Kashmir: Remembering the unsung heroes

By Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja

29 April 1865 is marked as the bloodiest day in Kashmir history. On this day the Dogra army brutally massacred 28 Kashmiris at old city’s Zaldagar, when shawl weavers peacefully protested against the Dagh shawl department and the cruel taxation of the government. This protest was in the backdrop of their frustration, their extremely difficult working conditions, meagre wages, excessive taxation and other curbs. The procession was nothing but a demonstration of the fight against the exploitation, oppression and tyrannical measures of the Dogra autocracy. F. M. Hussnain calls this the first organised protest for demands in the history of class struggle in India. Historical records reveal that the protest was an event of far-reaching significance. In the beginning, the shawl bafs sent delegations to the governor, Kripa Ram, with the hope that their woes would be addressed. But, Kripa Ram’s refusal to meet them dashed their hopes discordantly. The delegation subsequently turned into a procession and moved towards Zaldagar, Srinagar. In bittered despairing mood, the shawl bafs made a wooden bier placing a cover over the coffin, and carried it to and from the procession, exclaiming, ‘Moud Kak Dhar; Kus Waen Diyas Kabar (Raja Kak Dhar is dead, who will give him a burial space). Raj Kak Dhar, the Kashmiri Pandit official who headed the Dagh Shawl Department, manoeuvred a myth and wrongly reported to the governor that they would attack his house and kill him. Unnerved, he hastily rushed a large army under the command of Colonel Bijoy Singh who rounded off the demonstrators and asked them to disperse. On the refusal to accept the orders, the troops indiscriminately fired at them and later charged them with spears and pushed the unarmed hungry multitude towards the narrow bridge and most of the processionists fell into the marshy canal and got drowned. Twenty-eight dead bodies were recovered from the river, and over hundreds are thought to have sustained both serious and minor injuries in the violence. Fines were imposed not just on the shawl-bafs who had directly participated in the demonstration, but also on the patwaris, or local government officials, of the areas from which it originated.

Historians have been unable to determine the names of all those killed on this fateful day. However, the fate of the leaders of the 1865 shawl-baf uprising is well recorded. The leaders like Sheikh Rasool and Abli Baba were tortured to death in a dungeon in the Shergarhi Palace, while Sona Shah and Qudda Lal were imprisoned in the Bahu Fort at Jammu after they failed to pay a fine of fifty thousand rupees (chilke) each to the Maharaja. Hundreds of other protesters were held in prison at Habak, where many died of cold and hunger. This is where the phenomenon of custodial killings started in Kashmir which continues to be in vogue even today under the so-called democratic India.

This uprising was a great milestone in the social and political history of Kashmir. It was started against a system that had pushed almost entirely Muslim population into a position of exclusion and disadvantage in almost all spheres of social, political and economic life.  Why the Kashmiri’s raised their voice against the then autocratic regime is a question to be seen in the backdrop of the economic measures of Dogra regime.  The Dogra rulers would eat into the hard toil of artisans especially the shawl weavers by imposing heavy taxes on their products. The author of “The Abode of Snow’ Andrew Wilson who visited Kashmir during the time of Maharaja Ranbir Singh substantiates this by writing that ‘the shawl weavers were getting miserable wages and were allowed neither to leave Kashmir nor change their employment, so that they were in the position of slaves, and their average wage was only about three half-pence a day’. It was such a kind of labour in Kashmir where after working from dawn to dusk, their earnings hardly touched their subsistence level. The shawl weaver could earn seven or eight rupees per month out of which he paid three to four rupees in tax which left him three or four rupees to live on. Almost all the households in the city of Srinagar and other areas were fully or partially, directly or indirectly, involved in this industry and derived some kind of economic advantage. The industry indeed formed the considerable source of revenue to the government, but it went beyond limits in taxing the industry.

Reflecting the pain and plight of the labour class of Kashmir during the tyrannical Dogra rule, Allama Iqbal was moved by their miserable condition. After visiting the valley in 1921 he left behind a subversive couplet which spread around the whole of Kashmir. “Ba resham qaba Khawaja az mehnat-e-oo Naseeb-e-tanash jama-e-taarey: ‘While you are destined to cover your body with rags, The Khwaja’s silken robes are the fruit of your labour.)” The poet further lamented: “Sarma ki Hawaon mae uryan hae Badan us ka; Detaa hae hunar jis ka ameeron ko dushala: ‘With his body naked in the flaw of the winter, He offers by his skill shawls to the rich.” This couplet was probably in the backdrop of the event when the South Indian ruler Tipu Sultan sent a Kashmir shawl to Napoleon who liked it so much that he gifted it to his beloved Queen Empress Josephine. The irony of the fact is that the Kashmiri shawl weavers with their ambidextrous hands produced masterpieces for which they were famous, but their children would sleep empty stomach during the bone-chilling winters.

They were reduced to the level of extreme poverty. While depicting their pathetic condition, Dr Elmslie, a Scottish Doctor and Missionary to Kashmir records in his memoir “Seed Time in Kashmir’ that there were thousands of shawl weavers in Srinagar, all Mohammedans, and were a most miserable portion of the population, both physically and morally. Crowded together in small and badly ventilated workshops, earning a mere pittance, and insufficiently nourished, they suffer from a chest infection, rheumatism and scrofula. The Dogra officials had made the life of these weavers as ill omen which is reflected by the fact that when a woman wishes her neighbour ill, she says, may you get a shawl weaver for a husband. The height of oppression on these Kashmiris was such that the poet Hafeez Jallundari was mortified and he wrote later: “Shir Sae Mehroom Hae Malik Hai Jui Sheer Ka: Ek Pehlu Ye bhi Hai Kashmir Ki Tasveer Ka: He who owns the river of milk is denied the milk: Kashmir’s image has this side to it too.”

It appears that there are probably no historical records that could reveal where these unsung Martyrs of Kashmir, who were the first in the world to raise their voice for the labor class, are buried. As time passed, their resistance was erased from Kashmir’s political memory. The world began to observe a day for labourers from the ‘May Day’ of 1886 but the brave sons of Kashmir raised their voice earlier in 1865. Therefore this very day holds an important position in the annals of Kashmir history. However, the irony of the fact is that the Martyrs of Zaldagar are not being remembered the way they deserve to be remembered. These unsung heroes, unfortunately, have been forgotten to the extent that they are forgotten both by the state and the people of Kashmir as well. Kashmiris have been struggling against the yoke of subjugation and oppression for long offering innumerable sacrifices of their life. During past three centuries only the tyrant rulers have changed hands, be it the Afghans, the Sikhs, the Dogra rulers or the present Indian occupation, as for the people of this land, the saga of subjugation, humiliation and oppression remained a continuous affair.

Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre of Advanced Study Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University.

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