April 29 is important for Kashmir for a number of reasons. On this day in 1865, 28 shawl-weavers sacrificed their lives while fighting a 300 per cent increase in tax on their product. And, this is the day when the phenomenon of extra-judicial executions started in Kashmir.
Ranbir Singh ascended the throne in 1856. Gulab Singh had suffered an attack of dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Ranbir Singh strictly followed his father and imposed high taxes on shawl weavers. Raw material and the import of wool from Ladakh was also taxed. Besides custom duty, tax was also imposed on the finished product. According to some historians, levies of around 300 per cent were imposed on shawls which broke the back of the industry which, at that time, is believed to have employed nearly one hundred and twenty-five thousand people. These included weavers, washer-men, and skilled laborers with know-how of printing. The industry then generated more than Rs 50 lakh annually. In 1865, shawls worth 254,000 British pounds were exported from Kashmir, but weavers got peanuts. Most of them made about Rs 5 to 7 a month, that too after working 16 to18 hours a day. They had to pay taxes to the tune of Rs 5 every month. They could not change their profession or stop working. Heavy fines were imposed on the weavers who had unsuccessfully migrated to Lahore. Some of them were jailed. It is worth mentioning here that Afghan governor Haji Karimdad Khan had imposed the tax originally, and it was then called Dag Shawl.
By 1856 the tax had been increased to 300 per cent. A department known as the Dag Shawl Department was constituted and Pandit Raj Kak Dhar made its inspector. Dhar tried to achieve the regime’s tax targets with utmost brutality. He wooed factory owners and the burden of taxes was put on the poor weavers. The weavers were also directed to remain faithful to their respective factory owners. They could not change profession or migrate from Kashmir.
Faced with starvation, the shawl-weavers of Srinagar chose to fight. On April 29, 1865 they organized a procession. The protesters assembled in a ground near Zal Dagar. Effigies of Dhar were torched. Dhar called on the then Governor, Kripa Ram. He told him the protesters had plans to march towards his residence. Kripa Ram sent his soldiers to `teach weavers a lesson.’ Troopers led by Col Bijoy Singh stormed the protesters and herded them towards a narrow bridge on Kut-e-Kul. The bridge, Hajj Rathar Sum, collapsed. Twenty-eight protesters were drowned and scores injured.
According to noted pediatrician and the author of Wounded Paradise, the soldiers opened indiscriminate fire, killing 28 weavers on the spot. Notwithstanding severe restrictions on movement, people retrieved all bodies from the river and decided to march to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s palace along with the coffins the next morning. However, a historian believes that people did not wait till dawn. They marched towards the palace the same evening. The procession was intercepted. Scores of weavers, including their leaders, were taken into custody. Sheikh Rasool and Abli Baba were tortured to death in a dungeon in Shergarhi palace. This is where the phenomenon started.
On May 1, some prisoners including Ali Paul, Rasool Sheikh, Quda Lala and Sona Shah were sent to Jammu. Ali Paul and Rasool Sheikh died of tuberculosis in Ram Nagar Jail. Quda Lala and Sona Shah met the same fate. Nobody knows how the first martyrs of the Trade Union Movement were treated. No charge-sheet was produced in any court. No enquiry was constituted. The inaction of the government only encouraged the army and the bureaucracy. Kashmiris continued to suffer.
Today’s trade union leaders in Kashmir cannot escape responsibility for not putting the historical record straight. Most of them do not even know that a major incident took place at Zaldagar on April 29, 1865. They take out processions and hold debates and seminars on May 1, but have miserably failed to tell the world why, when and where the first organized strike by Kashmir’s workers was observed.
They can rectify the wrong by taking measures now. A memorial must come up at the site of the massacre at Zaldagar. This is the least they can do. Let them start the noble job this year by holding a seminar on the Zaldagar martyrs.
The great martyrs have been ignored by the government as well. Surprisingly, the government assigns more importance to the struggle against Dogras from 1931. This is the time when Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah appeared on the political firmament of Kashmir. The struggle of the shawl-weavers and the great trade unionist, GN Gilkar, finds no mention anywhere.
The day (April 29) is also important for human rights defenders. This is the day when the phenomenon of extra-judicial executions started in Kashmir. Can they ignore it?