Sheikh Abdullah, March 16, 194
Some statements become nuggets of history. They become our path-finders. At times when we may lose sight of what we should do, they show us the way.
This statement by Sheikh Abdullah is one such nugget from history. This statement by the popular leader of Kashmir is accompanied by grainy photographs of Kashmiri women proudly carrying guns. In some photographs, India’s first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru can be seen inspecting a contingent of these armed Kashmiri women.
Kashmiri Women Carrying Guns Against Pakistan
Who were these Kashmiri women, and why were they carrying guns?
This militia was called the Women’s Self Defense Corps. It was established following the barbaric cruelties unleashed upon the people of Kashmir by the primitive tribals from Pakistan. These tribals had reached Kashmir with the active support and encouragement of Pakistan Army. They were provided logistics support, arms and ammunition by the Pakistan Army.
These photographs are the record of this unique time in the history of Kashmir when women were trained in the use of fire arms. The training was given to them to protect themselves from the brutal and barbaric invaders from Pakistan.
The book ‘Raiders In Kashmir’ by Pakistan Army’s Maj Gen Akbar Khan provides a detailed account of the loot and plunder in Kashmir by Pakistan’s tribal raiders. The book reveals that when the Indian Army reached Baramulla, only 3,000 people were left alive in the village which had a population of about 14,000 people. The Pakistan-backed tribals were on their way to Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar. On the way, these primitive forces were burning villages, killing men and children and raping women.
The Indian Army reached Kashmir and rescued the people from the barbarities of the Pakistani tribals. The Army needed time to mobilize for the attack. That precious time was provided by Shaheed Maqbool Sherwani, who deliberately misguided the Pakistani tribals and sent them on a wrong path. Tragically, Maqbool Sherwani was ruthlessly killed by the Pakistani tribals for this act of unforgettable courage and valour.
Kashmiris Comprehensively Rejected Pakistan
Kashmiris did not forget the savagery of the Pakistani tribals towards the local folk – how brutally they had killed the locals and plundered their villages. Sheikh Abdullah and his team decided that women would be given arms training. The visionary leaders believed that women must be able to protect themselves in times of need.
The strength of Kashmir’s female militia wasn’t high. They were probably less than a hundred in number. Many of them were still teenagers. Historians have observed that the number of the armed women’s group may have been small, but the messaging of this initiative was large. The messaging was that Kashmiris comprehensively rejected Pakistan.
Through 1947 and 1948, these women learnt military drilling. They learnt how to fire from rifles.
Sheikh Abdullah had feared that Pakistan would send in its army or groups of irregulars to invade Kashmir and annex it to Pakistan. In addition to the women’s militia, Sheikh Abdullah also organized a militia of the young of Kashmir to fight Pakistan and defend Kashmir. This group of young Kashmir men was organized in the second half of September 1947.
When Indian soldiers arrived in Kashmir, they waged a war against the barbaric tribal men sent by Pakistan and forced them to withdraw from Kashmir Valley.
Kashmir Defends Democracy
Historian Andrew Whitehead has written about the women’s militia formed by Sheikh Abdullah in 1947. The communist party’s journal, ‘People’s Age’, carried a news report on the militia in its December edition that year. The following is what Whitehead wrote about the media coverage of the women’s militia.
‘For the first time on the soil of India’, declared the communist People’s Age in December 1947, ‘is there being built an army of women, trained to use the rifle and other modern weapons of war.’ On its front page, the weekly journal published photographs of women in Srinagar holding rifles – inexpertly, but with a clear sense of pride and purpose. ‘The women of Kashmir are the first in India to build an army of women trained to use the rifle’, the paper proclaimed. ‘By their example they have made Indian history, filled our chests with pride, [and] raised our country’s banner higher among the great nations of the world.’
The journal People’s Age carried a stirring photograph of a woman with a gun, with more women soldiers in the background, all of them bearing guns. The headline given to the photograph was ‘Kashmir Defends Democracy’. Andrew Whitehead writes about this time:
Accession to India and the airlift of troops had the support of the maharaja’s political nemesis. Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir, was a Muslim, a progressive Kashmiri nationalist and a commanding political figure in twentieth-century Kashmir. He was more attracted to the left-leaning, secular nationalism of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru than to M. A. Jinnah’s Muslim League in Pakistan, which was more socially conservative and more tolerant of feudalism.
It is to be noted that after the Indian Army arrived in Kashmir for rescue, they further trained and armed the militia raised by Sheikh Abdullah and his team. Some locals who had been trained in the use of firearms joined the soldiers in waging the war against the Pakistani tribals, and made them flee Kashmir.
It is noteworthy that the women who were part of Women’s Self Defense Corps for Kashmir also offered humanitarian services for the poor and needy women. After the savage attack by the Pakistani tribals in Baramulla, members of the Women’s Self Defense Corps offered humanitarian services to the distraught families that had fled to Kashmir after the barbaric attack. The members of Women’s Self Defense Corps also gave support and strength to women who were sexually molested and exploited by the Pakistani tribals.
BOX 1 FOR THE STORY
Progressive Women’s Movement Envisioned in 1947
While writing on the brave and bold women’s militia of Kashmir in 1947, historian Andrew Whitehead noted that Sheikh Abdullah’s vision for Kashmir was remarkably progressive, and far ahead of the times. This is what Whitehead writes of that time:
Among their number (women’s militia of Kashmir) was Zuni Gujjari, a Muslim woman from a non-privileged background who was a renowned activist in the National Conference, the progressive nationalist party led by Sheikh Abdullah. Her likeness appeared on the cover of the National Conference’s 1944 manifesto, New Kashmir, as well as on Kashmir Defends Democracy, a propaganda pamphlet produced in 1948 in support of Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir’s accession to India.
Women’s involvement in Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s was not restricted to the militia and to propaganda images. New Kashmir was a remarkably detailed and radical political programme, drafted by communists and borrowing liberally from Soviet documents, including a section on women that advocated equal wages, paid leave during pregnancy and the right to enter trades and professions, to own and inherit property and to consent to marriage.
BOX 2 FOR THE STORY
Kanta Wazir Of Women’s Self Defense Corps
Historians who have written on the Women’s Self Defense Corps of Kashmir have written of the role of Kanta Wazir, one of the leading members of the women’s militia. Kanta was pursuing her degree in FA (Fellow Of Arts) in 1947-48 when she was drawn to progressive ideology espoused by Sheikh Abdullah and joined the women’s force.
Along with other women who voluntarily joined the militia, Kanta got training in firearms including shooting with 303 rifles, sten guns, Bren guns and pistols. The training was given to women at Gole Bagh, which was later renamed as Usman Zanana Bagh after Brigadier Usman, the hero of the Battle of Jhangar.
According to news reports on the women’s defense militia, Kanta became a popular name in Mukta Battalion, the first battalion of women militia.
It is remarkable that about 75 years after Kashmir’s women militia was formed, Kanta is remembered for being a sharp shooter, and for her dexterity with the firearms. Women members of the militia were given packets of salt, which was a rare commodity in Kashmir in 1947 because of the economic blockade of the Valley by Pakistan. Because of her remarkable service to the nation, Kanta was given three packets of salt as reward.