captured several villages and towns.
But Qila Darhal, Basant’s village near Nowshera town in Jammu region, held out. Basant still remembers the heroic resistance put up by about 50 villages, who kept the invaders at bay for 54 days – from September 4 to October 28-until Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union and the Indian Army joined the battle. The feat has not many parallels in Indian history.
“We were just about 50 against hundreds of invaders. We fought with country-made rifles and gave them a tough fight which they never anticipated”, said Basant, who was among the first national to meet the heroes of QilaDarhal. The villagers erected a memorial in 1952 to honour the brave hearts. Shaheedgarh is perhaps the only war memorial in India dedicated to civilians. The 12ft high marble and granite memorial on a 4th-high platform carries the names of martyrs.
Every year, on October 28, the commander of the Nawshera Brigade of the Indian army pays homage at Shaheedgarh, and a fair is organized to commemorate their valour. The villagers say the event has helped cement the bond between the civilians and the army.
Nowshera is a strategically important town on the old Mughal Road, which connects Srinagar to Lahore. In 1586, emperor Akbar conquered Kashmir valley, and his son Jahangir constructed forts and wells along the route for travellers and royal caravans. Nor Mahal at Norshera still stands, where Jahangir’s beloved consort, Noor Jehan, used to stay during trips to Kashmir. Qila Darhal, inhabited mostly by Sikhs, 20 kms northwest of Nowshera.
After the partition of India, a war-like situation erupted in Jammu and Kashmir. Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, refused to join India or Pakistan after the Indian Independence Act was passed by the British Parliament. The King wanted to sign a standstill agreement with both the countries, which would continue guarantee the continuance of all existing arrangements with the British Government. Pakistan signed the agreement immediately, and used it to take control of communication channels, telegraph services, and transport facilities in Kashmir.
On September 4, small bands of armed mercenaries, backed by Pakistan army, raided border villages and started looting and killing civilians. Supplies lines of food and other essentials to Kashmir were cut off.
While many villages surrendered, a small group of villagers led by Jathedar Ram Singh and Subedar Ranjit Singh resisted the invaders at QilaDarhal. Ranjit Singh, a world-II veteran, trained the villager in guerrilla warfare. Even a small group of women led by Sardarni Bhagh Singh, participated in the war along with their husbands.
While Basant survived the battle, his father Sardar Ram Singh was killed in action. “We were given some 20 odd country-made rifles by the Maharaja’s army to counter the invaders, who came by hundreds. But we gave a brave fight and kept the invaders out”, said Basant, whose task as Bal Sainik (he was a boy soldier as he was under 18 years of age) was to deliver messages and weapons.