Kashmir’s dying arts:  the legacy of the Raj

By Syed Aqeel

Prologue
Article X of the treaty of Amritsar reads:
‘The Maharaja would annually furnish the British Crown with, ‘one horse, twelve perfect shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Kashmiri shawls.’
The treaty of Amritsar signed between Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and the British Crown had not only expansionist or imperial objectives to be achieved but also specific economic ones for which the British had been longing even before India became a complete colony of the British Raj.  With the weakening of the Ottoman grip in the west, the gradual decay of Mughal Empire in the east and the rise of Europe with philosophical thought, technological and scientific capabilities; a power vacuum was to be filled due to the incapacity of all Asian powers to respond to the Western advancement and colonial ambitions. The power vacuum was filled by the European powers themselves; and among all, her majesty’s crown was matched by none.
After the British had successfully installed themselves as the unchallenged masters of united India and the region around it, the balance of power naturally shifted towards the crown. The Sikhs, themselves usurpers, proved to be no barrier between Kashmir and the East India Company.  The last Muslim Governor of Kashmir, Sheikh Imamuddin could do little but lay down arms and acknowledge the sovereignty of the crown and its sanctioned feudatory, Maharaja Gulab Singh. Hence, the treaty of Amritsar was a bargain between two thieves, for the booty which did not belong to either of them.
The masterstroke by the British was broadly to pave the way for two objectives; one was to carry the application of the forward policy, i.e. to dissolve the possibility of the establishment of any Muslim power to dominate this part of the world, mainly the Muslim principalities which fell at the north-western end of Kashmir, to which the then Governor General Henry Hardinge himself testified in a secret letter sent to his higher-ups in the East India Company.  Moreover, to guard and apprehend any advance from the then Tsarist Russia into the territories held by the crown and to check the Russian advance in Central Asia as much as suitable to the British interests. In the words of Robert A. Huttenback, ‘Kashmir and its environs were to be the playing board for the Great Game.’
There was another objective which the British had been longing for. An objective which became a clause of the Treaty of Amritsar; and which the crown thought was an important reason for selling Kashmir to the Dogras. Again, in the words of Huttenback, ’but climate and natural beauty were not all that lured the invaders to Kashmir. The strategic importance of the valley, astride the routes to Central Asia, and the incomparable shawl wool looms proved to be even more irresistible temptations.’
Economic conquest: arts/crafts and British overtures 
The arts and crafts of Kashmir were the legacy of a more than six centuries of struggle for self-dependence and economic upliftment; which the Kashmiri masses had received from Central Asia, Tibet and old Persia. The efforts of Syed Ali Hamadani and his vision of economic progress, which were, in turn, a part of his social and economic reform system that Kashmir and its inhabitants saw the dawn of the institutionalisation of  the arts and crafts industry. It was an uncommon and unprecedented historical reality that the common masses of Kashmir became the masters of this trade which gave them self-dependence and artistic monopoly over the arts and crafts industry. After Syed Ali Hamadani, it was Sultan Zain-ul-abidin alias Budshah and the Mughal King Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar who took this industry to the climax of artistic and economic excellence.
The British on the other hand did not only try to derive an all-time benefit from the arts and crafts industry after acquiring Kashmir as a princely fiefdom, but also tried and at the end succeeded to break the Kashmir and Ladakh monopoly over the arts and crafts industry. To this end, the crown started a policy of ‘diverting trade routes’. The routes which started from western Tibet through Ladakh and Central Asian regions finally ending on the shawl looms in Srinagar were diverted from their usual route directly into the British Territory.  To achieve this, the East India Company had already established a factory at Kotgarh on the Sutlej, presently in Himachal Pradesh. The factory had been established in 1815 to break the Kashmir and Ladakh dominance on the arts and crafts industry traffic that originated in Western Tibet and Central Asia; which was the source of livelihood of numerous people and families right till it reached Srinagar barring regional boundaries.
After the Sikhs took Kashmir, a great famine occurred and many Kashmiri weavers left Srinagar and settled in British India. Taking benefit of this the East India Company with already an established factory at Kotgarh, made intense efforts to get direct access to the raw material used to make shawls and other Kashmiri products which came from Tibet and Central Asia to Kashmir.  Initially, the British achieved no success at all because the Chinese and Tibetan authorities resisted British efforts and were hesitant to export directly to new markets. However, after Gulab Singh invaded Ladakh, shawl wool and other imports were diverted from their traditional routes and increased by a drastic 200 percent directly into the British Territory between 1837- 1840.
In an effort to secure the lucrative arts and crafts trade for himself Raja Gulab Singh tried to frustrate the British Designs by attempting to invade Tibet in 1841, which he had to abort because the Chinese and Tibetans wasted his efforts instead and a treaty was signed between the Tibetans and the Raja, which allowed the Tibetans to retain the traditional route for trade of shawl looms and tea. The British watching over the situation got a diplomatic push because of Gulab Singh’s failure and the crown made efforts to speedily gain access to the Tibetan and Chinese products directly, hence avoiding transit duties.
To this effect, Governor-General Hardinge deputed captain James Abbot, an artillery officer to define the limits of the boundaries of Lahore Durbar (Sikh stronghold),  the Dogra state, and the British acquisitions. To the East he sent, Mr. Vans Agnew and Alexander Cunningham to define the boundary of the North West limits of the newly acquired princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Likewise, Captain Francis Younghusband was deputed to explore the passes leading to Hunza and define ways and means of communication with the North-Western and Central Asian regions to divert traditional trading routes and designing new ones. In Henry Lawrence’s words this was done to, ‘obtain such a geographical boundary on the North and North East as will prevent Maharaja Gulab Singh’s possessions turning the flank of the British territories.’ The British were satisfied for now only where the boundaries of the Dogra territory and the British Raj met. This was done to define a more economically ordered Kashmir border, so that trade conditions more conducive to the British increased and the arts and crafts industry as per design changed its course from Tibet and Central Asia to the territories held by the crown.
The same was done with the Central Asian trade routes. When political boundaries were newly demarcated and freshly carved, the old and traditional trade routes were diverted to the British territories and to a considerable extent to the Dogra state too. What was left of the arts and crafts trade was taken over by the Dogra Maharaja. A commanding colonel of Gulab Singh’s army units named Col. Steinbach reported in a letter written to Lord Dalhousie in 1851 that, ‘the British had done a blunder by selling Kashmir to Gulab Singh’ and that he could not comprehend how Englishmen who rallied against slavery at home could put an entire population of Kashmiris under slavery. He added that ‘the Maharaja with the exception of five or six shawl merchants was the only trader in Kashmir and that half of the profit from the sale of shawl looms went to Gulab Singh.’
Due to the diversion of traditional trade routes by the British and the economic oppression of the Dogra regime, numerous Kashmiri weavers, who were predominantly Muslims, shifted their trade from Kashmir to Himachal, Punjab and other areas. Alexander Cunningham reported to Henry Lawrence that this policy of Maharaja had driven two-thirds of 18,000 weavers to leave Kashmir and conduct trade in Punjab and other northern areas of British India. The situation worked more to the benefit of the East India Company as Punjab and initially Himachal became an alternative to the manufacture of what was known as arts and crafts of Kashmir.
Once the traditional trade routes were diverted and new ones were created the quality of the Kashmiri products declined to a considerable extent. Kashmiri weavers in Punjab and Himachal had to depend on locally produced wool and raw material and that coming from the British Empire, its colonies and mainland Europe. Such raw material was no match to the traditional Tibetan and Central Asian wool and raw material. To this Edward Princep, a British Settlement officer during Ranbir Singh’s reign, said that,’ there was a great depression in the shawl and pashmina trade in Europe; a disaster largely the fault of shoddy products manufactured by Kashmiri immigrants of Punjab. ‘
Epilogue
The British crown initiated the process of breaking the economic backbone of Kashmiris. The saddest part of the story being that in our local and restricted intellectual circles, names like Alexander Cunningham, Francis Younghusband, Henry Lawrence, Walter Lawrence and many others are held in reverence to the cause of Kashmiris against the Dogras; ignoring and sidelining the historical fact that it was the crown that initiated the vicious circle of political and economic exploitation of Kashmiris at all levels, and men like these willingly took part in it because this is what they were here for. First, by imposing the Dogra rule on Kashmir, using Kashmir as a launching pad of covert operations against the Central Asian region and Tsarist Russia and then by literally hijacking the economic lifelines, the bedrock of self- dependence of Kashmiris. The ultimate suffering, hence, was that of Kashmiri Muslims.
A more cunning and ruthless policy was followed by the immediate successors of the British Raj. Add to this the inability and utter lack of statesmanship of the Kashmiri leaders, who in 1947 and even before that had no idea of how to secure at least the economic benefits of the people of Kashmir. The leaders championing the Kashmiri cause could easily have struck the bargain of reviving the traditional trade routes to and from Kashmir while signing the instrument of accession; but instead the traditional and cultural trade routes which had been enriching Kashmir and its people through ages were closed down, with only one route to serve; the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. This was again a death blow to the arts and crafts industry of Kashmir which again, in turn, had to and is currently relying on the low quality raw material available in the markets of Punjab, Himachal and now Delhi. As a consequence, Kashmiri handicrafts, shawls and other items have been rendered incapacitated in the international arena.
 History teaches us the fact that in deliberations between nations, key interests are put on the table first; but history is also witness to the fact that Kashmiri leaders could not rise to the occasion. The result is, for example, the case of the Shahtoos, a shawl the likeness of which could not be found anywhere in the world. Its banning under unjustified pretexts is indicative of the fact that death is slowly approaching what is left of our arts and crafts scene.
One is forced to ponder that a time may be approaching when Kashmiri arts might finally perish.
—The writer is a researcher and journalist