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  Ravage recalled  
  Mission in Kashmir  
  WHEN my wife and I decided to visit Kashmir, almost on an impulse, to enjoy the beauty of the snow-clad Valley, the hastily drawn up itinerary included a visit to the Catholic mission centre at Baramulla. To start from the beginning, my first encounter with the mission was when I received an article from Andrew Whitehead of the BBC for publication in the "Indian Express" over a decade ago.

The piece was about the sacking of the Catholic mission by the invading tribes from Pakistan, who looted, killed and brutalised the mission staff and the patients there. The day it happened -- October 27, 1947 -- was a red-letter day in the history of Kashmir. That was the day Lord Mountbatten, the first Governor General of independent India, accepted Maharaja Hari Singh's accession of his princely state to India.

It was also the day troops of India's Sikh Regiment began an airlift in Dakota planes from Palam airbase outside Delhi to the rudimentary landing strip at Srinagar. They drove out the tribes hailing from the North West Frontier Province from Jammu and Kashmir, but not before they captured what we call Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and what Pakistan calls "Azad Kashmir".

Whitehead's piece made gripping reading, though it did not conform to the rigorous standards of "opinion" that I as Edit Page in-charge was supposed to maintain. Yet, I took the risk of publishing it. The article made an impact. Let me quote Whitehead: "I received several letters in response. One came from an Indian army veteran who had been involved in beating back the tribal invaders, and another was from a relative of one of those killed at the mission. I was on my way.

"What started as curiosity had become a quest, and as I came to understand more of the interplay between events at St. Joseph's and the initial military contest for Kashmir, it became a personal mission to uncover, retrieve, piece together and explain how and why Kashmir became a battleground".

The result of his quest was the book "A Mission in Kashmir" (Penguin-Viking) published in 2007 from which I have quoted above. I was with "The Tribune" when I received the book for review. But, instead of reviewing the book, I wrote a full-length cover story for the "Sunday Tribune Spectrum" based mostly on the book. I sent our photographer in Srinagar Amin War to Baramulla to click pictures of the graves of the six killed at the Mission compound.

When the photographer reached there, Fr Shaiju Chacko, who was in charge at that time, would not let him in. Since the graves were in a walled area beside the convent, it was impossible for him to take the pictures without his permission. Finally, I had to make a long-distance call to request the priest to let him take photographs.

When the cover story appeared, it evoked a good response. A retired Army officer, a Sikh, who took part in the operation, visited me with a copy of the book. He wanted me to autograph it. I told him that the privilege should go to the author, not me. As a compromise, I signed a copy of the Sunday Magazine in which the article appeared and gave it to him.

He was greatly impressed by the photograph of the graves. "Christian missionaries are often accused of proselytization. Look at the grave of Mrs Motia Devi Kapoor, who was just a patient. She was buried beside a Lieutenant-Colonel and her grave has the Hindu sacred symbol "Om", instead of the cross. This is secularism at its best -- equal treatment for all religions".

This was the background against which we hired a taxi in Srinagar, picked up Amin War from his office and set out for Baramulla on the morning of January 14. It was freezing cold, compounded by light snowfall. The road was free of snow but on both sides, snow had begun to accumulate on house roofs, trees and fields. We passed through small towns like Pattan, notorious for encounters, real and fake.

Amin War, who has been chronicling all the major events in the Valley, with his Nikons, told us that the whole of Baramulla remained shut down for several months last year in protest against the "killing of innocent people by the security forces". Driver Mushtaq, who knew a smattering of English, kept on telling us how beautiful God had made Kashmir. He showed me the place where a "Brigadier" was killed by the militants. With equal felicity, he also showed me the ancient Sugandesha temple, now a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Suddenly, the snowfall intensified, reducing visibility. As the driver had switched on the heating device with hot air directed towards the windshield, snowflakes did not accumulate on the glass. My wife considered herself lucky that she could see the snowfall. 'Last year, I had a visitor from Mumbai who came with his family to see snowfall. He spent over a lakh of rupees but returned without seeing the snowfall. You are lucky, Madam", said driver Mushtaq looking back at her.

Baramulla is a small town on the old Jhelum Valley Road that links Srinagar with Muzaffarabad in PoK. A bridge on this road called Aman Sethu, close to the Line of Control (LoC), was virtually abandoned since 1947. It was revived when a bus service on this route was introduced a few years ago during General Musharraf's regime.

The road was familiar to me as I had once travelled from Muzaffarabad to Chakothi on the Pakistani side and photographed the bridge from Chakothi using a telescopic lens. In 1947, the tribes also took this road in their bid to capture Srinagar.

By the time we reached the mission compound, the snowfall had become very heavy. We parked the car near the St. Joseph's Dispensary. A small circle of garden had, as its centrepiece, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a small grotto. Beyond, a covered walkway led to a veranda around a larger garden, linking four neat, small hospital wards.

We waited outside the dispensary which displayed a name plate, that of Sister "Dr Placida, B.Sc, MBBS, MS in Obstetrics and Gynaecology". A Kashmiri girl in red attire asked whom we had come to meet. She asked us to wait in front of the Administrator's room. We had to wait for a few minutes before Sr Charles Mary arrived. I made the mistake of speaking to her in Malayalam. She was not a Malayali, though she knew the language as she confessed later.

She took us to an adjoining building to meet Fr Senoj Thomas from Kerala. "How did you reach here, father?" I asked as I shook off the snowflakes from my jacket. "When I decided to become a priest and was given an option to choose the centres I wanted to work in, I chose the Srinagar diocese because that was the farthest from Kerala". No, he does not regret his decision, for he truly lives in the "paradise on earth".

Over a hot cup of tea, he gave us a lowdown on the situation at Baramulla. Fr Thomas has read Whitehead's book, which he finds is a truthful account of what happened at the mission 63 years ago, though he does not subscribe to the theory that "rape" had also occurred. There are in all 11 Catholic families at Baramulla, most of them third-generation Christians, who reached there following the Partition. "In all, there are 50 Christians", said the priest. "They include the priests and nuns", added Sister Charles Mary, with a smile on her face.

The mission compound is quite large. The 108-year-old St. Joseph's Higher Secondary School is one of the oldest in Kashmir. It has over 3,000 students. Under the Catholic Social Service Society -- also called "C triple S" there is a school for the differently abled and, a tailoring centre where 50 poor girls from the locality are given training.

The 60-bed maternity care centre has two doctors on its rolls -- Dr Placida and Dr Seema Kaur. A course for female multipurpose health workers is also run there. The butterflies in red we accosted earlier were the trainee health workers. Fr Thomas took us out and showed the campus, which had trees like plum, apricot, chestnut, walnut, apple and pear in plenty. Covered as they were by snow, we could not distinguish any of them, though he gave a vivid description of each type of tree. "You should come in summer to relish the fruits".

Walking past the playground and the brick-red chapel, we again reached the walkway in front of the dispensary. "This is a real Christmas tree. It is the only one in the whole of Kashmir. It was brought and planted here by a priest from the Netherlands".
Though we had seen Christmas trees in photographs, it was the first time that we were seeing a real Christmas tree. Unlike most other trees, it had not shed its leaves and seemed to be enjoying the snow cover.

From there, he led us to a hospital ward which had neat beds on both sides but not a single patient. In the middle of the ward was a cross-mark. It marked the spot where 29-year-old Spanish nun, Sister M. Teresalina Joaquina, was shot dead on the Monday after the feast of Christ the King. She became the first Christian martyr in Kashmir, whose killing cost the Pakistani tribes heavily to which I will return in an instant.

In a few minutes, they killed, besides the nun, a patient, Mrs Motia Devi Kapoor, Lt. Col D.O.T. Dykes and his wife Biddy, who had come to the hospital to give birth, the husband of the hospital doctor, Mr Baretto, and a nurse, Miss Philomena. A few steps from there and we were at their graves. The graves of Dykes and his wife were not together as her body was discovered much later from a well. After a couple of years, Sister Teresalina's body was dug out and buried in the area earmarked for nuns who served in the mission.

A sister opened the church for us. In the vestry was a framed photograph of the martyred Spanish nun. Hanging on the wall was the photograph of seven Fransiscan nuns martyred in China in 1900. On the wall was also the picture of the Blessed Mary of the Passion FMM, the founder of the congregation.

It is a bit surprising that Sister Teresalina is not even on the road to sainthood. A priest who was present at her death was greatly moved by her courage and devotion. He recorded that her prayers gradually faded away as she "slowly sank into unconsciousness".

However, in the religious tract, "I Will Be the First", it is mentioned that "Mother Teresalina had always yearned to be a saint". When the young missionary's uncle, a priest, said he had never heard of a Saint Teresalina, she is reputed to have riposted, playfully: "I will be the first". "Her soul had instinctively turned towards martyrdom".

Hot coffee and delicious "convent-made" mixture awaited us at the convent. There we were introduced to Sr Placida. When I told her that I write for the "Indian Currents", she asked me why Bharat Putra had stopped writing for the magazine. She was a regular reader of the column and to convince me, she even mentioned some points from his writing. After a session of photography, we returned to Fr Thomas' dining table where his cook had laid out a sumptuous lunch.

There was no stopping to the snowfall. It would be risky to go to Gulmarg as originally planned, advised the driver. We decided to return to Srinagar and took leave of Fr Thomas. Now, even the road had a fine layer of snow. As mentioned, the sacking of the Catholic mission was extensively reported in the Western media, which even suggested that rape had taken place. The government of India also made good use of the attack in its propaganda war with Pakistan. Soon after Baramulla was evicted of the tribes, Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Catholic mission compound.

In the opening address to the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly in November 1951, Sheikh Abdulla, grandfather of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, made a specific reference to the attack on St. Joseph's:
"It was not an ordinary type of invasion, inasmuch as no canons of warfare were observed. The tribesmen who attacked the State in thousands, killed, burned, looted and destroyed whatever came their way and in this savagery no section of the people could escape. Even the nuns and nurses of a Catholic Mission were either killed or brutally mistreated".

With heavy snowfall reducing visibility, we considered ourselves lucky that we could return safely to Srinagar before sunset. "If the snowfall continues the whole night, there will be no flights tomorrow", predicted Mushtaq. He was indeed prophetic!
To be concluded
The writer can be reached at
Courtesy: Indian Currents
  By  A.J. Philip  
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