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Sunday, January 29, 2023

How a Gujjar woman, Shrimati Mali, saved Poonch from Pakistan

This September Lieutenant Governor of J&K Manoj Sinha memorialised Shrimati Mali, the woman who saved Poonch in the war of 1971, by naming the Government Degree College in Mandi after her. It is a step in the direction to inspire the youth of Jammu and Kashmir through the heroes of their land.

This happens at the time when Poonch, earlier known as the hotbed of terrorism, is pivoting towards a better life. The L-G laid the foundation stone for projects worth Rs 195 crore in the district. A Hockey Astro Turf and a Boxing Hall were also inaugurated for the youth. Projects worth Rs 79 crore were launched for the welfare of the tribal community along with infrastructure projects such as bridges, roads, power substations, and smart classrooms.

Being a border village, Poonch was largely ignored for decades altogether. If it wasn’t for a poor Muslim Gujjar woman, today it may not even have been a part of J&K.

This story is set during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. In a village known as Arai lived a poor Gujjar woman. Her early marriage and the subsequent derangement of her husband’s senses brought her back to her father’s home and under her brother’s care. She lived the harsh life of the hills with little movement except for the temporary transition to higher reaches of Jabbi and Pillanwali during the summers for cattle grazing. With no educational background, money, and exposure, it is hard to imagine such a woman to be quick-witted and courageous.

During the war, Poonch was an important target for the adversary. In 1965 Pakistan had lost its strategic Hajipur pass and learning from the lesson it was cautious while taking steps to capture Poonch. The neutralisation of this district was important to them. They devised a malicious plan to capture Poonch from the rear by infiltrating crack troops into some posterior areas. Basically, the oldest and most cowardly trick in their book – attack the enemy in the dark of the night and from the back door. A spineless party of young men infiltrated as per the plan, setting the ground for capture.

On the 13th of December 1971, when the areas of Arai top, and Pillanwali were neck-deep in snow, Shrimati Mali, a middle-aged woman possibly in her forties by then, went to Pillanwali to get fodder for the cattle. There she observed smoke coming out of Dhokes (temporary hutments meant for summertime). Alarmed by the unusual sight, she quietly went up to clear her suspicions. Through the cranny of a Dhoke, she saw a few soldiers cleaning their rifles. She quickly realized that they were not the Indian Army men. Though frightened, she composed herself and ran fast to Arai braving the knee-deep snow of peak winters.

In sub-zero temperature, while panting she narrated the episode to her brother who advised her to let things be as they were. Unsatisfied and troubled, she took on another sprint to the village Sarpanch, Mir Hussain. In a single breath, understanding the value of each passing second here, she told him what she had seen on the hilltop and urged him to take action and save the district from the militants. The Sarpanch, knowing that any action could cost him his life, was too hesitant.

Mali could not waste any time in convincing him. Jammu and Kashmir needed her, and Poonch needed her. Though she was without children, to gamble on one’s own life also takes guts.

Driven by patriotism and love for her people, she ran again in hope toward Kalai. The route was unforgiving in the snow, but it was the only way to save her land. She managed to reach the post of a small detachment of ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police). Her struggle did not end here. The next obstacle was the language barrier. She only spoke the Gojri language, so how could she narrate the incident? After much dialogue, somehow a local was arranged to interpret this urgent matter.

From the post, she was taken to the nearest Army unit where a Sikh Battalion was stationed, a little further than Poonch. The commanding officer listened to her story and realised the impending danger. The unit was immediately mobilised. Mali continued with the unit as a guide and volunteer, given her knowledge of the area’s geography. In the dark hours of the night, her bravado was extraordinary.

The Infantry Unit’s swift actions that night led to the killing and capture of nearly 30 Pakistani soldiers. Subsequent interrogation revealed that a Battalion-sized force was creeping through nalas and jungles between Doda and Saujian with the plan to attack Poonch from the hindmost.

All the threats were neutralised before they could reach their launch pads. Surprising for a woman of her stature and background, Mali saved the Poonch squadron, their ammunition, and the people of Poonch. Hundreds of innocent lives were saved. The Indian Army recommended her for a gallantry medal (Vir Chakra), but the Government of India honoured her valor by awarding her the fourth-highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, on March 25, 1972.

Shrimati Mali was the first Gujjar woman of Jammu and Kashmir to receive this esteemed award.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed)

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