A Foreigner who Panicked British Residency in Kashmir

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It would be naive to absolve the British Residency of the responsibility for the repression and the resultant plight of the masses during its stay in Srinagar. Khalid Bashir Ahmad revisits an important chapter in the history of British colonial rule in the subcontinent.

September 30, 1938: Autumn in Kashmir had set in. Chinars were only days away from wearing crimson. Weather was mild and invigorating – a perfect time for anybody to be in the Himalayan Valley.

A foreigner, on his arrival in Srinagar, checked in at the Nedou’s Hotel, a crow flight of three minutes from the Maharaja’s palace. Soon after, he was joined by a non-local guest and the two had one-on-one meeting in room number 67.

The arrival in Kashmir of a person, of whose features not many were known, looked beyond a normal visit. The visit caused alarm at the highest level of British supervision of Kashmir which had accused the Maharaja’s predecessor and uncle of hobnobbing with the Soviet Russia and divested him of his powers, only to be restored some years later. The Residency asked the Kashmir Darbar to keep an inconspicuous watch over the movement of the foreigner and his guest.

The visitor who had checked in at the Nedou’s Hotel was a Japanese citizen, H Sago, and the guest who called on him was Achambi Lal, proprietor of Achamba Trading Corporation, a business concern in Srinagar. Before his meeting with Sago, Achambi had a rendezvous with some Yarkandis in his office the same day. He had invited several of them and among those who arrived four were Gaffur Jan Haji, Karim Jan Haji, Mohi-ud-Din Haji and Ahmad Jan Haji.

Concerned by the developments, the Resident sought a report from the Kashmir Darbar. His Extra Assistant wrote to Chief Secretary, Political Department, Pandit Ram Chandra Kak, asking him to keep an unobtrusive eye on the two and communicate to the Residency “anything of interest that may come to light.” The communication was passed on to the Inspector General of Police for taking necessary action and reporting back. By the time the Police Chief received the letter, Sago had left Kashmir. He had stayed in the hotel for nine days and checked out on April 9. The intelligence gathering officials went out to sniff the motive of Sago’s visit and meeting with Achambi. The latter’s movement, however, remained under constant watch.

What came out of the police investigation showed that the Resident was gratuitously alarmed and had seen a mountain in a molehill. The meeting between Sago and Achambi had no political overtone. Achambi was a whole-sale dealer in Namda, a famous Kashmiri rug, and was in constant touch with Yarkandi traders putting up at Safa Kadal in the old Srinagar city. Historically, the Yarkandis had been merchants who arrived via Silk Route in the Valley with goods from Central Asia and returned with Kashmiri products. A market had been set up at Safa Kadal where business of import and export items was conducted. They were all known to have performed the obligatory Muslim pilgrimage, Haj and were hence called Hajis. There is still a shelter house located on the left bank of the Jhelum at Safa Kadal known as Yarkand Sarai.

The investigation conducted by the Senior Superintendent of Police, Kashmir revealed that Achambi Lal had been persuading Yarkandi traders to import Japanese goods. His persuasion was based on the argument that these were durable and cheap. The meetings he had on September 30 with Sago and Hajis were purely business related but were wrongly read by an over-sensitive Resident as fraught with political implications, obliging the Maharaja’s government to investigate.

Was the Residency keeping a constant watch on the movement of non- British foreigners in Kashmir and was it scary of their presence in the Valley? Apparently, there is no material evidence to suggest that. However, the pro-active institution of the Resident was constantly meddling in the affairs of the State. The Resident’s missive to the Chief Secretary on Sago’s visit showed that this pro-active stance was taken even on routine matters. It also negatively spoke of the State Administration as waiting for instructions from the Residency even in ordinary matters like keeping surveillance on the activities of visitors in the Valley.

An earlier development relating to the visit of a very important political figure of India to Kashmir in 1927 had resulted in a huge embarrassment for Maharaja Hari Singh to whom this piece of vital information was not passed on by his administration. The Maharaja had come to know about the visit through a newspaper report.

Post-1931, the Resident’s interest in local affairs seemed to have been sharpened. The Resident would want from the Government to be constantly posted with the situation. If, for some reason, he would go out of the city, he would ask from the Prime Minister to send a messenger to him in case any emergency occurred that required the Government of India to be informed.

Following the Treaty of Amritsar, the Government of India had been ruing for long the absence of a provision in the Treaty allowing its direct involvement in the affairs of Kashmir and was looking out for opportunity. Its attempts were not to materialize any time soon. However, in due course of time, all political and commercial dealings with Central Asia, China and Tibet were taken over by the British, and with the appointment of Political Agent in Gilgit and Joint Commissioner in Ladakh, the foreign relations of Kashmir with the countries on its north and north-west borders came under full domination of the British Raj.

The Raj was apprehensive of Russian intentions towards India and its incursions in Central Asia had pressed the panic button. The expansionist forays of the Kashmir Darbar in Chilas, Ponial, Yasin, Hunza and Nagar that were looked at by the British as facilitation for Kashmir intrigues with Kabul and Moscow had added to the anxiety. The strategic importance of Kashmir had dawned upon them as also the need for a political Resident in Srinagar.

In 1851, an Officer on Special Duty was appointed by the Government of India in Kashmir for summer months without any political duty. A window of opportunity for the appointment of the Resident in Kashmir was opened by the likelihood of Pratap Singh, the meek and timid eldest son of Ranbir Singh, succeeding his father who was now on the deathbed. The new Maharaja, who ascended the throne in 1885, suffered intrigues by his own siblings, one of whom was the pretender and had been recommended by his father to succeed him. However, Governor General Lord Ripon, before demitting office, had decided in favour of Pratap Singh along with the appointment of the Resident in Kashmir. The appointment of the Resident was announced with the formal proclamation of Pratap Singh as the ruler of Jammu & Kashmir on September 25, 1885, thirteen days after the death of Ranbir Singh.

Sir Oliver St. John became the first Resident in Kashmir. Although Governor General Lord Dufferin had assured an upset Maharaja that the Resident would assist him with friendly advice only but Sir John did not mince words about what was to unfold. He told an emissary of the Maharaja that he would leave all the active work of administration to the Darbar but he should be informed of any matter in detail, which he thought proper to know. He would give advice, if asked for, and if he thought proper he would also give advice on his own, which was to be obeyed. The appointment of the Resident opened doors for active British interference in political and administrative affairs of Kashmir.

The subsequent events saw Pratap Singh facing charges of conspiracy with the Czar of Russia. The new Resident, Colonel Nisbet, claimed to be in the possession of letters that Pratap Singh had written to the Czar and the Maharaja’s own brother, Amar Singh, testified that the handwriting was of Pratap Singh. Nisbet also accused Pratap Singh of being “timid and very superstitious man at the mercy of a set of unscrupulous scoundrels who plunder the State” and recommended to the Foreign Secretary, Government of India, “the practical setting aside of the Maharaja’s authority.”

Much as the Maharaja protested that the letters were forged and written in Dogri, a language which only a fool would think he could be writing in to the Czar, the Resident succeeded in extracting voluntary resignation from him by virtue of which he relinquished all powers for a period of five years. The administration was entrusted to the State Council comprising his two brothers and an officer nominated by the Government of India.

For the next 25 years, the State Council, with the Resident actually calling the shots, ruled Jammu & Kashmir as Maharaja Pratap Singh was relegated to the sidelines. He was left to make emotional and pathetic representations to the Raj for restoration of his powers which evoked a sympathetic response only in 1905 when powers were restored to him.

With such deep and active hand in running the affairs of Kashmir, can the British Residency absolve itself of the responsibility for the repression and the resultant plight of the masses during its stay in Srinagar?

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