Very few people in Kashmir know about the valiant shawl-weavers who resisted the Dogra onslaught tooth-and-nail. On July 6, 1847, around four thousand shawl-weavers observed a strike against their exploitation by the state’s Dogra rulers. This was the first strike by workmen anywhere in the world. The aftermath of the stir witnessed large-scale migration of shawl-weavers to Lahore via Shopian. A British officer, Lt Reynell Taylor rushed to Shopian and persuaded the weavers to refrain from migrating. Some grievances were taken note of.
In 1856, Ranbir Singh ascended the throne when Gulab Singh suffered an attack of dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Ranbir Singh strictly followed his father and imposed severe taxes on shawl weavers. Raw material, and import of wool from Ladakah were also taxed. Besides custom duty, tax was also imposed on finished products. According to some historians around 300 per cent tax was imposed on shawls, which broke the back of the industry. At that time around, around one hundred and twenty-five thousand people were involved in the shawl industry. These included weavers, washer-men, and skilled workers with know-how of printing. The industry generated more than Rs 50 lakhs annually. In 1865, shawls worth two hundred and fifty-four thousand British pounds were exported from Kashmir, but weavers got peanuts. Most of them made around Rs 5 to 7 a month, that too after working 16-18 hours a day. They had to pay monthly taxes to the tune of Rs 5. They could not change their profession or stop working. Heavy fines were imposed on weavers who had tried to flee to Lahore. Some of them were jailed. It is worth mentioning here that Afghan governor Haji Karimdad Khan had imposed the tax and it was then called the Dag Shawl.
Meanwhile a Pandit, Raj Kak Dhar, got the contract of the shawl department for Rs 12 lakh. He set up his office at Saraf Kadal (Zaina Kadal) and imposed taxes to the tune of Rs 49 on weavers. Dhar was backed by the government and would take the army along to recover tax. The weavers approached the then governor, Kripa Ram, to apprise him of their plight, but he paid no heed. To press their demands, the weavers took out a procession on April 29, 1865, and held a demonstration in a ground near Zal Dagar. The protesters later decided to march towards the residence of the governor. Meanwhile, Raj Dhar managed to instigate the governor who sent Col Beech Singh to handle the situation. The army herded the protesters towards the Haji Rathar Sum (a small bridge on Kut Kul). The bridge collapsed. Around 28 people drowned. Many sustained injuries. According to Dr Altaf Husain. the author of Wounded Paradise, the Dogra soldiers also opened fire on the protesters. Notwithstanding this brutal attack, people in the vicinity pulled all bodies out of the river and planned to take them in a precession to Ranbir Singh’s palace the next morning. But they could not march towards the palace as the army intercepted them. The leaders were taken into custody. Some of them were severely fined.
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.
After the migration and the Zal Dagar incident, workers of the Silk Factory took out a procession to press their demands in July 1924. A demonstration was held near Old Hospital (Lal Ded hospital). Hari Singh who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Dogra army, stormed the demonstration. Scores of protesters, including children, sustained injuries. Many of them succumbed later.
Kashmiri labourers would go to Punjab during winters to earn their livelihood. Labourers from other areas never liked them. They informed the Kashmiris that the Maharaja had set up several factories and had urged the Kashmiri workmen to return home within fifteen days or face the consequences. Thousands of Kashmiris decided to return. However, noted historian Muhammad Din Fauq wired the Maharaja and informed him of the development. The Maharaja replied that no such orders had been issued. Fauq consulted the general secretary of the Muslim Kashmiri Conference, Advocate Syed Mohsin. Thousands of posters were published to help the Kashmiri labourers . Soon after, Fauq constituted the Kashmiri Labor Board. Its first meeting was held at the house of Muhammad Abdullah Mir. Khwaja Ghulam Ahmad Lone, Khwaja Allah Bakhsh Ganie, Haji Shamas-ud-Din Mir, Peer Waliullah Makhdoomi and Barrister P N Kaul participated in the meeting. In addition, noted ophthalmologist Dr PK Koul, and Brij Mohan Dataria’s son, Pandit Pyare Mohan Dataria attended the meetings and expressed solidarity with the laborers. Barrister PN Koul was elected the first president of the Board which worked for three years and succeeded in recovering around three thousand rupees which the rich had taken away. Worth mentioning here is that Jawaharlal Nehru’s father, Moti Lal Nehru, also participated in one of the Board’s meetings. The Board gave sleepless nights to Maharaja Hari Singh.
In 1931, the pioneer of the freedom struggle, Ghulam Nabi Gilkar, started organizing the workers. Muhammad Din Fauq says in Tareekh-e- Aqwaam-e-Kashmir (page 452): “Besides the Social Upliftment Movement, Gilkar also formed trade unions and associations of masons, carpenters etc. He wanted to merge these units into a single amalgam, but was arrested.”
After 1947, people like Mohi-ud-Din Qarra, Krishen Dev Sethi, Raghbir Singh, Haday Nath Wanchoo and many others worked hard and introduced the Trade Union Movement in the state. These leaders offered great sacrifices. Comrade Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh died in the Central Jail, Ghulam Rasool Mir and Ashok Zalpuri were terminated from government service during emergency.