Hari Singh a despot, not a hero

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By Krishan Dev Sethi

Dogra ruler Hari Singh

Hari Singh cannot be a hero of Jammu. He was a despot. How can an autocrat be a hero? I consider all those people as heroes of Jammu who fought against Dogra suppression. I see Mian Dido as the hero of Jammu who was murdered by Gulab Singh for resisting against the Punjab rulers. I see Bawa Jitto as hero of Jammu. I see Raja Sultan, Bali Khan and Wali Khan as heroes of Jammu who were ruthlessly killed by the family of Hari Singh for resisting against the Punjab occupation of Jammu. I see Sardar Budh Singh, Raja Akbar Khan, Choudhary Ghulam Abbas and Moti Ram Beghra as the heroes of Jammu. All those people who fought against Dogra autocracy are heroes. Stooges of the ‘Lahore Darbar’ and then of the British Empire can not be heroes. How can British stooges be heroes?

This family of the erstwhile maharajas rose to power only by fighting against its own people. In early eighteenth century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was ruling from Punjab, was facing a strong resistance movement in Jammu against his misrule. This movement was led by Mian Diddo and at one point of time, Gulab Singh’s father was also a part of that resistance movement.

However the family changed sides and sought employment in Ranjit Singh’s Darbar. The three brothers – Gulab Singh, Dhyan Singh and Suchet Singh – were employed by Ranjit Singh in his army and they started fighting against the very people who were resisting against Lahore darbar. Gulab Singh, in particular, started crushing the resistance movement of Jammu for getting favours from the Lahore Darbar. He personally killed Mian Diddo at a place near Katra and was able to successfully crush the mass resistance against Ranjit Singh. That marked the start of first of Gulab Singh’s many treason’s with Jammu.

In return Maharaja Ranjit Singh elevated the three brothers with considerable favours and positions of power. While Dhyan Singh was appointed as his as his Prime Minister, Gulab Singh was made the Raja of Jammu and Suchet Garh got Samba and Ramgarh. Poonch was given to Dhyan Singh.

It was after the killing of Mian Diddo that Ranjit Singh came to Akhnoor and declared Gulab Singh as the Raja of Jammu in a Raj Tilak Ceremony held on the banks of the river Chenab. Gulab Singh got Jammu as a result of one of the worst and shameful agreements. As a part of the agreement, the family did not just affirm their loyalty to the Khalsa Sarkar and agreed to pay annual gifts, it also agreed to send girls to Lahore Darbar from Jammu. How can any member of this family be a hero of Jammu?

On taking over the reins of Jammu, they were immediately faced with uprising and resistance. They were ruthless and resorted to worst suppression to crush the resistance. They invited Raja of Mirpur to Jammu by deceit and jailed him. Then they blinded him and he died in the process. He lies buried somewhere near Chanderkote.

In Poonch, they skinned alive Mali Khan and Bali Khan, the two local resistance leaders, to establish their writ. The locals had raised a memorial in their name whose remnants can still be seen. Similarly,  they crushed the Raja of Ramnagar and created their kingdom on the back of deceit and tyranny.

By then, however, the fall of Ranjit Singh had begun. Realising that there was no future in allying with him, this family joined hands with the British and conspired against Lahore darbar. In the second Sikh War, Gulab Singh supplied oilseed in place of gunpowder to the war-front. This turned the tables against Sikhs and they were humiliatingly defeated. This victory helped the British to take over Punjab completely.

In order to return the powers the British played a sly trick. They sought a war indemnity of Rs 75 lakh from the defeated Raja. Since he could not pay it, they annexed Kashmir and gave it to Gulab Singh. This is how Kashmir became the possession of Gulab Singh in 1846.

Gulab Singh

The family created their fiefdom only by deceit and tyranny. First they sided with Ranjit Singh to crush the local resistance, thereafter they allied with East India Company against Ranjit Singh. Gulab Singh even killed his own people – his brother and his nephew – to keep the possession. A few generations later, they even dispossessed their own cousins from Poonch and took it over. This is the worst thing, one can ever do. How can they be considered as heroes?

As rulers, they ran the worst governance system. It was completely feudal, repressive, exploitative and ruthless. They would loot people irrespective of geographies or religion. They were as ruthless in Jammu as they were in Kashmir. There rule was actually a rule of certain upper caste families who exploited the people all across the state. To call their rule as Dogra Raj is a misnomer. People resisted against them are there many a Dogri poems and phrases which describe the ‘Dogra Da Ra’j as the worst form of rule ever.

There were only a few sections of society in Jammu who found favours with the rule; all others were dealt with an iron hand. Jammu has one third of its population as Scheduled Castes. The rulers implemented untouchability against them. The Scheduled Castes were, by law, required to put a rooster feather in their headgear so that they are recognised and differentiated from a distance. They were not allowed to draw water from wells of upper castes. To be fair with Gulab Singh and his successors, they did not differentiate between the people of Kashmir and those of Jammu when it came to tyranny, exploitation and loot.

In 1931 when the resistance re-emerged, this time from Jammu, it spread tension across the state. It was a sepoy of the Maharaja who ordered the Imam to stop the Khutba sermon in Jammu that triggered tensions. There was massive resistance in Mirpure and Hari Singh hanged to death some of the resistance leaders there. Soon after, he, his wife Tara Devi, his brother in law, and two members of his regime – Keth Ram Chopra and Udhay Chand – were directly involved in the massacres that took place in Jammu. On the other side such killings were carried out by extremist Muslims as well, but in Jammu it was the maharaja and his family who were directly involved in the massacres.

It is interesting to understand why the BJP is now seen as pushing the family’s agenda. The cause is rooted in history. In 1947, the upper caste families being the main beneficiaries of Hari Singh’s exploitative rule were desperate to have him retained in whatever form, especially after the National Conference (NC) took over. I was part of the NC then. These families campaigned for a role for Hari Singh post 1947. At that time, Nehru visited Jammu and addressed a gathering of which I was the stage secretary. The affluent upper caste families put up a huge protest under the banner of Praja Prishad seeking Hari Singh’s comeback.  But Nehru shouted from the stage telling, “No, he can not come back.”

Krishan Dev Sethi

Since NC had fought against Maharaja Hari Singh and was now ruling the state, there was no possibility of retaining him, even as the nominal head. We discussed it threadbare and finally told the leadership to take a stand on this. Sheikh was against Maharaja’s continuation in the state. So we talked to Delhi and they agreed.

The constitution of India was being prepared those days and the fundamental rights were not yet implemented in J&K. That is how, the historic Land to Tiller reforms could be made possible. That is precisely how Article 370 came into being which helped the then government to initiate measures which could be implemented nowhere else; in India, Pakistan or in the rest of the world. The usurious money lending system was buried the same way. In essence, the tyrannous rule of Jagirdars and Sahukaars was over. This was the only class of society that had immensely benefited under the Rule of Maharajas. Seeing their empire getting lost, these families teamed up to get the Maharaja back to the throne. They se up the Praja Parishad to resist and fight the new system and get their privileges back. That was the real  background to the slogan – ek vidhan, ek pradhan, eak nishan. They were desperate to see the Constitution of India being extended to the state so that all these reforms are blocked.

Interestingly, Shyama Prasad Mukhrejee was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet and a member of India’s constituent assembly. He was part of the session that passed the Article 370. But then, he came out and created Jana Sangh into which the Praja Parishad merged later. That was the earlier avatar of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The reforms may never be rolled back but old associations never die. That is why the BJP is re-packing Hari Singh as a Hero. He was never a hero. Why should we have a holiday in his name? We fought against him. Why should we celebrate him now?

(Sethi is a veteran communist, former NC leader, historian and columnist. Indisposed, he talked to Masood Hussain in Jammu.)

 

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4 Comments

  1. Abdul Rashid Dulloo on

    The exploitation of economically lower layers of J&K society by the upper caste Hindus under the leadership of Hari Singh, lead Sheikh Abdullah to believe that it was not only Kashmiri muslims those were deprived under autocratic rule but the poor Jammuites too deserved to be taken along to political, economic and social freedom and therefore, coined a slogan ” Sher Kashmir Ka Kya Irshad; Hindu, Muslim Sikh Itihad” and became the voice of even downtrodden sections of Jammu even.

  2. With all due respect, sir, you really need to study the history, putting aside all your prejudice and assumptions. Either you don’t have a clue, or you are deliberately manipulating facts to suit your whims against BJP or whatever. I’m not a history student, yet I know Ranjit Singh was long gone at the time of Anglo-Sikh war, and it was the Sikh Maharani herself who had conspired against her own people AND Gulab Singh, which wise Gulab Singh had already anticipated. Also, he and his brothers had fought AGAINST Ranjit Singh during his first battle against Jammu. Rest is not so black-&-white as you have tried to paint it. Funny how you have titled your story against Hari Singh, and haven’t discussed ANY fact about him reign. Afraid of talking about his administration and reforms? Or just playing ‘the ostrich’?

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