Forgotten Martyrs

On May 1, people across the globe observe Labour Day to commemorate the sacrifice of the Chicago martyr.  Trade union leaders in Kashmir also observe the day. But most of them are unaware of the importance of April 29 in 1865 – a day when 28 shawl weavers laid down their lives at Zaldagar. They gave their lives while protesting against a 300 per cent increase in tax on shawls, but even this episode could not trigger off a movement. In contrast, the killing of 22 civilians on July 13, 1931 changed the course of Kashmir history.

In 1856, Ranbir Singh ascended the Kashmir throne after Gulab Singh suffered an attack of dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Ranbir Singh strictly followed his father and imposed heavy taxes on shawl-weavers who, at that time, are estimated to have numbered one hundred and twenty-five thousand. The industry 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 around Rs 5 to Rs 7 a month, and that too after working 16 -18 hours a day. They had to pay a monthly tax to the tune of Rs 5.They could not change their profession or stop working.  Said to have been instituted by Afghan governor Haji Karimdad Khan, the tax had come to be known as the Dag Shawl, and by 1856, Kashmir’s Dogra rulers had created a fully-fledged department with the same name, and appointed one Pandit Raj Kak Dhar as its inspector.

Dhar tried to achieve the target with utmost brutality. He wooed factory owners, and the burden of taxes shifted to the poor weavers who were ordered to remain faithful to their respective masters. They could not change their profession or migrate from Kashmir. Faced with starvation, the shawl-weavers of Srinagar chose to fight. On April 29, 1865 they organized a procession, assembling near Zal Dagar, and burnt Dhar’s effigies. The inspector called on the then governor Kripa Ram, informing him that the protesters planned to march to his residence. Kripa Ram sent his soldiers to `teach the weavers a lesson’. Led by Col Bijoy Singh, the troopers stormed the protesters and herded them towards a narrow bridge on Kut Kul. The bridge, Hajj Rathar Sum, collapsed, twenty-eight protesters were drowned and scores injured.

The martyrs have been ignored by the government as well. While the sacrifice of the July 13 martyrs is commemorated with due deference and ceremony, nobody lays a wreath for the April 29 martyrs. But does anyone know where they are buried?