Krishna Misri with Andrew Whitehead at the launch of his book 'A Mission in Kashmir', 2007
Krishna Misri (nee Zadoo) was born in 1933 and brought up in Srinagar. In 1947, as a teenager, she enrolled in the women's wing of the national militia set up by supporters of Sheikh Abdullah. This personal reminiscence is about the momentous events of 1947, and her memories of the women's self-defence corps.
Krishna Misri is a former principal of two government colleges for women in Srinagar. She and her husband moved from Kashmir in 1990, and she now divides her time between Delhi and Abu Dhabi. She wrote these recollections in 2013:
1947 was a momentous year. It has shaped the person that I am today. Key was my participation in the Women’s Self Defence Corps (WSDC) where I was exposed to progressive female role-models and experienced feelings of strength and empowerment. WSDC, the women’s wing of Jammu & Kashmir National Militia, was raised in turbulent times of the tribal invasion. It provided a common platform that brought together Kashmiri women from different religions, castes, classes and educational backgrounds to serve the common mission of defending their honour and dignity, by bearing arms. It was an event without a historical precedent. For the first time a militia of women was raised on the subcontinent. Ironically Kashmiri women took to arms when entry into the armed forces of state was statutorily forbidden to their men in the Dogra regime. I cherish the warm, vivid and inspirational memories of WSDC despite a devastating personal tragedy. 1947 was a defining moment and of immense historical importance. It set into motion cataclysmic changes in the post-independence history and politics of the State, sounds of which are still reverberating. Regrettably, political commentators and historians have glossed over the significance of these events and failed to correlate them to the emancipation and empowerment of Kashmiri women. It is in recent years that Andrew Whitehead in A Mission in Kashmir and Nyla Ali Khan in Islam, Women and Violence in Kashmir: between India and Pakistan” have focussed on the events and highlighted the gallant role that volunteer forces of men and women played during the tumultuous times of 1947.
Looking back, the political events in the sub-continent were rapidly changing after the Mountbatten Award. Almost all the States acceded to either of the two dominions before or after 15th August, 1947. Maharaja Hari Singh, the Dogra ruler of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), had yet to decide whether to accede to India or Pakistan. In consequence the political situation in the State was fluid. His offer to enter into a standstill agreement with both the dominions indicated that he was on a different trajectory. Given the religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism of the state, his options were limited. Joining with Pakistan would not go well with the Dogra-majority of Jammu, where from he hailed or Buddhist Ladakh. In the valley, perhaps it would be unacceptable to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah given his mass appeal and political compulsions. In joining with India the Maharaja would have to compromise with the forces inimical to him. This would imply the rise of National Conference (NC) to power and his gradual political demise. He vacillated till the end, thinking of the third course – to remain independent.
It was a fortnight after the partition that reports of Pakistan armed infiltration in Poonch and Sialkot area of Jammu started pouring in. The Maharaja sent letters of protest to the government of Pakistan but in vain. On the other hand, Pakistan imposed an economic blockade in violation of the standstill agreement to pressurise him. The supplies of essential commodities like food, sugar, salt and petrol were stopped. This added to the woes of the people of the valley. Unnerved by these developments, the Maharaja sought support of the very forces he had been repressing since 1931. The ban on NC was lifted and its leaders released from jails. In the meantime a few top leaders of NC went to Pakistan to negotiate with the leaders of Muslim League on the party’s stand on accession but the negotiations broke down. While the negotiations were still on a well calibrated game plan unfolded.
On the fateful day of 22nd October, 1947 hordes of tribesmen from the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) equipped with modern weapons and commanded by Major General Akbar Khan of Pakistan army, crossed the border and entered Muzafarrabad – a north western district of Kashmir. It was an act of war. A reign of terror was let loose on the innocent civilians and government officials; they were killed and the women of the village raped. Dunni Chand Mehta, the Wazir Wazarat (revenue commissioner) of the district was shot dead while on duty along with several other officials. His hapless wife Krishna Mehta had to take refuge in a camp with her young children. Their eldest daughter Santosh was my class mate in Government Girls' High School in Srinagar. Decades on Krishna Mehta recounted her painful memories of the carnage in a book.
The meagre Kashmir State armed forces were in no position to resist the onslaught of a full scale invasion. The mutineers from their rank who joined hands with the tribesmen added to their woes; they helped the tribesmen to advance rapidly, yet the small contingent under the command of Brigadier Rajinder Singh put up a tough resistance at Uri and Rampur and delayed their onwards march. The valiant Brigadier died in action. The tribesmen spread to surrounding villages and mountainous terrain leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Their aim was to capture Srinagar, the summer capital of the State. On their way they damaged the powerhouse at Mohara and plunged Srinagar and other adjoining areas into darkness. Hours later they captured Baramulla, a commercial town and district headquarter, some forty kilometres away from Srinagar. The town witnessed the worst orgies, murder, rape, loot and arson. Not even Mother Superior, Nuns and Fathers and staff of St. Josephs Convent were spared. Women suffered disproportionately; they were abused on an unprecedented scale. A number of them were kidnapped and sold in the flesh trade markets of NWFP. To save their honour many jumped to death in river Jhelum or nearby wells, others escaped into the dense forest never to be seen again. The spiral in orgies against women drove several male Sikh members to shoot dead their unmarried daughters, sisters and other female relatives or dump them alive in wells. This included Kanhaiya Singh who worked for my father; he shot dead his physically challenged wife. The rapid advance of the tribesmen was halted at Baramulla due to their preoccupation with rape and loot, and the resistance put up by M.M. Sherwani; a prominent NC activist working underground. He was eventually caught by the raiders and crucified in full public glare. These chilling narratives were heard village after village and reached Srinagar. The people in the city were alarmed and panicked.
Maharaja Hari Singh sensing that further stay in Srinagar was untenable headed to Jammu at the dead of the night on 25th October, 1947. This led to complete collapse of civil and administrative machinery and military resistance. Acute uncertainty and fear gripped the valley. Several Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) families started migrating to the northern areas of India. Many took refuge in Muslim homes, where they were treated with utmost regard.
At this critical juncture the National Conference, under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, took charge. He gave a call for volunteers to resist the aggression and defend the mother land; and exhorted people to maintain communal harmony at any cost. The response to his call was overwhelming. A spontaneous grassroots movement began to emerge in the streets of Srinagar. Throngs of men, women and children, cutting across caste, creed, class and community took to the streets, chanting slogans and marching in processions. They rekindled hope amid gloom. An emergency administration with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah at the helm was put in place. “Peace Committees” and “Mohalla Committees” were formed. The streets of Srinagar saw young men keep vigil round the clock, specifically at strategic places like telephone and telegraph exchange, post office, bridges and other vital installations. The city resounded with the slogans –
"Beware aggressors, we Kashmiris will fight back.”
“Keep flying high oh Flag of Kashmir, Flag of those, whose hands are unarmed, the sign of plough your only adornment, Keep flying high forever wherever, Constant and proud till judgement day.”
Infused with a new spirit, the Kashmiris were mobilised as never before in living memory. To channel the political energy, the leadership decided to set up the Jammu & Kashmir National Militia. The militiamen became the core of resistance till the airborne Indian Army landed on 27th October, 1947. With elementary training in the use of firearms, the militia men were deployed to provide logistical support to the Indian forces as neither the officers nor the jawans were familiar with the terrain and local language. The militiamen guided the jawans and gathered vital information about movement of raiders in the frontlines. Epitomizing supreme sacrifice and deep conviction, some of them paid with their lives. 'The deathless heroism of these militia men made history' (P.N. Dhār, 1955).The martyrdom of Mohammad Maqbool Sherwani, Pushkar Zadoo, Master Abdul Aziz and Somnath Bera come to mind.
The predisposition of Pathan tribal to rape and loot delayed their onward advance to capture Srinagar. But the delay of few days changed course of history of the State. It provided sufficient time to the Maharaja to sign the “Instrument of Accession” with the government of India. Kashmir became a part of India. The accession was endorsed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Andrew Whitehead (in an article published in 2010) argues: 'The presence on the streets of the volunteer forces loyal to him (Sheikh Abdullah) was a tangible proof that the old princely order had gone. The militia’s task was to protect the Kashmir capital from Pakistan invaders, and in doing so it buttressed Kashmir’s accession to India.' The plan of Pakistan to pressurize the Maharaja to accede to it backfired. “Kashmir was thrown into the lap of India,” one political commentator observed. Despite having lost time, the political masters of the raiders egged them on and they reached Shalteng, on the outskirts of the city and spread over, barely a few kilometres away from the airport. By then the contingents of Indian army landed in Srinagar and started repulsing the attack. The flying Dakotas, carrying the Indian forces were welcomed by the cheering Kashmiris, from their rooftops.
The WSDC was a seminal initiative. Kashmiri women had been brutalised on an unprecedented scale. This was the tipping point. The government responded to the women’s concerns with a sense of urgency and prioritized their empowerment. It was decided that women be trained in self-defence, should Srinagar fall into enemy hands. They were organised under WSDC. A challenge was turned into opportunity. Like many families, my family too got involved in the resistance movement. My elder brother Pushkar Zadoo enrolled with the National Militia. My late sisters Kamala Shankar and Indu Pandit and I joined WSDC. Indu and I were still in high school.
A 1948 pamphlet showing members of the WSDC - the woman shown aiming her rifle is a likeness of Zoon Gujjari, Krishna Misri is third from left with her arm extended
The WSDC was a forum with wide ranging volunteer work from military training to social work and cultural activity. Our day started at Gol Bagh, later named after Brigadier Usman – who died in action – as Usman Zanana Park, with exercise, parade and weapons training. We were taught target shooting with 303 rifles, stenguns, Bren guns and pistols; and also throwing grenades, at Chandmari, an open area on the outskirts of the city. When our instructor fired the first shot, most of us were frightened. Soon a competitive spirit developed and as comfort levels increased, we learnt the use of firearms. What every volunteer looked forward to with bated breath was firing from long and short ranges. Taking the correct position and holding the butt of the gun tight and close to the right shoulder, to lessen the impact of rebound was the key. The real test of marksmanship was to hit the bull’s eye. We participated in several firing competitions to hone our skills at the army cantonment, at Badami Bagh. A perfect shot entitled a volunteer to three packets of salt; a rare commodity in Srinagar in 1947.
After a few weeks training the women contingents were seen on a march-past in the streets of Srinagar. Alongside army and militia contingents they participated in ceremonial parades and presented a Guard of Honour to several dignitaries, both civilian and military. Presenting Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India a Guard of Honour was the highlight of my involvement with WSDC. Mukta Battalion was the name given to the first battalion of women volunteers (quoted by Khan, Khidmat, February 1948). Hailed as a radical development, WSDC became the theme of dominant public discourse throughout the country. The streets of Srinagar resonated with patriotic slogans as the volunteers of the National Militia and WSDC staged march-past on the streets of Srinagar, to the drum beat of a marching song:
“Step by step we will march ahead, March to the battle front; We will fight them all, The looters, the aggressors, the killers, And the betrayers of our land;”
“Long live martyr Sherwani”
Nehru in Srinagar inspecting the WSDC. Photo by Ram Chand Mehta, posted courtesy of India Picture.
Providing succour to dislocated individuals and families who thronged to the city to take shelter from areas ravaged by the raiders was a challenge and called for immediate action. Displaced from their home and hearth, traumatised and uncertain of their future, their dire physical and psyche condition required urgent attention. Alongside women leaders, we visited the camps and helped in distribution of milk, foodstuffs, medicines, blankets and warm clothes. More than the material needs, it was getting into their traumatised psyche that was a challenge. Meeting with women refugees and listening to their harrowing experiences helped in bringing out their trauma. Considering the severity of the winter months, many housewives and volunteers knitted sweaters, caps and socks for them. Several volunteers went door to door and collected donations in cash and kind. To boost the morale of ailing and injured soldiers, many volunteers visited the military hospital and spent time with them. These activities gave a sense of reaching out to people in distress.
Given the dire situation of the refugees, Begum Abdullah, in December 1947, made an appeal to the Indian women, “On behalf of the women of Kashmir, who gun in one hand and with bravery, are facing the hazards of war, I appeal to my sisters who face a milder climate, to send us blankets and warm clothes. I would lay special emphasis on clothes for babies and children. Money donations are also required.”
The WSDC played a vital role in the cultural sphere. The formation of J&K Cultural Front was a landmark. It deeply impacted the cultural landscape of the State - a resurgence of hope reflected in art, music and theatre. Popular local writers, poets and artists like Mahjoor, Arif Beg, Rahman Rahi, Amin Kamil, Prem Nath Pardesi, Noor Mohammad Roshan, Mohanlal Aima, Abdul Ghani Namtahali, Pushkar Bhan, Pran Kishore, S. N. Zutshi and many others in association with leading luminaries from other parts of the country - K.A. Abbas, Chauhan, Sheela Bhatia and Balraj Sahni - made it a hub of cultural activities.
Plays were staged, poetic symposia and musical programmes organised. Budding artists put up exhibitions of their paintings. Several women volunteers including Usha Kashyap, Sumitra and Santosh Lakhwara, Sajjida Zameer, Shanta Koul and Taj Begum Renzoo were actively engaged with cultural activities. Shedding age-old taboos, they acted with male co-actors in plays like “This is Kashmir,” “Martyr Sherwani” and “Sara.” These plays depicted the heroism of Kashmiris and projected an alternative vision of a social order free from exploitation. Prolific literary and artistic output contributed to the culture renaissance in the State. A new genre of artists, writers, poets, singers, musicians, broadcasters and media personalities, both men and women, rose to eminence later in life. They enriched the intellectual, academic and cultural life down the decades.
The WSDC provided a conduit for women steeped in centuries-old conservatism, ignorance and superstition to participate in the nascent political discourse. The vibrant Zoon Gujjari, attired in traditional Kashmiri garb - phiran and pooch - and shouldering a gun, symbolised the WSDC. She came from a conservative Muslim family of humble means (her father was a milk vendor) and lived in downtown Srinagar. Undeterred by several prison terms and despite personal tragedy (her five-year-old son was killed in mass action by Dogra soldiers), she addressed public meetings and drew huge crowds.
Several Kashmiri women assumed position of leadership. In fact these leaders had been in the forefront of the “Quit Kashmir Movement” in 1946. Begum Akbar Jahan, the wife of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was a key figure. She took charge of providing rehabilitation and relief to displaced and dispossessed individuals and families who thronged to the city to seek shelter. In the capacity of the first President of J&K Red Cross Society (1947-1951) she visited the refugee camps and supervised relief works. She addressed the volunteers of WSDC on several social and political issues and tried to raise their social awareness. Ms Mahamuda Ahmad Ali Shah was the guiding spirit and worked out the strategies for the multifarious activities of the WSDC. She was associated with the politics of the state since the 1930s and participated in various students’ movements at Lahore, where she did her Master’s. Later in life, she became a pioneering educationalist and championed the cause of women’s education and empowerment. Zainab Begum, sister of veteran leader G.M.Sadiq who became the Chief Minister of the State (1964-1972), was a prominent leader. She discarded purdah and plunged into the volatile politics of Kashmir. The volunteers were enthused by her oratory. She was at the vanguard leading the ceremonial parades. Surprisingly, when the women leaders were directing the “Quit Kashmir Movement,” there was a British lady, Freda Bedi, playing a key role with them. She was married to B.P.L. Bedi, a prominent communist and a writer. The couple were deeply involved with the politics of Kashmir. They enjoyed political clout due to their proximity with the highest echelons of NC leadership. Freda was actively engaged in organising various activities of the WSDC.
The WSDC was an engine for change and its aftermath was dramatic. It set into motion a transformative process by opening up new vistas for women’s emancipation and empowerment. The Kashmiri women reinvented and repositioned themselves in a backward social milieu that was deeply entrenched in patriarchal values and age-old discrimination. This had a profound psychological impact on majority Kashmiri women of the times and a cascading effect on generations to come.
More than half a century has gone by yet my recollections of the era have not faded; the memories of the times when we were standing at the cusp of far reaching changes. These memories reinforce a sense of pride in my association with the WSDC.