On April 29 in 1865, 28 weavers lost their lives while fighting a 300 per cent increase in taxes on shawls. But this could not trigger a movement. Another agitation, by Silk Factory workers in 1924, also went in vain. But twenty-two killings on July 13, 1931 changed the course of history in Kashmir. This was where the state’s freedom movement gained momentum and attracted outside attention.
In 1856, Ranbir Singh had ascended the throne after Gulab Singh suffered an attack of dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Following in the footsteps of his father, Ranbir Singh also imposed heavy taxes on shawl-weavers, with levies on raw material and wool imports from Ladakah, and taxes over and above customs duty on the finished product as well. According to some historians, the imposts amounted to around 300 per cent, and broke the back of the industry which, at that time, involved close to one hundred and twenty five thousand people, including weavers, washermen, and workers skilled in the art of (fabric) printing. Generating around Rs 50 lakh annually with this craft, Kashmir is said to have exported shawls worth two hundred and fifty-four thousand pound sterling in 1865 alone. But weavers would receive only a pittance, with most of them making Rs 5 to Rs 7 a month by laboring 16 to 18 hours a day, and having to pay a monthly tax of Rs 5 to Rs 7. They could neither change their profession nor stop working. Heavy fines were imposed on weavers who had made an unsuccessfully bid to flee to Lahore. Some of them were jailed.
Kashmir’s shawl industry had always been in shackles. Taxes on shawls, introduced by an Afghan governor, Haji Karim Dad Khan, had come to be known as Dag Shawl, and shortly after, a department, under the same name was duly constituted, with one Pandit Raj Kak Dhar as its inspector. He went about achieving his targets with utmost brutality. He wooed factory-owners, and the burden of taxes was put on poor weavers who had been ordered to remain faithful to their masters, and forbidden to switch trades or leave Kashmir.
Faced with starvation, weavers in 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 the weavers a lesson.’ The soldiers, led by Col Bijoy Singh, stormed the demonstrators and herded them towards a narrow bridge on Kut Kul. The bridge, Hajj Rather Sum, collapsed. Twenty-eight protesters were drowned, and scores injured.
According to noted pediatrician and the author of Wounded Paradise, Dr. Altaf Ahmad, the soldiers had opened indiscriminate fire, killing 28 weavers on the spot. Notwithstanding severe restrictions on movement, local people retrieved all bodies from the river and decided to carry the victims’ bodies to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s palace in a procession the next morning. But according to another historian, people did not wait for the next day but marched to 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.
The Silk Factory agitation of 1924 also left several people dead. A memorandum was submitted to the Viceroy who handed it over to the Maharaja for further action, but instead of remedial measures, the ruler persecuted the workers, and exiled two individuals, including Saad-ud-Din Shawl. But Maharaja Hari Singh, who ascended the throne following the death of Pratap Singh, pardoned Shawl, and he returned. Again Kashmiris did not move.
The situation was totally different in 1931. Or to put it plainly, Kashmir had come to a stage where launching a strong movement had become inevitable. And there were people to handle and sustain it.
In the coming years, the Reading Room was constituted, and on May 8, 1930, the Reading Room Party came into existence. The movement was formally launched without Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah having joined it. Though he was invited to the Party’s meetings, he would not turn up, and it was only after much persuasion from its activists, particularly Ghulam Nabi Gilkar, that Sheikh Abdullah finally joined.
It has to be admitted that Sheikh Abdullah’s inclusion made a significant difference. He was a crowd-puller and a forceful orator. And, people had just chosen seven representatives on June 21 when Abdul Qadeer delivered a fiery speech that ultimately landed him in jail. The seven-member body was representative of all sections of society.
Everything needed for a movement was ready. There was wood and there was fuel. The July 13 killings provided the spark, and Kashmir went up in flames.
Kashmiris were fortunate enough to have had a person like Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal (RA) on their side. The Ahmadiyas also played their part well and, last but not the least, support from the Punjab press served to apprise the outside world about developments in Kashmir and lend heart to its suppressed people.
Since none of these factors existed in 1865 and 1924, Kashmir remained almost unmoved on both occasions. But that does not mean that events thereof are any less important, or that the people of Kashmir can ignore the sacrifices offered then. The blood split by the shawl-weavers silk workers is sacred as the blood of the July 13 martyrs.
It is unfortunate that contemporary trade union leaders in Kashmir have forgotten the martyrs of 1865. Like their counterparts around the world, they too commemorate the sacrifices of the Chicago martyr, but ought to have known more about their own history. Some among them had, in fact, agreed to erect a memorial in honour of the Zaldagar slain, but the idea, it seems, has been abandoned.
The fallen shawl-weavers have been ignored by the government as well. While the sacrifice of the July 13 martyrs is given due state honour, no one as much as lays a wreath on the heroes of April 29. Does anyone even know where they are buried?