13 July 1931

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A child arranges floral wreaths placed by politicians on the graves of martyrs. KO File Photo: Abid Bhat

It is widely believed that the Kashmir conflict has its roots in the Partition of India in August 1947. This view perpetuates the understanding of the conflict as one between India and Pakistan. However, recognising that the roots of the conflict lie in an earlier history indeed, that there was a history before August 1947 changes the understanding of the intractable conflict in Kashmir. This article by MRIDU RAI, author of the book, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir (2004), discusses the salience of the events in Srinagar on this day.

FOR Kashmiris, made double-subjects of the British empire in India and of the princely state the latter had installed under Dogra maharajas in 1846, nationalism’s work of forging a nation and giving it political articulation involved taking a double step. It had to overthrow the yoke both of Dogra thraldom and of colonial dominance. Their martyrs could not be the same as those of the Indian nation. And it was 13 July 1931, not the familiar markers on the Indian independence movement’s calendar, that gave Kashmiri nationalism its first sacrificial deaths for commemoration.

Srinagar, 13 July 1931

Several historians have elected this date to mark the inauguration of the freedom struggle of Kashmiris against Dogra rule. Neither the events of that day in Srinagar nor the death toll of twenty-two demonstrators and one policeman seem so outstanding as to command remembrance when compared to contemporaneous developments in British India. But this date was not intended to serve the fashioning of the Indian nation. In Kashmir, the date’s emblematic importance drew from the fact that it was the first time a gathering of Kashmiri Muslims had openly challenged the Dogra maharaja and his government.

The portentous events of that day had followed upon rumours, spreading since mid-1931, about the maharaja’s officials mistreating Muslims and deliberately offering insults to Islam in Jammu. The report that elicited the most vehement reaction was about a Hindu police constable who had not only prevented a Muslim subordinate from saying his prayers, but had added to this insult the injury of throwing the latter’s copy of the Quran to the ground.  Later investigation found the account of this incident to have been exaggerated although not entirely without basis. However, it brought to a head a gathering discontent born out of a number of factors other than the purely religious among Muslims in the state and, by the time its reports reached Srinagar, it set the stage for the unprecedented occurrences of the following days. On June 25th, Abdul Qadir, identified by some as a Pathan and others as a Punjabi servant of a European vacationing in Kashmir, made an inflammatory speech at a meeting held in a Srinagar mosque’that condemned the Dogra maharaja and incited his hearers to kill Hindus and burn their temples.  He was promptly arrested.  A general impression created by accounts of subsequent events was of an unprovoked attack led by Srinagar Muslims against hapless Hindus. However, contrary to later reconstructions of the events of the day, Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindus, shaken by the expression of such hostile sentiments as those of Qadir, had not been sitting by idly as unwitting victims of a carnage-about-to-happen either. They had been disseminating their own set of rumours to rally other co-religionists into action.  One such, spreading like wildfire—and indicating the fear felt by a minority  that had until then enjoyed security of power that they were in danger of possibly losing ground in the state to an increasingly vocal Muslim majority was that the Dogra ruler was about to lift the state-wide prohibition on cow slaughter.  And were this to come about, it would have been no mean concession since the ban defined the identity of the state as one in which Hindu religious tradition enjoyed primacy. Thus, in the days preceding the fateful date of matyrdom, segments of both the Hindu and Muslim populations in Kashmir were raising their defences and the situation was moving inexorably towards a confrontation.

On July 13th, when Abdul Qadir was to be tried at the Central Jail in Srinagar, a crowd had attempted to enter the penitentiary to protest his prosecution.  Retaliating, the police fired into the gathering that then scattered and went on a rampage  in Srinagar city.  In Maharajgunj, a quarter of Srinagar inhabited predominantly by Kashmiri Pandits and Punjabi Hindu traders, crowds of Mohammadan hooligans attacked shops, looted large quantities of goods and committed indiscriminate assaults.  The British Resident in Kashmir had reported that there had recently been much discussion among Mohammadans in Kashmir about their grievances against the comparatively small Hindu community…which, as a result of a mistaken policy of many years standing, had been allowed to monopolize most of the appointments in the State. Yet, the Resident confessed that no one had for a moment suspected then any danger was to be feared in the city of Srinagar.  Evidently taken by surprise by the overt activism  of the Kashmiri Muslims, the maharaja’s government devised makeshift and quick fix solutions.  Relying on the tested strategy of his predecessor, Maharaja Hari Singh ‘received a deputation of all the leading Muslims of the city’ with a view to removing their apprehensions. Meeting with the ruler, members of these eminent Muslims assured him of their unfaltering loyalty. However, as the Resident suggested, the greatest difficulty the maharaja would have to face would come, not from the small Kashmiri Muslim élite but, from the public disapproval of his policies freely expressed in British India and particularly in Punjab.

The events of July 1931 had catapulted a number of new actors onto the political stage of Kashmir each seeking to capitalize on the momentum of Muslim restiveness unleashed through these incidents.  A younger generation of Muslim politicians led by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah and aiming at broad social bases of mobilization was pitted against the older and more socially exclusive, élite leadership of the Jama Masjid Mirwaiz and others.  These Kashmiris were joined in their competition for the leadership of Muslims in the valley, by two rival sets of interests from the Punjab represented by the Ahmediyas and the Ahrars.  By mid-August 1931, the Resident was already reporting on dissatisfaction among Kashmiri Muslims being fuelled by letters from Muslim organizations from outside the state urging them to keep up their agitation. Under such prompting, Kashmiri Muslims led by Sheikh Abdullah had refused to meet with the Maharaja on August 6th, 1931, aiming to ‘procrastinate’ until August 14.  The latter date had been declared Kashmir Day’ throughout Muhammedan centres in British India by the Kashmir Committee formed only a week after the killings of July 13th and supported by large numbers of the valley’s Muslims long settled in the Punjab.

In the aftermath of July 13th, and viewing with trepidation the bleeding of political protest across their carefully demarcated and vigilantly policed borders between the Punjab and the Dogra state, the British colonial government of India exercised its prerogative as paramount power to appoint a commission, working under the direction of B. J. Glancy, to examine the grievances that had caused the disturbances. Its report of 1932 included a powerful indictment of the Kashmir durbar’s partisan functioning in favour of its Hindu subjects to the neglect of Muslims. Strikingly, the report had also invalidated the principle of first peoples’on the basis of which the Dogras and Pandits had re-imagined Kashmir as originally Hindu. Glancy’s report provided a corrective to nearly a century of marginalizing the largest number of the Kashmir state’s subjects. Through its many recommendations, it re-inscribed Muslims into their history and region. And, perhaps unconsciously, it also redefined the contemporary territory of Kashmir  no matter what lay beneath its historical layers  as Muslim. From hereon, the challenge gathered a momentum that would end with stripping the legitimacy of the Dogra princes to rule over Kashmiris. Over the following decade, this newly grounded’assertiveness extended into a wider struggle for the fulfilment of a spectrum of economic and political demands that culminated in the unravelling of Dogra sovereignty itself in 1947.

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