Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa, MVC: The Hero of Skardu

Skardu was the site of the second siege battle the Indian Army fought after Independence.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa, MVC: The Hero of Skardu
Lt Gen HS Panag
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Sher Jung Thapa was born at Abbottabad (Pakistan) on April 15, 1907. His grandfather, Subedar Balkrishna Thapa and his father, Honorary Captain Arjun Thapa, were distinguished soldiers of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force). The family moved to Dharamsala where Sher Jung did his schooling and attended college. He was an outstanding hockey player and represented his college in local tournaments. A dashing British officer, Captain Donald Gracey, who used to represent the 1st Gorkha Rifles Regimental Centre hockey team, noticed the leadership potential of the young college student and began mentoring him. Through his guidance and encouragement, Sher Jung Thapa was commissioned into the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) State Forces on September 1, 1932. Sixteen years later, their paths were to cross again under tragic circumstances.

In mid-2007 as Army Commander, Northern Command, I received a call from Lt Gen Binny Shergill PVSM, AVSM, VrC (Retired), son of Major General Rajinder Singh Sparrow, MVC*, the man who took the tanks to Zozila Pass and beyond in 1948. Without much ado, he shot a question at me, “Do you know who Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa, MVC was?” I felt a little offended at the General doubting my knowledge of military history and, in an offensive tone, replied that I was well versed with the life and times of the hero of Skardu. General Binny Shergill was very happy to note that, but his next question stumped me. “Do you know that there is no memorial for him anywhere? He spent his early and post-retirement life at Dharamsala where he died in 1999, unsung and unwept. Is it acceptable to you?” Having for years quoted the exploits of Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa while addressing my troops, this was certainly a lapse on my part. I assured the General that amends will be made. I picked up the phone and spoke to General Officer Commanding, 39 Infantry Division, Major General Rajindar Singh. His division was deployed in Jammu and Kashmir but its permanent station was at Dharamsala and Palampur. In six months, a park in the Dharamsala military station was resurrected into a befitting memorial for the military legend that was Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa, MVC.

Post-Independence, the Indian Army has fought only two major siege battles – Poonch and Skardu during 1947-48. I had described the siege of Poonch under the dynamic command of Brigadier Pritam Singh in an earlier column. Simultaneously with the siege of Poonch, another grim battle that was to decide the fate of Gilgit-Baltistan was taking place at Skardu.

Until July 1947, Gilgit was administered by the Government of India under a 60-year lease agreement.  On July 30, Brigadier Ghansara  Singh arrived to take over as the Governor of Gilgit. The subordinate chiefs in the Gilgit region were: Mir of Hunza, Mir of Nagar, Raja of Punial and the chieftains of Koh Ghizar, Yasin and Askoman. Of them, the Mirs of Hunza and Nagar were hostile. This was to prove very damaging as three-fourths of the men of the Gilgit Scouts came from Hunza and Nagar. Subedar Major Baber Khan of the Gilgit Scouts was the uncle of the Mir of Nagar and had married the sister of the Mir of Hunza. To add to the plot, Major WA Brown and Captain Matheson of the Gilgit Scouts, whose services had been retained by the State, proved themselves utterly hostile to their retainers and turned renegade in the most abhorrent fashion.

Gilgit area was garrisoned by 6 J&K Infantry, less two companies, with their HQ at Bunji 54 km from Gilgit. The battalion was composed of Muslims and Sikhs in about equal proportion. The latter were stated to be raw recruits. The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Majid Khan. Brigadier Ghansara Singh had no qualms about the dangerous position he had been placed. At midnight October 31/Novermber 1, 100 soldiers of the Gilgit Scouts, led by Major Brown, surrounded the Governor’s house with the intent of capturing his person. The Scouts opened fire which was replied to by the Brigadier, his orderly and driver to whom he had given his sporting guns. Exchange of fire went on for several hours. In this exchange of fire, seven Gilgit Scouts were killed. Come the morning, an ultimatum was given by Major Brown, that unless he surrendered, all non-Muslims in Gilgit would be killed. With no choice, he surrendered and was put under arrest. On November 3, Major Brown held a flag-hoisting ceremony in the Scout lines. Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Majid Khan was also placed into custody.

Their attention now turned to the Sikh troops at Bunji. The Sikh post at Jaglot was attacked at night, the entire garrison killed, except for a lone survivor who managed to cross the icy Indus on a log of wood. When news of these happenings at Gilgit and Janglot reached the Sikh company at Bunji, they dispersed to make their way to Gurais via Astore. The Gilgit Scouts under Captain Matheson, however, were guarding that route to prevent their escape. Over the next few days, the Sikhs were captured one by one.

The entire area of Gilgit thus passed into the hands Pakistan. Pakistan could now operate towards Gurais as also Skardu.

Skardu was the tehsil headquarters in the district of Ladakh. It was a large tehsil, which included the Jagirs of the Rajas of Rondhu, Khapalu, Shiger, Kharmang and Skardu. These rajas had held their territories even during the Dogra rule over Kashmir and enjoyed considerable respect and influence over their populace who were entirely Muslim.

After the events of Gilgit and Bunji, the command of 6 J&K Infantry, devolved on Major Sher Jung Thapa, who was given the local rank of Lieutenant Colonel. At Leh, was a company of Sikhs, less one platoon, under the command of Thapa. A mobile column under Captain Ganga Singh with two platoons of Sikhs with the only wireless telegraphy (WT) set in the battalion was at Kargil. Captain Nek Alam held Skardu with two Muslim platoons. These were the remnants of 6 J&K Infantry as the remainder had been lost at Gilgit and Bunji.

The news of the loss of Gilgit reached Srinagar within a few days of the happenings. At Srinagar itself, a grave situation existed and the winter having set in, the passes closed, there was nothing that could be done, except to order Thapa to move to Skardu with as many troops he could muster from Leh and Kargil.

Having organised a small force from Leh and Kargil of 2 Officers, 2 Junior Commissioned Officers and 75 men, to include the sole WT set, which was operated by three Muslims; he set forth to Leh on November 23, to reach Skardu on December 3.

Lieutenant Colonel Thapa now started a detailed reconnaissance of Skardu which is situated in a small valley through which the Indus river flows. The Shigar river from the North, flows into the Indus at Skardu. There were no villages on the northern side of the Skardu Valley. The southern portion of the Valley was about 19 km long with a width of 8 km. The valley was fertile, green and small villages dotted the landscape. Skardu town had a school, post and telegraph office, buildings for the civil administration and the military post. The valley was dominated by a 2700 meter hill, the base 5 km in circumference. The peak known as Point (Pt) 8853, was accessible from the North and South-west, the other sides being precipices. Skardu Fort was halfway up the eastern slope, hidden from the peak by an intervening knoll.

Having done his reconnaissance and considering that winter had set in, the only route to Skardu from Gilgit would be along the Indus, he decided to locate a post 32-km down river from Skardu, at Tsari. Of a total of four platoons, Captain Nek Alam with a Muslim platoon was to be on the right bank of the Indus and a Sikh platoon with Captain Krishna Singh on the left bank. He felt that these platoons would give ample warning to Skardu of any intruders. On January 14, 1948, a clash between opposing patrols took place at Tsari to emphasise the location of these platoons. Communication between Skardu and Tsari was to be by runners, a most unsatisfactory affair indeed. With the departure of these platoons, Thapa had 40 Sikh and 21 Muslim troops.

Thapa had been sending messages with a constancy to Srinagar for reinforcements. On January 15, 1948, Captain Parbat Singh with two companies set out from Srinagar. By January 20, they reached Sonamarg, then they crossed the Zoji La in deep winter which was accomplished by January 30. Ahead lay the icy wastes of Machhoi, Matayan, Pindras and then Dras and Kargil. (See map) It was on February 10, 1948 that they arrived to a rapturous welcome. In terms of distances, Srinagar to Gund (60 km) was motorable, beyond, all movement was on foot with Kargil being 140 km further and Kargil to Skardu 136 km. Skardu to Leh was 138 km, again by foot, in the other direction. The garrison now had 130 non-Muslim and 31 Muslim troops.

There was no enemy in sight, it was the proverbial lull before the storm. In the next six months, one of the most heroic battles of Indian military history was fought by Lt Col Sher Jung Thapa and his valiant men.

Next week, Lt Gen HS Panag will recount the second part of Brig. Sher Jung Thapa’s bravery at Skardu.


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