Chitral’s Role In The Liberation Of Gilgit-Baltistan

Chitral’s Role In The Liberation Of Gilgit-Baltistan
Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan have much in common. Although Chitral is culturally and linguistically linked to Gilgit-Baltistan, it has never been politically controlled from Gilgit, which has served as the centre-point for the rest of the region. As far back as the recorded history of what is today Chitral and GB goes – which would be the Chinese Tang-era Annals from 600 AD onwards – Chitral has been politically distinct from Gilgit. Baltistan and Gilgit have had a shared history and have been interlinked in a way that Chitral never was with them. Having said that, political influence from Chitral has often been extended to GB. The Khoshwaqt Dynasty which ruled large parts of the Gilgit region in the 1700s and 1800s was of Chitrali origin, claiming to be related to the Katoor Dynasty of Chitral. Khowar, the language of Chitral, is also the largest spoken language of the Ghizer District.

The Gilgit Revolt instigated by the Gilgit Scouts was the catalyst for the independence of Gilgit-Baltistan from the rule of the Maharaja of Kashmir, but there were many other factors which contributed to it as well, including the moral, political and – most importantly – military support from the then Princely State of Chitral.

View of Skardu Fort, 1850

In 1947, the Gilgit Agency had a peculiar administrative status. After the conquest of Gilgit and its surroundings – first by the Lahore Durbar of Ranjit Singh and later by its successor state, the Dogra-ruled Jammu & Kashmir – Gilgit had firmly been incorporated into the political sphere of Kashmir. Baltistan had been conquered even earlier by the Dogras after they had laid a foothold in neighboring Ladakh. Baltistan continued to remain a directly administered part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir until 1948, but by then Gilgit had a different status. The British Raj was very keen on holding Gilgit directly, due to its geopolitical significance, as it was where the British Indian Raj, the Qing Empire (succeeded by Nationalist China), Tsarist Russia (later the Soviet Union) and the British vassal state of Afghanistan (prior to 1919) all collided. Thus, the British Raj leased what was then the Gilgit Wazarat of Kashmir from the Maharaja and restyled it as the Gilgit Agency.

The Political Agent at Gilgit would report to both the British Resident in Srinagar as well as the Governor of the North West Frontier Province in Peshawar: it was this link to Peshawar that led to the formation of a unit of the Frontier Corps in the Agency, the Gilgit Scouts. The scouts were all locally recruited Muslims, and the officers were British. They paid allegiance to the Maharaja in name only and were otherwise a part of the British Indian Army. Units of the Jammu & Kashmir State Forces remained in Gilgit as well, but they were largely confined to the garrison at Bunji.

The educated elite of the Gilgit Agency all supported the cause of Pakistan but the Mirs of Hunza and Nagar and the minor feudal Rajas were loyal to the Maharaja, though they later changed this position after the revolt. The people of Gilgit are a very proud and independent-minded society and were resentful of being under the Dogra yoke for almost a century. Upon the lapse of paramountcy in August 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh sent Brigadier Ghansara Singh Jamwal to Gilgit to resume the old office of Wazir (Governor) of Gilgit. This was done without any discussion with the Governor of NWFP who had a stake in the Agency and thus Major Willy Brown, the Commandant of the Gilgit Scouts, revolted and his men raised the crescent flag of the Muslim League. Brigadier Ghansara Singh was arrested and within weeks a new Political Agent flew in from Peshawar.

Letter From the Governor of NWFP recording Chitrali military support

This was where Chitrali involvement began. Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk of Chitral had signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Maharaja of Kashmir and although this is often wrongly thought of as a sign of vassalage to Kashmir, it was nothing but a diplomatic deal through which Chitral would get monetary support from Kashmir to upkeep its military to protect itself from the rapidly advancing Durrani Kingdom of Afghanistan and also avoid interfering in Gilgit itself, as Aman-ul-Mulk had done earlier in his reign when he besieged the Dogra Garrison in Gilgit Fort. At this time, Chitral included the Phandar, Yasin and Ishkoman Valleys which are now part of GB. Following the succession crisis of Chitral in 1895 and the absorption of Chitral into the Indian Empire as a princely state, it came under the purview of the Political Agent at Malakand, alongside Dir and Swat. The areas East of the Shandur Pass were lost. This was a setback that the Mehtars could never accept. H.H. Sir Shuja-ul-Mulk kept up the relationship with the Maharaja, largely because he wanted him to return the lost valleys of Ghizer to Chitral. Upon his passing, his successor H.H. Sir Nasir-ul-Mulk broke off all relations with Kashmir and declared open enmity, claiming, “A Hindu state has no right interfering in an entirely Muslim region.” Nasir-ul-Mulk was a close associate of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and had affiliations with the Muslim League. Following the passing of the Lahore Resolution, Nasir-ul-Mulk became a strong proponent of the concept of Pakistan. His untimely death without leaving a male heir brought his younger brother H.H. Muzaffar-ul-Mulk to the Takht of Chitral and so he was the ruler when the events of 1947 occurred.
Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk of Chitral had signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Maharaja of Kashmir and although this is often wrongly thought of as a sign of vassalage to Kashmir, it was nothing but a diplomatic deal

Muzaffar-ul-Mulk was a more pragmatic man than his elder brother. Initially his letters to the Governor of NWFP and the Viceroy hinted at his desire to remain independent of both India and Pakistan, and thus remain a British protectorate. When it became clear in the year leading up to Partition that none of the princely states could remain independent, Muzaffar-ul-Mulk rekindled his late brother’s ties to the Pakistan Movement and declared that Chitral would accede to Pakistan, being perhaps the first princely state to outright proclaim its allegiance to Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam. It is at this point that the Mehtar realised that Kashmir was going to be a problem. He wrote a letter to the Maharaja, asking him to accede to Pakistan in the interest of his Muslim subjects and threatening military intervention if he didn’t. Other than his desire to be on the right side of the Pakistani leadership, Muzaffar-ul-Mulk had another less ideological reason to intervene in Kashmir: his claim on the aforementioned valleys constituting what is today Ghizer. Thus began the Chitrali intervention in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Letter of H.H. Muzaffar-ul-Mulk to the Governor of NWFP, stating his intention to intervene in Gilgit

Soon after Major Willy Brown declared Gilgit independent of Jammu & Kashmir and Raja Raees Khan became the provisional president, Muzaffar-ul-Mulk launched his invasion. Two of his brothers led the initiative, both of whom were military men: Shahzada Burhanuddin, a former pilot officer of the Indian Air Force, who had joined the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose after the fall of Singapore, and Shahzada Mata-ul-Mulk, a former colonel who also held the title of governor of the Lot-Kuh Valley with his seat at Shoghore. Burhanuddin first made his way to Rawalpindi to coordinate with the Pakistani Army and then was involved in some fighting against the Dogras around Astore and the Neelam Valley. The bulk of the Chitral State Forces (the Mehtar’s Bodyguard and the Chitral Scouts) had crossed over the Shandur and based themselves at Yasin. President Raja Raees Khan had by then been replaced by a Pakistani Political Agent, but he and much of the rest of the Gilgiti leadership distrusted Chitral and didn’t want to lose Ghizer to Chitral State. Thus they reached a deal with the Chitralis that they should push forward into Baltistan and liberate that region, where the Gilgit Scouts were having a hard time defeating the Dogra Garrison at the Kharpocho Fort in Skardu.

It was here, during the Siege of Skardu, that the men of Chitral led by the adventurous and charismatic Mata-ul-Mulk arrived with four mountain howitzers, which had been disassembled in Chitral and carried on mules over the Shandur and the Deosai all the way to Baltistan. These canons proved instrumental, and the Gilgit Scouts left Skardu and proceeded onwards to Ladakh where they reached the outskirts of Leh before being pushed back by the Indian Army. Mata-ul-Mulk bombarded Kharpocho until the Dogra commander Lt. Col. Sher Jang Thapa ultimately surrendered to Mata-ul-Mulk on the fateful day of the 14th of August, 1948.

Col. Shahzada Mata-ul-Mulk

The aftermath of the invasion, though, was not glorious. The Government of Pakistan imprisoned both Burhanuddin and Mata-ul-Mulk for acting independently of the Pakistani Army. They were subsequently released but the treatment handed out to these men who conquered such a strategic part of the world for Pakistan was dishonorable to say the least. Within a year H.H. Muzaffar-ul-Mulk passed away from complications due to his untreated diabetes and his young inexperienced son Saif-ur-Rehman became Mehtar.

Saif-ur-Rehman, my grandfather, during his short reign kept on writing letters to the Central Government to hand over Upper Ghizer (Phandar), Yasin and Ishkoman to Chitral State, but this fell on deaf ears. He tragically died in an air crash in 1954 and was succeeded by his four-year-old son Saif-ul-Mulk Nasir. Sadly, Chitral never received the recognition it required for its role in the liberation of Gilgit-Baltistan. But old men everywhere from Yasin to Skardu still recount the skill and bravery of the men of Chitral who finally flew the Crescent Flag of Pakistan over the fortress of Kharpocho!

In closing, I would like to dedicate this piece to the valorous men of the Mehtar’s Bodyguard and the Chitral Scouts who so gallantly fought far from their homes for the liberation of their Muslim brethren to the East. History is usually the story of kings and generals, but it is the men carrying arms who actually decide the outcome of a campaign. To the handful who are still alive, I wish good health and comfort and to those who have passed, Paradise!

If not the contributions of the Mehtar of Chitral, one hopes that the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan should remember these men and honour their memory!


The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk

The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk