Books History & Theory Kashmir South Asia

Kashmir’s Ordeal: Chapter Three “Ages of Oppression”

By Lal Khan

Editor Asian Marxist Review, Lal Khan, wrote a book titled “KASHMIR’S ORDEAL, … A REVOLUTIONARY WAYOUT” in 2005. In the sight of recent developments in the region, we are publishing its excerpts for our readers.

This blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace
Isn’t part of written history: who will guide me to it?
It wasn’t spilled in service of emperors-
It earned no honour, had no wish granted.
It wasn’t offered in rituals of sacrifice-
No cup of absolution holds it in a temple.
It wasn’t shed in any battle-
No one calligraphed it on banners of victory.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Mughal emperor Jehangir once called the Himalayan state of Kashmir “paradise on earth”. Kashmir has been the subject of much prose and poetry in the subcontinent, but few have been as evocative as Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin and the first Prime Minister of India. In his autobiography he writes,

“Like some supremely beautiful woman, whose beauty is almost impersonal and above human desire, such was Kashmir in all its feminine beauty of rivers and valleys and lakes and graceful trees. And then another aspect of its magical beauty would come into view, a masculine one, of hard mountains and precipices, and snow capped peaks and glaciers, and cruel and fierce torrents rushing down to the valley below. It had a hundred faces and innumerable aspects, ever changing, sometimes sad and full of sorrow…it was like the face of the beloved that one sees in a dream and that fades away on awakening…”

Land of Contrasts

Kashmir’s only major industry was rooted in the traditional skill of its craft workers who produced the brilliantly patterned and intricately woven Kashmiri shawls, there was not much wealth in agriculture. But here again the rulers and the traders, not the craftsman, made the real money. Napoleon is believed to have sent a Kashmiri shawl to Josephine, who made it a fashionable rage in Paris, creating unprecedented demand and huge profits for the traders. Yet the Kashmiri masses remained in dire poverty throughout history. Nehru again comments on this apathy in his autobiography:

“Kashmir even more than the rest of India, is a land of contrasts. In this land over laden with natural beauty and rich natural gifts, stark poverty reigns and humanity is continually struggling for the barest of substances. The men and women of Kashmir are good to look at and pleasant to talk to. They are intelligent and clever with their hands. They have a rich and lovely country to live in. Why then, are they so terribly poor?”

The most significant aspect of Kashmir’s history is the tyranny of the oppressors and the struggle of the oppressed against them.

The first emperor to annex Kashmir was Ashoka. At that stage Kashmir was part of the Mauryan Empire that extended from Bengal to Afghanistan and from Deccan to Punjab. When Ashoka died Kashmir once more regained its independence under Jhulka. Like Ashoka, he was converted to Buddhism and built Buddhist stupas. He also set up eighteen departments to administer the state.

The valley was invaded in the 1st century AD by the Kushans from the northwest China who had succeeded in conquering the whole of northern India. The Kushan kings were renowned for their love of art, architecture, and learning. The period of their rule was marked by an intellectual resurgence. Travellers and traders brought not only merchandise but also literacy and artistic ideas. Kushan rule lasted until 178 AD after which Buddhism declined and Brahmanism was revived. The new religion, which was indigenous to Kashmir came to be known as Shivaism. Kashmir did not escape the invasions of the Huns, who terrorized so much of Europe in the 6th century AD. The despotic reign of Mihiragula lasted until 530 AD, according to Kalhana he was, “a terrible enemy of mankind who had no pity for children, no compassion for women, no respect for the aged.”

The most celebrated king of the next dynasty, the Karkota dynasty, was Lalitaditya. He ruled inthe early 8th century AD. Apart from his conquests beyond Kashmir, Lalitaditya drank heavily and was prone to foolish acts when under the influence of alcohol. He once demanded that Srinagar be burned. Wisely his ministers did not obey his orders and instead burnt several haystacks while the king rejoiced. The next day Lalitaditya was mortified by his request, until his ministers informed him of their disobedience.

Towards the end of his reign, Lalitaditya’s son, Jayapida became avaricious and oppressed his subjects by demanding steep taxes. For three years he appropriated the whole of the produce, including even the cultivator’s store, from his subjects. The period that followed his death in 782 AD had a familiar pattern of murder and misrule. In 855 AD Avantivarman, founder of the Utpala dynasty, occupied the throne. The reign of his son and successor, Samkaravarman, came to be known for its excessive taxation.

More importantly for the future generations of Kashmiris, he was the first King to systematise begar (forced labour for transport purposes). Because of the terrain and the lack of roads, the only way to transport goods and provisions was on the backs of people. Inevitably the demand for labour fell on the villagers, who were obliged to leave their homes, many times never to return.

From the 10th century onwards the struggle for power intensified. Nehru describes this period in his foreword to the translation of Kalhana’s ‘River of Kings’:

There is too much of palace intrigue and murder and treason and civil war and tyranny… we see the panoply of the middle ages, the feudal knights in glittering armour, quixotic chivalry and disgusting cruelty, loyalty unto death and senseless treachery; we read of royal armour intrigues, of fighting and military, and adulterous queens.

The death of Vasakarra in 939 AD ended the Utpala dynasty, however the rulers who followed continued the brutal oppression of the masses of the region.

In 1089 AD Kalsa of the Lohara dynasty died and was succeeded by Utkarsa, who temporarily united the kingdoms of the Lohara (from Lohrin near Poonch) and Kashmir. His brother Harsa overthrew him after only twenty-two days of rule. Under Harsa’s rule misgovernment led to discontent and misery.

Such was the moral degradation of these rulers that his father Kalsa raped his son’s wives. Harsa in turn violated his father’s wives and his own sisters. For the people this was a period of intense hardship. In 1099 A.D a flood led to devastation of crops, which in turn caused famine. Thousands died of disease and hunger. Harsa was killed in a palace uprising at the age of 43, together with his queens and the heir apparent. By the time Jayashima ascended the throne in 1128 A.D the region was in a piteous state.

A combination of state oppression, floods, famine, and epidemics took their toll on the people. Thousands died of starvation or were sold into slavery. Only a few amongst the upper classes who ruled the country were able to survive while the majority of the people lived in poverty. Assassinations and power struggles continued.

Then came the Mongols. In 1320 AD, Zulqadar Khan, also known as Dulacha, swept through the Baramula pass with 17,000 horses and foot soldiers. The king of Kashmir, Sahadeva, fled and Dulacha spent eight months plundering Srinagar. Pandit Jonaraja wrote that,

“Kashmir became almost like a region before creation, a vast field with men without food and full of grass”.

Dulacha, however, met his end on the Banihal pass. As he departed, a storm trapped his entire army, leaving no survivors. Hindu rule was now in decay. Part of the reason for this lies in the isolationist policy adopted by the later Hindu kings to counter the emergent Islamic forces in the north of India. They sealed the passes and hid behind the protective walls of the high mountains. Kashmir became a beleaguered garrison. With the masses plunged into poverty, and state revenues dwindling, there was a fresh wave of taxations and misery.

After his conversion to Islam by the Muslim Saint, Bulbul Shah, Richen, the new Buddhist monarch from Ladakh, took the name Sadruddin. He was Kashmir’s first Muslim ruler. After a brief period of power wrangling, Shah Mir, who had helped Richen take power, become the new ruler of Kashmir. He proclaimed himself Sultan and took the name of Shamsuddin. The next Sultan was Sahab-ud-Din who ascended the throne in 1354 AD and was married to a Hindu, Laxmi. He was succeeded by Qutubuddin, after whose death his son Sikander took the reins of power in 1389 AD. During the reign of these Sultans the Hindu Brahmins controlled the administration and Sanskrit was the language of the court. To meet various ransoms and war expenses, Sikander began to plunder Hindu temples and levy heavy taxes. His persecution and torture of the Hindus is traditionally regarded as instigating the first immigration of all but eleven Kashmiri Pandit families from Kashmir. The Kashmiri Muslims however did not condone his policy and against his orders gave refuge to Hindus.

Sikander’s younger son Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, popularly known as Bud Shah came to the throne in 1420 AD. His court was full of poets and musicians. He introduced Persian as the new official language. He introduced the art of weaving and papermaking.

In fact, Zain-ul-Abidin, an inspired ruler, ended the forced conversion of Hindus and decreed that those who had been converted in this fashion be allowed to return to their own faith. He even provided Hindus with subsidies enabling them to rebuild the temples his father had destroyed. The different ethnic and religious groups were still not allowed to intermarry, but they learned to live side by side amicably enough. Zain-ul-Abidin organised visits to Iran and Central Asia so that his subjects could learn bookbinding and woodcarving, as well as how to make carpets and Shawls, thereby laying the foundation for the shawl making for which Kashmir is famous. But again wars of succession raged between his sons after his death in 1470 AD.

It was during the reign of Babur’s son Humayun, that Mirza Haider Dughlat finally succeeded in conquering Kashmir in 1540 AD. But as an orthodox Sunni his persecution of the Shias led to his downfall and in 1555 AD Ghazi Chak became king of Kashmir. The Chaks regained control of Poonch, Ladakh, Kishtwar and some of the outer lying regions.

The dynasty fell into decline after Zain-ul-Abidin’s death. Disputes over his successor, unfit rulers and endless intrigues among the nobility paved the way for a new invasion.

On the other hand, deprived of local patronage, Kashmir’s poets, painters and scribes left the valley in search of employment at the Mughal court in Delhi and Lahore, taking the country’s cultural life with them.

What made the disappearance of Kashmiri culture particularly harsh was the fact that the conquest itself coincided with a sudden flowering of the Kashmiri court. Zoonie, the wife of Sultan Yousaf Shah, was a peasant from the village of Tsandahar who had been taken up by a Sufi mystic enchanted with her voice. Under his guidance she learned Persian and began to write her own songs. One day, passing with his entourage and hearing her voice in the fields, Yousaf Shah, too, was captivated. He took her to court and prevailed on her to marry him. That is how Zoonie entered the palace as Queen and took the name of Habba Khatun (‘The Loved Woman’).

Habba Khatun gave the Kashmiri language a literary form and encouraged a synthesis of Persian and Indian musical styles. She gave women the freedom to decorate themselves as they wished and revived the old Circassian tradition of tattooing the face and hands with special dyes and powders. The clerics were furious. They saw in her the work of Iblis (Satan) in league with the blaspheming, licentious Sufis. While Yousaf Shah remained on the throne, however, Habba Khatun was untouchable. She mocked the pretensions of the clergy, defended the mystic strain within Islam and compared herself to a flower that flourishes in fertile soil and cannot be uprooted.

In 1583, the Mughal emperor, Akbar, dispatched his favourite general to annex the Kingdom of Kashmir. There was no fighting. Yousaf Shah rode out to the Mughal camp and capitulated without struggle, demanding only the right to retain the throne and strike coins in his image. Instead, he was arrested and sent into exile. The Kashmiri nobles, angered by Yousaf Shah’s betrayal, placed his son, Yakub Shah, on the throne. However, he was a weak and intemperate young man who set the Sunni and the Shia clerics at one another’s throats, and before long Akbar sent a large expeditionary force, which took Kashmir in the summer of 1588. In the autumn the emperor came to see the valley’s famous colours for himself.

Habba Khatun’s situation changed dramatically after Akbar had her husband exiled. Unlike Sughanda and Dida, two powerful 10th century queens who had ascended the throne as regents, Habba Khatun was driven out of the palace. At first she found refuge with the Sufis, but after a time she began to move from village to village, giving voice through her songs to the melancholy of a suppressed people. There is no record of when or where she died. A grave, thought to be hers, was discovered in the middle of the last century, and women mourning the disappearance of young men killed in the insurgency still sing her verses.

Enter the Mughals

The conquest of the valley by the Mughals is generally regarded as marking the beginning of Kashmir’s modern history. For nearly two hundred years Kashmir was the northern most point of an empire whose power base was situated in Delhi. Akbar was proclaimed Emperor and the Khutba was read and coins were minted in his name. In spite of the so-called liberalism and ‘secular traits’ attributed to Akbar, the reality of the empire was the subjugation of people in the throes of poverty and deprivation. Akbar made three imperial sojourns to Kashmir. In his last visit in 1597 he was accompanied by a Portuguese Jesuit, Jerome Xavier, who left a description of the valley which was suffering a severe famine and explained how people bartered away their children for food. Akbar’s son and successor Jehangir is famous for his legendary love for Kashmir. He ascended the throne in 1605 and built over 700 gardens in Kashmir. His son Shahjahan succeeded him in 1627. He too loved Kashmir and the valley became a popular place of refuge for the Mughal nobility away from the plains of India during the hot summers. The investment of the Mughals in Kashmir was mainly destined for the luxury and ecstasy of the aristocracy.

For example, when Akbar made his first visit to Kashmir he was preceded by 3000 stone cutters, mountain miners, rock splinters and 2000 diggers whose task it was to level the bumps on the roads upon which the emperor’s entourage was to travel. But with the Mughal rule the pattern of government imposed upon them was only too familiar for the Kashmiri masses – the absolute rule of the governors and the imposition of heavy taxes. Although there was relative stability during the Mughal rule, the hard times and plight of the toilers did not lessen. The memory of Aurangzeb’s reign is tarnished by his persecution of the Hindus and Shias. Under Aurangzeb’s successor the administration deteriorated and disorder spread. Rebellion, murder, looting, arrests and assassinations were all common occurrences.

Major Hindu-Sunni-Shia conflicts erupted in 1720. In a severe famine in 1723, rice became as precious as gold. In 1746 there was a devastating flood, followed by a famine in which three-quarters of the people are believed to have perished. Nadir Shah’s invasion of the seat of the Mughals power at Delhi in 1738 had weakened their imperial hold on Kashmir still further. This in turn left Kashmir at the mercy of further predators.

The Afghan Invasion

In 1753 the Afghan general Abdullah Khan Ishaq Aqasi, with a force of 1,500 men, defeated the opposing force of Abdul Qasim Khan at the battle of Shopian. When the valley was annexed by Ahmed Shah Durani to his Afghan kingdom the Kashmiris found themselves thrown from the frying pan into the fire.

Despite their shared religion, the tribal, cultural, and linguistic differences meant that the usual pattern of despotic rule began once more. Oppression took the form of the extortion of money from the local people and brutality in the face of any opposition or dissent. Both Kashmiri men and women lived in fear. Many were captured and sent as slaves to Afghanistan. Never before had the people of the valley experienced such a barbarous administration. After Ahmed Shah Durrani’s death his son Timur Shah succeeded him. He sent Haji Karimdad to be governor with a punitive force against the self-proclaimed independent ruler, Jawan Sher. Jawan Sher was also defeated due to the opposition of the Kashmiri Sunnis. Karimdad was as cruel as his predecessors. In order to extort money from the people, Muslims and Hindus alike, he levied an anna per rupee on the price of shawls from the weavers.

Afghan domination lasted for little more than 50 years. Despite common religious and geographical links the repressive and extortionate nature of Afghan rule led to misery amongst the people. Under the Afghan rulers of Kashmir, wealth had to be accumulated rapidly as no one knew how many days would elapse before they were recalled to Kabul to make room for some needy favourite of the hour. Under the Afghans the shawl industry declined, probably due to their policy of heavy taxation.

“In 1783 George Foster estimated that there were 16,000 shawl looms in use compared with 40,000 in the time of Mughals.”

Ranjit Singh’s rise to prominence had been at the expense of the declining Afghan empire. In 1799, while Zaman Shah was king of Afghanistan, Ranjit acquired Lahore and the title of Raja from him. In 1802 he conquered Amritsar.

Inviting the Sikhs

After six years of famine, the Kashmiri treasury was empty. The Afghan ruler Azim Khan believed that one of his revenue collectors, Pandit Birbal Dhar, was guilty of embezzlement and placed him under arrest while the accounts were audited. When he was released on bail, Birbal Dahr fled from the valley with the help of two Muslim landowners, Malik Kamdar and Malik Namdar. Birbal made for Jammu where he was received by one of Ranjit Singh’s favourite vassals, Gulab Singh. Birbal Dhar’s message to Ranjit Singh was this time one of support against the Afghans. Ranjit now was more cautious about giving help and kept Pandit Birbal’s son Raja Kak as a hostage until his mission was completed. Ranjit Sigh also sought the support of other local rulers on the way from Bhimber to Shopian to ensure a safe passage to his army. An advanced column left Lahore on February 26, 1819 under the command of Ranjit Singh’s heir, Prince Kharrak Singh. Ranjit himself left two months later and set up a base camp at Wazirabad.

When he heard of the arrival of the Sikh army, Jabbar Khan, the younger brother of Azim Khan who had assumed charge of Kashmir, marched from Srinagar to Haripur about 5 miles from Shopian. On July 3, 1819 the two forces engaged in battle.

Early on in his military career Ranjit Singh had learnt from the successes of the East India Company’s artillery, and his Sikh guns dominated the Afghans on their horses. When Jabbar Khan was wounded he retreated to Srinagar. The Afghans and the Kashmiris panicked and Kashmir fell to the Sikhs.

By requesting the assistance of the Sikhs and Ranjit Singh a ruler who had already mounted two expeditions against Kashmir and who had been in nominal alliance with their oppressors, the Afghans, yet again the Kashmiri upper classes had been responsible for asking help from a foreign ruler to intervene in Kashmir.

This is a significant trait of the Kashmiri aristocracy running throughout its history. According to Prem Nath Bazaz:

“The change of master proved but a change of king log for king stork. The Sikhs were no less cruel, rapacious, short sighted, intolerant and fanatical than Afghans. Sikh rule on Kashmir lasted for 28 atrocious years.”

If the Afghans were less tyrannical towards the Muslim Nobles, the Sikh governors treated the Hindu landlords less harshly. The poor section of all communities, however, suffered equally.

One after another the Sikh governors continued this sinister orgy of brutality, extortion, and callousness. One of the very few Europeans who visited Kashmir under Sikh rule in 1823 was Dr. William Moorcroft. During his ten month visit he made the following observations:

“Everywhere the people were in most abject conditions, exorbitantly taxed by the Sikh government and subjected to every kind of extortion and oppression by its officers. The consequence of this system is the gradual depopulation of the country. No more than one sixteenth of the cultivable land surface was under cultivation; as a result starving people had fled in great numbers to India. No fewer than 6,800 patients were on the list at one time, a large proportion of whom were suffering from the most loathsome diseases, brought on by scant and unwholesome food, dark, damp and ill ventilated lodging, excessive dirtiness and gross immorality. Every trade was taxed: butchers, bakers, boatmen, vendors of fuels, public notaries, scavengers, prostitutes as well as the shawl makers, all pay a sort of corporation tax.”

Moorcroft was astounded to hear from the governor, Hari Singh Narla that he had accumulated 25 Lakhs of rupees for himself, besides realising the provincial rental assessment for the Maharaja.

In a good year Kashmir was one of the richest revenue yielding provinces of the Sikh kingdom. Moorcroft also observed that, “The Kashmiris were treated little better than cattle”.

The atrocious character of the Sikh rule was further explained by Vigne:

“By the late 1830s the valley and neighboring areas were suffering under such terrible conditions that any small improvement came too late. ‘ The oppression and rapacity of the Sikhs had reduced the revenue to a paltry amount of a few thousand rupees per annum,’ The Kashmiris even ridiculed their own poverty: ‘Kishtwar is the causeway of distress, where people are hungry by day and cold by night; whoever comes there, when he goes away is as meagre as the flagstaff of a fakir.”

A more turbulent period starts with the absorption of Kashmir into Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s growing empire and the rise of the disciple of Machiavelli, Gulab Singh Dogra. He had joined the Sikh army of Ranjit Singh in 1809 as a trooper at the pay of Rs 3 per month. His valour in the siege of Multan in 1819 brought him reward. The next year Ranjit Singh gave him the Jagir, or the estate of Jammu. On June 27, 1839 Ranjit Singh died. Gulab Singh opened dialogue with the British who were searching for an agent in the court of an empire they envied and sought to conquer.

The British and the Dogras: Kashmiris as a Commodity

On 10 February 1846, during the first Anglo-Sikh war, the battle of Sobaron took place in a small village on the banks of the Satluj. The British called this battle “The Waterloo of India”. Gulab Singh deceived the Sikhs and they lost narrowly due to his treachery and betrayal. the British handed over Jammu and Kashmir to Gulab Singh for a token sum of Rs 75 lakhs.

It was far more expedient for the British to allow Gulab Singh to become the Independent Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, in whose direct management this territory had remained for twenty-five years, rather than attempt to take over the area themselves. Lord Hardinge’s plan was doubly attractive because Gulab Singh was willing to pay for it.

As the chief architect of the treaty of Amritsar, and for his decision to sell Kashmir to Gulab Singh, Lord Hardinge came under strong criticism for his role from some British officers. Sir Charles Napier, who subsequently took over from Gough as Commander in Chief, scathingly criticised the decision:

“What a king to install! Rising from the lowest foulest sediment of debauchery to float on the highest surge of blood, he lifted his besmeared front and England adorned it with a crown? Cramming down the throats of the Cashmerian people a hated and hateful villain.”

Herbert Edwards, Aide-de-Camp to Gough, had this to say about Gulab Singh:

“He has the cunning of the Vulture. He sat apart in clear atmosphere of passionless distance, and with sleepless eye beheld the lion and the tiger contending for the deer, and when the combatants were dead, he spread his wings, sailed calmly down, and feasted where they fought.”

The British Governor General, Lord Henry Hardinge had himself admitted that Gulab Sigh, ‘was the greatest Rascal in Asia!’

The Kashmiri’s resentment at their humiliating sell out persists even to this day. A Kashmiri lawyer expressed the sale in another tune, “each one of us was purchased by the Dogra ruler for three rupees.”

The Kashmiri people always felt that the Dogras considered Jammu as their home and the valley as conquered territory.

When Gulab Singh evacuated the Lahore fort he succeeded in carrying away a great deal of Sikh treasure: ‘sixteen carts were filled with rupees and other silver coins’, wrote a contemporary, Latif Muhammad, ‘while five hundred horsemen were each entrusted with a bag of gold mohurs [seals] and his orderlies were also entrusted with jewelry and other valuable articles.’ The carts were covered with ammunition in order to ‘hoodwink’ the Sikh soldiers.

More significantly, had Kashmir been annexed directly by the British imperialists and become part of British India, when the subcontinent was divided in 1947, according to the principles of partition, it could have been divided along communal lines and the predominantly Muslim valley would undoubtedly have been allocated to Pakistan.

However, for the British it was a good bargain. They now had a loyal agent in the buffer state of Kashmir. They had helped Gulab Singh take the valley on November 9, 1846 and the Dogras always lived up to British expectations, helping them with both men and money wherever the Empire needed it.

“Accepting the gift of Jammu and Kashmir Gulab Singh had described himself as Zar Kharid Ghulam (slave bought with gold), an apt description.”

During the 1857 war of independence Gulab Singh sent his son Ranbir Singh with 2,000 infantry, 200 cavalry and six heavy guns to help the British in the siege of Delhi. In August 1857 Gulab Singh died but his heirs remained loyal. They sent a large amount of money to Punjab for the troops whose pay was in arrears. The “mutineers” were also forbidden to seek asylum in Kashmir, which after the British annexation of Punjab now bordered British India. Queen Victoria conferred on Maharaja Ranbir Singh the title of the “Most Exalted Order of the Star of India” at the same time his gun salute was raised from 19 to 21. In the Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80 the Dogras of Kashmir joined the British cause with troops and artillery. In the First World War, the Second Kashmir Rifles, with 1200 troops, went to help the British in 1914 and 1917. Similar help was given in the Second World War. Contingents of Kashmiris fought in East Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and France. They also took part in operations that led to the defeat of the Turks in Palestine.

The rule of the Dogras was another nightmare for the Kashmiris. Vigne also witnessed Gulab Singh’s fearful cruelty.

In 1837 Shams-ud-Din, the governor of Poonch, one of the jagiris awarded to Dhyan Singh, led a rebellion against excessive taxation. He and his supporters were severely punished. Some of the prisoners captured by Gulab Singh were flayed alive. Then ordered one or two of the skins to be stuffed with straw; the hands were stiffened, and tied in an attitude of supplication; the corpse was then placed erect; and the head, which had been severed from the body was reversed as it rested on the neck. The figure was planted by the way-side, that passersby might see it.

The fourth and last Dogra ruler, Prince Hari Singh came to power in 1925. While the Maharaja drained the state’s revenue in his hedonistic orgies, the people sank into despair and destitution.

Gwasha Nath Kaul, in his book “Kashmir Then and Now”, wrote in the 1920s:

“Srinagar city presented a grim picture. At the two-prostitution centers at Zaina Kadal and Gow Kadal the suffering of women was atrocious and cheap. Thefts were commonplace day and night. Anti Muslim prejudice of the administration was in harshest tones. Begging was so common that hordes of beggars pounced upon a Dumri (144th of one rupee), labour so cheap that a Khiwar (80 pounds) of Shali husked for four Annas (1/4 Rupee), unasked for house to house service by women, illiteracy so glaring that only a few of the god’s anointed could read or write, unemployment so acute that hardly one was earning member of a family of 10 or 12. Birth rate was low and death rate high due to curable diseases for which no treatment was available. Recreation and amusement were unknown to the common people. Dirty clothes were a common feature, soap being both scarce and costly. The plight of the Sikhs was equally frightful; the pundits as a class looked a little better…90 per cent of Muslims houses in Srinagar were mortgaged to Indian Sahukars (money lenders).”

The government took between two thirds to three quarters of the gross produce of the land. A British pacifist, Horace Alexander told the Kashmir Peace Committee that,

“If the Maharaja government chastised the people of Kashmir valley with whips, the Ponchis were chastised with scorpions”.

A social worker in Punjab Richard Symonds wrote: “Every cow, buffalo and sheep was taxed, and even every wife”.

In spite of these dire straits there was an instinctive abhorrence of violence. The civil servant Walter Lawrence noted this at the turn of the last century,

“Briefly the Kashmiri cultivators have hitherto been treated as serfs, and have literally been forced to cultivate. They had no interest in the land and were liable to be called away to work for officials or men of influence…. (But) crime was unknown in the village. I never heard of such things as the theft of crops. Offences against persons are extremely rare; occasionally go far as to knock off a turban to seize an adversary by his effeminate gown. The sight of blood is abhorrent to them.”

History of Class Struggle

It is an historical irony that by the crimes of the ruling classes and their capitalist system, these people who abhorred bloodshed and violence in this exquisite fairyland, today are drenched in innocent human blood. But Kashmir’s history is also rich with the struggles of the workers, peasants, and above all the youth.

In the summer of 1924 the Kashmiri workers revolted. The workers of the Srinagar silk factory came out on strike. The next day they occupied government land and whole city came to a standstill. The Maharaja resorted to ruthless repression. The army was called in and the strike was brutally crushed. Sadduddin Shawal was expelled. But this was only a prelude to the mammoth struggles that were to come.

As their Muslim counterparts had oppressed the Hindus and other religious minorities, the Dogras, especially under the rule of Hari Singh, had also discriminated against Muslim Kashmiris, especially those from the oppressed classes. Hari Singh and his advisors were staunch Hindus. These included his wife Maharani Tera Devi, her brother Chand, and a Swami (Hindu Saint) referred to by some as “the Rasputin of Kashmir”.

Economically, the combination of the state’s exorbitant tax collection policy, the ban on Kashmiri land ownership, and the widespread corruption of minor officials, ensured that the Muslims never advanced above a mere “survival” level. Gulab Singh had set the trend for exorbitant tax collection. He was determined to recover the Rs 75 lakhs he had paid to the British for Kashmir. His successors also continued to fleece the Kashmiris. Not only were tax levels high, but virtually nothing was exempt from taxation: crops, fruits, grazing animals, handicrafts (shawls, carpets etc.), marriages, ceremonies, labour services including grave-digging and even prostitution!

The notorious begar system, whereby the state could force its subjects to work on state projects such as road building, was reintroduced. Those ‘recruited’ had no right to refuse and received little or no payment for their services. Furthermore, most of this work could only be carried out during the summer months when the peasants most needed to be at home to tend their crops. Begar was officially abolished in accordance with the recommendations of Sir Walter Lawrence (Settlement Officer 1889-95), but in practice, the system continued virtually unabated.

The grievances of Kashmiri Muslims are long standing…state ownership of all agricultural land, the forest administration, police severities, official control over the sale of silk cocoons, unequal taxation, and the partial payments of land revenue in kind instead of cash all these are matters of dispute the pinch of the shoe is felt in its daily use. Then the village schoolmasters, the civil and criminal courts judges, the revenue and forest officers in fact, the local representation of every department are predominantly Hindu among a Muslims population, friction is inevitable, and is generated by every word of asperity and every inconsiderate action.

After a public meeting on June 25,1931 a Pathan cook named Abdul Qadir made an impromptu, highly ‘inflammatory’ speech condemning Hindus in general, and Hari Singh’s rule in particular. He was immediately arrested on charges of sedition. Qadir’s tale provided a fresh focus for the anger of the Muslims. When proceedings started at the Srinagar Session Court on July 6, a crowd of some 7,000 gathered outside and demanded entry into the jail. Scuffles broke out between the crowd and the police. The latter eventually opened fire on the crowd killing twenty-one people. As the bodies of the dead were being carried in a procession to the Jamia Masjid, anti-Hindu riots broke out in some other parts of Srinagar. The worst violence took place at Maharaj Ganj where Hindu shops were looted and three Hindus killed. Altogether some 163 people were injured.

Though the events of July 1931on the surface appear to have been caused by religious concerns, it would be more accurate to describe the cause as socio-economic.

It was inevitable that at some point something would trigger this dissatisfaction into something more concrete. Furthermore, it would not be unreasonable to assert that this trigger could just as likely have been a “secular” issue as a religious one.

The Kashmir Committee demanded the setting up of an independent Commission of Enquiry, and decided to commemorate “Kashmir Day” on August 14, to express sympathy with the jailed “martyrs”.

The Committee’s call to remember those killed in July on Kashmir Day (August 14) attracted a considerable response one that extended far beyond the state itself. In British India, meetings were held in major cities like Mumbai, Calcutta, and Delhi; while in Jammu and Kashmir despite a ban by the Maharaja some 50,000 attended a rally outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.

However, the movement against the Maharaja was not exclusively religious. It is true that at times class and religious issues in Kashmir coincided. The real target of the anger of toiling Muslims was not the Hindu community despite the attack on them but the state.

In a report on disturbances in Kashmir dated September 28, 1931 the British residents in Kashmir at the time noted that: The tenseness of Mohammedans feeling is rather anti-Darbar than anti-Hindu.

In his work “Inside Kashmir” (1941) Prem Nath Bazaz writes:

“The driving force behind the mass agitation till the 13th July was the discontent among the rank and file of the Muslims. The attack on the jail was in no way directed against the Hindus, and those who laid down their lives at the jail gate did so fighting against an unsympathetic government …it was a fight of the tyrannised against their tyrants, of the oppressed against the oppressors.”

The movement of 1931 was a spontaneous mass uprising. It had political and economic causes behind it. The Muslim aristocracy tried to give the movement a religious colouring and make the Muslim masses believe that they had suffered because the “unbelievers” were the rulers of the state and dominated every walk of life.

Recently, Srinagar has been the centre of more strikes and protest demonstration than perhaps any other city in the subcontinent. A strong tradition of workers’ struggle and mass uprisings has evolved throughout the ages of oppression.

Pre-partition Kashmir was in reality a hellhole for the masses, under the tyrannical rule of the Dogras, there was acute poverty, misery, and disease. Yet at the same time it was a bastion of struggle. This is the background behind which the criminal partition of the subcontinent was carried out. This act created further sufferings for Kashmiris for generations to come. Fifty-eight years since partition, there has been no respite in this torment.


  • Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Karachi, January 1965) in, The Rebel’s Silhouette, translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali, p 63
  • As quoted by M.J Akbar in, India: The Siege Within, p.209
  • J.Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 163
  • Kalhana, Chronicle of Kings, vol. 1, p. 16
  • J. Nehru, as quoted in his foreword to Kalhana’s, Saga of Kings, p. 10
  • Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in the Crossfire, p.23
  • As quoted in M.J. Akbar, Kashmir: Behind the Vale, p.17.
  • Schofield, op.cit ., p. 23
  • Bamzai, History of Kashmir, p. 426
  • Schofield, op.cit., p 30
  • Prem Nath Bazaz, Struggle for Freedom, pp. 117-118.
  • William Moorcroft, Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab, pp.123-124
  • Ibid., p. 293
  • Quoted in Vigne, Travels, p. 203
  • As quoted in Singh, Jammu Fox, p. 119
  • Ibid, p. 184
  • Scofield, op.cit., p. 54
  • Ibid., p. 57
  • Ibid., p. 43
  • Akbar, op.cit, p. 218.
  • Vigne, Travels, vol. 1, p. 241
  • As quoted in Akbar, op.cit., p. 219
  • Scofield, op.cit, p 133
  • As quoted in Akber, op.cit., p 219
  • Ibid., p 219
  • The Times, 05 December 1931
  • Prem Nath Bazaz, Inside Kashmir (1941), p. 131