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The Khaksar Women Who Fought for Indian Independence

Allama Mashriqi’s recruitment of female fighters into the Khaksar Movement made a striking move for women’s empowerment in early 20th century India. Their involvement inspired organizations including the Indian National Army and the Women’s National Guard.
Khaksar movement

Flag of the Khaksar movement. Via Rohail-Aitzaz on Reddit.

March 19, 2024 03:20 EDT

“ After several centuries, we are again giving this lesson to every Muslim woman that the very existence and bringing up…of humankind is because of you…so is the life of a nation and Ummah also based on your commandment…”

— Allama Mashriqi (“Quol-e-Faisal”, 1935)

The Khaksar Movement played a major role in challenging British colonial rule in India until its culmination. Led by Allama Mashriqi, it was notable for being a social movement that recruited women. The pivotal role these women played in shaping the demise of the British Raj has been largely overlooked in historical narratives. They are mentioned only briefly. To address this historical oversight and pay homage to their valor, I have penned a book entitled “The Khaksar Women: Warriors for Independence,” scheduled for release soon. With International Women’s Day on March 8 and Khaksar Martyrs’ Day on March 19, 1940 this article is dedicated to honoring the resilience and sacrifices of Khaksar women, shedding light on their activities, and remembering the victims of March 19. Another reason for writing this piece is to commemorate the bravery of the Khaksar martyrs who laid down their lives in Lahore for freedom.

In the Indian subcontinent, women were largely restricted to domestic roles in a male-dominated society with few exceptions. Their duties revolved around managing households and caring for the family. This trend was mirrored in America by the 1955 article “The Good Wife’s Guide” in Housekeeping Monthly, which emphasized wives attending to their husbands’ needs, writing: “Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice. Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him. A good wife always knows her place.”

Allama Mashriqi was born into an enlightened family; apart from the men in his family. Even his mother and sisters were educated, a rarity at the time. Mashriqi emerged as a pioneering Muslim leader who recognized the crucial role of women’s empowerment not only in advancing societal progress but also in liberating India from the shackles of British rule. After Mashriqi founded the Khaksar Movement, his first wife, Wilayat Begum, played a significant role in its launch, as documented in Mashriqi’s book titled “Isha’raat” and the journal named “Al-Islah” dated August 12th, 1938. Despite resistance from orthodoxy, Mashriqi took a monumental step towards fostering female emancipation in 1935 by launching the feminist movement through his groundbreaking and revolutionary work “Quol-e-Faisal.” This marked a significant departure from prevailing societal norms.

Women in large numbers joined the Khaksar Movement throughout India. Among them were Mashriqi’s daughters, Khaksars’ wives, sisters, daughters and other relatives. These women proudly donned the Khaksar khaki uniform, adorned with a shoulder band bearing the inscription “Akhuwat”, meaning brotherhood. They attended Khaksar Camps, underwent military training, drills and parades and carried spades on their shoulders as they marched beside men or in independent groups. In the 1930s, even in the American military, women were mainly restricted to nursing and clerical roles. Khaksar women in India were allowed to pioneer combat training, street marches and political activism—a groundbreaking movement that captivated thousands, reshaping women’s roles in Indian society and elsewhere.

Some of these extraordinary women held prominent positions and titles within the movement, delivering public speeches and recruiting more Khaksar women. Additionally, preteen Saeeda Bano and the Khaksar women, both holding titles as mainstream members, played a crucial role in community service initiatives. During the 1943 Bengal Famine, they were instrumental in saving lives, providing essential aid and aiding in the rehabilitation of tens of thousands alongside the men Khaksars.

Women agitators against colonial rule

In addition to their humanitarian endeavors, these women were deeply involved in anti-British rule activities. They distributed Khaksar literature to promote the movement’s goal of ending British rule and organized women’s meetings to propagate Mashriqi’s message. In 1939, they played a pivotal role in paralyzing the Government of United Provinces (UP), leading the British governor of UP to sign a peace agreement on Mashriqi’s terms. Following this agreement, Mashriqi established a parallel government and appointed Khaksar governors. These included women who were appointed to Punjab and United Provinces to assist the Khaksar Governors.

Following the brutal murders of Khaksars on March 19 in Lahore, Khaksar women participated in protests and joined their Khaksar brothers when they launched the Civil Disobedience Movement. Their demonstrations became so nerve-wracking for the British Government that they had to induct women police to control them, a first in the history of British India. The Khaksar women attended the historic All-India Muslim League Session held from March 22 to 24, 1940, in Lahore, where the Pakistan Resolution and Khaksar Resolution were passed. At the session, alongside men, these women demanded the release of Allama Mashriqi and Khaksars and the removal of the ban on the Khaksar Movement.

On May 31, 1940, in a tragic turn of events, Mashriqi’s son Ehsanullah Khan Aslam died as a result of police brutality. Women in uniform paraded with Aslam’s body, some of them were in burqa, in a massive funeral procession comprising over 50,000 people. It was the largest funeral for any child in British India. 

During the ban on the Khaksar Movement and Mashriqi’s imprisonment, these women also played roles as spies, conveying messages between Mashriqi’s home and Khaksar leaders, and vice versa. They continued to hold secret meetings and engage in activities to keep Mashriqi’s mission of seeking freedom alive. Young women also played a role. Saeeda Bano, a 10-year-old girl from Delhi, played an amazing role in the freedom movement. She was a daring and a fiery, eloquent speaker. She led women’s marches and protest demonstrations. During these public demonstrations, they repeated anti-British rule slogans such as “Down with the British Raj” and “Death to the British Government.” As a result of their anti-British activities, several freedom-fighter women were threatened, harassed and even beaten, yet they persevered. 

Saeeda Bano’s involvement gained national recognition. On June 18, 1940, Bano, along with men and women Khaksars, marched in uniform and belcha towards Punjab Premier Sir Sikander Hayat Khan’s house to hand over a letter to the Premier. However, Bano and others were arrested. The Tribune (Lahore) reported on June 19, 1940: “They were taken into custody…the ten-year-old girl…took out a letter from her pocket addressed to Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, premier of the Punjab, and began reading it in the Kotwali. The letter contained a reference to the Premier and the Khaksar agitation. The letter was seized by the police.”

The next day, when Khaksar men and women along with Bano were presented to the Duty Magistrate, The Tribune dated June 20th, 1940 reported: “[W]omen after arrest were persuaded by the police officers to go back and not to join the Khaksar movement in future, but they did not agree as a result of which they were sent to female jail…they are also persecuted for alleged parading in military formation and being members of an unlawful association…” Despite imprisonment, they would not surrender. Instead, they continued to bear the atrocities of prison all the while separated from their families, who remained vulnerable to persecution by the British. On August 19, 1940, the Magistrate gave his verdict and released Bano on the grounds that she was a minor. He issued orders for the release of other women as well under certain terms. According to The Tribune dated August 30th, 1940: “One woman consented to furnish security, and the rest refused…and preferred jail”.

Khaksar women’s influence transcended their involvement with the Khaksar Movement, inspiring other organizations. Hindu leader Subhas Chandra Bose integrated women into his Indian National Army in the early 1940s. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s All-Indian Muslim League established the Women’s National Guard in 1944. It is evident that Khaksar women’s courage and dedication reshaped women’s roles in the Indian subcontinent.

Furthermore, in the mid-1940s Mashriqi incorporated talented Khaksar women into the team that contributed to the framing of the constitution known as “The Constitution of Free India, 1946 A.C.”. Others distributed copies or delivered lectures on the publication’s contents to garner support. Mashriqi’s constitutions found favor among the public as they safeguarded the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims to maintain India’s unity—a sentiment shared by the majority who never desired their country to split apart. Based on the support for the said document and other favorable factors, throughout the 1945-1946 elections both men and women Khaksars campaigned vigorously for Khaksar candidates. Despite their efforts, the British establishment ensured that Khaksars did not emerge victorious. The British went to great lengths to secure the All-India Muslim League’s sweeping triumph, establishing their party as the legitimate sole representative of Muslims. Mashriqi, fellow leaders and Khaksar men and women protested vehemently against the electoral rigging. Unsurprisingly, their grievances remained unaddressed by the British establishment. For further details, read my work titled, “Jinnah Paid Subsidy for Pakistan: 1945-1946 Elections Manipulated.”

In 1947, when Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced the transfer of power to Indians no later than 1948, according to Mashriqi, the delay gave violent elements time to carry out horrific killings of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. These killings were exploited as the justification that Indian people were not ready for freedom and self-governance. Mashriqi’s assessment was bolstered by reality. The British had no plan to leave India for many more years. Aware of British intentions, Mashriqi ordered 300,000 Khaksars to reach Delhi on June 30th, 1947. This action alarmed the British and Lord Mountbatten hastily accepted. The partition plan before the assembly of the Khaksars. Yet, in June, despite strict restrictions and the enforcement of Section 144, well over 100,000 — The Tribune (June 04, 1947) reported 70,000 to 80,000 — reached Delhi, including Khaksar women. The omission of Mashriqi’s role in ending the British rule and other facts highlights the selective nature of historical narratives chosen for presentation. Furthermore, the important work of Khaksar women — protecting lives and rehabilitating Muslims and non-Muslims in refugee camps remains virtually unknown. To discover the reasons behind Mountbatten’s acceleration of the partition plan and the swift transfer of power, it is crucial to watch the documentary The Road to Freedom: Allama Mashriqi’s Historic Journey from Amritsar to Lahore from beginning to end. Additionally, reading my article titled “The British Chessboard: Jinnah, Gandhi and the Strategic Divide of India” will provide further insight into this historical context.

The legacy of Khaksar women

In conclusion, the Khaksar Muslim women stood firm in their fight against colonial power until its rule came to an end, which was no mean achievement. Moreover, despite the patriarchal challenges they faced, Khaksar women overcame disapproval and played a crucial role in the Khaksar movement by providing vital organizational support. They exhibited exceptional confidence, individualism and pride. They inspired other women and boosted morale. The role of women in the Khaksar Movement in India was indeed groundbreaking and way ahead of its time, prompting other organizations everywhere to follow suit. 

The credit for this indeed goes to the visionary Allama Mashriqi who, despite heavy criticism from non-Muslims and conservative Muslims, stood firmly in his belief. In the 1930s, Mashriqi empowered women during a period in the East and West when they did not have equal rights. He was ahead of his time and his efforts had a profound impact on the country. Mashriqi’s actions laid the foundation for the global movement that eventually integrated women into various fields including the Indian armed forces of today.

Allama Mashriqi’s Khaksar Movement, founded on a self-help basis, is a compelling case for the establishment of an army without national training. The Khaskar Movement consisted of over five million male and female members. Mashriqi was able to accomplish this despite the British Raj and without financial support from either domestic or foreign sources. This feat is particularly remarkable given the absence of modern communication technologies and the anti-Mashriqi British-controlled print media.

[Gwyneth Campbell edited the piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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