Twenty-eight shawl weavers drowned in Kut Kul when the Zal Dagar bridge collapsed following action by the Dogra army against craftsmen who were protesting heavy taxation.
The protestors’ leaders were taken into custody. A few were tortured to death. Others were sent to various jails where they died of starvation and tuberculosis.
This huge sacrifice has gone unnoticed, and even present-day trade union leaders do not know of it. They continue to observeMay 1 as Labour Day.
A Pandit, Raj Kak Dhar had been allotted a Rs 12 lakh contract by the shawl department. He set up his office at Saraf Kadal (Zaina Kadal) and imposed taxes to the tune of Rs 49 on shawl weavers. Dhar enjoyed government patronage and would take the army along on his tax-collection rounds.
The weavers approached the then governor, Kripa Ram, to apprise him of their woes, but he did not listen. To press their demands, they took out a procession on April 29, 1865, and staged demonstrations near Zal Dagar, deciding later to march to the governor’s residence.
Meanwhile, Raj Dhar managed to instigate the governor who sent Col Beech Singh to deal with the protestors. The army herded the weavers towards Haji Rathar Sum (a small bridge on Kut Kul). The bridge collapsed, and around 28 people drowned. Many sustained injuries. According to Dr Altaf Husain, the author of Wounded Paradise, troopers also opened fire on the protesters.
Notwithstanding this brutal suppression, locals retrieved all bodies from the water and planned to take them to Ranbir Singh’s palace the next morning in a procession. But the march was intercepted by the army, and its leaders taken into custody, several of them being penalized with heavy fines.
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 Kashmir’s 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.