Women's History

Looking for Zuni Gujjari

It’s strange what the historian – at least this historian – fails at first to notice because it’s not what you are looking for. Exactly fifteen years ago, I called on Pran Nath Jalali, a veteran Kashmiri communist, at his home in Delhi to hear his account of the left-wing militia set up in Kashmir sixty years earlier. In the autumn of 1947, Jalali – a teenager – became the militia’s political officer, in a role bearing an echo of the left-wing militias in the Spanish Civil War. After our conversation, as I was preparing to leave, he went to a cupboard and took out a pamphlet to show me. Its cover featured both a drawing and photograph of armed volunteers of the women’s section of the militia – about which, until that moment, I had known nothing.

People’s Age, December 1947. Photo by Madanjeet Singh.

That powerful image of Kashmiri women of different religions parading with rifles – to protect their honour and to defend a new and democratic dispensation – pushed me to explore a gendered aspect of Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s and to look for those who could offer first-hand accounts of that moment. Over subsequent years, I met and talked to several volunteers of the Women’s Self Defence Corps, as the militia was styled. That story has been told both in a post on this site and now more fully in an article – ”I shall paint my nails with the blood of those that covet me”: Kashmir’s women’s militia and independence-era nationalism in the latest issue of History Workshop Journal. This post is about another concealed aspect of women’s activism – an account as best it can be retrieved of Zuni Gujjari, the woman whose stylised drawing is to the fore on the cover of the publication P.N. Jalali showed me.

For someone who became an emblem of a radical political movement at its moment of greatest influence, not all that much is known about Zuni Gujjari. She was a militant within the Kashmiri nationalist movement as it challenged the maharaja’s autocratic rule in the early and mid-1940s. She then enrolled in the left-wing women’s militia when the nationalist movement rallied to support India’s claim to Kashmir in 1947-8 in the face of an invading force of tribesmen from Pakistan. Her face appeared on posters, in photographs and on the cover of pamphlets.

Gujjari was never in any formal sense a leader of the National Conference, then the main nationalist movement in the Kashmir Valley. She didn’t write articles, devise strategy or sit on committees. She became an icon because of the temper of her activism and because she represented non-privileged Kashmiris among whom the National Conference sought to mobilise to achieve local political dominance. Seeking out her story opens a window on the nature of the Kashmiri nationalist movement which came to power in 1947-8 under Indian tutelage and on the space it provided for women’s activism.

Zuni (or Zoni or Zoon) Gujjari was born in about 1912 into a family of milk-sellers and her name suggests that she was a Muslim 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.[1]

New Kashmir, 1944

There are suggestions that Gujjari was the model for the female figure on the cover of the New Kashmir manifesto and draft constitution adopted by the National Conference in 1944. This shows a politically assertive Kashmiri woman wielding the National Conference flag in what was perhaps an echo of Delacroix’s celebrated depiction of Marianne on the barricades of revolutionary Paris. There was a pronounced, and progressive, gendered aspect to this remarkably radical and comprehensive document.[2] Gujjari was also active in the Quit Kashmir movement, distributing leaflets and addressing meetings against princely rule in Kashmir. ‘Common women, they came out on the streets and fought for their rights’, Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah, the most influential of women Kashmiri leftists, recalled of the protests in 1946; Zuni Gujjari ‘was a milk woman herself but she was so powerful, so intelligent’.[3]

Kashmir’s status was unresolved when India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in August 1947. In late October, when an armed force from Pakistan invaded Kashmir, an unlikely alliance of Kashmiri nationalists, Indian communists and India’s ruling Congress Party supported the deployment of the Indian army to repel the intruders. A people’s militia was set-up and recruited among all religious communities in the Kashmir Valley; its women’s wing, the Women’s Self Defence Corps, was instructed in drilling and in the use of rifles, though it never saw active service. Gujjari enrolled promptly in the women’s militia. ‘Attired in traditional Kashmiri Muslim dress and holding a rifle in various positions, she became the symbol of [the] WSDC’, commented a fellow recruit, Krishna Misri.[4] Another Kashmiri active at that time also recalled how posters of her holding a rifle and wearing the customary Kashmiri pheran, a smock of sorts, were hung on lamp posts across the city.[5] 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.

The communist press latched on to Gujjari 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 Communist Party of India’s weekly paper, People’s Age, accompanying a close-up photograph of her. She was depicted smiling broadly with her head covered, a rifle on her shoulder and wearing prominent ear-rings. ‘Today Zoni has taken to the rifle to drive the invaders back and to build a New Kashmir.’[6]

Kashmir Defends Democracy, 1948 – courtesy of the Sobha Singh Art Gallery, Andretta, India

The publication that Pran Nath Jalali showed me, and which sparked my interest in the women’s militia, was a well-produced propaganda pamphlet Kashmir Defends Democracy. It was published in 1948 in support of the recently installed Kashmiri nationalist administration in Indian Kashmir. On its cover is a striking representation of Gujjari lying down and taking aim with a rifle. She is depicted in stylised fashion in blood red; the background is a photograph of the women’s militia.[7] A conscious choice had been made to display both Gujjari and the WSDC as an emblem of the new dispensation in Kashmir, a popular movement replacing the rule of what was seen as a non-Kashmiri princely family.

That same year, the renowned Kashmiri writer Dinanath Nadim wrote a short story entitled ‘Reply-paid Card’ for the magazine Kongposh, a forum for the left-leaning progressive writers’ movement in Kashmir. It’s the story of a village matriarch, Zoon Ded, who enlists in the women’s militia. (The short story has recently appeared in a translation by Neerja Mattoo in a book entitled The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told, published in Delhi by Aleph). His readership would have understood that Gujjari was the model for the central character.

Zuni Gujjari with her head covered, People’s Age, December 1947

When Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of India’s first Governor-General, visited Kashmir in May 1948 on behalf of the Red Cross, she was photographed alongside Begum Abdullah, the wife of the Kashmiri nationalist leader, Sheikh Abdullah – and a confident and smiling Zuni Gujjari.[8] In subsequent years, Gujjari is said to have fallen foul of Sheikh Abdullah’s successor as Kashmir’s prime minister and endured another brief spell in jail – but she was nevertheless awarded a small pension as a freedom fighter.[9]

Zuni Gujjari leading a procession of militia members, People’s Age, December 1947

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 march forth with 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![10]

But the Kashmiri revolution stalled; Kashmiri nationalism found itself constricted by the style of Indian nationalism pursued by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; and the activism of Zuni Gujjari and her colleagues was no longer celebrated as Kashmiris became more resentful of Indian rule.

The clouds of the separatist conflict which has engulfed Indian-administered Kashmir since 1989 have cast a shadow over the narrative of popular politics in Kashmir in the 1940s. That’s why it is important to look for the trajectory of Zuni Gujjari’s life and activism and the moment of empowerment Kashmiri nationalism represented for many young Kashmiris seventy-five years ago.

[1] 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. C. Bilqees Taseer, The Kashmir of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Lahore: Ferozsons, 1986, pp.221-3. Shazia Malik, Women’s Development amid Conflicts in Kashmir: a socio-cultural study, Partridge India, 2014, pp.35-39

[2] Andrew Whitehead, ‘The Making of the New Kashmir Manifesto’ in India at 70: multidisciplinary approaches, edited by Ruth Maxey and Paul McGarr, Routledge: London and New York, 2020

[3] Mahmooda Ahmed Ali Shah interviewed by Andrew Whitehead, Srinagar, 18 June 2007

[4] Krishna Misri, personal communication, 13 November 2018

[5] Shanti Swarup Ambardar, ‘Kashmir 1947’

[6] People’s Age, 28 December 1947

[7] Kashmir Defends Democracy, Delhi: Kashmir Bureau of Information, [1948].

[8] The photograph is reproduced in Nyla Ali Khan, Islam, Women and Violence in Kashmir, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p.132

[9] Madhvi Yasin, ‘Role of Women in the Freedom Struggle’, pp.204-5. C. Bilqees Taseer, The Kashmir of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, pp.221-3.

[10] 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.

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