Naik Saif Ali Janjua – The First Recipient
‘Fight to the last man, and to the last bullet.’ – Inscription on a wall in the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.
The Partition of India was a gruesome chapter in human history, for it exposed the best and worst in human nature. Political leaders fought for the recognition of the voice of their respective parties and scrambled to consolidate on their gains. The birth of Pakistan came about with the dynamic leadership of a few people, but its defence lay in the hands of a newly formed military force that was forced into action by the divisive policies of the enemy. This is the story of a man who showed an unshakable measure of resolve amidst all the chaos and uncertainty of Partition. A man who fought for the freedom of his people from the clutches of an oppressive ruler whose family had been brutalizing his community for over a century.
The Partition Plan of June 3rd 1947 entailed the allocation of majority provinces and willing Princely States to either of the two newly established countries. The status of the Princely State of Kashmir hung in the balance, as the Dogra-Hindu Maharaja of the 90% Muslim majority state signed standstill agreements with both India and Pakistan. However, Maharaja Hari Singh submitted to growing pressure from the new Governor General of India i.e. Lord Mountbatten, and signed an Instrument of Accession with his country. The document was signed on 26th October 1947 paving the way for an organized invasion of Kashmir by the Indian Army, whose troops were already prepared and started landing in Kashmir the very next day.
Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s subsequent orders of defence to the newly formed Pakistani Army were ignored by many senior ranking British Officers, including the then Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Sir Frank Messervy and also by his successor, General Douglas David Gracey. The movement of Pashtun tribals into Kashmir initiated the first phase of clashes in the valley, where the tribals brandishing rifles and small arms descended onto Kashmir to liberate the valley from the clutches of the invaders. They clashed with the Maharaja’s forces that were readily being supplied with weapons and ammunition by the Indian Army. Infantry and supporting battalions of the Indian Army had started arriving in Kashmir by October 27th 1947, and were already setting up shop in Srinagar.
The armies of the two countries came face to face on various fronts during the course of the war, after the Pakistani Army officially entered the war in May 1948. In addition to the conventional fighting going on between the armies, there were many instances of indigenous uprisings against the Indian occupying forces. The war dragged on for months on end, with neither side willing to budge from their positions. In the midst of all the fighting lay a story of gallantry like none other. A Corporal by British Army standards, Naik Saif Ali Janjua was stationed at a strategic outpost on a hill in Mendhar Village of the recently liberated Poonch District.
Saif had previously been a Sepoy in the Royal British Indian Army that took part in World War II on behalf of the colonisers. Owing to his ethnicity and parent unit (Signals), it can be ascertained that he fought in the European theatre. Upon the eventual allied victory and surrender of Nazi Germany, he returned to India and served in the Army for two more years. He retired upon the completion of his meritorious service in 1947, and settled down in his hometown of Nakiyal in district Kotli (present day Azad Kashmir).
Upon learning about the under-handed accession of Kashmir to India and the eventual outbreak of the war, he presented himself to be re-enlisted in the newly formed Pakistani Army as an infantryman. Under the leadership of the legendary Lt. Col. Sher Khan, he was instructed to raise and organize a platoon level force of regular soldiers from the local population. The platoon was later dubbed as ‘Sher-e-Riasati Batallion’ and was inducted into the 18th Azad Kashmir Regiment.
The dedication with which Saif initially gathered and then trained locals for conventional warfare was noticed by the superior officers of the AK regiment, and they saw it fit to promote and appoint him as the Platoon Commander. Saif readily accepted the responsibility and lead his men as a ‘Naik’ into the heat of the battle which was getting closer and closer to their position. Saif was instructed to establish an outpost on a strategic hill named ‘Pir Kaleva’, which was an ideal vantage point for anyone able to reach its top. The enemy in the meantime was preparing for a grand assault on the villages and adjacent areas of Poonch after having been unceremoniously kicked out from the district by Pakistani forces.
Poonch was a strategically important district, as it not only provided an ideal vantage point due to its mighty and sky-high peaks but also because it overlooked the Poonch River and a road that connected the towns of Bagh, Hajira and Tatta Paani. The Indian Forces under the command of Brig. Yadav Nath had formulated a plan known as operation ‘Link-Up’, which entailed massive assaults on population centres in Poonch with the aid of artillery fire and fighter jets. The plan was to dislodge the Pakistani Army units located around the area by disrupting their supply lines and then capturing the strategic hills, including Pir Kaleva. The enemy had successfully taken Pir Bardeshwar hill on the 24th of October 1948.
At midnight on the 25th of October, intelligence of an imminent Brigade level assault on Pir Kaleva was received by the Battalion Headquarters in Rawalakot. By the time the Pakistani forces would wire the information to the lone outpost on the hill, the assault had already begun. The Indian side was aided by the Air Force and Artillery bombardment. The 5th Indian Brigade consisted of 1500 men, supported by demolition crews and mechanized forces as well. For the first 2 hours, a constant barrage of artillery fire and intermittent bombing runs by IAF jets rocked the small outpost. The men inside were shaken, but not deterred. They held on to their wits and focused on completing their mission of defending the outpost. Troop movement was spotted by a scout from the Pakistani post later on and machine gun fire began.
The platoon under Saif held on to its position and inflicted heavy losses on the Indian Troops trying to dislodge them. For perspective, one could imagine trying to hike up a hill that has a lone search light on the top which keeps on shining its light onto the hiker. It was easier to locate and neutralize enemy troops for the Pakistani post, but the artillery attack was taking its toll on the structure of the post. After battling for nearly 7 hours, the enemy was forced to retreat back to his position and regroup. By this time, Naik Saif Ali Janjua’s platoon had suffered losses as well, and had been reduced from 30 men to 15.
The Indian forces resumed their attack at 9 AM, this time with machine gun and tank support. The tanks broke through the Pakistani line of defence around the hill and encircled it, laying down shells and machine gun fire. Their efforts at rattling the post proved futile, as Saif and his (now) dozen men refused to vacate their position despite being cut off from the rest of their battalion. The attacks from ground and air continued will into the afternoon of 26th October, and by then the enemy was forced to contemplate a shift in his strategy.
As fate would have it, in the evening of 26th October 1948 an artillery shell exploded right on top of the post just as Naik Saif Ali Janjua had gone outside to observe the surrounding areas. The direct hit from the artillery shell tore the corporal into pieces, scattering his remains on the hilltop. The post by then was being manned by only three troops, who were busy in laying down machine gun fire on the invading forces. The Indian Army was able to capture the hill by midnight, and is reported to have suffered a loss of over 200 men along with critical damage to one of the jets that were bombarding the post. The Pakistani Army was able to establish a new line of defence across the Poonch River in the meantime, and prevented the enemy from creeping any further in the area.
One struggles to find such parallels in the annals of military history, where a few men have fought to the final bullet against such overwhelming odds. Saif lead his men into battle with an enemy that was much superior in numbers, withstood artillery and aerial bombardment and ensured that his forces would be able to avail the time needed for the establishment of a defensive line. For his unflinching resolve in the face of certain annihilation and his commitment to the protection of his outpost, the Defence Council of Kashmir conferred a Hilal e Kashmir on Naik Saif Ali Janjua on the 12th of March, 1949.
It would take another 46 years for the Pakistani government to recognize the value of his bravery and on the 30th of November 1995, announced that Naik Saif Ali Janjua’s award is to be considered as equivalent to the Nishan e Haider.
By Shayan Shaukat