The provincial subdivision of Kashmir followed geographical compulsions. To the south-west of the lofty Pir Panjal range lies Jammu. Enclosed by this range and the Great Himalayan Range lies the Kashmir Valley. Beyond, to the North, between the Main Karakorams and the Himalayan Range lies Gilgit, Hunza, Baltistan with Ladakh to the East. The rest of India was linked to the Valley by a fair-weather road from Pathankot across the 2,700 metres high Banihal Pass to Srinagar. A trade route, a mountain path actually, existed between Manali (in present-day Himachal) and Leh, the district headquarters of Ladakh. The major routes of communication into the Valley, as well as to the Northern areas, lie through what is now Pakistan.
These facts on the ground prompted Pakistan's bid to annex the state of Kashmir through Operation Gulmarg. The strategy employed was ingenious. It included, inter alla:
• Delink the northern territories by an outright takeover, under the garb of a popular uprising against the Maharaja, Sri Hari Singh, who would be able to do nothing about it.
• Enter the Kashmir Valley (and to make matters easier, Jammu province) with a mixed grouping of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) tribals, bolstered by Pakistani soldiers 'on leave', masquerading as tribesmen, thus drawing out the small state forces to garrison the borders in penny packets to begin with.
• Back the tribal Lashkars (formations), equip them with mortars and machine guns, and assist them in liberating their 'kinsmen', whom they had never seen before, with a regular army formation following up to restore normalcy, and coerce the Maharaja into acceding the state to Pakistan.
It was expected that before India reacted, possession would constitute law. In this, Pakistan came within a whisker of success. The Northern Territories were swallowed up by 30 July 1947, the formality of raising the flag being done in November. By 26 October, the main tribal column, raping and looting along the way, was at Baramulla, 50 kilometres from Srinagar, when the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession with India. The Indian Armed Forces could react only after this act of accession.
An impromptu air landed operation was put together. Time was of the essence. If the dirt strip masquerading as a runway at Srinagar airfield failed to take the weight of unprecedented DC-3 Dakota transport traffic, the tribals, stripping Baramulla and putting it to the torch would get on with their 'liberating' act with impunity. In the event, the Indian Army was very lucky. An adhoc brigade group on light scales managed to first hold and thereafter beat down the tribal main body. Thereafter, they were hounded out of the Valley by a series of minor engagements. An adhoc Headquarters functioning with an airlift organization oversaw command and logistics. The tenuous, fair weather road to Srinagar brought in convoys of supplies and limited reinforcements.
The Maharaja had dilly dallied too long before his hands were forced by the Pakistani intruders. The tribal Pakistani 'volunteer' groupings had by then overrun large tracts of Jammu province, which shared a porous border with Pakistan. It was some time before the fact sank in that we were actually engaging Pakistani regular forces. Ridding the main portions of Jammu province of Pakistani presence took more than a year and the entire operation ultimately took up more than 80,000 troops.
Great acts of personal gallantry and collective bravery were shown in the Kashmir operations. Major Som Nath Sharma was awarded the PVC, India's highest decoration for valour, and Brigadier Usman commanding the 50th Parachute Brigade was awarded the MVC, both posthumously.
Commencing February 1948, Pakistan launched through the Northern Territories Operation Sledge, a subsidiary (but complementary) offensive. The operation envisaged an advance up the Indus river by a mixed lot of local levies or irregulars and tribals. This force had to simply plod on at a pace of its own choosing to take over virgin territory.
A weak state forces battalion barred its path at the town of Skardu. The invading force split here, one group investing the town, the main body continuing to advance to Kargil, and yet another spreading into the Shyok river valley, a northern tributary of the Indus.
Extreme winter conditions made it impossible for the Indian Army to contest this action beyond the Great Himalayan Range. What was practicable, and indeed politically imperative, was to clean up Jammu province where the invading force was subjecting the local population to extremes of brutality. In the first few winter months of 1948, the Indian Army reinforced Leh with a reinforced platoon of hillmen drawn from a regular battalion. Surprisingly, as a first step, it sufficed to save Leh.
Advancing to Muzaffarabad, the Indian Army came up against Pakistani regular troops as a body by May 1948, especially West of Uri and Tithwal. Till then the Pakistanis had committed their regulars intermixed with Azad (free) Kashmir battalions and tribal groups. On 1 November 1948, an Indian brigade group supported by the 7th Cavalry (Stuart tanks) broke through the Great Himalayan Range at Zojila to drive out the invaders from Ladakh district. At approximately 3,500 metres, this was the highest point in the history of warfare that tanks had operated.
On 23 November 1948, the besieged garrison of Punch was relieved, a full year after its siege. This meant that a firm grip had been established all the way from Pathankot, on the major portions of this province.
On 1 January 1949, a cease fire came into effect. Under UN supervision, a negotiated Cease Fire Line was drawn up on an actual holding basis pending future settlements. This meandering, and at places militarily illogical line, ran some 700 kilometres from Chhamb in the South to a map reference point NJ 9842 in Ladakh in the North. The latter unnamed point lay beyond the Shyok valley and rested on the lower slopes of the Saltoro range an offshoot of the Karakorams. It was added that the Line thereafter ran North to the glaciers, for which there was a surfeit. Here lay the seeds of a future conflict between India and Pakistan, the battleground being the highest glacier region in the world.
The Kashmir War and its political fallout hold enormous importance for the Indian Army and the nation. Despite the accession of the state, a part of Kashmir remains under the illegal control of Pakistan (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), and this has continued as a festering sore in subsequent Indo Pak relations.
The northern borders remained unconsolidated. It meant for the Indian Army, and particularly its infantry, full time manning of a quasi active defensive line. The Kashmir War gave the Indian Army its first experience of high altitude operations amidst snow, ice and extreme cold conditions.