Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Story of a Bridge too Far......

If one tries to think about history, it seems to me - it's like looking at a range of mountains. And the first time you see them, they look one way. But then time changes, the pattern of light shifts. Maybe you've moved slightly, your perspective has changed. The mountains are the same, but they look very different.-Richard Harris
It was in the summer of 1967/68 that my mother and I first came to Kashmir valley. My father was stationed at Baramulla, on the banks of Jhelum River, a little outside of Srinagar. Baramulla was even then, an important military town sitting astride the Uri- Srinagar Road, which like its travelling companion, the Jhelum river crossed over to POK a little ahead at Uri. Twenty years ago bloody history of rape and loot had been taken place on this road…. But to ­me the scars of the human crisis were not perceptible. Perhaps my teen years could not perceive.
Once again it was a summer, but it was summer of 1975, and as an adventurous wife of a young army Major I came back again; I was visiting my husband on his tour of duty in J&K. It was then, that I began to delve into the story of the scars of land and people after I started reading the book ‘Slender was the Thread’ by Gen LP Sen . It was about the Kashmir cauldron of 1947-8 with an unforgettable story to tell. Hence my meanders in the valley gathered a historical context with places and people. It may be hard to believe now, but the Kashmir Valley of seventies was a wonderful & welcoming place and people were sociable- We were their friends. I could freely travel in colourful state roadways buses with locals and their sheep, goats & hens as co-passengers to little known hamlets and glens.
The erstwhile road from ‘Srinagar to Muzaffarabad’, was one such journey I wanted to make but had restrictions, as an army spouse. In the Tribal invasion of 1947 was dotted with landmarks like Mahura Power station, the Nand Singh Bridge ,Haji- Pir nullah that had significant perception.

Many people may not realise it, but before 1947 the most popular route to travel to Kashmir from the plains of north India was mainly on the Srinagar -Muzaffarabad road along River Jhelum. The all-weather road was developed only about 100 years ago.
On this Jhelum valley road in October 1947, thousands of pro-Pakistan tribal forces staged an invasion of Kashmir, reaching as far as the outskirts of Srinagar.
An airlift of Indian troops saved the Kashmir valley for India and pushed the raiders back down the Jhelum valley. However many brave Indian soldiers and fliers sacrificed their lives. I wonder if there is a Martyr’s Memorial built in their memory.
The ceasefire that ended that first war over Kashmir led to what amounted to a partition of the region which snapped the valley road in two. And it's been closed more-or-less ever since. There are so many ‘ifs’ in the story…If Nehru had not gone to UN. If only Nehru had listened to SardarPatel. If only more troops had been assigned to the valley…. The long term narrative would have changed.
Thus when my husband talked of a trip to Line of Control along with a secure composite group of Army officers families, I jumped at the opportunity. We were permitted to travel on this Jhelum Valley road through the Uri town upto LOC near around Chakothi in POK. We were perilously exposed in the Uri bowl to the Pakistani posts sitting atop the peaks around the bowl . It was no fancy sightseeing trip…Security concerns necessitated that our luxury coach be an army 3 Tonner so that we seem to be another routine supply vehicle. However in deference of being ‘The lady wives’, the truck had gaddas and bolsters.
 In the previous post we paid a tribute to Naib Subedar Nand Singh VC, MVC of Sikh Regiment. On 12 December 1947 Nand Singh led his platoon of D Coy in a desperate but successful attack to extricate his battalion from an ambush in the hills SE of Uri in Kashmir. He was mortally injured by a close-quarters machine-gun burst, and posthumously awarded the MVC, the second-highest Indian decoration for battlefield gallantry. This makes Nand Singh unique in the annals of VC winners.
The Pakistanis recognised Nand Singh because of his VC ribbon. His body was taken Muzaffarabad where it was tied spread-eagled on a truck and paraded through the city with a loudspeaker proclaiming that this would be the fate of every Indian VC. The soldier’s body was later thrown into a garbage dump, and was never recovered.
Historic Nand Singh Bridge is located at Haji Pir nullah close to Uri. This is a vital bridge on the Jhelum Valley Road which used to connect the valley with Muzaffarabad now in PoK. Haji Pir is the famous strategic pass which connects Poonch with Uri. In 1965 war with Pakistan, our valiant troops had fought and wrested the perilous Haji Pir pass from the hands of Pakistan. But as a result of Shimla Agreement, we had to return it to Pakistan in exchange of some posts elsewhere on Indo-Pak border. ...
Sadly, such are the political persuasions – What gains soldiers make through blood and valour on perilous terrains are bartered away sitting across the table.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Rebel Queen – A Thorn in the Crown

The film Rebel Queen tells the remarkable story of the last Sikh ruler of Lahore – a fearless Maharani who waged two wars against British rule in India. She is an inspiring figure for young Asian women today




            An Indian woman wearing a crinoline over her traditional clothes, and emeralds and pearls under her      bonnet, walks in Kensington Gardens in 1861. She is the last Sikh queen of Lahore, the capital of the Punjab empire, and her name is Jindan Kaur. She died two years later, in 1863, and was buried in west London.



MaharaniJindan Kaur's life – much of which was spent raging against the British empire for cheating her out of the Punjab, then a vast country stretching from the Khyber Pass to Kashmir – is the subject of a film called Rebel Queen, which premiered at New York's International Sikh film festival and is set to be shown in the UK in February.

Her revolt began when her husband, the last Maharaja of the Punjab, died of a stroke in 1839 and the British tried to wrest the kingdom from the heir to the throne, her infant son, Duleep Singh. During her rule as regent, Jindan waged two disastrous wars against the British that led to the annexation of the Punjab. She may have made huge strategic errors due to her military inexperience and young age (she was in her early 20s), but Jindan was a fierce ruler. British historian Peter Bance describes her as a "very gutsy woman". "She stood her ground against the British . . . she actively took charge of the Punjab."

Professor Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh of Colby College, Maine, US, says: "She was remarkable in how she discarded sati and purdah, dominant at the time, and led the courts, had meetings with chief ministers and the armies. All of them were taking her counsel."

Christy Campbell, author of The Maharajah's Box, a book about the Maharani's son, Duleep, says Jindan was "one of the most remarkable characters of 19th-century history, let alone Indian or Sikh history". This is despite the fact that much of what is known about her is "through the words of the British, who regarded her as a threat to their power in Indiaand therefore did their best to make her reputation as bad as possible".

The Maharani was described as "a serious obstacle" to British rule in India. They launched a smear campaign to discredit her, painting her as the "Messalina of the Punjab", a seductress too rebellious to be controlled. She refused to co-operate and the British saw that her influence on Duleep could lead to an uprising among the Punjabi people. They decided to separate mother and son.

Nine-year-old Duleep was taken to England where he converted to Christianity, living the life of a typical English gentleman, with Queen Victoria among his friends. The Maharani Jindan, however, was dragged from the court of Lahore by her hair and thrown into the fortress of Sheikhupura and then Chunar Fort in Uttar Pradesh.

After being imprisoned, she disguised herself as a servant and escaped the fort. She travelled through 800 miles of forest to reach sanctuary in Nepal, where she wrote a letter boasting to the British that she had escaped by "magic". She never regained the kingdom for her son. But they were reunited years later, which prompted the Maharajah to convert back to Sikhism, undoing the work of the British to "brainwash" him.

Her story encouraged American entrepreneur Bicky Singh to fund the production of Rebel Queen with around $25,000 (£15,500). Director Michael Singh, a California-based film-maker, says: "There's great drama and tragedy in her story. She was a heroic figure and was well-documented by the British. There are not a lot of documented women in Sikh history. [At the same time], her son corresponded with Queen Victoria, which makes the story more relevant to the casual viewer." According to Singh, Jindan is a symbol of indignation and injustice, but also of the failure of the Sikhs to retain their kingdom. "She has an iconic status," he says. "She was the last one to stand up to the British."

When I saw the film, I was struck by how little I knew about my heritage. Growing up in a Punjabi Sikh household in east London, I looked up to my hard-working and honest parents, but when it came to who I wanted to be, I built a composite from American girl detective Nancy Drew, TV FBI agent Dana Scully and Bruce Springsteen. All of these individuals pushed against barriers into a world of possibility, something I rarely found in my culture. But where were women likeJindan Kaur? Jindan was complex, cocky, clever, imperfect and tough, and she connected me to my ancestral past, something Nancy, Dana and Bruce could not. After watching Rebel Queen, I felt like a link to my past that had lain neglected had been rekindled.

Numerous south Asian female artists have documented the struggles of British Asian identity, including Gurinder Chadha, Meera Syal and Shazia Mirza. Struggles of displacement need to be documented, but there are not enough stories like Maharani Jindan's, about what had happened before my family had to grapple with being Asian in a white society. Was I supposed to start from my parents' immigration to England in the 1970s? Couldn't the example of Maharani Jindan give me the inspiration to make sense of my present day-to-day life?

In England, there is a prevalence of perceiving south Asian women in the context of "honour" killings, forced marriages, domestic violence and foeticide – all serious issues that need to continue to be fought against. We also have the Asian Women of Achievement awards, but those women do not always permeate the media, art or history books that young girls may be absorbing. In terms of what that leaves young British Punjabi Sikh or south Asian girls as role models, it is not exactly aspirational.

Artists Rabindra and Amrit Singh say: "We definitely need to . . . counter the negative stereotyping that so many of us grew up with . . . [This will come] from a better knowledge and pride in who we are, which involves looking to the exemplary, too often hidden figures in our history."

There are other inspirational heroines about whom there is little research. Mai Bhago was a devout warrior saint in the army of Sikhism's 10th prophet, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, in the 1700s, who led men into battle. There is also Bibi Dalair Kaur who rallied 100 women Sikh soldiers to fight the Mughals in the 17th century.

Inspiring figures are not limited to Sikhism or Punjabis. In the early days of Islam, Ayesha (Aishah), the prophet Muhammed's wife, rode at the head of an army against Khalif Ali, whom she felt was usurping her late husband's authority. Later, Muslim writers such as Rokeya Hossain also emerged. She wrote a science-fiction story called Sultana's Dream in 1905, about a female utopia in Bangladesh where women dominate the public sphere.

Perhaps the most well-known female warrior in India is Lakshmibai of Jhansi, a hindu queen who also fought British rule. She was a firebrand, recognised in Indian history books, but became better known through the media. 

One can only hope the same will be said for Jindan Kaur.

  Article by Herpreet Kaur Grewal
The Guardian, Friday 31 December 2010
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