'I shall paint my nails with the blood of those that covet me': Kashmir's women's militia and independence-era nationalism
'I shall paint my nails with the blood of those that covet me': Kashmir's women's militia and independence-era nationalism
THIS IS THE TEXT OF AN ARTICLE ON THE KASHMIR WOMEN'S MILITIA OF 1947-8 PUBLISHED IN HISTORY WORKSHOP JOURNAL IN SPRING 2022 AND HAS BEEN POSTED HERE WITH THE JOURNAL'S PERMISSION. PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS THE TEXT AS SUBMITTED - THE FINAL TEXT OF THE PUBLISHED ARTICLE VARIES TO SOME DEGREE. ONLY A FEW OF THE IMAGES POSTED BELOW APPEAR IN THE PUBLISHED ARTICLE
MY WARM THANKS TO ALL THOSE VETERANS OF THE MILITIA AND OTHERS WHO HAVE SHARED THEIR MEMORIES OF THOSE TIMES AND HELPED TO IDENTIFY THOSE FEATURED IN THE PHOTOS AND NEWSREEL FOOTAGE.
India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, inspecting the women's militia at Srinagar, Kashmir, May 1948. He is accompanied by Zainab Begum. Sajida Zameer Ahmed is one from left. Photograph by Ram Chand Mehta - posted courtesy of India Picture.
The Kashmir 'women's army' - to use the rather grand name given to this self-defence force by some of its members - lingers, like so much of women's activity, in the shadow of the mainstream historical narrative. It doesn't figure at all in the broad accounts of the turbulence and trauma that marred the partition of British India in August 1947 and the independence of India and Pakistan. It is barely mentioned in detailed histories of Kashmir, a region still embroiled in a conflict which is sometimes described as the unfinished business of Partition. The women's militia was small in number, short-lived and never saw active service. Yet its mustering in the streets and parks of the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, from the closing weeks of 1947 was an emphatic demonstration of far-reaching political change - not so much, in Kashmir's case, the ending of colonial rule as the eclipse of its own maharaja and the effective transfer of political authority to a radical nationalist movement. While the militia was raised when the Kashmiri capital was in danger of being overrun by invaders, its purpose was less to repel an outside armed force than to build a 'New Kashmir' embodying goals of democracy, land redistribution and - to some degree - gender justice.
There was little precedent anywhere in South Asia for women to be armed and given military training. 'The women of Kashmir are the first in India to build an army of women trained to use the rifle', the communist People's Age proclaimed in December 1947. These Kashmiri women under arms 'have made Indian history, filled our chests with pride, [and] raised our country's banner higher among the great nations of the world'. India's communists displayed almost proprietorial pride in the raising of a women's militia in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the left was an influential strand within a Kashmiri nationalist movement determined to supplant the maharaja's rule. Kashmir had had no recent martial tradition. Under the maharaja, Kashmiris - broadly those from the Kashmir Valley, just one constituent of his domain - were not eligible to serve in the state's armed forces. The space for women in public life was tightly constrained and by 1947 only a handful of Kashmiri women had been awarded a degree, which necessarily meant studying outside the princely state. The women's militia was both a means of advocating far-reaching political and social change and a marker of the extent of that change. Nothing could be a more emphatic demonstration of the eclipse of the old princely order than Kashmiri women of different religions parading through their capital with rifles on their shoulders.
The core membership of the Women's Self Defence Corps, to give the militia its formal title, was probably under a hundred, and while its members were trained to use rifles they never fired them in anger - but the extent to which it was photographed, depicted and celebrated suggests a determined attempt to use the militia as an emblem of the 'New Kashmir' that progressive nationalists sought to create. It was part of a moment of popular mobilisation in Srinagar which gave Kashmiris a level of political agency; a rare interlude when Kashmiris helped to shape how they were governed and by whom. The corps came out of a commitment to women's empowerment evident in how Kashmiri nationalism organised and in its key policy pronouncement. For its recruits, this was a moment of both peril and pride - and of growing political awareness and confidence. 'My consciousness started from the day I joined ... the women's militia', Krishna Misri recalled many decades later. The women who enrolled were keenly aware of the breach of convention that their presence on Srinagar's streets represented.
This account of Kashmir's women's militia is based on the testimony of some of the women involved and of their contemporaries and on newspaper reports, of which those in the Indian communist press are the most fruitful. There is no archive associated with the militia and any account is bound to be fragmentary and incomplete, but it is possible to retrieve something of its purpose, membership and organisation. This article seeks to place the raising of the militia in the context of the militarisation of South Asia during the Second World War and the trauma of Partition. The enlisting of a women's armed force in a deeply conservative region informs discussion of women's response to the profound sexual violence which accompanied the end of British rule in South Asia. The militia will also be discussed in the context of the conflicts over and within Kashmir, between the newly independent nations of India and Pakistan and between the proponents of the princely order and progressive nationalists. The militia was in large part the creation of a male leadership, but the women in its ranks gained a profile, confidence and purpose which helped shape their lives. It brought in its wake a broadening of women's opportunities in the Kashmir Valley - though nothing like the transformation that some if its members envisaged.
The Hindustan Times front-page report on the INA trial including a photograph of the 'INA's Women Warriors'
Lakshmi Sahgal and Subhas Chandra Bose inspect a women's contingent of the INA
India was not a major battle-ground during the Second World War but it was deeply affected by war. India's conscription by the imperial power into its war effort infuriated the main nationalist party, the Indian National Congress, which in 1942 launched a nationwide 'Quit India' movement against imperial rule. One of the reasons why the British were so determined to enlist India was because of the conspicuous contribution of hundreds of thousands of Indian - and in particular Punjabi - recruits who fought as part of the allied forces in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of British and American troops were also stationed in India, which was under threat from Japanese forces that had overrun Singapore, Malaya and Burma. The danger from the east was heightened - though more in terms of perception than military menace - by Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army, which was raised largely among Indian expatriates in south-east Asia and served alongside the Japanese to seek a military defeat of the British Raj. 'Everywhere a new militarism ... was becoming commonplace', says the historian Yasmin Khan. 'From communists to Hindu nationalists, Khaksars to pseudo-ARP groups, there was a rapid and noticeable flowering of associations and clubs which championed self-defence, drilling and self-discipline. Women and men drilled with flags, lathis and daggers, wore distinctive uniforms and badges, sang songs and staged public dramas and lectures.'
The Indian National Army (INA) was exceptional among these armed groups in establishing a women's wing. This took the name of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment in tribute to an Indian princely ruler who was a heroine of the anti-British rebellion of 1857-8. The regiment recruited mainly among women of Indian origin living and working on the rubber estates in Malaya. Lakshmi Saghal, an Indian expatriate who helped to raise and command the regiment, has estimated that about a thousand women went through intensive military training and a further two-hundred joined the nursing corps. She and others in the regiment were deployed in Burma close to the frontline but were either arrested or ordered to retreat before they had a chance to engage in combat. The British decision to court-martial three leading figures in the INA - one of them Lakshmi Sahgal's future husband - for 'waging war against the King-Emperor' rallied Indian public opinion in support of the defendants. Jawaharlal Nehru, who in August 1947 became the first prime minister of independent India, was part of the legal defence team. In reporting the opening of the trial in November 1945, the Hindustan Times included on its front page a wartime photograph of the 'INA's Women Warriors', members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment bearing rifles with bayonets attached. The women's regiment never mustered or fought on Indian soil but it came to be admired as one of the boldest aspects of Indian resistance to imperial rule and this episode of women under arms made it more permissible for others to follow their example.
While the INA's women's wing was the most dramatic aspect of the militarisation of Indian women, several movements organised and paraded women in a style which reflected the turbulence of the time. Among political parties, the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had a paramilitary-style section, the National Guards. Members of its women's wing paraded and exercised though - to judge from photographic evidence - with wooden staves or lathis rather than rifles. Indian communist propaganda in the latter part of the war lionised Russian and Chinese guerrilla forces and at times advocated, rather windily, that 'guerrilla bands should be formed in the Punjab especially among the rural areas for the protection of their hearths and homes'. The party organised Red Guards, though these don't seem to have been armed. In an apparent precursor of Kashmir's women's militia, Punjabi communists in 1943 helped to establish the Women's Self-Defence League, which appears to have attracted several thousand recruits. 'These women, who came from town and country alike, were attracted by the Punjab's particular brand of communism, and party meetings and conferences were no longer for men only', according to a historian of the Punjabi left. Women members of the league do not seem to have carried arms or undertaken military-style training but their example - and the associated agitprop-style theatre they performed - is likely to have been in the minds of those who later helped to establish and mould Kashmir's women's militia.
Before the shock and upheaval of war had abated, South Asia succumbed to an even more painful rupture. The partition - rushed and ill-prepared - of what had been British India provoked one of the most profound tragedies of a turbulent century. The worst of the violence was in Punjab, where an international border was hurriedly drawn-up splitting the province between India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of Punjabis were killed and many millions became refugees amid appalling communal violence. This was marked by persistent and often grotesque sexual maiming and violence and the abduction of tens of thousands of young women. By and large, regular armed forces were not among the perpetrators - but as tension escalated, armed groups proliferated, some improvised and others religious, political or semi-feudal in purpose. Given the extent of the violence, it is perhaps surprising that there is not more evidence of women bearing arms and being trained in self-defence. There is, however, some visual evidence of women's involvement in these short-lived militias. A photograph from 1948 taken in Ferozepore - a district of Punjab to which Pakistan had a strong claim but which was awarded to India - shows women in white tunics and trousers marching with rifles in their hands. These were described as members of Ferozepore's National Volunteer Corps. Another photo of similar date, taken by the renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, depicts young non-Muslim women bearing rifles in Jammu, part of the same princely state as Kashmir. On another occasion, the Maharani of Kashmir was photographed, probably also in Jammu, alongside young women being shown how to take aim with a rifle. Women were depicted bearing arms as part of the forces of another princely ruler in Hyderabad in South India. Whether at the initiative of the volunteers themselves or - more probably - of their community leaders, women broke with custom to carry arms to demonstrate their determination to resist aggression.
'Kashmir Defends Democracy', 1948 - artwork by Sobha Singh, posted courtesy of the Sobha Singh Art Gallery, Andretta, India. A tentative identification of several of the women in the photo can be found here: https://www.andrewwhitehead.net/kashmir-47-images.html
The origins of the still unresolved Kashmir dispute lie in the tangled events of the summer and autumn of 1947. Kashmir was part of the broader Partition trauma, but also had its own distinct rhythm and resonance. Under the Indian Independence Act and the plans and timetable devised by the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, it was up to princely rulers to decide whether to accede to India or Pakistan - though for most, there was no real option but to sign up to the nation that loomed closest and largest. Jammu and Kashmir was one of the most extensive princely states and was adjoining both India and Pakistan - so its maharaja was one of the few with a real decision to make. He was a Hindu while more than three-quarters of his subjects were Muslims; and he was more inclined towards independence than accession to either of his neighbours. The British pulled out of India in mid-August 1947 with Kashmir's status unresolved. Ten weeks later, several thousand tribesmen from north-west Pakistan - armed and encouraged by sections of that new nation's leadership - invaded Kashmir, prompting the maharaja to flee overnight from Srinagar to the city of Jammu, his family's heartland. Once he reached the palace there, he signed the document by which his princely state became part of India - though with the clear expectation that he would retain much of his powers and authority. India's armed forces embarked on an air lift of troops to the very basic landing strip on the outskirts of Srinagar. Against the odds, Indian troops - initially greatly outnumbered - managed to halt the Pakistani force just outside the Kashmiri capital and went on to repulse the tribal fighters from the Kashmir Valley, though not from all of the princely state.
Inside princely-ruled Jammu and Kashmir, a very different political contest had been played out ever since, in the early 1930s, popular political movements took root critical of the ruling dynasty and demanding moves towards democracy, a better deal for the largely impoverished Muslim majority and Muslim control of local shrines and mosques. Street protests in 1931, which were harshly dispersed by the maharaja's security forces, culminated in to one of the most violent political uprisings in South Asia between the world wars. The British obliged the maharaja to institute a commission of inquiry and undertake modest reforms. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah emerged as the most prominent and widely supported Kashmiri nationalist - a tall, charismatic figure who while at times resorting to Muslim-specific discourse and demands, developed into a proponent of progressive (and broadly secular) nationalism and an advocate of representative government. In spite of his name, Sheikh Abdullah was not from an elite family. He made a personal and political alliance with Jawaharlal Nehru - who was of Kashmiri Hindu descent - and with Nehru's Indian National Congress. At the same time, he turned to communist friends in Punjab for advice and for help in drawing up in 1944 a remarkably radical and comprehensive draft constitution and manifesto, New Kashmir, by which his political project became known.
The 'New Kashmir' manifesto, adopted in 1944
Kanta Wazir in 1949 - courtesy of Rekha Wazir
Sheikh Abdullah's political primacy in the Kashmir Valley was contested and in other regions of the princely state - notably Jammu - his support was distinctly modest. In the summer of 1946, to try to shore up its faltering position, Abdullah's political party, the National Conference, launched a 'Quit Kashmir' campaign aimed against the ruling family, who were seen by most Kashmiris as outsiders. The party had previously espoused a constitutional monarchy; now it sought to repudiate the treaties and purchases underpinning princely rule. The entirely predictable consequence was the jailing of Abdullah and many of his associates; most of those prominent political activists who evaded arrest went into an exile of sorts in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. Abdullah was still behind bars when India and Pakistan celebrated independence and it was only the insistence of Nehru's government that secured his release from the maharaja's jail a few weeks later. The size of the crowds that greeted Abdullah indicated his growing political authority. He initially insisted that Kashmir should achieve representative government before making a decision about accession. But in the face of the invading force of Pakistani tribesmen, Abdullah supported his arch rival, the maharaja, in acceding to India, though for very different reasons, and in so doing put a commitment to socialism and secularism ahead of religious identity.
Within days of being released from jail at the end of September 1947, Sheikh Abdullah urged volunteers to come forward to join what he called a 'peace brigade'. He believed an armed incursion into Kashmir was in prospect and wanted 'a volunteer corps to maintain peace and protect "our hearth and homes", irrespective of creed and community'. Two weeks later, the invasion by Pakistani irregulars appeared to bear out Abdullah's fears, and their rapid advance on the Kashmiri capital - accompanied by reports of atrocities and looting - created an air of panic. This was intensified by the flight of the maharaja and his courtiers. Many young Kashmiris were excited by the prospect of regime change - what they saw as the impending end of princely rule and its replacement by a nationalist administration committed to political pluralism and the abolition of the last vestiges of feudalism. Under pressure from Delhi, the maharaja named Sheikh Abdullah as emergency administrator, working alongside his prime minister. On the streets of Srinagar, authority rested increasingly with Abdullah while volunteers loyal to him gathered at key locations. Abdullah recalled how -
we posted the National Conference workers at bridges and other installations to protect them. ... Those who possessed weapons of whatever kind and also vehicles were asked to hand them in to the party. Volunteers were trained in the use of arms. This brought into existence the Kashmir militia. ... Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even young women were frantically joining the volunteer corps to defend the bridges, banks and places of strategic importance. There was a widespread fervour. 
For the first time, young and politicised Kashmiris took control of the streets of Kashmir's capital. Kanta Wazir, whose family were one of just two Hindu households in a mainly Muslim locality in Srinagar, recalled that as word came through of the invaders' approach, local people took to the streets . 'The whole night, groups of people would patrol the streets and lanes proclaiming: Hamlawaro khabardar, ham Kashmiri hain tayar [Aggressors beware, we Kashmiris are ready]. We would hear the slogans till midnight, which means they were patrolling the interior of the city as well, not just the main roads.' Her husband-to-be was among those on patrol: 'he would shout out extra loud outside my house, just to let me know that he was there!'
These young, enthusiastic volunteers were at first known as the Home Guards, or the Bachau Fauj [Protection Force] or Salamati Fauj [Well-being Force]. 'The spectre of the qabailis [armed tribesmen] was in the air and Srinagar was about to fall', Shanti Swarup Ambardar recalled.
I was a scared youth and volunteered, but had no idea how to protect my hamsayas [neighbours] except to march and shout the prevailing slogans. I, with a group of young men ..., kept guard at street crossings in Rainawari. All I had, by way of armaments, was a stout wood staff, dyed red, and a brittle supply of Dutch courage. The days were exciting yet dangerous; the nights fear-laden and cold. .. Daz! Daz! (Shoot! Shoot!) was the jocular term used by the Salamati Fauj to mimic shots being fired at the Qabailis, but I doubt that they fired any live rounds in Srinagar City.
A young Delhi-based reporter, Ajit Bhattacharjea, managed to persuade a friend, a pilot, to allow him on one of the civilian planes co-opted for the military airlift and spent a few hours in Srinagar at a time of real peril. 'The city was open', he recounted. 'Mind you - the police, the maharaja and his administration had fled. There was no sign of them. Yet it was functioning. Not because [Indian] troops were there - there were very few of them. But the entire city was being handled by the National Conference volunteers, 90% of them Muslim. They were guarding the bridges, the shops - most of the shops were open.'
These volunteers were also tasked with identifying what were repeatedly described as 'fifth columnists', those who supported the National Conference's rival, the Muslim Conference, and sought accession to Pakistan. At times, their determination to root out allies of the invading forces turned into thuggery - contributing to a tradition of vigilantism which persisted in the Kashmir Valley long after the military threat abated. 'What the National Conference did was that they let loose a whole lot of hooligans on us', was the verdict of Zeenat Agha, who was then a member of the Muslim Conference's women's wing. Shanti Swarup Ambardar accepted that many of his fellow volunteers were not simply idealists or political activists. 'Shopkeepers... college students, boatmen, peasants, even ... local toughs, some with a shady past, volunteered. Guarding against the Qabailis may have been the main motive, but joining the Salamati Fauj was also, for the ambitious, a way to secure a spot in the Emergency Administration, settle old scores, or siphon-off monies that had started flowing in from India.'
In all, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Kashmiris took to the streets in a popular - and largely peaceful - mobilisation which represented a moment of profound political and social rupture. The invading force reached the outskirts of Srinagar but made no attempt to enter the city, so the volunteers were not initially required to do more than parade and shout slogans in Srinagar's defence. Yet the presence in the Kashmiri capital of this rudimentary but enthusiastic popular force was a clear sign that the old order was on the way out. It was co-opted by two very different organisations: the Indian army and India's communists. There was, briefly, a curious confluence of interests encompassing Kashmiri nationalists, the Indian government and the left. They all believed that Jammu and Kashmir should become part of India; that the invaders from Pakistan should be repulsed; and that the maharaja should not be allowed to retain more than nominal authority over his state.
The immediate emergency was the proximity of Pakistani irregulars - and in the face of that threat India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, urged Sheikh Abdullah to organise some of his volunteers into a more formidable force. 'Chosen young men, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, should be given rifles and if possible some simple training', Nehru told an Indian army officer who was in Srinagar as his personal emissary. 'We must do all this on a non-communal basis inviting everyone to joining in defence but taking care of one major factor - to trust no one who might give trouble. ... These armed volunteers can well undertake the defence of, and the duty of keeping order in[,] Srinagar and other towns in the Valley.' By the following day, 28th October, The Times reported that hundreds of National Conference volunteers were on the streets, which had 'combined to keep the peace and helped to restore confidence'. Two days later, 'several scores of them appeared armed for the first time with standard .303 rifles which a spokesman said they had obtained from "friendly sources"' - in other words from the Indian army. For a while the Home Guard continued to operate as a largely unarmed volunteer force alongside the emerging militia but within a matter of weeks, the militia developed as an armed and uniformed force which on occasion saw active service alongside Indian troops. Several members of the militia lost their lives; in due course, militia men were given the option of transferring to India's regular armed forces.
The Communist Party of India - which in Kashmir organised within the National Conference and had no separate local structure - applauded the initial steps towards transforming a volunteer force into an armed militia and urged a more far-reaching enrolment of young Kashmiris. 'The battle which the people of Kashmir have entered upon is not an easy one', declared the CPI's weekly paper.
It is their decisive freedom's fight. It cannot be won by only relying upon the army of the Indian Union. It will require the mobilisation and active participation of the entire following of the National Conference, of the entire common people of Kashmir and Jammu. It will be necessary to arm the entire mass with whatever weapons one can get, to organise a popular guerrilla warfare against the raiders. 
The party had only a small number of sympathisers in Kashmir but lionised Sheikh Abdullah and his struggle against princely autocracy. In the following week's issue of the party paper, its correspondent in Srinagar suggested, perhaps a touch excitedly, that 25,000 recruits had come forward. 'Throughout the city, you can see batches ... equipped with every type of weapon, guns, swords, axes and sticks, rousing the patriotism of the people with their full throated slogans'. A week later, photographs of these 'citizen-soldiers' in training to become 'armed guerrilla units' took up the front cover of the People's Age.
The party encouraged a young Punjabi intellectual, Rajbans Khanna - normally based in Lahore but convalescing in Kashmir - to help take charge of the militia. A youthful Kashmiri communist, Pran Nath Jalali, became the militia's political officer, responsible for promoting literacy among the recruits and developing political awareness. The militia was an awkward amalgam of a conventional armed force, armed and trained by and operating in support of India's army, and a popular militia which the left saw as having a political purpose. It became the principal focus of communist activity in the Kashmir Valley, and other largely symbolic steps - notably Sheikh Abdullah's renaming of the main square in Srinagar as Lal Chowk or Red Square - pointed to the increasing communist influence. There was also a suggestion that Kashmiri virility was, for the first time in many generations, being unleashed. 'The Mughals, Pathans, Sikhs and Dogras had over the centuries deliberately kept the people of the state untrained in the use of arms', Sheikh Abdullah recorded, listing the successive waves of outsiders who had ruled the Kashmir Valley. 'Now, under the stress of the present ordeal, their bottled-up manliness was demanding an outlet.' The communists' People's Age made the same point in more lyrical fashion: 'For the first time the sons of Kashmir have won the right to bear arms in defence of their beautiful land.'
'People's Age', 23 November 1947
'People's Age', 14 December 1947
Even more remarkable than Kashmiri men enlisting in an armed force was the involvement in this mobilisation of Kashmiri women. The same issue of People's Age which lauded the 'sons' of Kashmir reported the first indication that women were also being trained to help defend the Valley. It carried what purported to be a letter from a young woman in Srinagar who had volunteered for hospital work writing to relatives in Bombay (now Mumbai):
In the hospital we have to do anything from washing and dressing-up the bullet-wounds of the soldiers to writing their letters to their relatives. ... Today four of us girls will be taught the use of rifles. Tomorrow we may be sent to the Baramula [sic] front as field-nurses ... After seeing my work, father does not object any more. ... These days you do not see many women here. But please do not have the slightest worry on my account. I am very well. Here 10,000 young men are always ready for our defence.
The writer of the letter was not named - but nor was there an attempt at concealment. She was Usha Khanna, then known as Usha Kashyap, aged about twenty and from a Punjabi Hindu family which was based principally in Kashmir. Her uncle, Balraj Sahni, was a well-known communist and later a major figure in Indian cinema. The communist weekly published two subsequent letters from her, detailing her role in popular dramas and in military training:
My duty begins at ten in the morning. I go to the Refugee Camp to distribute milk etc. At one-thirty in the afternoon we all gather at the Dussera grounds. Here we have our weapon training. We learn to shoot, shoot straight and shoot to kill. From five in the evening begins our play
She was enthused by the role of 'Kashmir's new women':
A Women's Self-Defence Corps has been formed. Muslim women and Hindus, they are all pouring in at the recruiting centre to join up. We are given training in rifles at the Purdah Club. ... We have our street-corner meetings too. These women deliver inspiring speeches. They thunder like lionesses. Yesterday [Z]ainab spoke at one such meeting in Kashmiri. About 200 gathered round the Red Flag of the National Conference.
The military aspect of women's political activism was both a huge innovation without precedent in the Kashmir Valley and an initiative building on women's conspicuous role in the Kashmiri nationalist movement.
From what came to be seen as the inception of a strident reform movement in the Kashmir Valley in 1931, women were involved in street protests and on occasions in confrontations with the maharaja's security forces. Several accounts of popular politics in Kashmir by participants or sympathisers point to the prominence of women in these clashes, some of whom were killed. 'Women were full participants in this struggle', recalled Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah, the most prominent of Kashmiri women leftists and a key figure in the women's militia. 'They faced the batons on their bodies, they endured periods of incarceration, they had huge challenges but they never became hesitant in participating equally with menfolk in being ready to even sacrifice their lives if needed.' These by-and-large working class women activists were - in the view of one commentator - 'forerunners of the educated women participants in the later phase of the freedom struggle'. By the early 1940s, the National Conference had an active women's wing which held its own sessions at the annual party congress and a tradition of militant women's protest was well established within Kashmiri radicalism.
The forty-four page New Kashmir document, adopted by the National Conference in 1944, was remarkable for its emphasis on gender. 'Women citizens shall be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life: economic, political, and in the state services', asserted the draft constitution contained in the document. 'These rights shall be realised by affording women the right to work in every employment upon equal terms and for equal wages with men.' This strikingly progressive tone was a reflection of the wording of Stalin's 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union, which was the model for the constitutional provisions in New Kashmir. The document also included a four-page women's charter, again notably liberal on women's rights relating to marriage, family, education and occupation. As if to emphasise the gender aspect to the programme, the English edition depicted on its front cover a drawing of a politically assertive Kashmiri woman brandishing the flag of the National Conference. It carried a faint echo of the French artist Eugene Delacroix's famous depiction of Marianne wielding a Republican standard on the barricades of revolutionary Paris. The party's flag and emblem depicted a plough in white on a red background and at a glance had - as the British communist Rajani Palme Dutt came to appreciate during a visit to Kashmir - more than a passing resemblance to the Soviet hammer and sickle.
An opportunity for women to help shape the direction of Kashmiri nationalism came a couple of years later, with the arrest or banishment of most of the established leaders during the Quit Kashmir agitation. 'When [the] male leadership was put behind bars or driven underground, the women leaders took charge and gave a new direction to the struggle', recorded Krishna Misri, herself a young political activist in the 1940s and a member of the women's militia. But she also was clear about the limits to this new turn, insisting that women leaders 'addressed no controversial woman-specific issues for they did not want to come across as social rebels'. Sajida Zameer Ahmed, also later a member of the women's militia, was among those who helped to sustain links with the underground movement in Kashmir; she organised the escape of one of the most prominent left nationalists. The confidence and authority women gained at this time helped to create the political space for a women's wing of the militia enlisted to defend Srinagar and to protect the emerging political primacy of Sheikh Abdullah.
Among those women who enrolled, there's a general consensus that Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah took the lead in organising the corps. She was aided and encouraged by her close friend and political ally G.M. Sadiq, the most prominent of the Kashmiri leftists among the small group at Sheikh Abdullah's side, who had been given political responsibility for the militia. 'The situation was such that all parties joined together so you can't say that it was more [National Conference] or communists who were behind this move', according to Kanta Wazir - though she was clear who was in charge. 'In our group Mahmooda was the most important and prominent person. She was the leader as far as I was concerned. She was quite a woman - well-educated, intelligent, beautiful and very self-aware.'
Part of the intention of the women's militia was reflected in its full title: the Women's Self-Defence Corps (WSDC). The accounts of rape and ransack by the tribal fighters as they advanced on Srinagar were an important factor in women's decision to enlist. 'For them it was a matter of life and death', a prominent Kashmiri nationalist commented, 'because women and wealth were the most coveted targets of the invaders'. The only substantial account of the women's militia issued by the Kashmiri authorities emphasised how 'horror stories' of rape and abduction had prompted the formation of the corps.
It was a bitter challenge. It had to be met; and the Women's Self Defence Corps was the answer. Women supporters of the National Conference ... were the pivot of this new movement, which made an immediate and rousing appeal to women of all communities in Srinagar.
Kashmir's nationalists wanted to protect Kashmiri women and to be seen as women's defenders. Shanti Swarup Ambardar said Srinagar's high caste Hindu minority, known as Pandits, regarded their womenfolk as particularly vulnerable:
The fate of women and girls became a significant part of each family survival calculus. Our elders never talked about this, but the weight of this eventuality showed in their grimaces. ... Societal hesitations were swept aside and many young women joined the WSDC. Its express purpose was to train women how to defend themselves.
Some came from families where men were enlisting in the men's militia, making the women of the household feel even more vulnerable. Krishna Misri, a Pandit whose brother fought and died with the men's militia, was a pupil of Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah. She was fourteen when she joined the women's corps:
At that time it was a sort of a wave which overtook all the young men and women, so one doesn't question when events like these happen ... You go with the crowd, it was like that. ... We came to know about ... what atrocities [the raiders] committed in Baramulla. ... My mother was horrified because she had four daughters. Two were married and two were not married. ... Since this organisation was known as the Women's Self-Defence Corps, they said they would be training us in firearms so that we can defend ourselves. ... That was the great motivation for all of us to join this militia at that time. Perhaps to defend my honour, my self-respect. ... Even if I have to shoot myself, I should do it myself. 
The heightened sense of threat felt by non-Muslims, who had been targeted by the invaders on their advance through the towns of Muzaffarabad and Baramulla on their way to Srinagar, goes some way to explain the disproportionate number of Hindu women who enrolled in the militia.
The women's corps was established towards the end of November 1947. By then the immediate threat to Srinagar had eased, but fighting was continuing and there was an acute concern that the Kashmiri capital could again face the threat of occupation. There was no formal recruitment and no uniform. Kanta Wazir was seventeen and still at college - the teachers there encouraged girls to join. 'They said it was very good work- that we should be prepared for the sake of our country. ... We were told in college by our professors, and by the principal, that they had arranged for the girls to get trained in firing a .303 rifle. Any girl who wanted to join could do so.' The larger number were from families with a loyalty to the National Conference and, in some cases, a loose allegiance to communism. It's striking that many of the women who joined were related to each other. Some were very young - a few were not yet teenagers. While the men's militia recruited to some extent beyond Srinagar, the women's corps membership - and most of its activity - seems to have been restricted to the city.
Although there was never any intention to deploy women in combat roles or close to the front line, from the start, the women were taught in the use of firearms.
Military training was in the first instance given in drilling and parading and in the use of 303 rifles. Although this was a heavy weapon for the younger girls and the old grandmother, who inspired them with her courage, it was the only immediately available training weapon and the girls became amazingly skilful in using it. Only later were their most expert members promoted to the use of stens and machine-guns and given some training in the throwing of hand-grenades. In the winter, they shovelled snow to clear their parade ground themselves.
There was an element of routine about some of the training. It was 'mainly left-right, left-right marching' at a location still then called Maharani Park and the rifles were so substantial - Kamla Shankar recalled - that the younger members could hardly place them on their shoulders. Her sister Krishna Misri says that the initial emphasis, for those who joined, was developing physical fitness:
then [we were] divided into smaller groups where weapons training was imparted. It was essential to follow the instructions given by our instructor, an ex-army serviceman, to a tee. Soon we understood the operational details of loading and unloading a gun, taking aim, and finally pressing the trigger. To get acclimatized to shooting the 303 rifle, sten gun, bren gun and pistol, practice drills were organised in an open air, known as Chandmari. The initial nervousness soon gave way to confidence and we would hit the target when ordered.
Other militia members recall being taken to a military firing range at Badami Bagh - now the main Indian army base in Srinagar - where they were shown how to use and maintain the army-issued weapons. 'They were trying to familiarise [us] with that gun, but it was so heavy when we pulled the trigger, I wonder we didn't fracture our shoulder.' Kaushalya Kaul recalled being given instruction and lectures by army men. 'We were basically given training in arms. How to shoot - lying position, sitting position - and how to clean a rifle'. Kanta Wazir remembers a test at the conclusion of the training and - along with many others - took part in competitive target practice. Those women who did well were given packets of salt - then in short supply in Srinagar and so a valued prize - or bars of soap.
The women's corps also took on a role in the political education of its recruits, in much the same manner as the men's militia. 'In addition to lectures in elementary military technique ..., weekly Saturday meetings were held at which prominent leaders of the National Conference would address the Corps on the political questions of the day and women themselves would speak on the duty and rights of Kashmiri women and the girls would sing patriotic songs', according to an official account of the militia's activities. Women were enlisted not simply in their own defence but in establishing the political hegemony of the party under whose banner they enlisted.
'People's Age', 28 December 1947
The mustering of women - and of a separate children's contingent, which paraded with wooden poles shaped like rifles - was intended to demonstrate that all sections of Kashmir were ready and determined to protect their city and the emerging new political dispensation. It was a display of strength aimed as much at galvanising the citizens of Srinagar as at resisting aggressors. The People's Age both chronicled and extolled the raising of the women's militia. In mid-December 1947, the weekly devoted its front page to an article headlined: 'Kashmir's Women Shoulder Rifles in Defence of Freedom' - an 'exclusive', it asserted. The paper carried two photographs of groups of women being trained, somewhat haphazardly by the look of it, in the use of rifles. 'For the first time on the soil of India is there being built an army of women, trained to use the rifle and other modern weapons of war. That army is being built in Kashmir for its defence from the invading hordes.' Two weeks later, four images of 'Kashmir's People's Army' - all but one of women members - were spread over two facing pages. This was the work of a distinguished progressive photographer, Madanjeet Singh, and the images are telling: a close-up of one of the women who had enlisted; another close-up of a woman taking aim through the sights of her rifle; and a photograph of women in formation. 'Kashmir's women's army, formed in the last week of November with 40 volunteers, has grown by leaps and bounds', insisted the accompanying commentary. 'The ages of these women soldiers range from 12 to 45. Within a few days they can drill with rifles, in another few days they are actually at shooting practice at the rifle range - and then they are ready for the enemy.' The paper also included a brief appeal from Begum Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah's wife and herself a prominent political figure, seeking donations of blankets, children's clothes and money on behalf of 'the women of Kashmir, who, gun in hand and with grim bravery, are facing the hazards of war'.
The prominence given by communists to Kashmir's women's corps reflected the radical and innovative aspect of the women's militia, the communist role in its formation and a broader assertion of the value of CPI-linked activity in establishing what was, in essence, a new governing ideology in Jammu and Kashmir. On top of all that, the notion of a people under arms - reflected in the news and images from Srinagar - played into debates within Indian communism about resort to armed force. The men's and women's militias in Kashmir mobilised in support of a new status quo and of newly independent India, while the rural uprising in Telangana in southern India which in subsequent months the CPI helped to organise was a rebellion and in part a repudiation of the Indian state. As the party line swung sharply away from working with 'bourgeois' parties towards peasant insurrectionism, so Kashmir faded from the pages of the communist press.
Among those who joined the women's militia was an English woman by birth, Freda Bedi, who - along with her Punjabi husband - had for some years been a keen and active left-wing supporter of Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference. B.P.L. Bedi took the lead in compiling the New Kashmir programme and manifesto; Freda Bedi had taken personal risks in establishing contact with underground 'rebel' leaders of the nationalist movement during the Quit Kashmir agitation, famously wearing a burqa on one occasion to do so. From mid-December 1947, the Bedis and their two children made Srinagar their home, and Freda became the only European member of the Women's Self Defence Corps. 'I don't know how to recount the last year to you in a letter', she wrote to friends in describing her move to Kashmir; 'it has been a new world, harrowing + yet inspiring'.
Last winter I divided my time between the Kashmir Women's Army - military training - + refugee relief. We had 17,000 refugees in the city and ran 23 milk + relief centres. There wasn't time to breathe + I lost over a stone!!
The Kashmir Valley was spared the huge torrents of the displaced that crisscrossed the Punjab plains, but there were still substantial numbers of Sikh refugees in particular. Refugee camps were set-up hastily, often in what had been school and college buildings. Women volunteers took up 'women's work' among these refugees, handing out clothes and blankets - 'all of us', Bedi recounted, acting as older sisters to the thousands of children and women suffering not only physical hardships in the desperate cold, but often in mental torture when relations and children had been killed, abducted, or lost on the miserable trek to safety.' 
Freda Bedi (nearest camera) with, next to her, Krishna Misri (with glasses) and then her sister Indu Pandit, along with other members of the women's militia, Srinagar, Kashmir, May 1948 - photograph by Ram Chand Mehta, courtesy of India Picture
The emergency administration led by Sheikh Abdullah was quick to develop a political narrative surrounding the relief work of the women's militia:
In carrying out this work of mercy and goodwill, the women and girls of the Self-Defence Corps showed that the same members of the organization who took up the rifle to safeguard their own honour and that of their sisters, were at the same time willing to work throughout the day, with fortitude and patience to alleviate the miseries of their sisters who had been deprived of hearth and home and had lost husbands and dear ones and whose whole world had crumbled around them ... A feature of the work was its stress on the Communal Unity programme of the National Conference; and workers of all communities worked in the camps, under the flag of the National Conference, bringing to the sick of mind and body the healing words of love and fellowship and the promise of "New Kashmir".
The corps had a president, secretary and executive - all women - to organise and oversee its work.
Freda Bedi was a member of the executive; she and her family had lost all their personal possessions in the Partition mayhem that engulfed the Punjabi capital, Lahore. 'We had to rebuild from the ground up', she told an old friend in England. 'But nothing matters - all of us are safe + having been daily with refugees with their heartrending stories of violent death + abduction I feel we have been lucky.' Bedi had been part of a group - deliberately representing different religious communities - which travelled to the Kashmiri town of Baramulla at Christmas 1947 to visit a mission hospital and chapel desecrated by the invading tribesmen. She was deeply disturbed by the accounts of sexual violence she heard there. She became known respect for her work in helping women refugees. The women's wing of the National Conference helped to retrieve hundreds of abducted women and children and the women's militia came to the aid of women who had survived assault and abduction. Kanta Wazir recalled that part of the work she and fellow college students undertook was to visit victims of sexual assault at the local hospital.
The women were in a very bad state. We would go in groups of five to seven ... We would ask the women what they had gone through, offer them support. We were encouraged to learn how to counsel these women. ... They were very young. There were some older women as well but the majority were very young - they had been raped, beaten. The Sikh girls were worse off than the Hindus. The rallying cry of the kabailis was: "Sardaron ka sar, Hinduon ka zar" [Take heads off Sikhs and wealth from Hindus]
She and her friends were particularly encouraged to undertake this work because most of the victims were of the same age group, in their teens. Krishna Misri, who was a few years younger, also recalls frequent visits to the women and children in the local refugee camps:
We would give baths to these children. We would give medicines to them. We would distribute woollen clothes among them. It was, say, twice or thrice a week we would go to these refugee camps and spend most of our time in them. And more than their material needs, what was important was they were psychologically shattered. ... So we would sit with the children, because I was almost a [child] at the time - sit with the children and listen to their stories. We were told that we should talk to them so that they could unburden themselves.
This aspect of the women's work was less on public display but perhaps of more direct purpose.
Much of the drilling and training of the women's corps was conducted outdoors in public spaces and would have been widely visible. The women's militia became part of the public ceremonial of the new administration. Kaushalya Kaul recalled that after Gandhi was assassinated, 'the entire women's contingent went to the airport to receive his ashes. ... All of us went then. We had a peaceful march then.' The occasion when the women's militia was most on display came when they were inspected by Nehru on the Indian prime minister's visit to Srinagar in May 1948. This was an important moment of political symbolism. Nehru's visit was billed as part of the week long celebrations of Kashmir's 'independence', a misleading description given that the princely state was part of India (on what basis and for how long had not, at that time, been fully established). The occasion being marked was the end of princely autocracy - though the maharaja's authority had been constrained rather than abrogated. More than anything else, it was a moment to mark and legitimise the advent to power of Sheikh Abdullah, who had been confirmed as prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir in March 1948, and of the radical and secular nationalism he was seen as representing. Kashmir had gained the 'responsible' government sought by the National Conference and this was the public celebration of that achievement.
The Times of India described the events as 'a remarkable mass demonstration which even the Bombay Congress, reputed for its organising genius[,] might envy.'
The celebrations demonstrated to the world Sheikh Abdullah's hold on the masses of Kashmir and to India and to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the Kashmiris' gratitude for the timely and unstinted aid they received at a time of grave crisis. 
Ambassadors to India were invited, 'though the only important embassy represented was the Soviet'. The maharaja and maharani flew in but, perhaps wisely, 'kept themselves in the background'. Nehru's itinerary in Kashmir - the newspaper reported - included a river procession and regatta, a banquet, a tea party at the Mughal-era Shalimar gardens and 'a drama staged by the "Cultural Front" forcefully depicting the people's sufferings at the hands of tribal raiders', as well as a visit to Indian soldiers at Uri close to the front-line where the army was preparing for a sharp escalation in fighting with Pakistan. Once back in Srinagar, the paper reported, he attended 'an impressive parade by the National Militia, the peace brigade, the police and the Women's Defence Corps'. Another of India's leading daily newspapers, the Hindustan Times, published two photographs of the women's guard of honour in Srinagar, as well as of Kashmiri women Red Cross members and of the men's militia on parade.
At celebrations designed to reflect a new political order, it was hardly surprising that particular attention was given to the most emphatic expression of that break with the past: Kashmiris under arms, and above all Kashmiri women bearing rifles. Both the men's and women's militia - and indeed, the bal sena or 'children's army' - assembled on the Polo Ground in the centre of Srinagar to be inspected. Krishna Misri regarded Nehru as a 'great hero' and many years later still cherished her memory of the event:
It was a very great moment of my life. I was overawed by his presence and literally shaking when I had a rifle in my hand and when I was asked to present arms to him ... The parade would start with these ... men volunteers and then several squads of women volunteers holding rifles would form a part of this huge parade.[x]
Zainab Begum, the president of the corps, accompanied India's prime minister as he walked along the ranks of the women's militia. A Pathé Newsreel includes brief shots of Nehru inspecting women militia members, their heads covered and wearing light coloured salwar kameez (tunic and loose fitting trousers) with rifle in hand, and stopping to talk to Sajida Zameer Ahmed. The women are shown presenting rifles and staging a march past, and there are a similar range of shots of the men's militia and of the children's contingent. 'The frontier battles have been going on incessantly', the newsreel commentary asserted, 'and the war that has even put the women of their state under arms occupies the minds of all on this independence day'. The photographer Ram Chand Mehta was also on hand to capture the moment - taking images of Nehru inspecting the women's militia against the backdrop of one of Srinagar's most iconic settings, the unmistakable profile of Shankacharya hill.
Sajida Zameer Ahmed talking to Nehru
The Cultural Front which had performed for Nehru was another part of the communist-influenced mobilisation in support of Sheikh Abdullah's radical nationalism and to resist the Pakistani tribal fighters. Several of the members of the women's militia were also prominent in these cultural activities, and particularly in the front's short, punchy, political dramas, often laced with song. 'Those plays used to be a big, big hit', Usha Khanna recalled, 'and they used to bring up the morale of the villagers'. She took the lead role in a short play entitled "Sara", which was depicted as a 'true story' of a young Kashmiri woman who offered to cook for a group of Pakistani invaders but instead informed on them. It celebrated the courage of the central character and of the members of the men's militia who stormed the house and captured the "raiders". 'Those were the great days. We didn't know whether it was night or day - we had been roaming all over. And my name turned into, instead of Usha, Ayesha, Muslim name. And they loved me.' The Cultural Front also brought together progressive Kashmiri writers, mainly poets, with writers, artists and performers from other parts of India who came to Srinagar as a demonstration of political engagement and support. 'The atmosphere reminded one of Spain and the International Brigade where, it was said, writers had come to live their books, and poets had come to die for their poetry!', commented K.A. Abbas, later a considerable figure in Indian cinema.
The involvement in the movement of Usha Khanna had a denouement that was both romantic and tragic. She fell in love with Rajbans Khanna, the young communist student leader who had a leading role in the men's militia. Both were Punjabi Hindus but the CPI was not pleased by the relationship - perhaps because it was regarded as a distraction, or because such romances might have made it more difficult for women to navigate through family pressures and remain politically engaged. The party took some time to agree to the couple's request to marry and when, once married and living outside Kashmir, Usha became pregnant, she was ordered to have an abortion. 'Rajbans was distraught beyond words, but asked me to make up my own mind. Till this day, I regret the fact that I didn't put my foot down, and went along with the two comrades, who took me to a neighbourhood quack, who in turn inserted some twigs in to my uterus'. She was six months pregnant.
Usha and Rajbans Khanna - courtesy of Malavika Sanghvi
Usha Khanna's adoption of a Muslim stage name suggests a sensitivity about the preponderance of non-Muslims among those involved in the women's militia and the cultural front. While it's not possible to offer an authoritative assessment, it seems that - at least initially - Hindus may have made up half or more of the membership of the women's militia, even though they constituted a much lower proportion of Srinagar's population. Among the city's small Punjabi Hindu population, the social constraints on women engaging in activity outside home and college were less marked. The Kashmiri Pandit community, Kashmiri-speaking high caste Hindus, provided much of the Kashmir Valley's intelligentsia and professional elite, and felt more directly at risk from the tribal fighters than the majority Muslim community. Pandits were also proportionately over-represented among communist sympathisers in Srinagar. The very small number of Kashmiri Sikh women who joined up is striking given their community's sense of vulnerability - but few among the Valley's small Sikh community lived in Srinagar.
The conspicuous involvement in the militia of non-Muslim women should not obscure what for participants was a defining aspect of the Self Defence Corps - that it very publicly brought together Hindu and Muslim women, parading side-by-side. Among the Kashmiri Muslim women who became prominent in the militia were: the woman who was widely seen as initiating the militia, Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah, (whose brother Syed Ali Shah, known as Sham-ji, was prominent in the men's militia); the woman who became its figurehead and who led it at formal events, Zainab Begum (the sister of the leftist G.M. Sadiq), who abandoned purdah or the customary seclusion of adult women to encourage women's political engagement and who developed a reputation as an orator; and its most celebrated enlistee, Zoon (or Zuni) Gujjari.
'People's Age', 28 December 1947
Zuni Gujjari stands out as one of a fairly small number of non-privileged Kashmiri women who enrolled in the militia. She was born in about 1912 into a family of milk-sellers and her surname suggests that she was from the marginalised Gujjar community. Her own background as a National Conference militant who had challenged the maharaja's security forces in the streets was widely celebrated. She became known as 'Zuni Mujahid' as a tribute to her record as a freedom fighter. Some of her suffering and exploits may perhaps have been embellished in the retelling but her personal courage and commitment was clearly exceptional. She was reputed to have been jailed up to nine times under the maharaja's rule; she was said to have been abandoned by her husband because of her political activity; and her young son was reported to have been killed during a demonstration. There are suggestions that she was the model for the female figure on the cover of the New Kashmir document. Poor Muslim women in Kashmir had in some ways more public space than those from an elite background because they were not hampered by purdah. Gujjari had been active in the Quit Kashmir movement distributing leaflets and addressing meetings. 'Common women, they came out on the streets and fought for their rights', Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah recalled of the protests in 1946. 'There was one common woman, Zoon Gujjari. She was a milk woman herself but she was so powerful, so intelligent'.
Gujjari enrolled promptly once the women's militia was established late the following year. 'Attired in traditional Kashmiri Muslim dress and holding a rifle in various positions', commented Krishna Misri, 'she became the symbol of [the] WSDC'. Shanti Swarup Ambardar also recalled how Gujjari 'became famous as an WSDC volunteer' - and posters of her wearing the customary Kashmiri holding a rifle and wearing a pheran, a smock of sorts, were hung on lamp posts across the city. She had a reputation for being tempestuous. Nevertheless, she became was quite literally the "poster girl" of the New Kashmir endeavour, representing the inclusiveness of the new Kashmiri nationalism and its ability to reach groups such as women and the under privileged.
There is no reason to believe that Gujjari was a communist sympathiser but the communist press latched on to her as an example of an ordinary Kashmiri willing to take up arms to defend her homeland and its new leadership. 'This is Zoni - a milk-maid by profession - one of the leaders of the Women's Army', read the caption in the People's Age accompanying a close-up photograph of her. She was depicted smiling broadly with her head covered and wearing prominent ear-rings. 'Today Zoni has taken to the rifle to drive the invaders back and to build a New Kashmir.' Other photographs showed her as part of a group of women holding rifles and being trained how to fire them. A well-produced propaganda pamphlet Kashmir Defends Democracy in support of Sheikh Abdullah's new administration - published in Delhi in the summer of 1948 and probably intended for distribution principally outside the Kashmir Valley - had on its cover a striking representation of Gujjari lying down and taking aim with a rifle. She was depicted in stylised fashion in red; the background was a photograph of the women's militia. A conscious choice had been made to display both Gujjari and the WSDC as an emblem of the new dispensation in Kashmir. Several other official publications included prominent photographs of the women's militia. When Edwina Mountbatten visited Kashmir in late May 1948 on behalf of the Red Cross to support efforts towards refugee rehabilitation, she was photographed alongside Begum Abdullah - and a confident and smiling Zuni Gujjari. In subsequent years, Gujjari is said to have fallen foul of Sheikh Abdullah's successor as prime minister and endured another brief spell in jail - but she was nevertheless awarded a small pension as a "freedom fighter" and was able to perform the Haj pilgrimage several times. She was 'at present basking in the memory of bygone days' wrote one chronicler of Kashmir's freedom movement in the 1980s, while another insisted on having her photo taken with this 'statuesque, virile old woman, dressed in a loose [pheran] and having no teeth' who had become a legend within the Kashmir Valley.
Zuni Gujjari, Edwina Mountbatten and Akbar Jehan (Begum Abdullah), 1948
The women activists of the Kashmiri nationalist movement became known colloquially, in tribute to Gujjari, as the Zuni Brigade. One of Kashmir's progressive poets, Mirza Ghulam Hassan Beg who wrote as Arif, paid tribute to Zuni and her fellow freedom fighters in his poem 'Inquilab Zindabad', or long live revolution, the English translation of which was widely disseminated: I shall go out with a machine gun I will not surrender this land my garden in to alien hands I will take vengence [sic] And dip my fingers in their blood
This bellicose text appeared, at first glance incongruously, in the programme for an event at Kashmir's newly-established Government College for Women in September 1951. Another rendition of the verse offers a more gendered, and certainly more uncompromising, wording:
I shall march forthwith a machine-gun in hand, I shall not let the raiders encroach on my garden; I shall paint my nails with the blood of those that covet me, Long live the revolution, hail hail the revolution!
It's not hard to see why this version may have been a little too pungent for a college publication.
From the papers of Freda Bedi - courtesy of Ranga Bedi
The college was the most tangible expression of the gendered aspect of the New Kashmir manifesto. It was established in the autumn of 1950 as Kashmir's first higher education institute for women - and with unmistakable political symbolism, it took over a property in central Srinagar that had been a home for the widows of the Dogra princely family. Several women active in the militia were prominent at the college and over the years two among them, Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah and Krishna Misri, served as the college principal. Freda Bedi - who had earlier taught English at a women's college in Lahore - returned to that role at the new college. 'There are 160 girls studying in the college,' she told friends, 'which is quite a good number for a part of the world where in the old days everything was done to discourage rather than encourage higher education for women.' This was New Kashmir in practise. Otherwise post-1947 Kashmir's record of gender empowerment was modest. While land reform and rural indebtedness was pursued with zeal and effectiveness, the agenda on women's issues was not. The burst of women's activity during the most feverish period of Kashmir's political and military crisis was short-lived. Women's organisations came to hold little authority and very few women - with the exception of Begum Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah's wife - became prominent within the new dispensation. The historian Hafsa Kanjwal has spoken of the limitations of 'state-led' feminism in Kashmir and has argued, with some justice, that 'no indigenous, grass-roots women's movement emerged in Kashmir' out of the commitment to gender initiatives espoused by Kashmiri nationalists prior to 1947.
Several of the women participants in the militia were aware - certainly with hindsight - of the manner in which they were used as emblems of a new political dominance in Kashmir. 'I think it was more of propaganda actually ... because in our traditional dress, the pheran, ladies were given guns and they were photographed while they were sitting with guns', commented Kaushalya Kaul. 'Photographers from all over the world came and took our pictures'. Girija Dhar was - in her family's view - too young to join the militia herself but had keen memories of that moment. 'I saw my own mother, my aunts, my sisters, joining the militia and going for arms training. Of course they didn't go to the front but we were all very excited about the whole thing', she said. 'They were even photographed during the training. ... However, I think it was all very symbolic because they didn't really go fighting or anything.' Underlying such sentiments, there is a sense of pride in and nostalgia for a chapter in their youth when women were so visible and assertive and also a disappointment that this window of women's empowerment was both restricted and short-lived. 'I was so enthusiastic', Krishna Misri remarked, 'I thought that this movement was going to last forever'.
The women's militia was not so much disbanded as allowed to fade away. Participants recall that training and drill ended either in the summer of 1948 or with the onset of winter. As the battle front fell quiet - a ceasefire between India and Pakistan took effect at the close of 1948 - life in Srinagar began to resume a regular routine. In the course of 1948, Sheikh Abdullah had undertaken a thorough reorganisation of the men's militia to root out the influence within it of Kashmiri communists whom he suspected of disloyalty.
The measures of land reform and rural debt relief that Sheikh Abdullah's administration introduced, against Delhi's wishes, were arguably the most far-reaching anywhere in India, more comprehensive even than the measures introduced by communist-led state governments in Kerala and West Bengal. This was the policy priority in the early years of Sheikh Abdullah's administration. He quickly got caught up in factionalising, arrested some of his one-time allies, repudiated the left and started talking aloud about the option of an independent Kashmir in a manner that deeply alarmed the Indian government. In 1953 he was, with Nehru's complicity, forced from office and arrested. While his successors still spoke of the goal of a New Kashmir, the radical spirit that informed that vision had evaporated. The memory of the women's militia misted over and the photographs of Kashmiri women bearing rifles were largely forgotten - though curiously one such image graced a volume of Jawaharlal Nehru's Selected Works. Women graduates of the Government College for Women in Srinagar had few opportunities of professional advancement in Kashmir other than as teachers or lecturers. There is perhaps as much space for women in public life in Srinagar as in comparable cities in North India and Pakistan - but there is also a pervasive fear of human rights abuses including sexual violence, both from the Indian security forces and on occasion from armed separatist militants. The most prominent woman activist in Srinagar in recent years has been Parveena Ahangar, whose sixteen-year-old son disappeared - apparently detained by Indian security forces - in 1990. She founded and led the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. It's not the sort of gender empowerment that the initial advocates of New Kashmir had in mind.
'When you hold a rifle you feel good about yourself', Kanta Wazir reflected looking back on her involvement as a teenager in the women's militia. 'We used to talk about it all the time, that we knew how to fire a rifle ... There is no doubt that there was excitement about this. You feel that you are also important, that you are also capable of doing something. You can protect yourself. You can help the women who are in the hospital, show them solidarity. I think women played a very important role at that time.' The memory of that moment has largely been lost in Kashmir as a new conflict and militarisation has blighted lives and livelihoods - somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 lives have been lost in Kashmir since the start of a separatist insurgency against Indian rule in 1989. There is now no substantial strand of opinion that valorises the episode of the women's militia - of Kashmiri women nationalists under arms on India's behalf. It doesn't fit the contemporary discourse into which much retelling of Kashmir's past is made to fit.
The women's militia apparently as a welcome guard at Srinagar's airfield - Zainab Begum is standing in front, Freda Bedi is at the far end of the line of women militia members. Photo courtesy of Tahir Baba.
 Krishna Misri interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, Faridabad, 26 May 2007
 I am grateful to Manisha Sobhrajani for interviewing on my behalf a veteran of the women's militia, Kaushalya Kaul (nee Dhar), and two other women with keen memories of the militia. She drew on this material for her book The Land I Dream Of: the story of Kashmir's women, Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2014. I met and talked to three former militia members - Krishna Misri (nee Zadoo), Sajida Zameer Ahmed (nee Malik) and Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah - and talked on the phone to two others, Usha Khanna (nee Kashyap) and Kamla Shankar (nee Zadoo). This article is also informed by the recollections of another veteran of the militia, Kanta Wazir (nee Zutshi), in conversation with her daughter, Rekha Wazir. Some personal accounts touching on the women's militia are related in Meera Khanna, In a State of Violent Peace: voices from the Kashmir Valley, Noida: HarperCollins, 2015.
 Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: a people's history of India's Second World War, London: Bodley Head, 2015, pp.136-7. The khaksars were a military-style movement of young Muslims.
 Lakshmi Saghal, A Revolutionary Life: memoirs of a political activist, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997, pp142-149
 Andrew Whitehead, The Lives of Freda: the political, spiritual and personal journeys of Freda Bedi, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger 2019, pp.128-9. The advocate of establishing guerrilla bands in Punjab was Freda Bedi's leftist husband, B.P.L. Bedi.
 Shalini Sharma, Radical Politics in Colonial Punjab: governance and sedition, London: Routledge, 2010, p.105. People's War, 29 August 1943
 Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: the making of India and Pakistan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p.185
 There is much debate about when Kashmir's maharaja signed the instrument of accession. It's dated 26 October 1947 - but was almost certainly signed the following day, Andrew Whitehead, A Mission in Kashmir, Viking Penguin: New Delhi, 2007, pp.108-118. This would be simply an incidental detail but for the fact that it suggests that India's military air lift to Kashmir began a few hours before the accession document was signed. For a brief overview of Kashmir and its history, see Chitralekha Zutshi, Kashmir, in the Oxford Short Introductions series published in 2019.
 Jammu and Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan by a ceasefire line first delineated in 1949. Both countries continue to claim all the former princely state and have fought three wars in and over Kashmir.
 Andrew Whitehead, 'The Rise and Fall of New Kashmir', in Chitralekha Zutshi (ed.), Kashmir: history, politics, representation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp.70-88.
Times of India, Bombay, 9 October 1947. Andrew Whitehead, 'The People's Militia: communists and Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s', Twentieth Century Communism: a journal of international history, 2, 2010, pp.141-168.
 Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, The Blazing Chinar: an autobiography, translated from the Urdu by Mohammad Amin, Srinagar: Gulshan Books, 2013, pp.289-90
 Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah, Kashmir Kal aur Aaj [Kashmir Yesterday and Today], Hyderabad, 1971, p.52. I am grateful to Idrees Kanth for drawing my attention to these memoirs and to Adeel Khan for his help in translation. Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah was one of the very few Kashmiri Muslim women to study for a degree in Lahore in the early 1940s.
 Madhvi Yasin, 'Role of Women in the Freedom Struggle of Kashmir' in Mohammad Yasin and A.Qaiyum Rafiqi (eds), History of the Freedom Struggle in Jammu & Kashmir, New Delhi: Light & Life 1980, pp.199-210
 Sehar Iqbal and Severyna Magill - in their forthcoming article 'Women, Dissent and Kashmir: a case study of female protest' - have traced a lineage of Kashmiri women's protest from the 1930s, including women's attacks on abusive members of the princely state's armed forces in the early 1940s.
 Freda Bedi to Olive Chandler, 19 January 1949, in the possession of the Bedi family. Margaret Bourke-White, Halfway to Freedom: a report on the new India, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949, pp.200-1.
 Freda Bedi Newsletter: Christmas 1951, 4ff, in the possession of the Bedi family.
 Freda Bedi to Olive Chandler, 19 January 1949
Through Blood, Sweat & Tears, pp.34-5. Whitehead, The Lives of Freda, pp.178-9
 Women members of the National Conference occasionally accompanied teams seeking to rescue women and in the first four months of 1948 the emergency administration reported that 584 women and 84 children had been 'recovered' - Through Blood, Sweat & Tears, pp.63-4
 Krishna Misri interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, 26 May 2007
 Kaushalya Kaul interviewed by Manisha Sobhrajani
Times of India, 13 May 1948. Nehru himself privately described his four days in Kashmir as 'a very tiring but stimulating visit. On the whole the celebrations there were successful and impressive. There can be no doubt that Sheikh Abdullah's popularity in Srinagar and the Valley is very great' - letter to Sardar Patel, 12 May 1948, Selected Works, 2/6, 1987, pp.196-7.
 Usha Khanna, phone interview by Andrew Whitehead, 31 August 2008. People's Age, 21 December 1947
 Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, I Am Not An Island: an experiment in autobiography, New Delhi: Vikas, 1977, pp.304-6
 Usha R. Khanna, The Making of Samovar: how a Mumbai cafe became a metaphor for a generation, Worli: Spenta Multimedia, nd, pp17-23
 Madhvi Yasin, 'Role of Women in the Freedom Struggle'. C. Bilqees Taseer, The Kashmir of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Lahore: Ferozsons, 1986, pp221-3. Shazia Malik, Women's Development amid Conflicts in Kashmir: a socio-cultural study, Partridge India, 2014, pp.35-39
 Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, Srinagar, 18 June 2007
 Krishna Misri, personal communication, 13 November 2018
 Some of those who knew Gujjari described her as a 'livewire' and a 'terror'. Prem Nath Bazaz, in Daughters of the Vitasta: a history of Kashmiri women from early times to the present day, New Delhi: Pamposh Publications, 1959, p.262, seems to be referring to Zuni in his brief account of Noor Gujri 'a milkman's naughty daughter, who plagued the military and the police through her vituperative utterances and pugnacious pranks. Handsome and in the prime of her youth, she possessed a glib tongue and the uncommon ability of exciting women crowds.' He adds: 'though illiterate she was independent in her views and of a communal bent of mind'.
Kashmir Defends Democracy, Delhi: Kashmir Bureau of Information, . Hindustan Times, 1 June 1948. The cover was designed by a young progressive artist, Sobha Singh, who later achieved renown.
Through Blood, Sweat & Tears, , facing p.5; Prithvi Nath Kaula and Kanahaya Lal Dhar, Kashmir Speaks, Delhi: S. Chand & Co, 1950, facing p.81.
 The photograph is reproduced in Nyla Ali Khan, Islam, Women and Violence in Kashmir, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p.132
 Madhvi Yasin, 'Role of Women in the Freedom Struggle', pp.204-5. C. Bilqees Taseer, The Kashmir of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah,, pp.221-3.
 Somnath Dhar, 'Freedom Struggle of Jammu & Kashmir State as seen in Folklore', in Mohammad Yasin and A.Qaiyum Rafiqi (eds), History of the Freedom Struggle in Jammu & Kashmir, New Delhi: Light & Life 1980, pp.221-238. Neerja Mattoo, an expert on Kashmiri poetry, tells me that this translation of Arif's verse is more faithful to the original.
 Whitehead, TheLives of Freda, pp.189-190. Family Bedi Newsletter: Christmas 1951.
 Hafsa Kanjwal, 'The New Kashmiri Woman: state-led feminism in "Naya Kashmir"'. Economic & Political Weekly, 53, 47, 1 Dec 2018 [pagination]. Neerja Mattoo, 'The Story of a Women's College in Kashmir', in Urvashi Butalia (ed.), Speaking Peace: women's voices from Kashmir, London: Zed Books, 2002, pp.162-170. Earlier a small number of women studied at Sri Pratap College in Srinagar.
 Kaushalya Kaul, interviewed by Manisha Sobharajani
 Girija Dhar, interviewed by Manisha Sobhrajani, Srinagar, 6 May 2009
 Krishna Misri interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, 12 June 2007
 Bazaz, Daughters of the Vitasta, p.265, describes the women's militia as 'an emergency measure which came to an end with the cessation of hostilities' between India and Pakistan, though he says some Kashmiri women were subsequently able to train in the use of arms as members of a cadet corps.
 The photo captioned 'Inspecting a Unit of Women Volunteers in Kashmir, 10 May 1948', showing Nehru at the Polo Ground in Srinagar, appears in Nehru's Selected Works, 2/6, published in 1987