The seeds of communalism were sown in Kashmir starting with the Shah dynasty and grew into a malaise by the time the Afghans were expelled. The Pandits had suffered various levels of discrimination and atrocities through a see-saw period of some 500 years. It comes as no surprise that the Hindus of J&K harboured a grudge for being treated as they had been. Under the Dogra rule, the Muslims got a taste of what it was like to be discriminated against. What happened next changed the course of Kashmir’s history.

Gulab Singh died in 1857, but the Dogra dynasty continued to rule over the princely state of Kashmir till 1947, under the watchful eyes of the British. However, as time went by, the plight of the Kashmiris under their Hindu rulers came under criticism. In a letter to London in 1880, the then Viceroy, Lord Lytton, observed that the Kashmiri people were ‘systematically oppressed and depressed’, because the British had ‘installed a ruler that was alien to them (the Kashmiris) in face and creed’.

The Great Divide

Now, there are two schools of thought when it comes to assessing the Dogras as rulers. According to some, the Dogras were successful administrators, instituted reforms, and stood for equal representation across the state. This is, however, refuted by Gawasha Nath Kaul, who in his book, Kashmir Then And Now, states that Muslims were not only absent in the state’s civil administration but were also denied officer positions in the military.

However, the progressive reforms implemented by Maharaja Hari Singh, who ascended the throne in 1925, have drawn special praise. When Hari Singh came to power, people had great expectations from him, deeming him as an agent of change. He abolished the practice of begar (enforced labour), allowed Harijans/Dalits into temples in 1929, established ‘jabri schools’ which gave Muslim girls a chance at education, stopped the practices of child marriage and Sati, and promoted widow remarriage. He also opened up his court, administration, and army to appointment based on merit. The army under him included Dogras, Sikhs, Gorkhas, Pathans, Hindu and Muslims alike. However, despite good intentions, the Maharaja faltered as he was way too dependent on state officials who failed to convey the actual concerns of the people. Thus Maharaja Hari Singh remained a disconnected ruler, oblivious to his subjects’ grievances.

Some, on the other hand, believe that hundred years of Dogra rule had ruined every aspect of life of Kashmiris. According to Sir Albion Bannerji, the Foreign and Political Minister of Kashmir, who resigned on 15th March, 1929: “Jammu and Kashmir State is labouring under many disadvantages, with a large Muhammaden population absolutely illiterate, labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages and practically governed like dumb driven cattle. There is no touch between the Government and the people, no suitable opportunity for representing grievances and the administrative machinery itself requires overhauling from top to bottom to bring it up to the modern conditions of efficiency. It has, at present, little or no sympathy with the people’s wants and grievances.” [1]

This, coupled with the feudalistic society of Kashmir (land was mainly owned by the Dogras and cultivated by Muslim peasants), the cruel practice of begar, and the oppressive tax system (everything, except water and air, was taxed) prompted historians to view the Dogra years as a disaster. 

Winds of Change

Given the severe dissatisfaction, the Dogra rule began to be marked by unrest. Kashmiri Muslims saw the Maharaja’s policies as anti-Muslim and pro-Hindus. Even in 1865, a peaceful protest by Kashmiri shawl weavers against rising taxes which almost killed the shawl industry (the shawl industry had reached its zenith under the Mughals and became popular in Europe in the 18th century after being popularised by Queen Victoria of England and Empress Josephine of France), was ‘swiftly put down’ by the Maharaja’s army. Over time, polarising opinion against the Maharaja gathered pace. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s when radical consciousness started shaping political opinion, with few young Muslim intellectuals forming the ‘Reading Room Party’ to discuss ways to end the Dogra oppression. Among them was a young Sheikh Abdullah who would rise to become the leader of the Kashmiri people.

In 1931, massive anti-Dogra campaigns were launched, with speeches and political writings urging people to rise against the autocratic rule. Mosques, shrines and open air gatherings became meeting grounds to voice this new political consciousness which was embraced by one and all.

The Rising of 1931

But it was not until July 13, 1931, when things came to head. On that day, thousands attempted to storm the Central Srinagar jail during the court proceeding of a sedition case filed against Abdul Qadeer, a cook who served under a British officer. Qadeer, a few days earlier, had delivered a speech that exhorted Muslims to rise against their Hindu rulers. In his inflammatory speech, Qadeer had railed: “‘Listen. Time has come when we have to act. Requests and memoranda will serve no purpose at this point of time. It will not end tyranny and it will not end desecration of the Quran. Stand up upon your legs and fight the tyrant rulers.’ He pointed towards Raj Mahal (Palace) and said: ‘Raze it to the ground.’”[2]

To quell the gathering, the Maharaja’s soldiers fired at the crowd and 22 protesters were killed. While some have termed the incident as anti-tyranny and not anti-Hindu per se, the truth is, things took a grim turn in the aftermath of July 13, when riots (scholars have termed this as the first pre-partition riots) broke out in the Valley. Shops owned by Hindus were looted and the minority Hindu community fell prey to sectarian violence. In fact, many see the day’s events as pre-planned mayhem targeting minority Hindus, spun by British masterminds, and ‘put in action by non-state actors such as Qadeer.[3]

Whatever be the version, the truth is July 13, observed as Martyr’s Day by Kashmiri Muslims up till 2019 (as per an order passed by the J&K administration, July 13 was dropped as a public holiday beginning 2020) was deemed as Black Day by Kashmiri Hindus; a day when Kashmir’s political narrative took a sectarian turn.

 

The Rise of Sheikh Abdullah

The 1931 uprising saw the emergence of Sheikh Abdullah as a popular leader of Kashmir’s Muslims. In fact, Sheikh Abdullah has been the most vociferous advocate of a free Kashmir in its entire history and has had an undeniably massive influence on half a century of the Kashmir story. He projected himself as secular, someone who was in favour of an independent Kashmir, and shunned Pakistan’s advances of favouring accession to the Pakistan state. Yet, he was far from black and white in his political beliefs and remained ambivalent on his secular and anti-Pakistan feelings till the end.

Born into a middle-class family of shawl weavers, Abdullah’s family fell into hardship following his father’s death just two months before his birth. Despite hurdles, Abdullah went on to complete his higher studies and joined Srinagar’s Government High School as a teacher. But with an M.Sc. under his belt (which was rare in those days), his aspirations lay elsewhere. At that time, however, it is believed prevailing bias dictated appointments to civil administration posts went to ‘outsiders or technically qualified Kashmiri Pandits’. Following the rejection of his application by the Civil Service Recruitment Board, a frustrated Abdullah gave up his teaching post and joined politics. Many believe that this buried misgiving shaped Sheikh Abdullah into the man he was to become.

Popularly known as Sher-e-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir), Abdullah burst onto the political scene of Kashmir demanding a Naya (new) Kashmir by leading the opposition to Hari Singh’s rule. His fiery speeches compelled his followers to believe in a nationalism that was determined to end the Dogra tyranny. In 1932, Sheikh Abdullah established the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference. Initially the organisation stood mainly against the Dogra rule and sought to address the issues plaguing Kashmiri Muslims. However, following his interactions with Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri Pandit and leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, he renamed it Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) in 1939.  The party endorsed ‘Kashmiri nationalism’ or ‘Kashmiriyat’ (Kashmiriyat stood for religious, cultural and social harmony amongst all people living in Kashmir, irrespective of their religion, culture, caste, and creed. It was synonymous with the Kashmiris’ sense of patriotism and pride for Kashmir) more than anything else. This stance would prove contentious in the years to come. On June 13, 1941, a few faction members of the National Conference disgruntled at the party’s increasingly secular approach, revived the Muslim Conference under Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas.

Abdullah shared similar political and social ideologies with Nehru, which was unlike his relationship with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Abdullah and Jinnah could never see eye to eye as the latter believed nationhood sprung from religion. In fact, Jinnah’s Two-nation Theory demanded a separate nation for Muslims. Abdullah refused to ally with Jinnah, who sought to woo him during his visit to Kashmir in 1944. That said, some believe Sheikh Abdullah rejected Jinnah not because of the two-nation theory, but because he feared he would be overshadowed by political personalities like Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas, whose Muslim Conference (MC) had already joined hands with Jinnah’s Muslim League. He was afraid that he wouldn’t get the prominence as undisputed leader of J&K. The split of the MC and NC virtually divided the state’s Muslims into Kashmiri Muslims led by the Sheikh and the Jammu Muslims led by Abbas.[4]

Blueprint for a Naya Kashmir

In 1944, the National Conference submitted its iconic Naya Kashmir or “New Kashmir” document, which was written to propose constitutional changes. While it allowed for constitutional monarchy, it also demanded progressive economic and land reforms, and freedom of speech and press, among other things.

Elsewhere, following the end of World War II, Britain had decided to grant the Indian sub-continent its independence by 1948. In Kashmir too, the common man demanded a responsible government and freedom from the rule of Hari Singh. Abdullah whipped up sentiments further, when in 1946, he said: “The tyranny of the Dogras has lacerated our souls. It is time for action….Sovereignty is not the birthright of a ruler. Every man, woman and child will shout ‘Quit Kashmir’. The Kashmiri nation has expressed its will.’”[5]

A few weeks later the ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement was launched against the Dogra rule, an echo of the ‘Quit India’ movement resonating across the rest of India against British rule. Mass agitation led to the arrest of Abdullah and he was put on trial on charges of sedition. By the time Abdullah was released in September 1947, Kashmir was in the eye of a bigger storm.


[1] Sir Albion Banerji: J&K’s Hindu Brahmin Prime Minister who engineered Muslim Uprising against the Maharajaby S.N. Pandita for The Dispatch

[2] The mystery remains by Zahir ud din for the Greater Kashmir

[3] July 13, 1931: Not Martyrs Day but Black Day for the Hindu narrative in Jammu and Kashmir by Manu Khajuria for The Daily O

[4] Sheikh Abdullah was not a democrat: A counter-narrative based on facts by Brig Anil Gupta for South Asia Monitor

[5] SHEIKH’S SPEECH: 1946 – Kashmir Newsline | Leading News Portal from Kashmir| Authentic, Credible, Accurate News from Kashmir in Kashmir New Line

1947: The Birth of Two Nations and a Dilemma

In August 1947, Britain granted independence to India and partitioned it into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India on August 14 and 15, 1947, respectively. The hastily drafted Partition Act forced millions of Hindus and Sikhs to flee to India from the newly formed Pakistan, and Muslims from India to West and East Pakistan, respectively. This exodus precipitated unprecedented sectarian carnage as Hindus and Muslims resorted to horrific killings and looting and other such horrors. In an extraordinary time such as this, there arose a predicament with regard to the princely state of Kashmir.

The Dilemma

The Partition Act had offered the more than 550 independent princely states the choice to either join India or Pakistan, or remain independent. Unlike the other princely states which had readily made their choice, Hari Singh of Kashmir remained undecided, though not without reason. Though his was a Muslim-majority state, Hari Singh wasn’t keen on joining Jinnah’s Muslim Pakistan as a Hindu ruler. He remained indifferent to India because of his tense relations with Nehru, who was anti-monarchy. What Hari Singh desired was an independent Kashmir. Nehru, however, always had a keen interest in Kashmir. Being a Hindu and a Kashmiri Pandit, Nehru did not want to let go of J&K.

Pakistan too wanted Kashmir for itself. It believed that an unfair Partition had deprived it of Muslim-majority Kashmir which should have come to it as a logical extension of the Two Nation Theory (which made Pakistan the new homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims). India, on the other hand, saw Kashmir’s accession to India as a foregone conclusion. Under pressure from both sides and in order to buy time, the Maharaja signed a Standstill Agreement with Pakistan on August 15, 1947. India declined to sign the same and requested further discussions.

Sheikh Abdullah, who was released from prison on September 29, 1947, by then, wanted complete independence for Kashmir. The National Conference too reiterated this position. It believed that what Kashmir demanded was not merger with either Pakistan or India but power to its own people; Kashmir should not sell itself to either of the two nations.

By this time, the notion of Kashmiriyat in the region also rested on the belief that the interests of the Muslim-majority state would not be served by the Indian Republic and that Muslims were at risk among Hindus. This dichotomy summarizes the beliefs of several Kashmiris even today. Many in Kashmir, on the other hand, wanted Kashmir to merge with Pakistan. Members of the Muslim Conference had already adopted the “Accession to Pakistan Resolution” in July 1947. This divide in aspirations was stark. In hindsight, the common Kashmiri then, as now, remained pawns in the hands of the powers to be.

Meanwhile, across the rest of India, communal riots raged on in the aftermath of the partition. Kashmir too came to be blighted by it. In Muzaffarabad and Mirpur, the Poonch uprising of September 1947 led to the killings of Hindus and Sikhs by Muslims. This was followed by the large-scale October massacre of Muslims in Jammu, Udhampur and other districts, forcing refugees to flee with their lives. 

A War, An Accession & the Death of Monarchy

With Kashmir having erupted and Hari Singh refusing to join either India or Pakistan, Pakistan decided to up the ante. In order to put pressure on the Maharaja to accede, Pakistan first orchestrated an economic blockade, followed by ‘skirmishes’ in Poonch, Mirpur and Sialkot. The final transgression occurred on October 22, 1947, when Pashtun and Balochi tribal lashkars (militia), armed, aided and funded by Pakistan’s government and army, invaded Jammu and Kashmir. With the enemy at the gates and Kashmir burning and without an army, Hari Singh had no option but to seek military aid from Delhi. India agreed on one condition: Kashmir would have to accede to India. Hari Singh fled to Jammu by road and signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947. The very next day Indian troops flew into Srinagar. A fierce battle followed between the Indian army and the Pakistan-backed militia.

This grew to become the first war between India and Pakistan and continued till January 1, 1949. Nehru took the conflict to the United Nations (UN) in January 1948. The UN ordered a ceasefire following which Pakistan controlled about one-third of Kashmir while India controlled the rest. The UN instructed Pakistan to withdraw those troops that had invaded Kashmir, while India had to scale down its forces to the bare minimum to maintain law and order in the region; only on the meeting of these two conditions was Kashmir free to decide its future through a referendum. Pakistan never demilitarised, and India, citing Pakistan’s case, never pared down its army in Kashmir.

Epilogue

The bifurcation of Kashmir had a two-fold impact. First, Pakistan, through the use of proxy actors, was able to claim a part of Kashmir it could not have secured otherwise. Second, in the issue being internationalised at the UN, a part of Kashmir came to be termed as “disputed territory” instead of that which was rightfully a part of India.

That said, things could have turned out differently. Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, reportedly lamented to India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad in June 1949: “Kashmir too might have been solved but Jawaharlal did not let the troops go from Baramula to Domel (during the 1947-48 war). He sent them towards Poonch.’[1] The fact that India vacillated and did not resolve the Jammu and Kashmir issue in 1948 itself was a mistake. Hop skip to 2020 and we realize the dire repercussions of a decision not taken.

Following the accession, an emergency interim government, with Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister, was established in Kashmir. Under pressure from Nehru and Sardar Patel, Hari Singh stepped aside and appointed his son Karan Singh as Regent of Jammu and Kashmir in 1949. Hari Singh remained the titular Maharaja of Kashmir until the monarchy was abolished in 1952.


[1]VALLABHAI PATEL’S UNITED INDIA by Uma Nair for the Millenium Post

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