KASHMIR’S beauty is the stuff of fables. Forested hillsides and lofty glacier-covered peaks of the mountain range surround the heavily populated central valley, which nestles picturesquely against the backdrop of the Himalayas. Over the ages, poets and writers have extolled its scenic splendour in superlative terms, bestowing on it appellations such as “Heaven on Earth”. On the map of India, the State of Jammu and Kashmir resembles a coronet.
Thus, Kashmir’s traditionally gentle and peaceful people, who were mainly farmers, were a downtrodden and exploited lot for centuries by foreign dynasties who ruled them one after the other.
The British sold Kashmir to Raja Gulab Singh, a Hindu warlord of the Dogra family in Jammu for 7.5 million rupees (750,000 pounds) under the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar. It was an illegal and immoral deal undertaken without the knowledge of the Kashmiri people who opposed the transaction because it placed them under forced Hindu rule. Their uprisings were brutally crushed by the Maharaja with the support of the British.
Thus began a new era of oppression in modern Jammu and Kashmir. The Hindu Dogras didn’t waste time in unleashing waves of terror and inflicting unprecedented cruelty against Muslims. One Western writer described the vicious anti-Muslim campaign, where Kashmiri Pundits served as willing tools as, “venting upon five centuries of pent up hatred of Hindus against Muslim rule”. Muslims were thrown into jail, often without trial and even around the 1920’s a Muslim was given capital punishment for killing a cow. They were kept so economically downtrodden that even in the mid-1940’s, their per capita income was only eleven rupees, of which they paid a tax of around 21 percent per head, besides paying a levy almost on everything from salt to saffron.
Maharajah’s favourite pastime was the persecution of Muslims. So obsessed was he with this sadistic pogrom that he promulgated a law to punish Muslims by flogging for engaging in political activities and ordinary citizens were bludgeoned by Maharaja’s soldiers if they did not shout “maharaja ki jai” – victory to the Maharajah. There were even reports of Hindu ruler Gulab Singh having personally directed “skinning Kashmiri Muslims alive” when the executioner hesitated. The Maharaja’s police also stopped the Friday Kuthba sermons at congregational prayers in Jammu, blasphemously stating that the Holy Quranic verses pertaining to Moses and Pharaoh indirectly advocated sedition.
Unable to tolerate the Maharaja’s campaign of abuse and extermination, his Prime Minister Albion Bannerji, a Bengali Christian, resigned and issued a public statement saying that “the large Muslim population was governed by the Maharaja like dump-driven cattle, the press was non-existent and the economic conditions were appalling”. As early as 1924, Muslims presented a memorandum to the British Viceroy complaining against the Maharaja’s brutality against them and setting out popular demands.
But things started to change in the 1930s when Kashmiri Muslims, shedding their traditional submissiveness, began asserting themselves with an action for better human rights. Their campaign comprised a wave of non-violent protests. They first began meeting in reading room parties, followed by mosques, before their frustration erupted into revolt after the Maharajah permitted political parties for non-Muslims such as pundits, Hindu Saba and Sikhs and deprived the same to Muslims who constituted the majority
The revolt brought an unemployed teacher Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah to prominence, who later played a crucial, but often controversial, role in Kashmiri politics. Reacting swiftly, the Maharajah declared martial law, threw Sheikh Abdullah into prison and mowed down Muslims with gunfire. The scale of the oppression forced the British Viceroy to urge the Maharaja to adopt a conciliatory policy and send the Glancy Commission to Srinagar to study Muslim grievances. Two years later, revolt broke out again and the Maharaja crushed it with martial law, killing and arresting thousands, confiscating property and imposing heavy fines. Revolts against the Maharajah continued to brew and the political opposition erupted into open resistance in 1946. Intensifying his oppression against Muslims, the Maharajah strengthened his Sikh and Hindu garrisons in Muslims areas while calling Muslims to surrender arms. This resulted in the Muslims organising themselves into guerrilla groups under the movement led by Sazrdar Mohammed Ibrahim Khan.
The centuries-old deep rooted suspicions in Kashmir began increasing dangerously when the Subcontinent was partitioned under the separation plan of the Indian Independence Act of 1947, which established two autonomous countries, India and Pakistan, which included present Bangladesh. Kashmir was given the opportunity to accede to India or Pakistan. In September 1947, the Maharaja sent Mehr Chand Mahajan, who was to formally assume office as Prime Minister to Delhi to confer with Congress strongman Vallbhai Patel, Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten who told Mahajan that “as Governor General of India, I would be happy if you advise the Maharaja to accede to India”.
And as expected, the Hindu Maharajah acceded Kashmir, against the will of the people, to India in October 1947 and ordered Muslims to voluntarily surrender their weapons. The Muslims resisted and the Maharajah responded by eliminating around 500,000 Muslims – 200,000 Muslims killed and the remaining 300,000 fled to the Pakistani side of the border. The doyen of Indian politics, Rajagopalachari, said in 1964, “the accession of Kashmir took place under great peril and for the purpose of getting immediate military assistance to serve a hapless people from an unforeseen immoral external attack. It was not an intention to claim it as an irrevocable affiliation”.
Pakistan said Maharajah’s accession as an act based on fraud and violence, thus, triggering off the dispute between India and Pakistan, which resulted in three wars and dissipated a good deal of the two countries’ time and energy. As a result, Kashmir, a virtual battleground, has become the dangerous flashpoint.
This began the new phase of Kashmir’s freedom struggle which continues to date with no end in sight.
(FROM LATHEEF FAROOK)