Kanta Wazir (née Zutshi) was born in Srinagar in March 1930. She married Man Mohan Wazir (1926-2018), an IPS officer of the Jammu & Kashmir cadre, in July 1949. They lived in Srinagar till early 1990, after which they moved to Delhi.
On 25th May 2019, towards the end of my stay in India, my mother, Kanta Wazir, mentioned out of the blue that she had been a member of the Women’s Self Defence Corps (WSDC) when she was a student in Sri Pratap Singh College in Srinagar in 1947-48, and had learnt how to fire a rifle. She said she was good at it too and had received a prize from Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq - many years later the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir - because three of the five shots she fired, when he came to inspect, hit the target! She said all this very casually, at the end of a long conversation I had had with her about growing up in Kashmir. I was most surprised to hear this as she had never mentioned it before, and I made a mental note to ask her more about it on my next visit. She is almost 90 and was getting a bit tired of my questions so I had to stop at that point.
Fast forward a few months to 4th September. During my daily phone call, my mother mentioned that her cousin Jai Kishori Bhan (née Vaishnavi), whom we called Jaya Masi, had passed away a few months earlier, and so we talked about her for a bit. My mother has a tendency to give me bad news with a lag! Just a few hours later, while doing a google search for something else, I came across Andrew Whitehead’s fascinating blogs and saw his informative and intriguing piece, with vintage photographs and other hitherto forgotten, and fresh, materials on the WSDC. I was taken aback to see Jaya Masi, about whom I had been talking just a short while earlier, in one of the photographs of the militia. She was standing right in front, with a rifle on her shoulders, leading the march! I recognized a few other names and faces as well. Andrew had included the information and insights of Krishna Misri, also a member of the WSDC, who had been able to identify some of the women. Of course, I called my mother immediately and told her about the photographs of the WSDC on the blog, which set her off on a chain of reminiscences.
Here is the free-flowing conversation that I recorded with my mother on Friday, 15th November 2019 about her participation in the WSDC. My questions were in Hindi and English and her responses were mainly in Hindi with some English and Kashmiri thrown in. She added some more thoughts in subsequent phone calls and conversations, and these have been incorporated in what follows:
RW: You told me on my last visit that you had received rifle training when you were a student in S.P. College. Are you familiar with the name Women’s Self Defence Corps?
KW: Yes, of course.
RW: Can you tell me why you joined the militia. Who told you about it? How old were you?
KW: I was in college, in second year FA (Fellow of Arts, a two-year degree after Class 10) , that means I must have been 17 or 18 years old. I got married in 1949 at the age of 19 and that was after completing FA. I knew about the militia; there was talk about it in every street and lane (gali gali mein baat thi), but I went through my college (SP College). We were told about it by our professors and were encouraged to join if we wanted to. They said it was very good work, that we should be prepared for the sake of our country (mulk, meaning Kashmir). A group of us college students used to go for the training.
RW: What was being said in every street and lane – gali gali mein?
KW: That started when the ‘Kabailis’ were sent by Pakistan. They wreaked havoc up to Baramulla – the women who had been raped/molested were arriving in Srinagar and we were given the job of looking after them in the Government Hospital. We were taught first aid and sent in batches to the hospital. Only the girls who wanted to go. The women were in a very bad state – we would go in groups of five to seven – Girija Dhar was there, I was there, and there were a few others from our neighbourhood and we used to go together. We would ask the women what they had gone through, offer them support. We were encouraged to learn how to counsel these women.
[The incursion of tribal invaders from the North West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan, in October 1947 is known popularly as the Kabaili raid - RW]
RW: Were the women affected by the Kabailis Muslim or Hindu?
KW: They were from all communities, but the majority were Hindu and Sikh.
RW: Was it a mixed group of Hindu and Muslim girls that used to go to the hospital?
It all started during this period. We first started going to the hospital to counsel the 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” – meaning “take heads of/off Sikhs and wealth of/off Hindus”.
This was during the Kabaili raid, the same time that the British nun was raped in St. Joseph’s Convent in Baramulla. She had two gold teeth – they pulled those out as well. At that time the entire community – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – was outraged by what the Kabailis had done. I don’t recall hearing anyone – among my personal contacts, in my college group, or in my mohalla - supporting them or even keeping quiet about them. Everyone was together in solidarity in face of the rape and pillage that took place. They would see the young girls and women who had been affected. Nobody was happy or supportive of what had happened. Kashmir was in a mess at that time.
RW: How did this lead to the militia?
KW: We were told in college by the principal and our professors that they had arranged for the girls to get trained in firing a 303 rifle. Any girl who wanted to join could do so. There was an examination of sorts at the end. Sadiq Sahib was there for that. I was the only girl who hit the target three times out of five and I received a prize for it from him. Another girl got the overall first prize and I got the second. But we didn’t care about prizes at that time.
RW: Did boys go for training as well?
KW: No. The training was only for girls.
RW: Did boys have a separate group?
KW: I don’t know about that. I don’t know if they were trained in anything. This training was just for girls so that they could at least protect and save themselves. Sadiq sahib used to come. Mehmooda used to be there. I’m sure she played a part in setting up this group.
[Mehmooda Ali Shah, popularly known as Miss Mehmooda, was a leading educationist, social activist and advocate for women’s education and empowerment - RW]
RW: Mehmooda couldn’t have been in college at that time.
KW: She was not in college, but she was very actively involved in such work. A group of girls used to go for training from college and then go back to their respective homes when it was over. I may not have got permission from my family had it meant going alone from home.
Before that, when the Kabailis came up to Baramulla and word reached Srinagar about it, there used to be groups of citizens shouting slogans all night even in our mohalla (Safakadal) which was mainly Muslim – there was no other Hindu house apart from ours and the Dhars’ who were a bit further away from us. We were the only two Hindu families in Safakadal – our house was on the riverbank and they were further in, near Idgah, where the Id namaz used to take place. The whole night, groups of people would patrol the streets and lanes proclaiming “Hamlawaro khabardar, ham Kashmiri hain taiyyar” (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. We were two lanes in from the main road. Your father was also part of a patrol at that time – I don’t remember if it was as part of the regular police patrol or the citizen’s patrol – but he would shout out extra loud outside my house, just to let me know that he was there!
RW: Was it a mixed group of Hindus and Muslims that went for rifle training from the college?
KW: There were more Hindu girls for the simple reason that there were fewer Muslim girls in college at that time – they were only a handful. The Muslim girls who attended college would come up to the gate wearing their burqa and would remove it as soon as they entered. It was a co-educational college, and this could have been another reason why there were fewer Muslim girls. Hindu girls were over-represented, given their percentage in the population.
RW: How many girls went for the training from college?
KW: Must have been 10-15 girls. There were other non-college going girls as well – probably those that had joined from their mohallas (neighbourhoods). But I think that hardly any non-college going Muslim girls would have been able to join the militia. In college they were supported by the fact that we went as a group and they must have been spurred on by each other.
RW: So, what did you do in the WSDC?
KW: We were taught about counselling the women victims of the Kabaili raid in the hospital, keep track of what the doctors were telling them; learn about rehabilitation – would they go back/live in tents/would the government give them places to stay? If normalcy returned to towns of Uri and Baramulla, would they want to go back? Some of the women were traumatized – they didn’t want to go back. At that time, it was just a question of helping them with their mental trauma.
We were taught first aid. Counselling victims was voluntary – you could opt out if your parents didn’t allow you to go to the hospital. But we were encouraged to go because most of the victims were in the same age group as us and we would be able to communicate with them. So, a lot of girls would go.
RW: Are you proud of the training that you received?
KW: Yes, of course. When you hold a rifle you feel good about yourself. We used to talk about it all the time, that we knew how to fire a rifle even though we didn’t have a license. If I had applied for a license at that time, I would have got it. 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 carnage wreaked by the Kabailis came within reach of our homes in Srinagar. For example, my house was just 45 minutes away by tonga – there were hardly any cars at that time – from the spot where they had reached. People were hiding their daughters.
RW: Wasn’t this a novel thing for girls to be doing in those times?
KW: Not for the girls who were already in college. Our parents had already taken the step to send us to a co-educational college. There were very few girls in the college at that time – it was mostly boys.
“The black and white photograph is of members of the Women's Self Defence Corps, a women's militia set up largely by Communist supporters of the National Conference in October-November 1947, when Srinagar was in danger of being overrun by an army of Pakistani tribesmen. Altogether, a very remarkable image - and one which made me think more deeply about the political and social alignments in the Valley as the Kashmir conflict first erupted…. The women's militia drilled and was trained in how to fire a rifle and throw a grenade. Its main intention was to allow young women to protect themselves and their households should Srinagar be overrun. The tribal army got to the outskirts of the city but not further. The women's militia did not see active service, though many of its members were involved in relief work for the refugees resulting from the invasion.” - Andrew Whitehead
KW: National Conference was the main party at that time. Sadiq was a Communist, so was Mehmooda. 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. The whole population was united. I remember an incident from those days. My older sister, who lived in Kanyakadal, a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, asked my father to send me to stay with her. She was afraid I wouldn’t be safe in Safakadal in the event of an attack on Srinagar. My father didn’t think it was necessary, but my sister insisted. As I was getting ready to leave the house, the women, all Muslim, of our neighbourhood came to our door - they must have heard that I was leaving – they beat their chests and pulled their hair – they said “how can a girl from your house leave the locality? Are we dead? Let her stay here, she is safe here. Even if the Kabailis come to Srinagar, she is safer with us. Nobody can touch her while we are here.” They didn’t let me go.
RW: What was your reason for joining the militia? Was it political? Was it because your supported the National Conference?
KW: No. Women had suffered so much, you had to do something. It was more from a spirit of compassion and solidarity and also to learn self-protection. It had nothing to do with politics.
RW: Do you know who organized the WSDC?
KW: I don’t know who the main organizer might have been. What I do know is that Mehmooda was very prominent. She was there every day, organizing the different groups, telling them what they had to do. And we saw Sadiq there a lot.
RW: Who trained you?
KW: There was a group of junior doctors who taught us first aid. The organizers had obviously made an arrangement with the hospital to send these doctors to train us. And as far as I can recall, rifle training was given by police staff. Who else would have known how to fire a rifle? They gave us proper rifle training.
RW: Was there a lot of fear and apprehension at that time?
KW: Yes. People were very afraid in Srinagar. The memory of what had happened in Baramulla was very fresh and raw; families affected by the violence were still trickling in. Nobody harmed anyone in Srinagar, but the real fear was that the Kabailis could come again and this time reach Srinagar.
Things were not the same in Jammu, where there was a lot of violence between the communities. My grandfather owned a house in Mastgarh, which was a predominantly Muslim area and my father used to live in that house for the six winter months when the government moved to Jammu. My father had retired by this time but when he went to Jammu next, there was hardly any Muslim family left in that neighbourhood. He couldn’t find any of his acquaintances or the families he knew. Some may have fled the bloodshed; you can only imagine what must have happened to the rest.
A lot of Hindus and Sikhs were killed in the Poonch/Rajouri area on the Jammu side. Your father’s first posting after we got married in 1949 was to Poonch. We were invited to a Hindu wedding function in Rajouri once and I was completely shocked to see that more than 50% of the young women attending were dressed in white, they were widows. None of this happened in Kashmir. There was no violence between the communities in Kashmir.
RW: Were you keen to get trained to protect yourself?
KW: I was very keen to go with all the girls. I was also curious to see what it was all about. They trained us very well. It wasn’t a long course – 15-20 days, and there was provision for having an additional class in the afternoon should the group become unwieldy. It’s easy to fire a pistol to protect yourself, but firing a rifle is more difficult. I discussed this with your father later and he agreed. If you don’t press the trigger properly, or press it suddenly, you can get a jolt and fall with the impact.
RW: How long did the WSDC last?
KW: We were trained over the course of a month. I think there were two groups of college girls – I was in the first group. I don’t know how long the WSDC lasted. Once our training was complete, we were considered ready, and we resumed our normal college activities.
I’ve just remembered – Dr. R.K. Bhan was the Principal of S.P. College at that time.
[Dr. Bhan was Kanta Wazir’s uncle, married to her mother’s sister. Jai Kishori Vaishnavi née Bhan was his daughter; and Leela Bhan née Dhar, both in the photograph on Andrew Whitehead’s blog, was his daughter-in-law - RW]
RW: Wasn’t Leela Bhan née Dhar already married at that time? She is older than you so she couldn’t have been a college student.How come she is in the militia?
KW: She got married long before I did, and she is older than me. I know she wasn’t in college at the same time as me so she must have been one of the women from outside college to get the training. She could have been encouraged by her father-in-law, or by her brother D.P. Dhar [a prominent politician- RW].
RW: Do you remember any stories of camaraderie? Was there a special spirit at that time?
KW: Yes. We were very moved and motivated by what had happened to the women. We wanted to do something for them. They had horrendous stories to tell. Only a heartless person would have remained unmoved. Many of us would go home and cry after talking to them. Their situation was very bad – daughters had been raped in front of their mothers, wives in front of their husbands, mothers in front of their sons. Even old women were not spared. It was like the Kabailis were exacting revenge.
RW: What were the avenues open to women in those days, apart from teaching?
KW: Not many. Kashmir was very backward. There was hardly any education available. Women were mostly confined to the home.
RW: What about your generation? What about public life?
KW: There were not many avenues. Very few women came out of the house. Even attending college was a huge issue. You were asked a million questions by the extended family. When your aunt (Shanta Bhargava née Wazir) went to study medicine in Delhi [in 1945 - RW], there was a huge furore in the family over the prospect of her having to live alone in a far-off city. This despite the fact that your grandfather was so well educated and did so much work for women’s education.
RW: How come you have never talked about your time with the WSDC? Why haven’t you ever told me about your rifle training?
KW: I didn’t think it was anything remarkable or worth talking about. I had no idea there would be photographs of the women’s militia or that anyone had written anything about it till you showed me Andrew Whitehead’s piece on this on his blog. What we were doing seemed normal in the mood of the times. If nothing, you could at least protect yourself. It was exciting, something new, we were standing shoulder to shoulder with men. It gave us a buzz at that age. We would tell any boy who bothered us in college – and they used to do that a lot – to beware, because we could now use a rifle!
Your father knew about it, of course. I would sometimes tell him that he was not the only one who knew how to fire a rifle, I did too.
RW: Are you aware of Sheikh Abdullah’s Naya Kashmir manifesto? Did you know that it covered land reform, women’s rights, etc.
KS: Yes. I’m aware of it but I don’t know everything that the document contained. Land reform was the first thing that Sheikh Abdullah implemented when he came to power. My family held lands, and lost considerably, but my personal view is that the land reform was a very good thing. The tenants who had been long exploited finally got something. You would have to be very selfish to say it wasn’t a progressive move. I don’t know what else was in the manifesto.
RW: Were you aware of Freda Bedi and her husband? She was a British woman who wore Indian dress. Do you know of her role in setting up the WSDC? Do you remember seeing her during your training sessions?
KW: She may have played a role. It’s not impossible that she did, but I have no recollection of seeing any non-Kashmiri person during our training sessions. Maybe she was higher up. I am only aware of the people who were involved with the group that went from my college but there were other girls who received the training as well. In our group Mehmooda 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, very self-aware and elegantly turned out – always in a saree.
RW: Do you remember Prem Nath Bazaz?
KW: Yes. He was a communist. His daughter Gauri studied medicine with your aunt Shanta.
RW: Tell me the slogans that people used to shout those days.
KW: One was: “Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshad, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itihad” (‘What is Sher-e-Kashmir’s order?’ In response the crowd would say: ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh are united!’) There used to be huge processions in those days with large crowds of people shouting this slogan. The second slogan I’ve told you already: “Hamlawaro khabardar, hum Kashmiri hain taiyyar”.
RW: Were there any slogans in Kashmiri?
KW: The slogans were mostly in Urdu, so that everyone else could understand what we Kashmiris were saying.
RW: What were your own personal politics? National Conference or Congress?
KW: What did we have to do with the Congress in Kashmir, I was with our own National Conference. It was a good party at that time. The problems started later.
It was during this period that Mahatma Gandhi came to Kashmir. I went with my father to hear him. I don’t remember what year it was, but you can find that out easily from the internet. It was his first and only visit to Kashmir. It was after the bloodshed of Partition that took place in North India and Bengal. He came to Kashmir on his way back from visiting these places to see what was happening here. My father had managed with great difficulty to get three passes for the public meeting - for himself, my brother and me. God knows how we reached the ground where the meeting was being held – there wasn’t an inch of space anywhere in Srinagar – I can’t tell you how many people were milling around the streets. I have never in my life seen such large crowds in Srinagar. It felt as though all of Kashmir was there – not just Hindus – everyone – people wanted to hear what he had to say. I’ll never forget what he said. He spoke in Hindi and he started by saying that for the first time he could see a beacon of light in India. He could see a ray of hope in Kashmir.This was because Kashmir was one of the few places where there was peace and there had been no bloodshed. He received a grand welcome in Kashmir. People felt jubilant to have seen him. The two girls who always accompanied him were with him.
RW: Were there any special slogans to welcome Gandhi?
KW: No. Just the usual Mahatma Gandhi Zindabad. The slogan that was specially coined after the Kabaili raid was “Hamlawaro khabardar ….” Every time an aeroplane flew overhead in those days – even if was one of our own – people would start shouting this slogan!
[Mahatma Gandhi made his first and only visit to Kashmir in the first week of August 1947 - RW]