Begging, as a profession, is as old as humanity. During Dogra rule, eight members of a family from north Kashmir sought passports to beg in Afghanistan. Khalid Bashir Ahmad travels back to the time when the history of foreign rule in Kashmir witnessed an incident of immense significance.
Begging being one of the oldest professions in the world and prevalent in all countries is borne out by the numerous proverbs available in different languages spoken by people across the globe. Some of these are very interesting and full of wisdom. Yet some teach a trick or two of the trade to the beggars like this Arabian maxim which says that a beggar should only beg at large gates. The Dutch believe that a beggar’s estate lies in all lands. The Germans say that beggars breed and rich men feed. The Portuguese feel that a beggar’s wallet is never full. The Danish adage that one beggar likes not that another had two wallets speaks about the jealousy that, like in any economic activity, is common among the competitors.
Kashmir has always drawn people of varied interests. Scholars, preachers, traders, poets and solace seekers have been coming here since ages. These interactions have immensely contributed towards the rich culture and heritage that Kashmir has evolved into over the centuries. In recent years, however, a different breed of people has been arriving in hordes in summers. These are panhandlers who call the Valley as their dream destination and swarm its city centers, busy traffic junctions, eateries and anywhere you go or happen to be.
The steady annual arrivals of this kind began somewhere in early 1970s when in every public transport bus you would see a lady in non-local attire suddenly bursting into a melancholic song, Insaan jaan kar bhi kuch bhi samajh na aaya, yeh hai mukaan paraya (Being human you do not appreciate that this world is a temporary abode) and then stretching her hand before every seated and standing passenger and insisting for alms. Another category would distribute hand bills informing the reader the extreme destitute status of the distributor and appeal for monetary help. The new-age guests are mostly children of both sexes who would simply not let you go unless you doled out currency notes. Compared to these, their local cousins were never such harpies. From these will-not-leave-you panhandlers to the Internet beggars, the profession has entered into an age of technology. Now we have e-beggars who, instead of venturing out on the streets, set up websites and beg for money.
Panhandling in Kashmir, as perhaps elsewhere, is a lucrative vocation for its practitioners. A recent newspaper report suggested that there are 4,500 non-local and local beggars active in and around Srinagar city earning at an average Rs. 300 each. It estimated that the beggar industry in the Valley generates Rs. 42 crore annually.
Long before it had turned into paradise for non-local beggars, the Valley, for well over two centuries, remained a cursed land for its inhabitants. Unless one was from the ruling or the privileged class, life of an inhabitant always envied death. Taxes and exactions imposed by the non-local rulers and the inhuman methods employed by their heartless officials to recover these from the subjects had transformed a flourishing valley into the land of deprivation. People, as we see in the 18th and 19th century, flocked out of the Valley through the inhospitable and rugged mountain treks to seek respite from torture, mouthful of morsel and a little return of their toil.
With this backdrop stretching over to the early part of the 20th century, begging in the Valley too must have suffered recession. As is natural, a taker must find a giver but the system-inflicted impoverishment had not left many givers in the land. The terrible situation forced a group of over half a dozen people in north Kashmir to seek passports to go to a foreign country for– imagine what? — begging. The year was 1927. The last of the Dogra rulers, Hari Singh, had been two years on the throne of Kashmir.
In Gori Akarhal village of Uri, eight members of a family moved an application to the Wazir Wazarat (Deputy Commissioner) of Baramulla district requesting that passports be issued to them to go to Afghanistan for begging. The official record described the applicants, Aziz Shah, Gul Shah, Jabar Shah, Hayat Shah, Mukhat Shah, Khazir Shah, Wahid Shah and Ahad Shah as “professional beggars of Baramulla side” who intend to proceed to Kabul for begging.
The application remained in cold storage of the subordinate offices for seven years. All this while, the Shahs must have run from pillar to post to make the file move forward until it reached the Governor of Kashmir Province. The request for passports left the Maharaja’s government in a quandary as it involved a sensitive issue of foreign relations that could have triggered resentment of the neighboring country. The Wazir Wazarat of Baramulla on his part had recommended that passports be issued to the applicants. The Governor of Kashmir too had sided with the opinion of his subordinate District Officer and found nothing objectionable to the issue of passports. He had even gone a step further in expressing that, “Formerly beggars had no such restriction of having passports with them”.
The Governor’s comment indirectly referred to a situation where desperate people had been moving out of Kashmir even for seeking alms. Towards the close of the 19th century, Walter Roper Lawrence, the then Settlement Commissioner in Kashmir had enumerated 24,673 beggars and their dependants in the Valley. Looking at his figure of 200,000 population of the Valley in 1835 “to which number it had been in 20 years reduced from 800,000 by oppression and the awful dispensation of earthquake, pestilence and famine”, the number is huge. Even if the 1868 census figures of total population of Kashmir as 814,241 are taken as authentic, the number is still huge.
The case of the passports was forwarded by the Governor to the Political Secretary to the Maharaja’s Government on September 24th 1934. The Political Secretary submitted the case to the Maharaja for orders with the observation that “there would have been no objection ordinarily but the fact that they are going to Afghanistan as professional beggars may be resented by the Afghan Government”.
Hari Singh was in no mood to antagonize a neighboring country. He returned the file with a four-word instruction written in his own hand on September 29th 1934 – ‘Residency may be consulted.’ The Resident, Lt. Col. L.E. Lang, received a communication from the Prime Minister’s Office, Political Branch. The letter dated October 6th 1934 said that His Highness’ Government had received application from certain professional beggars for passports to Afghanistan. It informed him of the local authorities having no objection to the grant of passports but “before I send formal recommendation in their favor, I would be much obliged if you could kindly let me know whether there would be any objection on the part of the Afghan Government to our doing so.”
The Resident did not offer personal comments on an issue with severe diplomatic implications. Not taking the responsibility of a possible diplomatic showdown on his shoulders, Langer, in his wisdom referred the matter to his Government back in Delhi. The Government of India thought it unpleasant to issue passports to Shahs in view of their stated profession and communicated its view to the Resident. On November 13th 1934, Resident wrote back to Prime Minister Lt. Colnel E. J. Colvin, “The Government of India to whom the matter was referred intimate that in view of the profession of the applicants, they do not on the present information think it desirable to create the impression that they are anxious to unload them on a neighboring country, and consider that passports should be withheld.”
The matter was set at rest on November 24th 1934 by the Prime Minister’s Office through a communication to the Governor of Kashmir informing him that “in view of the profession of the applicants, the Honourable Prime Minister does not consider it advisable to recommend their application to the Residency for grant of passports for Afghanistan”. “The original enclosures are returned”, the letter added with a mention of these being 57 leaves and copies of photographs.
The Shahs of Akarhal were, thus, deprived of an opportunity to go to Afghanistan for engaging in a profession despised by all but those who practice it.