Forgotten Martyrs

On May 1, people across the globe observe Labour Day to commemorate the sacrifice of the Chicago martyr, as do labour leaders in Kashmir, but the latter appear to be mostly unaware of the importance of April 29 – the day in 1865 when 28 shawl-weavers laid down their lives trying to defy a 300 per cent rise in taxes on their product. Having ascended the throne in 1856 when his father, Gulab Singh, suffered a fatal attack of dropsy,  Maharaja Ranbir Singh had continued with the former’s polices and imposed heavy taxes on shawl-weavers, a trade which at that time is thought to have employed approximately 1,25,000 in various capacities. people of his forbearer against crease in taxes on shawls. Generating Rs 50 lakh annually on the industry, Kashmir is said to have exported shawls worth Rs 2,54,000 pounds in 1865, a time when the weavers themselves were being ground into the dust with a pittance of Rs 5 to Rs 7 month for 16 to 18 hours of labour a day, and a monthly tax of around Rs 5. They had been forbidden to change their vocation, stop working, or leave the Valley to escape this backbreaking burden.

Taxes on shawls, known as Dag Shawl, had been introduced by Afghan governor Haji Karim Dad Khan, and had by the time of Ranbir Singh, been hiked to 300 per cent, with a separate department under Pandit Raj Kak Dhar tasked with the brutal task of exaction. As inspector, Dhar is said to have carried out his mandate with utmost severity, befriending factory-owners and putting the tax burden on the mostly-impoverished weavers who had been ordered to remain faithful to their masters. Hemmed in by diktat and facing starvation, members of the community in Srinagar chose to fight, and planned a protest demonstration on April 29, 1865.

The inspector, whose effigy the weavers burnt near Zal Dagar, called on the then governor, Kripa Ram, informing him that the weavers planned to march to his residence. An army contingent under Col Bijoy Singh the governor dispatched immediately to quell the demonstration herded the assembled weavers towards a narrow bridge, Haji Rathar Sum, on the Kup Kul, which collapsed under their weight. Twenty-eight weavers were drowned.

The rising of the persecuted shawl-weavers in Srinagar, and their suppression at Haji Rathar Sum, predates the Chicago strike and the killings that followed – which May Day commemorates – by a good two decades, but the ‘labour movement’ in Kashmir has hardly ever been found to pay even lip service to their memory.