Galwans’ or Kashmir’s horse-lifters are one of the least studied and controversial tribes that dominated the narrative post-Mughal annexation of Kashmir. Historians have disagreed whether they were freedom fighters or criminals. But most historians have seen a mass sympathy towards them. Javid Mukhdoomi culls a long story from Kashmir history about Khaira Galwan, an elusive fighter who has dominated the nineteenth and twentieth century Kashmir folklore

The first page of a long article carrying an artwork about a controversial figure in history who was a robber and a patriot.

It is important to understand what Galwan means. The original word is Galla Baan.  It is Persian meaning shepherd and caretaker (see Lughatnama-i-Dehkhuda by AA Khuda). The word subsequently got distorted and shaped as Galwan.

In Kashmir, there was a community named Gallaban and their main profession and shared attribute was grazing, watch and ward of horses, ponies and they would mostly reside near meadows and highlands. According to historian Mohammed Din Fauq, the Gallabans got reshaped and rechristened into dacoits and cattle lifters. They were indurate and cruel.

The Galwans, as a rule, and practice, would not live in cities and towns. That is why there is Galwan Pur, located even now, at the outskirts of Srinagar. The area is now inhabited by affluent people. “Gur Gulwanus Hawaleh”, goes the Kashmir adage meaning “Horse is safe if entrusted to a Galwan”.

Galwans have remained part of Kashmir folklore and there are numerous stories around. It is also said that Galwans were descendants of the Chaks who put up brave resistance to Mughals when Akbar conquered Kashmir. The Mughals used everything in their command to hunt them down so as to prevent a revolt. Under a “tribal rule”, Galwans wouldn’t live in cities and towns. They had been an organized tribe for many centuries.

While facing the wrath of the rulers, Galwans would take refuge in dense forests. Some would cross Rajdhani Pass and settle in Northern Areas. With passing time they took to horse-trading mainly for two reasons – for livelihood and the availability of horses would readily provide them swift mobility.

According to Kashmiris Fight For Freedom author, MY Saraf, Galwans were mainly concentrated in Trehgam (Kupwara), Awantipur, Shopian, Bandipur and few areas of Sindh valley. Over the years, some of them had fallen prey to robbery and indulged in way-laying of travellers. Because of their ‘nefarious’ activities, the entire Galwan tribe carried a social stigma.

During the second decade of nineteenth-century one Khair Mohammed Galwan, alias Khaira Galwan, emerged from Kashmir. The Lahore Durbar deputed Colonel Mihan Singh (1834-1841) as Subedar (Governor) of Kashmir. The appointment came in wake of his predecessor, Sher Singh’s utter failure in taming Khaira Galwan who was believed to be heading a fighting force comprising of robust 500 men.

According to Tareekh-i-Hassan (see pp 586) Mihan Singh initially showed olive branch to Khaira without seeking any tangible results. Thereafter, the Governor used force to neutralize him. Entire Kashmir remained panic-stricken.

Different authors have tackled Khaira Galwan differently. Mohammad Din Fouq in his Tareekh Aqwam-i-Kashmir and Hasan Shah Khoihami on his Tareekh Hassan have painted him as a notorious dacoit, looter, kidnapper and perpetual offender and the space given to him in their respective books is scanty and brief. The other narratives, however, are slightly different.

During the 1970s’ an Urdu digest namely Canvas used to be published from Srinagar by Mohammad Sidiq, a calligraphist, under Dr Hamidi Kashmiri’s patronage. In its fall 1974 issue, it carried a longish feature on Khaira Galwan written by Peer Afzal Mukhdoomi. It was incisive and unique for a large section of its readers. A known Kashmiri artist Ahmad had drawn a pen sketch of Khaira.

According to later Peer Afzal, quoting Mufti Mohammed Shah Saadat, a famous chronicler and writer, Khaira was an exceptional freedom fighter. He was a venturous fighter and a brave and tough soldier. Khaira was neither a dacoit nor a looter but a patriotic fighter, who immensely loved Kashmir.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) came to know about the pitiable conditions of his subjects and the oppressiveness of his successive governors, Peer has written, he replaced the governor and also deputed three persons – Sheikh Mohiuddin, Jamadar Khushal Singh and Ganesh Pandit Dhar. The latter was an advisor. By that time, however, Khaira had dug in his heels and his guerrilla attacks gradually spiked. The Governor and other functionaries tried their best to woo ‘bandits’ but failed.

On the request of the Maharaja, Sheikh Ahmad Tarbali, a highly revered sage of Srinagar, played a key role in the release of various government functionaries and their families who had been kidnapped by Khaira.

Sheikh Mohiuddin, the write-up suggests, studied and analyzed the situation and briefed Colonel Mihan Singh that the insurgents had no outside support as was the impression given to Lahore Durbar. Instead, Sheikh was convinced that Kashmiris as a nation never tolerate alien rule and, therefore, had revolted against the ruler.

Sheikh succeeded to establish contact with Khaira and a dialogue was started. He would report to Lahore Durbar everything that was happening in Kashmir and also progresses made by him during his talks with Khaira. At one stage rumours were afloat in Kashmir that truce between the two was in the offing. This triggered Palace intrigues.

Ganesh Pandit Dhar had an excellent talent for countervailing, intrigue and manipulation. His reports to Lahore Durbar were misleading and far from the truth. Ganesh Pandit purchased the traitor among Galwans and mobilized the army to mount a night assault on a Galwan camp in Lolab. The rebellious group suffered a colossal loss. In response, Galwans sent repeated warnings to Ganesh Dhar. Galwans started retaliations.

Thereafter Galwans made changes in strategy and launched well planned night assaults on various army camps inflicting heavy damages to men and material. The entire army of the Maharaja started feeling insecure and unnerved. During a night assault which he led personally, Khaira is supposed to have breached and up-rooted a strong security ring and entered in the tent of Colonel Jodah Singh, an infamous killer army officer, during night hours.

The Colonel, the story goes was dead drunk and was enjoying with a young woman who had been forcibly lifted earlier. Khaira breaching everything stood in front of Jodah’s bed and remained standing with a dagger in his hand. Khaira introduced himself and told him that he is a humble servant of the people and a protector of the honour and dignity of “my daughters and sisters”. Khaira chocked him to death with his left hand.

But the questions remain: Was Khaira a freedom fighter, who was demonized as a consequence of official narrative? After all, he had more fighters than the Mangal Singh of Chambal valley. Was he a thief, a cattle lifter?

Saraf is a sharp critique of Galwan and his fighters. However, he has not forgotten to mention that a large section of Muslims felt sympathetically drawn towards Galwans because they were the only people outside the Hill-Tribes who engaged Kashmir’s new rulers to some of the bloodiest encounters. After all, his social isolation could have been detrimental for his survival without the common man’s support.

Finally, Mihan Singh’s regime prepared a comprehensive plan to eliminate Khaira. Several army columns comprising were moved to sensitive areas in Kamraz (North Kashmir) and Maraz (South Kashmir) along with light and heavy weaponry included some pieces of artillery. Handsome rewards were announced for information about the fugitive. An amount of one lakh, Sika Shahi rupees was announced as booty on Khaira’s head. The intelligence system was made robust. The efforts failed.

Then, village headmen were mobilized in the entire Kamraz region to have indirect contact. Galwans responded by sending demands for restoration of peace. They sought Sikh army exit, handover of informers, punishment to those involved in killing people, lifting of the ban on religious places, compensation for properties destroyed and an agreement signed by Lahore Darbar.

It infuriated Mihan Singh. He augmented deployment of troops especially in rural areas and a new wave of oppression started. It included killings, molestations and destruction of property. While army men, belonging to Taran Taran in Punjab, were busy in plunder in a Beerwah village, the Galwan guerrillas suddenly appeared and encircled the looting army. The entire contingent was slain.

Javid Mukhdoomi, IPS, former IGP Kashmir

This triggered fear. Maharaja Ranjeet Singh who was craving to visit Kashmir cancelled his travel plans. An encouraged Galwans now started attacking governmental caravans, particularly on Uri road.

As Galwans started descending down the hills, a panic Mihan Singh laid out a huge network of informers. It was one of these informers named Amma Ganai of Shakro village who was lured by the one lakh rupees booty that he invited Khaira for a feast. This was a very well planned trap and Khaira was arrested. In chains, he was brought to Srinagar under the escort of heavy army contingent. Without any trial or hearing, Mihan Singh brought him to Zaina Kadal, Srinagar where his skin was peeled off and hanged. In reprisal, Galwans killed traitor Amma Ganai and his family. Ganai’s dead body remained suspended on a pole at Baramulla for a few days.

(A former IPS officer, Mukhdoomi retired as Inspector General of Police)


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