After the erstwhile J&K state was sliced into two halves amid massive demographic upheavals, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was the main neutral arbitrator in managing and repatriation of the refugees besides exchanging political prisoners and abducted women at a time when a million odd state subjects were houseless, according to Catherine Rey-Schyrr, the ICRC’s historical research officer, who has documented the activities of the organisation

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ICRC delegate supervises exchange of prisoners between J&K and PaK near Sialkot on February 25, 1949. Pic: ICRC

On his departure from Geneva in December 1947, DrOtto Wenger’s instructions were to establish contacts with the new governments and Red Cross Societies in India and Pakistan, to ascertain the exact needs of the victims, and to make proposals for further action.

Anxious to support the Indian and Pakistan Red Cross Societies, the ICRC planned, with their agreement, to launch an appeal to all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to send aid to the refugees. Nobody apparently foresaw that the Kashmir conflict would take up all the ICRC delegate’s time almost immediately upon his arrival.

Indeed, as soon as he reached Delhi, Dr Wenger was asked to act as a neutral intermediary to enable several thousand non-Muslim civilians (Hindus and Sikhs) trapped in “Azad Kashmir” to be evacuated. In order to ascertain the situation on the spot and to make the necessary contacts, Dr Wenger made several trips between Delhi, the State of Jammu and Kashmir, “Azad Kashmir” and Pakistan. These trips took place in arduous conditions: firstly, the region is very mountainous and experiences snowfalls, making some places accessible only by mule or on foot; secondly, Dr Wenger was exposed to the threat of attack by the Indian air force.

By the end of February Dr Wenger’s efforts had achieved the following results:

— The immediate dispatch of aid, by the Pakistan Red Cross, and of medical personnel, by the Christian Relief Association, to the Alibeg camp. The ICRC delegate had visited this camp, situated in “Azad Kashmir” near the border with Pakistan. It housed 1,600 non-Muslims living in appalling conditions.

— Pakistan’s agreement to arrange for the evacuation through its territory of all non-Muslims trapped in “Azad Kashmir” who wished to go to India, and its commitment to supply the camps experiencing the most difficult conditions with provisions in the meantime.

— The consent of “Azad Kashmir” to the departure of non-Muslims who wished to leave.

This agreement covered about 5,000 civilians, some free and some interned, 2,500 of whom were in Muzaffarabad, 1,600 in Alibeg, 125 in Gobindpar and 700-800 in Bagh.

Dr Wenger took advantage of his contacts with the various parties to draw their attention to the application of the Geneva Conventions and discussed the matter with the leaders of “Azad Kashmir”. They stated their readiness to give effect to the Conventions provided the other side did the same. After some hesitation — India did not accept that there was a state of war with Kashmir — the Indian government too declared its determination to act in accordance with the spirit of the Conventions and to implement the relevant provisions.

Regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, however, it pointed out that citizens of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and of India who had committed offences before being captured would be liable to prosecution in accordance with the laws in force. According to Dr Wenger, this reservation was aimed at persons who joined the forces of “Azad Kashmir” and were considered to be rebels by India in view of the fact that Jammu and Kashmir had become part of the Indian Union.

These declarations, which were confirmed in writing, resulted in the establishment of information bureaux the submission of lists of prisoners of war and permission for the ICRC to visit them. An arrangement was worked out for the exchange of correspondence between prisoners and their families and the dispatch of relief parcels. It involved the Indian and Pakistan Red Cross Societies.

During his mission, the ICRC delegate made the first visits to prisoners. In “Azad Kashmir” he went to the Muzaffarabad prison, where he saw 34 prisoners of war from the forces of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, three Indian prisoners of war and about 30 political detainees; in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, he visited the Jammu prison, where about 30 prisoners of war of the “Azad Kashmir” forces were being held; lastly, with the support of the Pakistani government, he was able to fly to Gilgit in northern Kashmir, where about 50 Indian soldiers were imprisoned.

On learning that many wounded combatants of the “Azad Kashmir” forces were not being cared for adequately because of a shortage of medical supplies and trained personnel, Dr Wenger raised the matter with the “Azad Kashmir” authorities, and also with the Pakistan Red Cross authorities. As a result of his approaches, the Pakistani government authorized the Western Punjab branch of the Pakistan Red Cross to send two medical units to “Azad Kashmir”; one was set up at Mirpur, the other at Palandri.

At the request of the Pakistan Red Cross, the ICRC delegate undertook to notify the Indian government of the presence of two units. Subsequently, three further hospitals were set up in “Azad Kashmir” by the Pakistan Red Cross, which — in the absence of the ICRC delegate — notified the Indian government of their establishment through the Indian Red Cross Society.

Refugees outside a camp in Kulgam. An ICRC photo of 1949.

As had happened in Punjab, thousands of women and children had been abducted by both sides in Kashmir, especially at the beginning of the war. Although an agreement was signed by India and Pakistan aimed at locating the victims of kidnappings in their respective territories, such efforts were making little progress in the case of Kashmir because of its disputed status. Here, too, Dr Wenger’s mediation was sought. It resulted in the establishment of a procedure under which the parties undertook to intensify searches, to place women and children who had been traced in camps in India and Pakistan pending their repatriation, to draw up and exchange lists in order to locate and contact their families of origin, and to allow adult women to decide freely whether or not to rejoin their relatives. It was also stipulated that the camps could be visited by representatives of the opposing government and that the ICRC should provide assistance if necessary.

With most of his time taken up by his work as a neutral intermediary in the Kashmir conflict, Dr Wenger was not able to devote as much attention to the general problem of refugees as he would have wished. Nevertheless, he visited several camps in Pakistan and India, in particular in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, brought the most pressing problems to the notice of the authorities and Red Cross Societies, and gave them the benefit of his advice in organizing the camps. Lastly, he gathered all the information needed to launch an appeal and sent it to the ICRC. His conclusions were as follows:

  1. “Although the most urgent matters are in the hands of the two governments, the refugee problem in India and Pakistan remains so enormous that it goes beyond the possibilities of the Committee and a general Red Cross relief operation (…).”
  2. “In Kashmir, the distress is even greater, although it affects fewer people. It is a consequence of the hostilities, where as in India and Pakistan it resulted from an unorganized mass exchange of populations. Should the Committee wish to undertake a relief operation, possibly in cooperation with the League, it should concentrate its best efforts on Kashmir; in launching an appeal we could at the same time specify which items India and Pakistan need most (…).”

Dr Wenger, who had originally set out on a two-month fact-finding mission, finally went back to Switzerland at the end of June 1948.

Operation Continues

On returning to Geneva, Dr Wenger recommended that the ICRC should pursue its operation in Kashmir, for which he had prepared the ground and which was directly within its competence as a neutral intermediary whose intervention was recognized as necessary, particularly in a time of war, civil war or internal strife. He went back to the subcontinent on 17 November 1948 to await the arrival of Dr Roland Marti, one month later, and of Nicolas Burkhardt, in early January 1949, both of whom he introduced to the various authorities before ending his assignment.

Dr Marti — as head of mission, based in Delhi and assigned to India and to Jammu and Kashmir — and MrBurkhardt — as a delegate based in Lahore and assigned to Kashmir and the territory of “Azad Kashmir” — were to remain in the field until June and October 1949 respectively.

Hospital Protection

In October 1948, at a time when there was no delegate on the spot, the ICRC had received vigorous protests from the Pakistan Red Cross concerning the Indian air force’s bombing of two of its hospitals, one in Kotli and the other in Bagh, in “Azad Kashmir”, both of which were duly marked with the red cross emblem. Patients were killed, and there had was large-scale damage. Pursuant to its policy regarding the forwarding of protests concerning alleged violations of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC conveyed the Pakistan Red Cross’ protests to the Indian Red Cross Society, requesting it to ask the Indian government to investigate the matter and, if necessary, to take all possible measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents. The Indian government stated that under no circumstances could its pilots have deliberately attacked the two medical facilities, and deduced that the marking of the hospitals, or even their location, must have been inadequate.

Prisoners of War 

Dr Otto Wenger, the ICRC delegate visting PaK prisioners held at Jammu at a place called the cage. An ICRC photo of 1948.

From the time of their arrival, the ICRC delegates made regular visits to the principal internment sites.

On the Indian side, these were, firstly, the Yol camp in India, which when first visited on 17 and 18 January 1949 housed 75 prisoners of war belonging to the Pakistani army and the “Azad Kashmir” forces as well as some civilians, and secondly the so-called “POW Cage” and the Central Jail, both in Jammu, with about 30 and 20 prisoners, respectively. Ten visits in all were conducted to those places between January and late August 1949; in addition, visits were made to the Srinagar military hospital and the Delhi 26 General Hospital, where wounded and sick prisoners were being cared for.

On the Pakistani and “Azad Kashmir” side, about 630 prisoners were housed in the Attock Fort Neutral Internment Camp in Pakistan. They were mainly combatants of the State of Jammu and Kashmir forces, with a few men from the Indian army and some civilians. These prisoners had earlier been interned in Muzaraffabad, Palandri, Alibeg, Skardu and Gilgit; they had all been transferred to Attock between October and November 1948, at the request of the “Azad Kashmir” authorities, so that they would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Dr Wenger had already seen some of the prisoners during his first assignment in spring 1948. Between December 1948 and August 1949 the ICRC delegates made six visits to the camp in Attock. In April 1949, they had also travelled to Chilas in Gilgit district and in May to Skardu in Baltistan, visiting 54 and four Indian prisoners of war respectively.

To cover the distance between the town of Gilgit and Chilas — where he absolutely wanted to go because he felt that the military authorities in Rawalpindi had little idea of the prisoners’ circumstances — Nicolas Burckhardt did not hesitate to undertake a journey of about 10 days on horseback.

India wanted the immediate repatriation of all prisoners of war on either side. Pakistan stated its willingness to have an immediate exchange, but “one-for-one”, which would leave about 500 prisoners in its hands; it would also agree to return all prisoners before an armistice was signed, on condition, however, that the Indian government agreed to release all Pathan combatants, all members of the “Azad Kashmir” forces and all political detainees held in civilian prisons in the State of Jammu and Kashmir and in India. This was because Pakistan and “Azad Kashmir” believed that the captured combatants were not all in prisoner-of-war camps. For its part, India declared that it had searched for all military prisoners and refused a “one-for-one” exchange.

To break the deadlock, the ICRC delegates urged India and the State of Jammu and Kashmir to find the greatest possible number of Pathan and Kashmiri prisoners of war from “Azad Kashmir”; they even took an active part in the search by visiting prisons. They also tried to dissuade Pakistan from linking the repatriation of prisoners of war to that of political detainees. About 50 new prisoners were discovered by the Indian army, but this was not enough to set things moving, and no general repatriation operation was organized before the delegates left.

On leaving the subcontinent at the end of summer 1949, the delegates made the following assessment of the situation.

Both in India and in Pakistan, prisoners of war — except for those in Gilgit district — were housed in a single camp, at Yol and Attock respectively, making it easier to monitor their conditions of detention. Considering the local context, these had reached a high level. Officers of their own nationality, who were authorized to bring them supplies, visited all prisoners at regular intervals. Repatriations for health reasons continued, on the spontaneous proposal of the detaining powers, which showed generosity regarding the criteria to be applied. The only question that remained unresolved was that of the repatriation of all prisoners.

General repatriation was finally to take place on 25 May 1950 at Atari, between Lahore and Amritsar, when 691 prisoners were exchanged for 153 Pakistanis following an agreement reached between the two Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan, during talks preceding the Minority Agreement.

Hindu refugees at Alibagh camp in PaK . An ICRC photo of 1949.

Political Detainees 

At the request of the authorities of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and “Azad Kashmir”, which provided them with lists of their respective partisans in enemy hands, the ICRC delegates took action to facilitate the exchange of a number of political prisoners. A few dozen were repatriated, in the presence of the delegates, in two operations, which took place in Sialkot, a border town near Jammu, on 15 January and 25 February 1949.

Subsequently, “Azad Kashmir” submitted further lists of several dozen persons presumed held for political reasons in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, requesting their return. Jammu and Kashmir rebuffed the approach, declaring that it had no more political detainees in its prisons and that the only persons still awaiting trial were criminals guilty of attacks who, in its view, could not be considered as political prisoners. Jammu and Kashmir also accused “Azad Kashmir” of holding a large number of political detainees, a charge, which “Azad Kashmir” denied.

Abducted Women and Children 

On 21 January 1949, the delegates supervised, in Sialkot, the return to India of 140 women and children from the Dathyal camp in Pakistan, while 256 women and children from the UstadKaMohalla camp in Jammu were transferred in the other direction to Pakistan, together with 167 Muslim refugees, also from Jammu.

However, Pakistan accused the J&K authorities of keeping women and children in Jammu, while Jammu and Kashmir accused “Azad Kashmir” of not actively carrying out searches in its territory. Rumours also circulated about conditions in the camps at Amritsar, on one side, and Lahore, on the other, to which the women and children traced by India and Pakistan respectively were sent while their relatives were being located.

At the request of the Indian authorities, who wanted the ICRC’s cooperation to speed up the settlement of these various problems, and with the agreement of the Pakistani authorities, the delegates visited the following camps in April and May: Amritsar (60 women and children at the time of the first visit, 151 during the second), Lahore (60 women and children, and 124 non-Muslim refugees evacuated from the Alibeg and Palandri camps who had expressed the wish to be transferred to territory under Indian control), and Jammu (180 women and children).

At the Jammu camp, the delegates obtained and forwarded to Pakistan a full list of the women and children living in the camp. They were given an assurance that the persons concerned would be handed over to Pakistan as soon as their relatives were found.

The delegates also appealed for an active search to be conducted to find the women and children abducted in “Azad Kashmir” and for those who had already been traced and placed in camps to be repatriated as soon as possible. No further operation took place before their departure, however. At the end of 1949, the ICRC was informed that the 180 non-Muslim refugees waiting in Lahore had finally been able to go to India.

In mid-February 1949, Nicolas Burckhardt visited the Alibeg camp in “Azad Kashmir”, which had just been returned to administration by the Pakistani authorities and which at the time housed 1,200 non-Muslim refugees.

One month later, he journeyed to the “ thesil ” of Kotli in the district of Mirpur: in autumn 1948, a total of 50,000 people had fled as the Indian troops advanced and had become trapped in the north of the district, separated from Pakistan by a range of mountains more than 2,000 metres high, the only practicable link having been cut by the Indian army. Goods could reach the area only if carried by porters or pack mules over a snow-covered mountain pass. The aid, therefore, had to be airdropped by the Pakistani army.

The delegates interceded with the Indian and Pakistani authorities in order to reach an agreement to open the road to such convoys. The problem was finally solved in the succeeding weeks by Pakistan building a road to Kotli so that convoys could avoid using the one controlled by India.

In May 1949 Dr Marti flew by military aircraft from Rawalpindi to Skardu, a small town in Baltistan on the Indus, between the impressive mountain ranges of the Karakorum and the Deosai Mountains (Himalayas). This area had been the scene of bloody clashes since the beginning of 1948 when the Indian garrison in Skardu had been defeated by “Azad Kashmir” and Pakistani troops. Prisoners of war were sent to Gilgit and Chilas, but some 180 non-Muslim civilians were interned in Skardu, where, cut off from the rest of the world for the winter of 1948-1949, they had had to be supplied, like the garrison and the civilian population, by an airlift carried out by the Pakistani air force.

The internees were divided into two groups: a group of 90 Sikh women and children whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the fighting, and a group of 90 Hindu men, women and children. It was especially the first group for which Dr Marti, in his own words, felt profound pity:

“True, their material existence has been guaranteed, but we are faced with widows and orphans who are truly lost in this part of the world. Like a herd of cattle, these women and kids dressed in brown crouched huddled together around me. The women were crying softly, and you could somehow perceive an infinite pain in it all (…). The Army had planned to repatriate them by road from Skardu to Kargil (…), which lies above the Indus and is in Indian hands. However, we became convinced that that road, or rather that track along the side of the rock, was much too dangerous for women and children, and the entire group should be allowed to fly out to Rawalpindi or Peshawar.”

The delegates endeavoured to obtain agreement for both groups of people, whose names had been given to them, to be repatriated to India, or at least transferred to Pakistan before the coming winter. This evacuation, of which the ICRC was to be kept informed, took place after the delegates’ departure, at the end of 1949.

A refugee hutment in Chumb Jammu housing Hindu refugees from Pakistan. An ICRC photo of 1949.

However, the ICRC considered it its duty, as a neutral organization with a mission on the spot, to carry out a full and detailed survey of the needs of the Kashmiri refugees, in order to bring their plight to the world’s attention and to be able to provide full information to potential donors. It, therefore, asked its delegates to undertake an in-depth study of the overall problem.

Dr Marti and Nicolas Burckhardt devoted the month of June 1949 to this survey. Dividing the work, they travelled over practically all the areas housing refugees and displaced persons, made contact with the competent authorities at all levels and consistently visited all the camps, districts and tehsils.

The investigation gave rise to a 90-page report, illustrated by maps and photographs and covering every aspect of the refugees’ situation. It showed that, following the cease-fire that had entered into force on 1 January 1949, several hundred thousand refugees had returned to their homes and resumed their normal activities, but about one million still remained homeless, living in camps or with friends or setting themselves up in small communities to which the governments had great difficulty delivering basic supplies. The displaced people who went home were often as destitute as the refugees since all they found were ruins and devastated fields.

After describing the geographical layout of Kashmir, its road links and the problems in terms of food, clothing, hygiene and medical care resulting from the hostilities, the document set out the various categories of refugee and their requirements region by region, showing that in general those in the worst situation and with the greatest needs were people outside the camps under the control of the Indian and Pakistani authorities. It drew up an order of priority for the populations requiring relief and listed the supplies needed in every sphere.

(This copy was excerpted from a long piece titled The ICRC’s activities on the Indian subcontinent following partition (1947-1949) by the author that appeared in the International Review of the Red Cross, No 323)


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