The forgotten Poonch revolt: A stain on our history

“In 1955 when police was brought in from the Punjab what it did here is a black stain on our history… When in 1956 I became the president I got a chance to reduce their grievances. Hence a number of people who were in prison and suffering distress were released…. but those whose homes were burnt out were not compensated. Although to reduce their sorrows in sympathy, I gave them bits of money.” (Sardar Abdul Qayyum; Kashmir Case P; 22-23)

Perhaps one of the most common pastimes in Pakistan is the participation in collective amnesia and callous ignorance. With the complicity of the state and the establishment, it is now one of our most cherished internal policies, which is to remove all happenings that have transpired which are contrary to the state narrative. One of these sad and forgotten happenings was the Poonch Revolt which took place in 1955 and was a major shock for Pakistan and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, the department that controlled the region in a manner that would put the British to shame. As Pakistan struggles to introduce proper democratic reforms in its most marginalised areas, let us turn back the pages of history to the fateful revolt which witnessed men who fought against the Kashmir State Forces and the Indian Army, take up arms against Pakistan. While the military operations began in 1955, the conflict between Poonch and Pakistan had begun as early as 1950.

In 1950, Sardar Ibrahim’s government was dismissed and he went back to his supporters especially in the localities of Rawalkot and Pallandri, where he declared a separate government from the Muslim Conference Supreme Head, a post made to control the region as a colony. The Sudhanians were his greatest supporters. The Pakistani government was wary of Sardar Ibrahim as they felt his loyalty was more to the region of Kashmir than to Pakistan and we can see that with the quote of Sheikh Abdullah where he stated,

“They (the Pakistanis) were trying to portray Sardar Ibrahim as the real representative of the Kashmiri people against me. Hence they were playing up his name feverishly. But either they had doubt on the capabilities of Sardar Sahib or they did not trust his loyalty. Hence they got a picture of Muhammad Din Taseer (an important bureaucrat of the Pakistani state from a Kashmiri background) printed in the name of Sardar Ibrahim. It was Mr Taseer who was shown around as Sardar Ibrahim. When Sardar Ibrahim saw all this he returned home the next day in sheer disgust.” (Sheikh Abdullah; Flames of Chinar, an Autobiography; P. 480)

The areas of Rawalkot and Pallandri became his place of administration and from the period of 1951-1956, the region of Poonch saw two administrations. One led by Sardar Ibrahim and the other by the Azad government under the Ministry of Kashmir affairs. This situation was starting to become extremely complicated however Sardar Ibrahim’s military experience and Poonch’s people rallying behind him, allowed him to take on the Azad forces and maintain his administrative control. The president of Azad Kashmir (a figurehead position as the power vested entirely with the ministry of Kashmir Affairs), was Colonel Sardar Sher Ahmed Khan from the period of 1952-1956. The good colonel was part of the Ibrahim government before its dismissal as he held the portfolios of defence, education and health. He also has the honour of being one of the top guerrilla commanders in the Azad Kashmir movement. He resigned with the fall of Ibrahim’s government as Sher Khan did not want to continue in a puppet cabinet and although Pakistan did try to pit him as a rival to Ibrahim, however, he refused.

Before the revolt, the Sudhanian and the contingents of Pakistani soldiers deployed there clashed resulting in the deterioration of the situation. It was becoming abundantly clear to the central government of Azad Kashmir that the situation could no longer be contained and by 1955, the Azad Kashmir local forces were helpless against the Sudhanians, most of whom had played an important role in the liberation of Kashmir. The declaration for the revolt came about after the attempted assassination of Sher Khan and for the next 17 months, Poonch would be in a state of conflict. The assassination attempt took place in February 1955 and with that, the protests became severe with demands for Pakistan to respect the democratic promises it had made.

With Poonch about to be lost, the Punjab constabulary and the 12th division of the Pakistan army, located at Murree headquarters, were immediately deployed. There are few known records about the conflict but locals pointed said that the Sudhanians fought valiantly and at one point even took 150 Punjab constabulary soldiers and their weapons as prisoners. The army and the constabulary were brutal in their methods as entire villages were burned and many of those that showed sympathy were killed on the spot and many were prosecuted with little to no trial. The people who had fought against the Indian army and the Dogra, were now fighting against the Pakistan army and their objective was the same as it was then; their right to democracy and freedom.

The fighting ended by October 1956 with Sardar Ibrahim and his men surrendering after a peace deal was brokered with the government of Pakistan. They also gave up their weapons under Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani to show to the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs that the revolt had failed. This was the very same ministry whose oppression they had rebelled against.

In May 1956, Sher Ahmed was removed and Mirwaiz Yousaf Shah, who was one of the founders of the original All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, was made president. He was the spiritual head of Kashmir till his death in 1968 and he was a temporary president in 1952 and then again in 1956 for a few months until Sardar Abdul Qayyum was made the president of Kashmir

Post the revolt, the Ministry of Kashmir, rather than give democratic power to the people, decided to strengthen its hold on the area by revising the ‘Rules of Business’ with another amendment which made sure that the government of Azad Kashmir could not create a post that was paid above Rs150 and the region could only spend one lakh per annum. Any person that enjoyed the confidence of the Muslim Conference’s working committee could become president but the last say remained with the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. The amended rules also ensured that the ministry held the real control of the position of the joint secretary to chief advisor.

Some historians highlight that Qayyum’s rise during this period was due to the absence of the opposition of Sardar Ibrahim and Ghulam Abbas, mostly Ibrahim who had started the Poonch revolt of 1955. The ministry re-elected Sardar Ibrahim from 1957-1959 so that the Sudhanians and Azad Kashmir would remain passive and satisfied however Sardar Ibrahim was severely against the ministry,

“The Ministry played havoc with the Azad Kashmir movement and had it finally liquidated to the satisfaction of all bureaucrats in Pakistan.”

He would later on state,

“It is like hell. It is the worst example of democracy…. It has not served Kashmiris at all. It has always divided [them] and made them fight amongst themselves.”

The deteriorating situation in Kashmir saw the government and the ministry pass draconian security laws such as the ‘Azad Kashmir Public Safety Act 1953’, ‘The Pallandhri Disturbances Special Tribunal Act 1955 and 1956’, ‘The Control of Goondas Act 1956’, as well as ‘The Azad Kashmir Recovery of Abducted Persons Act 1953 and 1956’. The 1953 public safety act was an amendment to the act of 1948 but the words substituted held that any person the security forces or the government deem to be acting against public safety could be arrested without a warrant and the person will be detained and will not have the right to be brought to court. The government could, however, give a written order to ensure that the detention does not exceed six months.

 The section read,

(3) The Government may, by order in writing, commit any person arrested or directed to be arrested under this Section to such custody as it may deem fit, for such period as may, subject to the provisions of this section, be specified in the order and the Government may, from time to time, extend the period of such detention: Provided that no order of detention or extension of the detention shall be passed for a period of more than six month at a time.

(4) No person shall, unless the Government by special order otherwise directs, be detained in custody for a period exceeding one month.

The section clearly stated that the period of the detention can be increased from time to time and that it could also happen more than once. It must be stated that this was not a court detention but a detention done by the executive. It was not judicial and there was no protection of rights, you could be detained for six months and then again for another six if the government was not satisfied. This allowed the Azad government to start targeting political dissidents most notably those that supported Sardar Ibrahim and Ghulam Abbas.

The ministry also saw to it that therein began a strong reign of terror. The Pallandhri act, although named after a tehsil of Poonch, was enforced over all of Azad Kashmir and it pertained to the disturbances in Poonch where the special tribunal could put anyone brought to court on trial and the judgement could neither be appealed against nor be revised.

This act ensured that the accused could not plead their case to a jury, whereby gaining sympathy as a freedom fighter and attaining their freedom. The second vital point that was barbaric was how the court could pass a conviction without actually reading out the charges, based on just witnesses and evidence of the person’s involvement.

Thirdly the court allowed for the prosecution to add a new witness to the list of witnesses provided in the middle of the proceedings without having it make any impact on the court and the innocence of the accused. These courts handed out unlawful convictions which terrorised the people of Azad Kashmir.

Within this dark chapter, the people of Poonch suffered greatly yet this chapter is brushed under the rug. The people of Pakistan are often kept in dark about the happenings within their own country and the actions of the state. People are labelled traitors and are immediately forgotten but this chapter can help us understand how our repressive policies have allowed some of the most loyal people, who shed their blood for this country, to fight against it. Even today the people of Kashmir and the Northern Areas are some of the most loyal people in Pakistan yet their rights are denied and activists who demand them are usually captured.

It is important to learn from our history and to take immediate steps to bring proper rights and governance to all our marginalised regions lest history repeats itself and we, once again, witness its erasure.