The 13 July 1931 revolt marked the start of organised Kashmiris’ “independence movement” against Dogra rule. It was the first time in Kashmir that Muslims publicly questioned the Maharaja’s government. Fazldad, a Jammu Central jail constable, sparked the revolt by accusing Hindu head constable Lamba Ram of desecrating the Holy Quran. When the Muslims discovered the pages of the Quran in a drain, their grief and wrath erupted. The arrest of Abdul Qadir, a Punjabi Muslim who gave an incendiary speech during a gathering of Kashmiri Muslims at the shrine of Shah-i-Hamadan, aggravated the situation. He was detained on sedition charges, and his trial was set for July 1, at the Srinagar Central Jail.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Srinagar Central Jail to watch Abdul Qadir’s trial, chanted slogans calling for the case against the accused Qadir to be dropped, and rushed towards the entrance. A clash erupted between police and the protesters, resulting in the deaths of 21 persons.
The incident shocked Kashmiri Muslims and paved the path for educated leaders to lead the movement. These young men, among them Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Choudhry Ghulam Abbas, led the anti-Maharaja movement. Aside from the 13 July event, the Punjabi press fearlessly spoke of the predicament of Kashmiri Muslims and disseminated it to all Muslim reform organisations. The All India Kashmir Committee, Anjuman-i-Kashmiri Muslamane Lahore, All India Muslim Kashmir Conference, and Muslim League all condemned the Maharaja and his policies against Kashmiri Muslims.
Though the 1931 revolt was perceived as communal in origin, the true cause of the demonstration was the Muslim community’s low socioeconomic, economic, and political standing. No doubt there were minor attacks against the Hindu community but the revolt was primarily focused on the state. The feudal policies of the Maharaja provided the framework for the 1931 revolt. The issues that Fazldad and Abdul Qadir faced were the outcome of a three-pronged communal, casteist, and discriminatory policy. As a result, the movement against such an atrocious system cannot be characterised as overt Muslim communalism. It was, in fact, a protest against feudalism.
The true essence of the movement was national-democratic. It is true that in this people’s movement, the democratic ambition of masses was coupled with religious intolerance. Nonetheless, this protest contributed to the development of a regionalised cultural group in Kashmir. One of the protagonists of the rebellion portrayed the national democratic side of the 1931 uprising as “a conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor. Its goal is to seek justice and atone for injustice. If the king had been Muslim and his subjects had been Hindus, the battle would have been waged on similar grounds.”
The Maharaja’s portrayal of the events of 1931 enraged India’s communalists. The British, as well as the Maharaja, would surely see any action conducted by Kashmiri Muslims to secure political and economic rights as “communal”, implying that it was targeted directly at another religious minority, and more specifically at the Dogra state. On July 13, 1931, their worst worries were realised. The Barjor Dalal Committee, formed by the Maharaja to study the causes of the 1931 disturbances, characterised the 1931 Revolt as a Muslim uprising against the Valley’s Hindus, many of whom held positions of authority within the government.
Despite what the scribes of Kashmiri nationalist histories would make us believe, the events of 1931 cannot be analyzed in isolation. They were inextricably linked to the broader socio-political background of the Kashmir Valley in the late 1920s and early 1930s. For Kashmir’s Muslims, Dogra rule was oligarchic and dictatorial. It was a one-man rule, and all authority was concentrated in one person (Maharaja). Despite their majority population, Muslims were exploited because the Maharaja reigned with the support of Pandits (Kashmir Hindus), who monopolised the entire system and were left in charge of administration. They paid no attention to the problems that Muslims faced. The authorities and their apparatus made life difficult for Muslims. They did not provide Muslims any opportunity to alleviate their troubles. Begar (forced labour) was one of the harshest exploitations, in which Muslims were exploited as supply carriers for the army. When these asked for begar, the people were obligated to obey, despite their reluctance. Furthermore, during the Dogra dictatorship, peasants and workers were in a worse predicament. They used to work for landowners from dawn to night, but a major portion of their earnings were seized by Hindu landowners or Maharaja’s revenue collectors. The peasants and labourers were herded like dumb livestock.
In this context of socio-political background of 1931 uprising Chitralekha Zutschi says, “By the late 1920s, a new Kashmiri leadership had begun vigorously demanding the active intervention of the Dogra state in redressing the political and economic grievances of Kashmiri Muslims. This was evident in their representation to the government on behalf of Kashmiri Muslims on the constitution of the Civil Service Recruitment Board in 1930. According to the representation headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the government had instituted the board at this particular juncture to create hurdles for Kashmiri Muslim young men who were qualified and willing to join the services. Despite the government’s refusal to change the recruitment rules, the hostility of the new leadership was evident from this representation.”
The fact that feudal entrenched interests from both Hindu and Muslim cultures banded together with the success and maturity of a national revolution reveals the uprising’s socialist nature. Several landlords, including Nazir Hussain, Jagirdar Raja Villayat Khan, Akram Khan, and others, openly supported the Maharaja in opposition to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s national movement. Because Kashmir is largely a Muslim territory, it is only logical that Kashmiri Muslims led the emancipation campaign. The religion of the ruling family happened to be Hinduism, and the valley’s main educated class, who occupied all rungs of administration, happened to be Kashmiri Pandits. In this historical context, the revolution appeared to be a revolt of marginalised Muslims against Hindu overlords. This, however, is a fairly simplified viewpoint that ignores the basic social and political forces at work underneath the surface. To quote Peer Gayas-u-din, “The 1931 revolt was not purely a Muslim revolt, but an authentic revolt of the people of the state against the political, social and economic oppression by the ruling class and their henchmen. The rebellious elements were the Muslim intelligentsia, the trading class and the mass of peasantry who were groaning under the yoke of feudal rule. Hence seen historically, the characteristics of the revolt were essentially neither unhealthy nor communal but soundly progressive and national. The limitation imposed by the communal form was important but the logic of its national content was of far greater significance”.
It is debatable whether Kashmiri Hindus or Kashmiri Muslims were communal, but the term “communal” has been misused and misapplied in South Asian historiography, according to noted historian Ayesha Jalal. Furthermore, the Kashmiri Muslim demarche was correct in stating that 1931 could not be dismissed as a religious outburst because it was the result of years of tyranny. Moreover, the fact that Kashmiri Muslims’ demands were couched in religious terms does not mean they could be labeled communal.
—The writer is a research scholar at Central University of Kashmir