The people of Kashmir had offered stiff resistance to Gulab Singh after he purchased Kashmir along with its inhabitants by virtue of the infamous Treaty of Amritsar. For six months, under the dynamic leadership of Amir-ud-Din, they did not allow him to enter Srinagar. Finally, the British government intervened and Gulab Singh entered Srinagar waving a naked sword.
In 1856, Ranbir Singh ascended the throne. Gulab Singh had suffered an attack of dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Ranbir Singh strictly followed his father and imposed heavy taxes on shawl weavers. Raw material, import of wool from Ladakh was taxed, and besides customs duty, levies were also imposed on the finished product. According to some historians, the burden of taxation amounted to nearly 300 per cent, and broke the back of the shawl industry. At that time, around 125,000 people, including weavers, washer-men and skilled workers with knowledge of fabric printing, were involved in the trade that generated Rs 50 lakh annually. Shawls worth $254,000 are said to have been exported from Kashmir in 1865 alone. But the weavers got peanuts. Most of them made around Rs 5 to Rs 7 every month, that too after working 16-18 hours a day, and had to pay a monthly tax of Rs 5. They could not change their profession or stop working. Heavy fines were imposed on weavers who had tried to migrate to Lahore. Some were jailed.
The shawl industry had always been in shackles, and the tax, which came to known as the Dag Shawl, had been introduced by Afghan governor, Haji Karimdad Khan.
A separate bureau, known as the Dag Shawl Department, was constituted during Ranbir Singh’s times, with Pandit Raj Kak Dhar as its inspector. The official tried to achieve his targets with utmost brutality. He wooed factory-owners, and the burden of the taxes was put on poor weavers who were ordered to remain faithful to their respective paymasters and forbidden to change their profession or migrate from Kashmir.
Faced with starvation, weavers in Srinagar chose to fight, and organized a procession on April 29, 1865. Assembling in a ground near Zal Dagar, they set fire to Dhar’s effigies.
The inspector called on the then governor, Kripa Ram, and told him that the protesters had plans to march towards his residence.
Soldiers the governor sent under Col Bijoy Singh to “teach the weavers a lesson” stormed the protestors and herded them towards a arrow bridge on the Kut Kul. The bridge, known as the Haji Rathar Sum, collapsed. Twenty-eight protesters were drowned and scores injured.
According to noted pediatrician and author of the Wounded Paradise, Dr. Altaf Hussain, the soldiers had opened indiscriminate fire, killing 28 weavers on the spot. Notwithstanding severe restrictions on movement, people retrieved all bodies from the river and decided to carry them to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s palace in a procession the next morning. One historian, however believes, that they people did not wait for the next day but marched towards 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 at the Shergarhi Palace.
Similarly, the Silk Factory workers’ agitation of 1924 also left a number of people dead. Does anybody know who there were and where they are buried?
But neither the sacrifice of the shawl weavers in April 1856, nor the lives laid down in the Silk Factory agitation could trigger off a mass movement in Kashmir. On the contrary, twenty-two killings on July 13, 1931 changed the course of history. This was where the freedom movement gained momentum and attracted outside attention.
It could have been that the situation was totally different in 1931, or to put it plainly, Kashmir had reached a stage where launching a strong movement had become inevitable. And there were people to handle and sustain it.
It must be admitted that Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah made the difference this time. He was a crowd-puller and a forceful orator. And, the 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 panel had representatives from all sections of the society.
Everything needed for a movement was there. 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 people like Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal to support them. The Ahmadiyas also played their part well, and due to the empathy of the Punjab press, the outside world got to know of the developments in Kashmir and Kashmiris themselves felt encouraged.
Since these factors did not exist in 1865 and 1924, Kashmir had remained almost unmoved on both occasions. But that does not mean that these events are less important, or that the people of Kashmir can ignore the sacrifices offered then. They are as sacred as those of the July 13 martyrs.
Some time ago, a noted trade union leader, who then went on to become an MLC, had promised to construct a memorial for the martyrs of April 29, 1865, but the promise remains unfulfilled to this day. The forgotten martyrs are still waiting or a wreath.
They were buried at the Shaheed Gunj cemetery.
Their epitaphs were intact till the 80s, according to locals. But a National Conference worker removed them, using them like bricks in constructing a wall around the graveyard, and there they lie, embedded in mortar.
Ironically, nobody resisted the NC workers’ onslaught on the graves. Even the government witnessed the vandalism helplessly.