On 22 November 1868, Lieutenant Robert Thorp was found dead in mysterious circumstances in Srinagar on the base of Koh-i-Suleiman hill where we have now the UN Military Observer for Government of India and Pakistan’s (UNMOGIP) office. He had been murdered. Thorp was not the first Britisher assassinated in Kashmir state during the 1860s.
The men of Mir Wali, chief of Yasin principality, killed George Hayward, a British military intelligence agent, on 18 July 1870. Hayward had, during a previous trip to the Gilgit region, exposed the war crimes of Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s Dogra troops which they had committed in Yasin between 1860 and 1863. Hayward sent details of Dogra atrocities to Calcutta newspaper ‘The Pioneer’ which it published under his name.
Dogra troops had indulged in wholesale massacre of Yasinis including “tossing babies into the air and cutting them in half as they fell” (p340 The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk). Hayward had done Yasinis a service by exposing Dogra bloodletting against them. Yet the Yasin chief got him killed. The finger of suspicion was raised against Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Kashmir and Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk of Chitral. Hayward lies buried in Gilgit Christian cemetery. Hayward is to Gilgit region what Thorp is to Kashmir.
In November 1868, Thorp, 30, was strangled to death. Dr Caylay, Ladakh Agent, who was in Srinagar at the time, examined the body and reported “rapture of heart” as the cause of death. Again, the finger of suspicion for the assassination was raised against Ranbir Singh (who had more than one reason to be annoyed with Thorp). British India government desisted from taking any action against Ranbir Singh because he had served them in good stead during the 1857 mutiny. Not only did he furnish troops and money to their war effort he personally fought against Indian freedom fighters whom he later described in a letter to the British government of India as “faithless bastards”(p47 Maharaja Ranbir Singh by Sukhdev Singh Charak).
Thorp initially came to Kashmir as a tourist and a hunter of big game. Soon, his attention was diverted towards the sorrows of Kashmiri Muslims who were labouring under the worst kind of misrule that they had ever witnessed (p223 Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade by Tyndale Biscoe). His father, Colonel Thorp, had married a Kashmir Muslim lady, Jana of Tosamaidan side. So he felt a brotherly feeling towards Kashmiri subjects of the Maharaja and made it his business to study and expose the pattern of misrule unleashed against them by the Maharaja and his agents. Those days Englishmen were allowed to stay in Kashmir only from April to November. So Thorp was constrained to visit Kashmir during summers to complete his research on Kashmir misgovernment. Later, he brought the miserable condition of Kashmiri Muslims into the notice of governments of India and England by publishing his findings. His research “Cashmere Misgovernment” continues to be a major historic document of what happened to Kashmiri Muslims during the 1860s.
Ranbir Singh was a bigoted Hindu who had no sympathy for Kashmiri Muslims which constituted majority of his subjects. For his own co-religionists he opened Sanskrit schools and raised temples in and around Jammu city, the most prominent among them being the Ragunath temple complex with its Sanskrit school. Moreover, he spent huge amounts of money on the maintenance of foreign Hindu religious establishments at Haridwar, Kashi, Prayag, Badrinath, etc. (pp278-9 Maharaja Ranbir Singh by SS Charak). For the miniscule Kashmiri Pandit minority, he built temple complexes throughout Kashmir Valley including at Martand, Bijbehara, Pampore, Khir Bhawani, Gadadar, Sharika, Sharda. The huge expenses thus incurred were extracted from poverty stricken Kashmiri Muslims in the shape of temple tax, Sanskrit tax and other taxes. Even prostitutes and gravediggers were taxed heavily. A prostitute was disallowed to change her profession. If a starved coolie carried the luggage of a traveller in Kashmir Valley, he had to surrender half his earning to the Maharaja’s coffers. Houses, marriages, cattle, beasts of burden, grazing, were also taxed to the maximum.
Ranbir Singh acted like a kind of bania (shopkeeper) who reserved a monopoly on the sale of grain. The state collected grains from tillers and stashed it away in storehouses and then sold it to city folk. Even if people had money they could not buy grain beyond a certain limit with the result they were forced to go hungry for considerable part of the year. The state allowed the grain to rot on the threshing floors (called Khal) and in storehouses rather than allowing people to have it. Also the state did not allow trade between city and village folk. Likewise, the state enjoyed monopoly on silk, saffron, the aromatic root called koth, opium poppy, narcotic drug marijuana (bhang/charas), paper, tobacco, salt, minerals, fruit trees, timber. The state taxed shawl industry to the extent of 85 per cent and land produce to the extent of 75 per cent. At the time of harvest the Maharaja’s agent called Shakdar closely watched the crops lest the tiller might “steal” part of his produce. This Shakdar would falsely accuse tillers of stealing part of the crop. The poor fellow then would bribe the agent rather than get involved in a case of theft.
Also Kashmiri Muslim were forced to do Begaar; wage less forced labour, to Gilgit and Astor to carry ammunition and grain for Dogra troops. Muslims were not allowed to touch the grain that they had grown, but had to carry it on their backs on treacherous mountain passes even if they died of starvation en route (pp73-76 Cashmere Misgovernment Papers by Robert Thorp). During famines, which recurred at regular intervals, Kashmiri Muslims perished like flies because of the wrongs of the Maharaja administration. At such times his agents would search Kashmiri Muslim households to check if they were hiding any grain. They kept a strict vigil on starving Muslims lest they might indulge in cow slaughter which was punishable to death – the death being meted out by boiling him in oil and hanging his fried remains from a pole for vultures to feast upon; or they might resort to fishing – fishing being banned since it was said that after the death of Maharaja Gulab Singh in August 1857, his soul has taken abode in the body of a fish.
During the 1865 famine three Kashmiris Muslims were sighted by an English traveller on the bank of Jhelum river where they had been kept for three days and nights garlanded with stinking fish around their necks. Their crime was that they had violated the ban on fishing (p30 Wrongs of Cashmere by Arthur Brinkman). The net result was that the population of Kashmir Valley progressively dwindled throughout Ranbir Singh’s rule (1856–1885) as his coffers swelled. Whereas the Maharaja encouraged and funded Sanskrit learning among Hindus he did nothing for the education of Kashmiri Muslims who filled his coffers by paying him taxes. On the contrary when Ahl-i-Hadis preachers started educating Muslims in Shopian, Ranbir Singh persecuted them ruthlessly and hounded them out. (p285 The Valley of Kashmir by Walter Lawrence).
It was this tyranny that became the focus of Thorp’s attention. He studied how Ranbir Singh’s agents, mostly Kashmiri Pandits, fleeced Muslims and who these agents were. They included: the Dum (a sort of policeman); Harkara (informer); Tarougdar (revenue official responsible for weighing of state’s share of land produce); Shakdar (watchman of crops); Sargowl (head of 10 Shakdars); Kardar (collector of land revenue); Patwari (record keeper of houses and land cultivated); Mukadam (village headman and assistant to Patwari); Thanedar (police officer and magistrate with power to inflict corporal punishment); and above all the Tehsildar, officer of a district. Tehsildar reported directly to the governor. Those days the governor of Kashmir was the dreaded Kripa Ram, the author of Gulabnama, and Gulzar-i-Kashmir. He also was a bigoted Hindu and is credited with the authorship of an anti-Islam book titled Raddi-Islam– The Rejection of Islam. It was with his support and assistance that Pandit Raja Kakh Dhar, Daroga Dagshali or chief of shawl department, drowned 28 shawl workers at Zaldagar in Srinagar on 29 April 1865, for demanding permission to buy more rice to eat. They were expected to work and pay huge taxes but not allowed to buy sufficient rice to feed their families.
Thorp published the details of how shawl industry worked; and extortionate taxes levied on it; and also of shawl workers’ massacre to the outside world. Apart from exposing the tyrannical rule of the Maharaja, Thorp also exposed and protested against his imperial adventures. It so happened that in 1861, the Muslims of eastern Turkistan (called Sinkiang since 1884) rose up in rebellion against the Chinese authorities. When the Muslim insurrection spread throughout the province an adventurer called Buzurg Khan returned from exile in the western Turkistan Khanate of Khokand. He was accompanied by his protégé Yaqub Beg. It was January 1865. Within two years time Beg managed to wrest Kashgar and Yarkand from the Chinese as well as from the local rebels. He installed his patron Buzurg Khan as the King of what now came to be called as Kashgaria. Taking advantage of the unrest and political uncertainty in eastern Turkistan, Ranbir Singh in 1864, dispatched a small force across Karakoram Pass, 60 miles deep inside to Shahidullah (now called Xaidulla) located on Leh-Kashgar caravan route (p22 Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy by A Lamb). There they set up a fort on the left bank of river Karakash. A British surveyor of the time WH Johnson, who had a nexus with Ranbir Singh, showed the northeastern frontier of Kashmir state on official British Indian maps some hundred miles away into the trans-Karakoram region to cover Shahidullah garrison. This measure on his part extended Kashmir state by some 21,000 square miles of territory including Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin wasteland.
Thorp protested through his write-ups that occupation of Shahidullah was a violation of Treaty of Amritsar because the boundary of Kashmir, according to British perceptions, lied along the Karakoram watershed. In 1867, Ranbir Singh recalled Shahidullah garrison. Later that year Yaqub Beg’s troops pillaged and destroyed the Shahidullah fort.
Ranbir Singh’s occupation of Shahidullah for some years and subsequent Johnson mapping set up a sort of fake claim for Maharaja Ranbir Singh on territory which belonged to eastern Turkistan. Post-1947, the Shahidullah occupation and Johnson map became the root cause of bloody dispute between India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other side over Shaksgam and Aksai China. For this Ranbir Singh rewarded Johnson in 1872, by appointing him Wazir-i-Wazarat, governor of Ladakh; but Thorp, who challenged his claim on trans-Karakoram region; and proposed to the British government of India for an outright annexation of Kashmir as a punishment, had to suffer assassination. He was murdered, allegedly by Ranbir Singh’s agents, in 1868. He lies buried in the Christian cemetery of Sheikhbagh Srinagar.