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Revising Narratives of the Partition of India and October 27th, 1947

In what ways are women present in political contexts? Kashmiri women, from different walks of life, have managed against all odds to express their agency during the plethora of political, social, and military transformations in the past nine decades. The perception and manifestation of women’s political struggle during the nationalist awakening in the 1930s became “a wider part of the politics of democratization and empowerment” (Chenoy and Vanaik 2001: 123). During the growing sense of nationhood in the 1930s, and during the political awakening in the 1940s Kashmiri women forged broad coalitions and informal networks to challenge state-centered, feudal, and elitist notions of identity and security. Kashmiri women perceived and articulated cultural and political resistance, during the invasion by raiders from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1947, in terms of clear nation-building programs, which involved reviving civil society, resuscitating the shattered economy, and building social and political structures.  Subsequent to the accession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian dominion in 1947, while the Indian subcontinent was reeling from the mayhem of the country’s partition, women’s organizations attempted to contribute peace-building work at the local and regional levels. Have Kashmiri women signified a reconciliatory presence and been harbingers of peace? Does the insurgent movement in Kashmir stress women’s political empowerment and address the protracted crisis for security and legitimacy?

While collecting historical records and individual testimonies to trace the historical lineage of Kashmiri women’s sociopolitical activism, my curiosity was piqued by the feisty debates that were aroused by the tribal invasion of 1947. So, I dug into the archival material available to me. In a dog-eared copy of Life Magazine reporter Margaret Bourke-White’s book, I found riveting details of her rich conversations with 20th century political stalwarts of the Indian subcontinent. Bourke-White, who was sent to India on assignment in the eventful late 1940s, writes enthusiastically about the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. She writes that the giant leaps taken toward democracy in the former princely state could be a harbinger for progressive movements and positive change in the rest of India. She sardonically tells the reader that the move toward achieving democracy in the state was expedited by the despotic ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, when he fled his principality, leaving his subjects in the lurch.

This occurred at the inception of the invasion of Kashmir, in October of 1947 “when hordes of fanatical Muslim tribesmen were pouring in from Pakistan, killing, looting, and burning villages.” This onslaught convulsed the entire Kashmir Valley, carrying “the raiders to the outskirts of Srinagar, the capital.” In a quick and efficient response to the incursion, “the People’s Party, as it is also known”—had put a representative government in place, “which administered food stores, organized a people’s militia for defense against the invader, and started working on a new constitution.” Jammu and Kashmir was terrorized by the willful infliction of pain and suffering on civilians during the fateful period of the partition of India. The communal violence in the Jammu province of the state was remorseless. The rapacity of the fanatical invaders seemed insatiable. Amidst that pandemonium, Kashmir was the first state in the newly freed Indian subcontinent to have its own written constitutional plan. “Members of the People’s Party had studied constitutions from all over the world, particularly America,” says Bourke-White. The constitution guaranteed enfranchisement of all adult citizens, men and women, and took particular care to protect the dignity and religious freedoms of minorities. The admirable egalitarian and democratic quality of their achievement was partially a result of the political dissidence and collective consciousness that grew in retaliation to oppressive monarchical institutions, which had curbed their freedom for generations and, she added “is in large part a result of clear vision of their State People’s leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The Sheikh is a legendary figure and is the first popular prime minister to emerge after the coming of Indian independence” (193-194). A people newly emancipated from the clutches of an oppressive and rigorous monarchy blossomed. In that euphoric atmosphere, no force seemed powerful enough to militate against the dream of a democratic and emancipated society.

The partition of India legitimized the forces of masculinist nationalism and enabled virile hatred for the “other” to irreparably mutilate a shared anti-colonial legacy and cultural heritage so systematically that the wounds inflicted by the partition are yet to heal. Shortly before the tribal invasion, while the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was still an independent entity and had not acceded to either dominion, India or Pakistan, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah sent emissaries of the All Jammu and Kashmir State People’s Conference to Pakistan to thrash out the terms of accession with those at the helm of affairs. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan was hesitant at the time to get involved in the internal affairs of princely states. Consequently, he did not meet with these representatives, “and many people have since said this was a great mistake. He might have had Kashmir with its three million Muslims if he had been willing to recognize popular rule” (Ibid.: 202-203). The People’s Government of Jammu and Kashmir made a last-ditch effort to negotiate with the Government of Pakistan. The negotiations were still in the fetal stage when the truculent tribesmen of the Northwest Frontier Province began infiltrating Kashmir. The ink of their official seals on the “instruments of accession,” affirming their loyalty to the Pakistani dominion, hadn’t yet dried when these tribesmen began surging into Kashmir under the rallying cry of Islam, “making off with all removable loot—including women—leaving a trail of sacked and burned villages, and fighting their way through the heart of the Valley.” These tribesmen, with their sacks full of booty and whetted appetites, arrived in Rawalpindi, part of Pakistan, only to indulge, yet again, in plunder and pillage to satiate their gluttonous selves. The fractious rioting of the tribal invaders caused the newspapers of Lahore, in the newly created dominion of Pakistan, to scream themselves hoarse in vociferously demanding an immediate withdrawal of the “crusaders,” who had become a law unto themselves and Pakistan’s proverbial Frankenstein (Ibid.: 204, Ayaz 207-210).

Apologists of the tribal invasion in Pakistan and present-day Jammu and Kashmir emphasize the rationale of the invasion, which, according to them, was to save the Muslim populace from the persecution perpetrated on them by the non-Muslims in Kashmir. If that, indeed, had been the reason, it would have been strategically advantageous and beneficial to their “cause” to have entered the state through Sucheet Garh into the Hindu dominated part of the former princely state, Jammu. The Maharaja and his cohort were still licking their wounds and inciting the monarch’s Dogra army to inflict atrocities on the Muslim populace of the Jammu province of the state. Such a maneuver would have enabled the unruly lot to damage the Srinagar-Jammu route beyond repair, thereby, ensuring the severance of Kashmir from the rest of India and attenuating the possibility of its accession to the Indian dominion. The Kashmir Valley, with its large Muslim populace and its resolute volunteer corps, did not require the services of the marauding and disgruntled tribals, whose prodigality on the Baramullah-Uri route created terrible misgivings among the people whom the marauders were, purportedly, saving. Even the patrons of the tribesmen couldn’t turn a blind eye to the savagery and barbarity evinced by them on that “campaign” (see Sardar Ibrahim Khan, Kashmir Saga, 1965, for details of the ruthlessness exhibited by the tribals during the invasion, which the author characterizes as an inevitability of war, but cannot ignore).

Margaret Bourke-White’s observations about the rapidly shifting boundaries and changing political permutations of that era are some of the most lucid that I have read. She astutely points out that the Kashmiris who had been denigrated and never been permitted the use of arms when the Dogra monarch was at the helm of affairs were organizing training squads not just for men but for women as well. Once the threat from the tribal raiders had been averted, literacy classes were started for the many illiterate members of the People’s militia, who were taught not just the art of self-defense but were also encouraged to gain proficiency in reading and writing. Akbar Jehan, Mehmooda Ali Shah, Sajjida Zameer, and Krishna Misri played a monumental role in the articulation of cultural and political resistance (204).

Most of the members of the Women’s Self-Defense Corps were wives and mothers who shared the nationalist hopes, anxieties, ardent desire to be the architects of their future and inscribe their own destinies along with their male counterparts. But their participation in the fervent political awakening and cultural resurgence of that era did not, by any means, endorse the traditionally submissive and self-denying role of the wife and mother.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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