Thu. Feb 9th, 2023

In Remembrance: Group Captain (Retd) Mohammad Shah Khan, Sitara-e-Juraat

Prince Shah Khan was born on 9th of April, 1924 in Hunza, as one of the sons of Mir Nazeem Khan, Ruler of the independent Princely State of Hunza, on the northern edges of the British Empire. Shah Khan, who was later recognized as a Group Captain of the Pakistan Air Force, began his life with the Gilgit Scouts and was one of the key leaders who liberated Gilgit in November 1947, for which he was also awarded the Sitara e Jurat.

It was in 1840 that the area of Gilgit Baltistan came to be associated with Kashmir but not with India directly, due to the Maharaja of Kashmir’s policy of encroachment, expansion and conquest. To dispel all misconceptions and the accompanying ignorance about the region of Gilgit Baltistan as of today, it is to be noted that the Maharaja’s control remained absolute over Baltistan and only towards the current and adjoining District of Gilgit, whereas the States of Hunza and Nagar had always remained fiercely independent. It was only after the temporary invasion of both the States in 1891 that the states were brought them under the influence of the Gilgit Residency in total effect controlled by the British Political Agent.

Since the 1880’s, at the heightened spectre of Russo phobia in particular towards the northern borders of its empire, the British in India raised and embodied fighting as well as unarmed levies. These fighting levies were abolished in 1913 and the Gilgit Scouts as a reserve force was raised subsequently.

In 1935, the Gilgit Wazarat was transferred to the British Government on lease from the Maharaja. The State Troops of the Maharaja of Kashmir evacuated Gilgit and moved to the garrison town of Bunji on the banks of the Indus. The reserve force created earlier in 1913 from the Levies was thus reorganized as the Corps of Gilgit Scouts.

The Companies and Platoons were commanded by close relatives of the Mirs and Rajas of the area, usually being their sons and brothers. They were directly commissioned as Viceroy Commissioned Officers (VCO) for this purpose and were given a preferential treatment by the British. The Corps directly came under the Political Agent and all promotions to the rank of VCO’s were made based on political considerations.

A VCO of the Corps was allowed to maintain a special tunic, his own horses, private servants and many other protocols deemed essential for the royalty. After the British Officers, they were the most powerful people, to be respected by the government and public alike, which in fact became the basis of the freedom movement.

The Gilgit Agency was handed over to the State of Kashmir by the British in August 1947 as per the terms of its lease arrangement becoming invalid at that particular time and handing of the reins to Brigadier Ghansara Singh, as Governor of Gilgit.

The situation was analysed by a select group of VCO’s and it was decided to overthrow the alien rule by force and join Pakistan as soon as possible. Therefore, a planned struggle named the Freedom Movement was to be launched. The leading spirits of this movement were two prominent figures; namely Prince Shah Khan of Hunza and Prince Babar Khan of Nagar and history proves that had these two not been there, the movement would have died there and then.

Having won over their men, it was now decided to approach the Government of Pakistan for help before the final showdown was forced. Since the postal and the telegraph services were controlled by the Dogras, a special messenger of the Gilgit Scouts was sent on foot to Abbottabad, the nearest post office of Pakistan to post the letters. He carried four letters addressed to the Quaid e Azam, Nawabzada Liaqat Ali Khan, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar and Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan who was then the Chief Minister of NWFP.

On the night of the 26 October 1947, the Maharaja announced the accession of Kashmir to India and the news reached Gilgit on 28 October 1947. The time to strike had come and it was decided to arrest Brigadier Ghansara Singh, take control of the wireless station, occupy the post and telegraph offices, cut the telephone lines as well as destroy the bridges between Bunji and Gilgit to stop reinforcement of troops. It was also decided to ask Major Brown, the Commandant of the Gilgit Scouts, if he chose to join us or otherwise put him under escort and moved to Pakistan.

It so happened that due to his advice to Brigadier Ghansara Singh to submit to the wishes of the people, he had annoyed the Governor, who considered him disloyal to the State and feared that he might be arrested at any moment. Therefore, he had at first decided to flee to Pakistan via Gupis and Chitral but having known of the Gilgit Scouts plan, he approved of it and joined the freedom movement. Subsequently as events followed and having realized the complexity of the situation and the futile cause of his stand, Ghansara surrendered.

The sun of 1 November 1947 rose over the valley of Gilgit with a new message. Gilgit had been liberated on this morning and the undaunted Dogra rule had been thrown off by a handful of Scouts. Its people were free and with this, a golden chapter in the history of the area had been written.

However, this was not the end; in fact, it was just the beginning of things to come. On 16 November 1947, a Harvard landed at Gilgit out of which emerged the first Pakistani Political Agent, Sardar Mohammad Alam Khan. Sardar Alam sent Major Brown to Liaqat Ali Khan, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan to explain the whole affair. He returned with orders to raise the strength of the Gilgit Scouts and the grant of commissions to Shah Khan and Babar Khan for their heroic deeds. By this time, the States of Hunza and Nagar had also acceded to Pakistan.

In January 1948, Major Aslam Khan, who had previously served in the Kashmir State Forces and had considerable experience and knowledge of the area, arrived in Gilgit to take over the charge of the Scouts from Major Brown.

The Indian army by then had entered the field and was preparing to attack Gilgit via Skardu the moment it got the opportunity. Hence, without any respite, it was imperative to capture as much ground as possible. What followed was thus the plan to capture Skardu and the cutting of logistical supply lines through the midst of winter and halting the Indian Army before the snows melt at Kargil, Dras and Zojilla.

Stiff resistance was faced by the Scouts and it became difficult to capture Skardu. Lieutenant Shah Khan was given the command of The Eskimo Force, a reserve force to commit at Kargil, Dras and Zojilla, a task of which the odds were entirely against us, but due to the selfless dedication of an officer and his brave men, the goal was achieved successfully. Lieutenant Shah Khan and his force of Eskimos miraculously forced march through the height of winters over Deosai in waist height snow, crossed the Burzil Pass, captured Dras, Zojilla and Kargil having thus caught the Indians totally by surprise and made the fall of Skardu inevitable.

The rest is history and due to the exploits of the brave men of the Gilgit Scouts, not only was the entire region as of Gilgit Baltistan that we have today liberated and consolidated but the Indian advance halted to what remains even after 70 years the Line of Control and the dividing line between the both countries.

Written by the children and grandchildren of Shah Khan.

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