Punjab is the home of Mata Kaushalia and Mata Sita, the self effacing wives and mothers who would not thwart a commitment made by their husbands to a rival, even when that would make their own life an unmitigated agony. The role of Punjabi women as commandos in the battle-fields is no less glorious. Sada Kaur and Rani Sahib Kaur is remembered as one of the greatest generals of her time even in the Afghan records those have successfully defended their kingdom against the attacks of the Marathas, Afghans and European adventurers and chased them away from the battlefield. This shows the women of Punjab had an equal share in the re-building of India. Through Kuka, Nirankari, Arya Samaj, Dev Samaj, Congress and Akali movements, the women of Punjab has played an equally commendable role in the freedom struggle against the Britishers.
This article is an effort to put a light on the hardships of the Punjabi women that how they have stood shoulder to shoulder with their men in war and in peace and how they have crossed their journey from dark to dawn. They gave up the pleasures of a princely home to fight for the independence of India., acquired the prominent places in the Indian administration, some became the first Health Minister of India and some of them became commanders of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army, and gave her life while fighting for India’s independence in Assam. Now they have grown from their hard times and today the enlighten women paved the way for them to adopt new professions especially in the field of law, medicine and teaching and existed as a New Woman with New Spirit
“Punjabi Woman: A Momentum Journey from Dark to Dawn”
Assistant professor in Laws ,
KCL Institutes of Laws, Jalandhar.
“Women have great talent, but no genius for they always remain subjective,” said Schopenhauer in “World as Will and Idea”. Greek philosophers thought a “woman is an unfinished man left standing at a lower step in the scale of development. The male is by nature superior and female inferior. The one is the ruler and the other ruled. Woman is weak of will and, therefore incapable of independence of character and position.” Such prejudices prevail even today. On the threshold of a new millennium the status of woman is still to be elevated to that of man. The position and status of women varied from time to time in the different societies. The early Vedic times of the ancient period were free from many of the social evils that harmed the Indian society in the later eras. At that time women were assigned high status in the society.
But during the post-vedic period, women lost that status which she once enjoyed in society. She became a subject of protection and treated as a second class citizen. In the great Indian mythology of Mahabharat the heroes of the legend, the Pandavas, lost their wife Draupadi in a card game! She was offered after their other valuables, like gold and land, had been lost in the gambling game. Against this backdrop it is significant that Sikhism, one of the world’s youngest religions, accorded women complete equality with men in all spheres of life.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh religion made Sikhism conform to enlightened, simple, practical, progressive and humane ideals right from its inception. Guru Nanak Dev Ji understood and appreciated the unifying role of women in society and worked for their emancipation. Sikh scriptures categorically state that man and woman together make society a composite and well balanced whole and should not be viewed as a threat to one another. Women as multifaceted personalities had a significant role to play in society.
“Then why call her evil from whom are great men born,
And without woman none could exist
The eternal Lord is the only one, O Nanak
Who depends not on woman?” (Guru Granth Sahib, P. 473)
Such thinking was revolutionary and far ahead of the times. Bibi Nanaki, the elder sister of Guru Nanak, was a perfect example. The Guru was especially close to her and regarded her as his inspiration and mentor. Nanaki had implicit faith in her brother’s ideology and encouraged him in his life’s mission and became the first person to be initiated into Sikhism by Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s ideals were given a practical shape and consolidated by Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574), the third Sikh Guru. He was a great champion of women’s rights who based his concepts on complete gender equality and specified norms for ameliorating the status of women in medieval India. Guru Amar Das stopped contemptuous references to women as mere child-bearing machines.
“Blessed is the woman who creates life”, he wrote in the Granth Sahib. During his pontifications, he made sure women were provided opportunities to lead more meaningful lives which enabled them to actively participate in social and religious affairs. For the propagation of the faith’s ideology, he created twenty two administrative units called manjis or parishes. Of these four were headed by women – which were unheard of in those times. In status these four women were equal to modern Bishops because each enjoyed full economic and decision-making powers within her parish or manji. During the medieval age, condition of women was again degrading. Muslim attacks made people to protect their ladies and compelled them to shut the weaker sex behind the four walls of the houses.
Purdah system, polygamy, child marriage and other evils started creeping into the society which affected the condition of women. But still during that time many socio-religious movements like Sufism and Bhakti movement tried to emancipate women. The Sikh Gurus and their great ladies became social reformers, acknowledged the importance of woman and voiced their opinion against the prejudices of society like child marriage, sati system, purdah, enforced widowhood and others. With the creation of Khalsa on the Baisakhi day of 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh ji, Sikhism underwent a major transformation. The Khalsa was created to instill a fresh spirit of courage and confidence among the Guru’s followers. Here again women were an integral part of the celebrations. At the time of taking Amrit a man was given the name “Singh” (lion) and women added “Kaur” (princess) to their names. The suffix “Kaur” is of immense significance as a woman was recognised as an individual who need not take her husband’s name after marriage. She could use the word “Kaur” after her name from birth to death.
The word ‘Kaur” is derived from the word “kanwar” – the son of a king. This empowers Sikh women, Apart from equality in socio-religious affairs, could participate in political matters as well, including leading an army into battle. This gave women in Sikhism a sense of enormous self-confidence. Guru Gobind Singh’s widow Mata Sundari played a key role in Sikh history for forty momentous years. She issued Hukamnamas (decrees) to the Khalsa giving directions at a critical juncture and successfully guided the destiny of the Sikh against both the Afghan invaders and various claimants to the “Guruship”. Rani Sada Kaur, the brave mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is aptly described as a first woman commander-in-chief. She became a young widow when her husband was killed in battle. She used this crisis to transform herself into a woman-warrior, donning a high turban and battlefield garb with full weaponry.
She commanded numerous battles and eventually laid the foundation for the Sikh empire. Rani Jinda, married to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the mother of Dalip Singh, the ruler of Lahore kingdom, was the brain behind the rising of 1848-49 against the British authorities. She was known for her intelligence and intrepid spirit, Jindan was one of the few persons who was intensely disliked and also feared by the British. She was the first female freedom fighter in the struggle to oust the British from India. After the annexation of Punjab by the Britishers in 1849, various changes occurred in the modern era of the Punjab. It was the period where on the one hand a tuff struggle for freedom was on the peak and on the other a concerted effort was also made to form a new woman. The Board of Administration was formed by the Britishers and they started working for their vested interests which in return had some positive impact on the society of Punjab.
Some socio-religious reform movements like Singh Sabha, Namdhari, Arya Samaj, Kukas and others began to develop in Punjab during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and played a significant role in the history of Punjab. They raised voice for women emancipation. They all fought against social evils like sati system, female infanticide, child marriage, purdah system, widowhood, polygamy, prejudices against female education and many more. These social reformers opened various schools, colleges, gurukuls for girls in the different parts of Punjab. Most of the writings of the missionaries, colonial administrators or social reformers were the narrative of women’s slow but progressive march towards modernity following a period of stagnation. These accounts gave importance to women’s biological differences; specification of their nature, the role played by them and categorized them into single strata irrespective of their class, caste and hierarchies of their age.
A concerted effort was made by the vernacular press especially magazines, journals and newspapers through their editorials, articles, essays and others to motivate and encourage women who were having a segregated existence in the society. Female education was given importance and stress was laid on the domestic household work for girls in the early decades of 1900s. A new woman-educated, free from the shackle of purdah, accomplished in domestic skills, devoted to the husband and family, an intelligent companion, an ideal mother, producer and nurturer of a strong masculine race and custodian of tradition, was portrayed. Rich and higher classes wanted to educate their girls as the education became eligibility for their marriages, on the other hand, the poor and middle class people needed bread winners for their family.
The journey from education to occupation by the girls in Punjab was crossed. The educational experiments of the government and reformers produced a “new woman” with interests that were beyond the household. The main objectives of their associations was to make society evil free and gave special attention to the female upliftment. The Chief Khalsa Diwan of Amritsar was established in 1902 to promote the spiritual, intellectual, moral, social, educational and economic welfare of the people and the girls of orphanage were sent to different schools in Punjab for getting education. The Central Vidwa Ashram for the welfare of widows was also established where they were imparted technical and vocational education. The Sikh Educational Conferences were also conducted annually by the Diwan from 1908. From 1908 to 1947, thirty three sessions of the conference were held and all the issues dealing with female education were regularly discussed.
The royal women of the different princely states like Nabha, Patiala, Jind and others were the patrons of the conference. These conferences made women of Punjab to come forward and they began to communicate with their counterparts outside their families and local communities. These later became a platform for the women to participate in public life and the freedom struggle for India. The entry of Mahatma Gandhi and the Jallianawala Bagh tragedy of 1919 made women of Punjab to directly participate in the non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22. They held the meetings, led the processions, boycotted foreign goods, adopted the slogan of swadeshi and indulged in the picketing of foreign cloth shops and liquor shops. Sarla Devi Chaudhrani, Parvati Devi of Kamalia, Puran Devi, Gauran Devi, Mrs. Duni Chand, Kumari Lajjavati, Lado RaniZutzhi were the few names who participated in the movement of 1920-22.
The participation of 1920-22 was a sort of training programme for the future Satyagraha programmes of 1930-34 and 1940-42.Women’s participation in Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-32 differed quantitatively and qualitatively from their involvement in the early 1920s and won them a place in history. As the Dandi March was initiated by Gandhi in 1930, women of Punjab inaugurated the movement by taking out processions, prabhat pheris and holding meetings. Regular processions were led by women like in Lahore the life and soul of the movement was Lado Rani Zutshi, Parvati Devi,Kartar Kaur, Atma Devi and many others. As the women were participating in all these activities of the campaign, the government also started arresting these women participants. In the year 1932,that is, in the mid of the movement, the number of women convictions in Punjab was gradually increasing and on average ten women were convicted every month. Thus, it was the women’s organizations and networks, developed between 1925 and 1930, that laid the ground work for their positive reaction to Gandhi’s call.
The public participation of the women gained momentum. The All India Women’s Conference which was first organized in 1927 at Poona. The women of Punjab also participated in the twenty sessions of the conference from 1927-47. The participation was so important that one of the sessions of the conference was held at Lahore in 1931and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur belonging to the royal family of Kapurthala was a very active participant from Punjab in the conference. She was one of Gandhi’s closest lieutenants and took a leading part in protest marches which were subjected to ruthless lathi charges in Quit India Movement of 1942. The conference was also presided once by a Muslim lady of Punjab – Lady Abdul Qadir of Lahore in 1933. Sarla Devi Chaudharani also represented Punjab and initiated various resolutions during the period of freedom movement in India. The women from Punjab also participated in some of the sessions of Indian National Congress and went to the different venues of the sessions.
Women of other provinces also came to Punjab to enlighten their fellow sisters like Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi, Muthu lakshmi Reddi and others. The active women were even appointed as parliamentary secretaries and were elected to the Punjab Legislative Council. Shrimati Lekhawati Jain (the first elected lady member of the Punjab Legislative Council), Mrs. Jahahara Shah Nawaz, Mrs. Duni Chand,Shrimati Raghbir Kaur were the few other elected members. The most important consequence of this public participation was that it cleared the way for the women of Punjab to show presence in the nationalist movement of India. Before the last phase of the struggle 1940-47, many of the women in Punjab were members and some were even leaders of the student associations (Lado Rani Zutshi in Lahore), and other political movements.
Today, the 21st century continued to witness Punjabi women in the forefront in different spheres, especially in India’s independence movement. Some other outstanding women freedom fighters of Punjab were Gulab Kaur, Kishan Kaur, Amar Kaur, Harnam Kaur, Dilip Kaur and Kartar Kaur. Contemporary Punjabi women are making a mark all over the world as academicians, administrators, entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors, poets and painters.
An important aspect of the rights conferred on women in the Sikh faith was that they did not have to fight for their rightful place in Sikh society: they were given their due voluntarily because of the enlightened ideals of the Gurus. In this way, the Punjabi women have proved that they are made of sterner stuff. They toiled, they fought, and they sacrificed. They believed in what they did. Indian history has recorded the astonishing vitality and matchless deeds of the daring daughters of India especially the Punjab, who continue to serve the country in fields almost unknown in the past.
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