PROFESSOR JAGBIR SINGH SUDAN It was a divine intervention and a quirk of good fortune that had saved the beleaguered town of Poonch during the year 1947 from merciless looting, rape and pilferage that was about to be carried out by the Pak Army and their tribesmen that had raided Kashmir then. A quick reaction by the Indian Armed Forces and the total unequivocal, voluntary support of the local public had saved Poonch when the raiders were already on its threshold. Gloom had pervaded Poonch in those days, and the dejected inhabitants awaited their fate, which could have been similar to the traumatic tragedy that the ill-fated residents of Baramulla had undergone a few days earlier. The local residents of Poonch, more so, some local brave-heart, iron ladies played a major role in saving Poonch. Their valuable, dedicated and selfless role/cannot be undermined when analyzing the history of Poonch. During 1947, the Pakistani sponsored tribesmen had disrupted the Kotli-Poonch Road by 15th October and by 22nd November they had even cut off the Poonch-Uri Road. The local forces of Poonch were by now overwhelmed and surrounded by the tribesmen led by the Pak military. These raiders commanded by Pakistani military officers were well entrenched on the hills overlooking Poonch. It was at this juncture that Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh negotiated the Hajipir Pass tough route and arrived at Poonch with his Battalion, 1 Kumaon on 20th November 1947. Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh proved to be a messiah. He set about to restore the confidence of the besieged local population and assured the public gathered at the Poonch Parade Ground that the raiders would never be able to enter Poonch. He upheld his promise, regrouped his forces and chalked out a plan for recapturing the surrounding hill features and for construction of an air strip, so as to link up with the rest of the country. About 45,000 people, including the ‘refugees’, had rushed in from Bagh, Muzaffarabad, Sadnuti, Rawalakot, Palandhri and adjoining areas of the erstwhile Poonch State, andhad jam packed the town of Poonch. Occupying government and other buildings, living in every nook and corner of the town, even without overhead shelters, the dense, over-flooded population had created tremendous accommodation problems. People whose kin had been brutally slaughtered by the Pakistani forces nurtured pent up feelings of remorse and revenge. The law and order situation worsened, rogues and hooligans became active and indulged in looting and harassing the common people. People’s lives were endangered. The food grain stocks in government stores were depleted. The town was full of garbage and muck. Epidemics broke out due to unhygienic conditions. People were dying in the absence of medical care and lack of life saving drugs. During those tumultuous times, the civil administration came under the control of Pritam Singh, who had been promoted to a Brigadier. An Advisory Committee, comprising one member from each ward of the town was formed to maintain law and order and for distribution of food grains, salt, sugar and medicines. Relief work was undertaken at a massive scale. The biggest asset was the selfless contribution of the local people. Even the ladies did not lag behind and boldly came to the fore front for self-help. These daring, enthusiastic ladies were the real champions to the core. For them, it was service to the society, ‘Sewa’ and ‘Khidmat’ of the deprived and the needy.Their persistent endeavours were to save Poonch from the clutches of the raiders and provide succour and relief to the residents. Five prominent, charismatic ladies who whole-heartedly contributed in a large scale manner towards the relief work were:- (a) Sardarni Isher Kour, wife of Late Sardar Wazir Singh, resident of village Chajjal (Khari). (b) Sardarni Nanki Kour, wife of Sardar Munder Singh. He had migrated to Poonch from Palandri. (c) Shrimati Ishraq Maini, wife of Shri Ram Avtar Maini, advocate. (d) Shrimati Basanti Maini, wife of Shri Ram Lai Maini. (e) Shrimati Diya Wanti, wife of Dewan Krishan Lai. Sardarni Isher Kour was strong-willed and bold. Having lost her husband in 1944, leaving behind two daughters and two sons, she married off her elder daughter in 1945. During 1947, she had to abandon her house and belongings, which was burnt by the Pakistani raiders when she came to Poonch. She worked for the orphaned children at the Orphanage, and struggled all her life for ameliorating the plight of the poor, downtrodden and the needy, and earned the sobriquet of ‘Leaderani Poonch’. Even during the 1965 War, while capturing Raja Rani Posts, she was at the base camp tending to the casualties like a mother. She died in 2004. Remarkably, she had sent her eldest son, Ajaib Singh to the Army as a soldier, who fought all the wars of post independence and retired as a Colonel. These five eminent ladies seized the initiative, joined hands with other ladies of the town and formed a group to assist the local administration and the Advisory Committee. These ladies were the watch and wards of their ‘mohallas’, and it was on their insistence and close supervision that rations were distributed fairly to the residents. They assisted in constructing the air strip, collection and distribution of grains, rations and supplies, and even in treatment and evacuation of patients. Rising to the occasion, these ladies gave a clarion call and exhorted the able bodied inhabitants to come forward and assist in construction of the air strip. Trees and bushes were cleared, the ground leveled, and within seven days the first Dakota air craft was landed by Air Commodore Mehar Singh at Poonch on 10th December 1947. A group of young girls that had been separated from their families and stranded at Poonch were provided shelter at the Victoria State Girls School. These ladies were like foster mothers, care-takers, and assigned the responsibility to manage and take care of these girls by Brigadier Pritam Singh. After the link up took place, these girls were repatriated to their homes. Later, these ladies were honoured by the Poonch Garrison for their dedicated service to the people and towards the hapless, needy, citizens in particular, as also for their assistance in restoring the situation to normalcy. The massive relief work and the herculean contribution of these ladies towards society is remembered and acknowledged with gratitude even today. Their devoted selfless service towards humanity forms part of the folklore and remains enshrined in the annals of Poonch.
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