Broken Empire

At the peak of its mortal existence, British Empire evoked awe among its colonies which consisted of almost one-fifth of the world’s population. However, the British Residency in Kashmir was broke and the resident had to write a letter of apology for his failure to pay the balance of some purchases, Khalid Bashir Ahmad writes.


In the 19th and early 20th century, the might of British Empire evoked awe, especially among its colonies across the continents. The Empire ruled over about 458 million people or one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. It was spread over almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area and, to describe its vastness, it was said that the sun never sets on the Empire.

The World War I placed enormous financial strain on the Great Britain to the extent that it no longer remained an unrivalled industrial or military power. Notwithstanding the eventual victory in the war, the British prestige was dented, accelerating the decline of the Empire that climaxed by the World War II when the Union Jack ultimately disappeared from the colonies. Kashmir was not under the direct British rule. However, the Empire had full supervision on its affairs through the instrument of the Resident, the representative of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain. The influence of the Residency on the day to day administration was overbearing and to the discomfort of the Dogra rulers. Apart from wielding enormous political clout, the Resident also represented British affluence.

However, strange though it may sound, at one point in time during the third decade of the 20th century, the Resident did not have Rs 213 to clear an outstanding on purchase of some furniture articles and had to write a letter of apology for his inability to pay the balance amount!

In 1933, the Residency wanted to purchase all the articles of furniture lying in the Gulmarg Hut — called the First Assistant Resident Hut. The total amount due was Rs 1393 and 8 annas less by 10 percent or Rs. 1254 and 2 annas. A sum of Rs 950 had already been paid to the Maharaja’s government while a further sum of Rs 91 was sent by the Resident, LE Lang, with his letter of December 21, 1933. Lang did not have enough money to pay the amount in full and hence wrote to the Prime Minister, EJ Colvin: “I much regret my inability to pay the whole amount this year, failure to do so being due to the fact that the Government of India have only placed Rs 1041 at my disposal for the present. I trust that His Highness’ Government will have no objection in the matter.”

The ‘No Objection’ was conveyed through a letter from The Prime Minister’s Office on January 13, 1934 with a word of advice that “requisition of such purchases are only received piecemeal which complicates accounts and delays their final adjustment.” On April 6, 1934, the Resident conveyed his inability to pay the balance amount of Rs 213 and 2 annas, writing: “The Government of India have for the year 1934-35 reduced the grant for the maintenance of furniture in the houses of this Residency, and consequently I am not now in a position to take over all the furniture and pay the balance of Rs 213/2/- as previously intended.”

Sadly, Lang had only Rs 34 in his kitty which he sent to the Prime Minister saying that the articles of furniture costing the balance amount of Rs 179 and 2 annas “will be returned to His Highness’ Government as soon as the Gulmarg season reopens.” The Maharaja’s government could have easily remitted the meagre amount but instead chose against it. The Prime Minister’s Office on April 26, 1934, wrote to the Resident: “Please return the articles of furniture valuing Rs. 179/2/ to the Reception Department as soon as the Gulmarg season reopens as proposed. I am informing the Minister-in- Waiting accordingly.”

In reply, the Resident informed the Prime Minister on May 5, 1934, that the Assistant Resident will return the furniture worth Rs 179/2 when he goes to Gulmarg in July 1934. He also requested the Prime Minister to inform the State Reception Department accordingly.

The Residency subsequently felt that more money was charged than was actually payable against the purchase of the furniture. A letter from the Residency to Captain Hira Singh, Political Secretary, on September 20, 1934, complained: “The total value of furniture in the Hut mentioned above was Rs 1393/8/0 out of which articles worth Rs 235 were returned to the State Reception Department on July 22, 1934, and two feather pillows worth Rs 4 have been purchased by me privately. The sum of Rs 4 is forwarded herewith. Its receipt may kindly be acknowledged. Thus the cost of the remaining articles comes to Rs 1154/8/0 only.”

The letter further conveyed that Rs 1075 for the purchase of articles for the hut were already paid to the Maharaja’s Government and taking into consideration the 10% discount, the Residency could have purchased articles for Rs 1194 and 8 annas. “This leaves a balance of Rs 40 and after deducting Rs 4 on account of 10 percent discount originally counted, His Highness’ Government have to return a sum of Rs 36 to this Residency,” the letter added.

Author of ‘Jhelum: The River Through My Backyard’, Khalid Bashir Ahmad is a poet and historian. He is currently heading J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages


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