1947 Indo-Pak war: what the Bucher papers show

Published : Mar 25, 2023 15:42 IST - 13 MINS READ

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Bucher-Nehru correspondence shows the General and not the Prime Minister urged caution in 1947.

Recapture of territory annexed from the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan was militarily not feasible for the Indian Army. This is the unmistakable impression that emerges from confidential communications from the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, General Sir Roy Bucher, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Bucher papers, reportedly still classified in India, exist under the radar in the archives of London’s National Army Museum—declassified. They offer invaluable information for historical purposes, indicating that it is a pipedream for Indian politicians to insist that Pakistan should have been wholly ousted from Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-49.

The Indian Independence Act passed by the British House of Commons granted the princely states the discretion to join either India or Pakistan or neither. Under this provision, in August 1947, Jammu and Kashmir’s ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, sought time to consider the matter. The Pakistani government, impatient to absorb the territory, agreed to a “standstill” pact with Jammu and Kashmir, only to violate this understanding: invaders from Pakistan entered the state in October 1947.

An Army’ function re-enacting the 1947 landing of Indian troops at Budgam airfield in Srinagar, on the 75th anniversary of the event, on October 27, 2022.

An Army’ function re-enacting the 1947 landing of Indian troops at Budgam airfield in Srinagar, on the 75th anniversary of the event, on October 27, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Indian Army Headquarters noted on October 25, 1947: “Early in Oct raids by Ex-servicemen [of the British Indian Army], armed with modern arms and equipment were carried out on the Punch-Mirpur-Jammu garrisons [of the Jammu and Kashmir Army] deployed on those fronts. The intensity of these raids varied from small parties of approx. 10 to 12 to gangs of over 100.”

It further observed: “These raids resulted in a general rising of the Muslim population on Punch and Mirpur borders who were supplied with arms and ammunition by the raiding force.” Also: “The Muslim component of the Jammu and Kashmir forces on the Punch-Mirpur sector deserted on 18th Oct with arms and ammunition and joined the raiders.” And: “On 20 Oct the main push was made along the Kohala-Srinagar road by a force composed as under: Approximately 1000 tribesman from Hazara-Murree plus 400 Pathans said to be Afridis and some Muslim National Guards [who were to the Muslim League what the RSS was to the Hindu Mahasabha] from Rawalpindi travelling in 300 civilian lorries carrying surplus arms and ammunition. Two Muslim Companies of the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces who were the covering troops on the Domel-Abbottabad road deserted and joined the invading forces, to which they acted as the advance guard.”

Then again there was this message: “On 22nd Oct they sacked Muzaffarabad  and encircled Domel, and pushed up the road to Uri on 23rd Oct where they attacked and pushed back the Jammu and Kashmir State Force … The bridge at Uri was blown up by the Jammu and KashmirState troops when they withdrew, thus temporarily delaying the invaders…”

Finally: “On 24th Oct Mahura was captured and the power station destroyed. The attack was supported by mortars. At 2200 hrs 25th Oct Jammu and Kashmir State troops were fighting in Rampur but were expecting to pull back on Baramula where they were going to make a stand… The only reserve left in Srinagar now is one squadron of cavalry (Horsed).”

The message summarised the situation thus: “By 15 October the raiders had penetrated into Punch and Mirpur, surrounding some of the StateForce garrison and destroying others.”

On October 26, 1947, Indian Army Headquarters in a “most immediate”, “top secret” message to Lieutenant General D. Russell, GC-in-C Delhi and East Punjab Command, stated: “It is understood that Kashmir has acceded to the Union of India and that a popular government under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah is being formed.” It transmitted: “The Government of India considers that the security and safety of Kashmir is vital to the defence of India, and they have therefore decided to send troops to assist the Government of Kashmir. This operation will be known as Operation J&K  and will be carried out in two phases under your operational control: Phase I – Despatch by air of a battalion group to Srinagar.  Phase II – Despatch of a brigade group to JAMMU.”

Stalemate and combat

The Indian Army recovered significant swathes of territory in both Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani raiders, including the whole Kashmir Valley. But handicaps in the Indian armed forces’ fighting capabilities, communications and supply situations, not to mention the extended, harsh winters, rendered progress beyond a point difficult. In effect, a stalemate occurred, ultimately to be overtaken by a ceasefire.

As early as November 17, 1947, less than four weeks into the hostilities, Bucher flagged to Defence Minister Baldev Singh: “Hitherto we have, so to speak, lived from hand to mouth; this [war] has been forced upon us by the speed of events. I feel sure that the time has now come to review the whole situation from both the political and military angles, and to decide on long term policy.”

But combat continued. In a media release to mark the first anniversary of Indian forces’ defence of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Army claimed: “Today, after 12 months of costly fighting, the enemy is as far away from attaining his military objective as ever, namely, the capture of Srinagar and the possession of the Kashmir Valley. The Indian Army has put a steel ring around the Valley, against which the invaders have been ramming in vain all these months.”

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It also revealed: “Unable to make any progress either towards the Kashmir Valley from the west or in the Jammu Province in the south-west, the invaders turned to the north. From their base in Gilgit they struck eastward into the sparsely populated semi-arctic province of Baltistan, with the ostensible object of opening a back-door to the Kashmir Valley. But they we duly checkmated at Gurez and Zoji La Pass, thus sealing off the two passages to the Valley in the north and north-east respectively.”

It maintained: “The Indian Army’s primary objective in the Kashmir campaign was to defend the Kashmir Valley against the invaders. This objective has been fully achieved. The second objective of throwing the raiders out of the State remains to be completed.”

Tired troops, expensive equipment

However, while admitting that evicting the infiltrators was the Army’s aim and this was yet to be realised, on November 22, 1948, 13 months into the war, Bucher informed Nehru: “(i) Army personnel evince two weaknesses, lack of training in the junior leaders, tiredness and ennui in the other ranks. In Kashmir today, volunteers are not ardent for long range patrols, and troops demand a degree of air support and covering fire hitherto unthought of. In brief, the Army needs respite for leave, training, and vitalising. (ii) Equipment expenditure is alarmingly extravagant. We are already very short of multi-drive load carrying vehicles; the spare part situation is poor; to replenish somewhat, we even contemplate the ‘repurchase’ of ‘post [Second World] war disposals stocks’ from Messrs Allen Berry. Our armoured car and light tank reserves are impoverished. Generally, a continuing outlay of armaments as at present will soon far outstrip the replacement programme both presently possible, and remotely ‘potential’.”

He tellingly added: “An overall military decision is no longer possible, because of the extent of the country, the innumerable routes of entry, and the determination of the enemy.”

  • Correspondence between the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, General Sir Roy Bucher, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru shows that the General and not Nehru was the voice of caution urging restraint in the 1947 war between India and Pakistan.
  • The Bucher papers, reportedly still classified in India, indicate that it is a pipedream for Indian politicians to insist that Pakistan should have been wholly ousted from Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-49.
  • Recapture of territory annexed from the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan was militarily not feasible for the Indian Army: this is the impression that emerges from Bucher’s messages to Nehru.
  • The troops were tired, equipment was costly, and the long harsh winter made everything that much more difficult. It was a statemate that was ultimately overtaken by a ceasefire.

Nehru: wary but firm

Nehru replied to Bucher two days later: “We have now gone far towards relieving Leh and Punch town. I suppose these operations will be completed soon and then we shall take some steps to consolidate our position there, and I think that we should not indulge in any other offensive for the present. Indeed, for the whole of winter I do not see any chance of a major offensive on either side. During the next three or four months political developments may take place which might alter the situation.”

He nevertheless asserted: “While we do not take any major offensive, we cannot allow our minds to lie fallow and for our activities to become static. Whatever the future may be, we have to think in terms of possible developments demanding an effort from us. For this we should gradually but firmly prepare. Apart from any design on our part, we have to be wary of what the opposite party might do.”

He suggested: “Muzaffarabad and Mirpur are out of reach at present and for many months and I cannot say just yet what line in regard to them might be. But Kotli is in a somewhat different category. It is conceivable that we might consider it desirable to go towards Kotli.” He concluded: “I suppose we can utilise this winter period for giving some relief to our forces who have been fighting without rest for so long.”

Thereafter, the Prime Minister sent a memorandum to the General on December 23, which cautioned: “It is clear to me that we cannot rely on Pakistan remaining on the defensive, nor can we accept any of their assurances that have been given to us in regard to this. We must not be caught unawares and we should take every possible precaution to prevent an untoward development… Reports both from London and Karachi indicate that a large number, said to be about 400, of Polish aviators, who have specialised in bombing, have been engaged in England by Pakistan. 30 of these are said to have arrived in Karachi. Other reports state that Pakistan’s Army intends to start bombing from January. It is also stated that all Azad Kashmir troops will be formally incorporated in the Pakistan Army from the 1st January.”

Nehru stressed: “It is clear that we must prepare ourselves for all contingencies. Any weakening of the Jammu front would be an invitation to Pakistan for major operations against us… We have stated that no major or general offensive operations should be indulged in by our Army or Air Force (because of the winter). But this does not mean that we should allow the enemy to creep up, build roads in order to bring their guns, and to shell our positions. It also does not mean that in an effort to consolidate our defensive position, we should not advance a little to any strategic points that may be necessary.”

General Sir Roy Bucher.

General Sir Roy Bucher. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bucher: Voice of caution

To that, Bucher responded on December 28: “The vulnerability of our lines of communication in Jammu and Kashmir is patent… You can rely on Pakistan remaining on the defensive so long as we do not attempt to advance beyond our present positions… I am afraid we cannot take military action to stop every road building operation by Pakistan. May I suggest a political approach to this problem?”

He underlined: “Finally our immediate and most pressing problem is to rectify an adverse supply situation. We can only do this if the use of existing lines of communications remains uninterrupted by enemy shell fire. Therefore, for the nonce, it is wise for us to remain defensively watchful.”

Nehru wrote to the General the very next day to clarify: “At no time have we accepted the position, either before the U.N. [United Nations] Commission or elsewhere, that we remain static while Pakistan armies remain in Kashmir State territory… The fact that Pakistan armies are functioning in Kashmir State territory is a continuous aggression and irritant to us, from the political as well as the military point of view, and till they withdraw, it will always be open to attack them, should we be in a position to do so.”

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“The only two alternatives are,” he continued, “a ceasefire at the instance of the U.N. Kashmir Commission, or our taking military measures in strength against the Pakistan armies. In any event we should be prepared for the latter, as I have no faith at all in any assurance that the Pakistan army people might give.”

The correspondence establishes that Nehru desired a firmer line, but Bucher was of the opinion this was unrealistic. On December 31, 1948, Bucher agreed to a ceasefire with the COAS in Pakistan, General Sir Douglas Gracey, which came into effect from January 1, 1949.

Bucher’s ceasefire signal

In fact, on December 30, 1948, Bucher sent a signal to the Pakistan Army Commander-in-Chief Briton Gracey. It outlined: “In view of political developments my government thinks continuation of moves and counter moves too often due to misunderstanding accompanied by fire support seems senseless and wasteful in human life besides only tending to embitter feelings. My government authorises me to state I will have their full support if I order Indian troops to remain on present positions and to cease fire. Naturally I cannot issue any such orders until I have an assurance from you that you are in a position to take immediate reciprocal and effective action. Please reply most immediate. If you agree I shall send you by signal verbatim copies of any orders issued by me and, will expect you to do the same.”

Gracey consented quite promptly, for the very next day, on December 31,  Bucher instructed his western command as follows, copying the Pakistan Army and Air headquarters: “The governments of India and Pakistan have informally agreed to a ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir. This informal ceasefire will be planned as from 2359 hours 1 January 1949. A further signal will issue confirming the exact date and hour of the ceasefire. On receipt of this signal all troops will remain present locations and cease fire. No patrolling will be carried out forward of FDLs [forward defended localities] or any attempt made to improve positions. All forward movement of arms ammunition and AFVs [armoured fighting vehicles’ or guns will stop… All air activity will be confined to areas behind your FDLs. Similar orders are being issued by Pak Army copies of which will be sent to you… Pak Army only. For General Gracey. Please confirm by most immediate signal that time and date of ceasefire as suggested is accepted by you and that you will issue orders conforming with ours.” 

London-based Ashis Ray has been a foreign correspondent for 45 years, working mainly for BBC and CNN, where he was editor-at-large. He has also been an academic visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

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