October 27 is celebrated as the Infantry Day in the Indian Army. On this day in 1947, Indian troops were airlifted from Delhi and landed at Srinagar to protect the airfield and save the town from falling into the hands of raiders. Pakistan had let loose tribal hordes along with its military personnel to capture the Valley.
In the early hours of October 27, Lt Col Ranjit Rai, commanding officer of 1 Sikh, along with his C and D companies, took off in IAF Dakotas from Delhi on a mission to save Srinagar. No one in Delhi knew that Baramullah had already fallen to the enemy on the evening of October 26. From Baramullah, Srinagar was just over an hour's drive and there was no opposition en route. The task given to Lt Col Rai and his troops of 1 Sikh had all the ingredients of "Mission Impossible".
Maharaja Hari Singh of J&K had been dreaming of an independent Kashmir till he was jolted out of his reverie on the evening of October 22 by the invasion of his state. The state forces, though ill-equipped and widely dispersed, put up a gallant fight everywhere, but they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Hari Singh was left with no choice but to seek India's help. However, India was concerned about the legality of the issue and would not extend any help till Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession. He dithered, and all this while the raiders were making deep inroads into the state. He finally signed the document on October 26.
Had the government acted in anticipation, troops and aircraft could have been assembled on October 24 or 25 and the first unit flown out to Srinagar on the afternoon of October 26 itself. But once the decision was taken, everything moved rather fast. Just before take-off, Lt Col Rai was given a set of maps and an operational order from the Army HQ. This order did not mention the fall of Baramullah or the strength of raiders, but noted the chaos in Srinagar. Elsewhere, the instructions said, "If radio communication with the airfield at Srinagar is not established and you are not given permission to land there, you will return to Jammu and disembark. At Jammu, you will requisition civil transport and send reconnaissance party by road to Srinagar..."
Lt Col Rai and his two companies landed at Srinagar at 9.30 am, and after getting hold of whatever transport he could lay his hands on, dispatched C company under Capt Kamaljit Singh to Baramullah. D company, under Maj Harwant Singh, was sent to Srinagar to carry out a flag march. He himself decided to stay on at the airfield and await the arrival of his remaining two companies and take them to Baramullah. Capt Kamaljit, on approaching Baramullah, saw smoke columns rising from the town and realised that it had fallen to the invaders. He, therefore, decided to take up defences at Mile 32, a few miles short of Baramullah. There were no mines or defence stores and digging tools were few but the defenders were stout of heart.
Maj Harwant, after the flag march, left one platoon for the protection of the bridge over Jhelum at Sopore and another platoon for the defence of the airfield and himself, with one platoon, joined Kamaljit at Mile 32 at 4.30 am on October 28. Thus, the total strength at Mile 32 was two company HQs, four platoons, section 3-inch mortars and a few personnel of the horse cavalry of state forces, in all about 140-150 men. That is all there was between thousands of raiders and Srinagar.
Unknown to many, and not even recorded in the official history of J&K operations, is the destruction of the steel bridge over Uri Nalla under the direct supervision of Brig Rajinder Singh, C-in-C of J&K forces, in the face of the advancing enemy. This officer, not withstanding his high rank, had joined the forward troops. He was killed in action and awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (posthumous). The destruction of the bridge proved crucial because the enemy spent two days to make an improvised crossing.
Lt Col Rai had no communications with his troops because the aircraft carrying the communication equipment had developed a snag and had en route force-landed at Jammu. When his two other companies did not arrive on the morning of October 28, he decided to move forward and join his troops at Mile 32. Around 11.30 am, the enemy, a few thousand in number, supported by heavy machine guns and 3-inch mortars, attacked the position at Mile 32.
This attack was held in check and when the enemy found that it could not dislodge the Sikhs, it started moving around the position with a view to cut them off from the rear. When the remaining two companies did not arrive and the situation at Mile 32 became untenable, Lt Col Rai decided to withdraw troops from there. By now, the withdrawal route was nearly cut off by the enemy. It was during this very difficult task of extricating his troops from the enemy cordon that Lt Col Rai fell to an enemy bullet. He was free India's first officer to lay down his life for the country and also the first to win the Maha Vir Chakra (posthumous).
Troops fell back to "spill channel", a few km outside Srinagar. Here, the remaining two companies of 1 Sikh and Patiala field battery in infantry role joined the position. The enemy mounted a series of full-blooded attacks, but they found it impossible to dislodge troops of 1 Sikh. The battalion set the stage for the battle of Shallatang, where the enemy's ambition to capture the valley was finally sealed.
Who then really saved the valley? Was it Brig Rajinder Singh, whose action in destroying the bridge over Uri Nallah imposed a delay of two days on the enemy? Or the enemy itself, which wasted two days at Baramullah in arson, loot and rape? Or was it Lt Col Rai, who acted boldly by pushing forward his troops towards Baramullah and himself joined them? Or perhaps it was those handful of plucky lads of 1 Sikh.