Seventy years ago this autumn, the parks and open spaces of the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, were taken over by groups of women who practised military-style drilling and learned how to fire rifles. These were members of Kashmir’s women’s militia, hastily recruited at the initiative of left-wingers in the face of an invading force which imperilled the city. There was next-to-no military tradition in Kashmir and the sight of Kashmiri women bearing arms was, for many, arresting and startling. It was a moment of political empowerment just at the eruption of the still unresolved Kashmir conflict, so often seen as a territorial contest between India and Pakistan.
‘For the first time on the soil of India’, declared the communist People’s Age in December 1947, ‘is there being built an army of women, trained to use the rifle and other modern weapons of war.’ On its front page, the weekly journal published photographs of women in Srinagar holding rifles – inexpertly, but with a clear sense of pride and purpose. ‘The women of Kashmir are the first in India to build an army of women trained to use the rifle’, the paper proclaimed. ‘By their example they have made Indian history, filled our chests with pride, [and] raised our country’s banner higher among the great nations of the world.’
The raising of the women’s militia was a consequence of the turbulence which followed the end of the British Raj in August 1947 and the independence achieved by India and Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir, to give the princely state its full name, was a large region in the far north of India with a mainly Muslim population and ruled over by a Hindu maharaja. It was up to princely rulers to decide whether to accede to India or Pakistan – although Kashmir, which adjoined both new dominions, was one of the few such states where there was a real decision to be made.
Maharaja Hari Singh refused to sign up to either new nation on the timetable set down by the British. His administration talked of the desire to see Kashmir as a Switzerland of the East: independent, neutral and welcoming for tourists. But when an invading force from Pakistan – largely of armed tribesmen from the North West Frontier, supported by sections of Pakistan’s armed forces and new government – advanced towards the Kashmiri capital, the maharaja and his court fled.
Much of Kashmir’s history – both the broad strokes and the fine detail – remains keenly contested, but it is likely the maharaja signed a document making his princely state part of India on October 27, 1947, just after reaching the safety of his palace at Jammu, to the south of the Kashmir Valley. At first light that morning, Indian military aircraft had begun an airlift to the Kashmiri capital to seek to repulse the force from Pakistan. These were the first Indian troops to set foot in the Kashmir Valley. They have been there ever since.
Accession to India and the airlift of troops had the support of the maharaja’s political nemesis. Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir, was a Muslim, a progressive Kashmiri nationalist and a commanding political figure in twentieth-century Kashmir. He was more attracted to the left-leaning, secular nationalism of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru than to M. A. Jinnah’s Muslim League in Pakistan, which was more socially conservative and more tolerant of feudalism.
A month before Kashmir acceded to India, Sheikh Abdullah was released from the maharaja’s jail in late September 1947 and, facing the threat of ransack by the tribal army, he recruited a popular militia to defend the Kashmiri capital. Once Indian soldiers began to arrive, they trained and armed the militia, and some militia members accompanied Indian troops into battle. The Pakistani irregulars reached the outskirts of Srinagar but then hastily withdrew from the Kashmir Valley (though not from all the maharaja’s domain).
The women’s section of the militia, or the Women’s Self Defence Corps as it was known, was established when the threat to Srinagar was still acute. Stories circulated – perhaps exaggerated, but with a basis in fact – that the tribal forces had raped and abducted women, particularly non-Muslims, as they advanced eastwards along the Jhelum river. The idea behind the militia was that the women of Srinagar would be able to defend their honour should the city be overrun.
The convening of the militia, as with so much of the popular mobilisation in support of Sheikh Abdullah, was largely overseen by the small band of communists in Kashmir and their supporters. It seems only to have mustered in Srinagar and probably to have consisted of under a hundred women, many of them teenagers. The recruits were from all communities, but disproportionately from among the small Kashmiri-speaking Hindu minority, who made up the larger part of the professions and liberal intelligentsia in Srinagar.
Among their number was Zuni Gujjari, a Muslim woman from a non-privileged background who was a renowned activist in the National Conference, the progressive nationalist party led by Sheikh Abdullah. Her likeness appeared on the cover of the National Conference’s 1944 manifesto, New Kashmir, as well as on Kashmir Defends Democracy, a propaganda pamphlet produced in 1948 in support of Sheikh Abdullah and Kashmir’s accession to India.
Women’s involvement in Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s was not restricted to the militia and to propaganda images. New Kashmir was a remarkably detailed and radical political programme, drafted by communists and borrowing liberally from Soviet documents, including a section on women that advocated equal wages, paid leave during pregnancy and the right to enter trades and professions, to own and inherit property and to consent to marriage.
In 1946, when many of the leaders of the National Conference were in jail, women came forward to sustain the political campaign against princely rule. According to Krishna Misri, who later enrolled in the women’s militia, ‘the women leaders took charge and gave a new direction to the struggle … However the leaders addressed no controversial woman-specific issues for they did not want to come across as social rebels.’
The immediate threat to Srinagar was lifted within a matter of weeks, though the first Kashmir war between India and Pakistan continued until the close of 1948. The women’s militia never saw active service, but it continued to drill and train in the use of firearms, with an Indian army instructor, well into 1948. Those who gained proficiency in shooting were awarded a bag of salt, a commodity then in short supply. The public display of Kashmiri women carrying rifles was an emphatic demonstration that the era of princely rule was over.
A contingent of militia members was inspected by Nehru, India’s prime minister, when he visited the Kashmir Valley. Members also sought to help some of the tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting across the former princely state.
By the close of 1948, the women’s militia had been disbanded and the much larger men’s militia was eventually incorporated into India’s armed forces. The communists urged Sheikh Abdullah, once he became Kashmir’s prime minister (the only Indian state then to have such a designation), to turn the volunteers into a people’s militia. Instead, he restructured the force so as to marginalise the influence of the left, whose support he no longer needed once in power.
Several former members of the women’s militia speak warmly of a moment of empowerment for Kashmiri women and regret that the window closed so quickly. The one lasting influence has been on women’s education. Sheikh Abdullah set up a Government College for Women in Srinagar, in a building which once housed the widows of the princely family. Several of the women active in the militia taught there and served as the college principal.
The popular political mobilisation of which the women’s militia was part has been largely written out of the competing historical narratives in Kashmir. India, which continues to grapple with a separatist insurgency, does not wish to dwell on Kashmiris arming themselves; Pakistan doesn’t want to be reminded of a time when Kashmiris mustered in support of Indian rule; and Kashmiri separatists, many now advocates of independence, are uncomfortable being reminded that seventy years ago Kashmiris took to the streets and parade grounds to support accession to India.
Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and a former editor of History Workshop Journal.
This article was originally published on History Workshop.