Cashmere Misgovernment


A British army officer Robert Thorp (1838-1868) was the son of a Kashmiri mother and a British colonel. While visiting Kashmir, he was disturbed by the situation the people lived in and decided to create a detailed narrative of the abject cruelty and exploitation that was forced on Kashmir after British India sold the Valley to Gulab Singh. His book Cashmere Misgovernment was published by London publisher Longman & Co in 1870, two years after its author died in mysterious circumstances in Srinagar. The book was reviewed by the Saturday Review, a respected British weekly journal in its edition (Vol 29) on March 19, 1870. This review that has impressively argued about the state of affairs in Kashmir, is being re-published 149 years later

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Kashmir civil society paying tributes to the British Kashmir martyr Robert Thrope in Srinagar's Christian cemetery.
Kashmir civil society paying tributes to the British Kashmir martyr Robert Thrope in Srinagar’s Christian cemetery.

This pamphlet, written in a singular combination of English with various Oriental languages, is an attempt to show that the annexation of Cashmere to the British India Empire is required by every consideration of justice and expediency. As the small part of the British public which cares about the matter has made up its mind that the Indian Empire is over-weighted already, stronger arguments would be required to bring it to this conclusion than Mr Thorp’s, even if they were conveyed in language as intelligible as Mr Thorp’s is obscure. But the account which this writer gives of the government of a native Indian State is curious, and there are some reasons for thinking it trustworthy. He has evidently lived in the country he describes, and he expressly claims for himself much more authority than for the swarm’ of British officers on furlough who annually pass through Cashmere on their way to sheet in the higher Himalaya. He supports all his statements, which are given in much detail, by figures; and, formidable as is his conclusion, his language is not extravagant. He evidently holds that it is the mission of England to redress wrong throughout the East wherever it is committed, and, relying on this simple belief, he does not seem to think it necessary to make out a case of extraordinary- strength.

Cashmere, much the largest and far the most beautiful valley of the Himalayan range, has the peculiarity of being inhabited by a community of Mahometans governed by a Hindoo prince and a Hindoo aristocracy. What is the origin of the official oligarchy of Cashmere Brahmins is, we believe, a disputed point; at no Royal House, of which the head resides not in Cashmere but at a capital in the plains below, traces its title from Gholub Singh, once the favourite, in what must be called the strict Oriental sense, of the famous Sikh chief Ranjeet.

Mr Thorp accuses the Government of Lord Hardinge of having openly sold Cashmere to Gholab Singh, who was its governor, for a supply of money; and certainly, the treaty recognising the new dynasty is, to say the least, unfortunately, framed if it was founded on other considerations than the 750,000. which it recites the agreement to pay. The subjection of Mahometans to Hindoos inverts the usual order of things, and there is some interest in observing the character of the Government. It does not appear to be cruel, as Eastern Governments go, nor, except in one particular, fanatical; but it is hard, grasping, and rapacious to the last degree. Its system of taxation may be described as combining the feudal exactions which drove Continental populations to despair before the French Revolution, with such exaction of rent as has been attributed to the worst Irish landlords in the worst times. After everything else has been taxed to the utmost, the soil, the fruit-trees, the beehives, the dairy, and the products of domestic industry, the Cashmere peasant has to discharge a variety of corvees which may take him scores of miles over difficult mountain passes. The great resource of the Government is, as everywhere else in India, the produce of the land. Mr Thorp gives tables of figures which seem to show that, if the gross produce of the land is divided into 32 parts, the Government takes close upon 23 parts. This portion of the revenue it always collects in kind, but the profit which it actually obtains is far greater than is indicated by stating its share of the crop.

Traditional sheep-herders of Kashmir with their locally made grass slippers.
Traditional sheep-herders of Kashmir with their locally made grass slippers.

Cashmere, besides including a great extent of fertile land cultivated by the peasantry, contains a very considerable town population, employed almost exclusively in the manufacture of the celebrated shawls. The quantity of grain left in the hands of the country people is barely sufficient for their support, and they have none to spare or to sell. The Government is the sole seller of grain to the townspeople; it has a practical monopoly of the food upon which they live, and it puts its own price upon it. It seems, in fact, to sell habitually for any price short of that which causes a riot or a revolt. The power implied in this absolute command of food is so enormous that one would have thought it hardly worth the while of the authorities to have recourse to certain other expedients for raising money described by Mr Thorp. One of them, however, strikes us as remarkable for its simple ingenuity. Gholab Singh, the founder of the Royal House, raised the value of the local rupee from twelve pence to fifteen pence. Ever since this measure took effect the Government has collected its taxes in the new rupees but at the old rates. On the other hand, when it makes payments, it makes them at the old customary rates in the old rupees.

The people of the towns, engaged in manufacture which has almost reached the dignity of art, are described by Mr Thorp as virtually in a state of slavery. No shawl-weaver may give up his occupation or leave the place at which it is ordinarily conducted without providing a substitute, and this, as may be inferred from the patient skill bestowed upon the shawls, is quite impossible. The permission to relinquish weaving when a substitute is found probably only operates to induce the weavers to bring up their children to the business and the servitude of the class thus becomes hereditary. But their misery is so great that in practice they escape in considerable numbers to the British territory below, although the roads to be traversed are difficult in the extreme and jealously guarded by Cashmere troops.

A very important manufacture of Cashmere shawls has grown up in the British towns of Umritsur and Loodianah, conducted by immigrant workmen from Cashmere; and nothing prevents the complete success of the experiment except the great difficulty of procuring the fine shawl-wool brought down from Thibet, which, according to Mr Thorp’s showing, is denied free entrance into British territory through the intrigues of the Cashmere functionaries.

An undated photography exhibiting abject rural poverty in Kashmir.
Undated photography exhibiting abject rural poverty in Kashmir.

So long as they remain in Cashmere, the shawl-weavers are distributed in groups under head-men, and the mode of taxing these last, as described by Mr Thorp, illustrates the extreme elaboration required by the manufacturer. As soon as a small piece of the shawl is completed, it is taken to a Government office. The functionary on duty is able to calculate from the sample the total value of the shawl, which it may take years to finish. The head-man is called upon to pay down at once about 19 per cent of the estimated selling price, and the Government stamp is then woven into the piece submitted, which is retained in the office. When the shawl approaches completion, the head-man applies for the stamped piece and weaves it into the shawl. To sell a shawl not so stamped is a heavily punishable offence.

There appears to be no administration of justice, properly so called, in Cashmere. A vast army of officials is employed in watching over the Government share of the crops, and they incidentally decide disputes and punish crimes. Some of these functionaries observe the fields where the crops are growing. Others keep guard on the storehouses in which the Government grain is kept. Others watch the houses of the peasantry, and, report if a suspiciously large quantity of corn is taken into them.

But the most important duty of the higher class of officials consists of watching the lower class and one another. There is some humour in an apologue by which the peasantry hint their opinion of the system under which they live.

A great nobleman, they say, once went to pay his respects to the Maharajah. At the entrance of the first of the three courtyards of the palace, he dismounted and gave his horse, which was a magnificent one, into the charge of his groom. As he crossed the courtyard, it struck him that the groom might be riding the horse, and accordingly be sent one of three servants who were with him to see. The servant did find the groom on the horse’s back. In the second courtyard, it occurred to the master to send a second servant, to find out whether the first had done his duty. The man went and found both the groom and the first servant on horseback. The third servant likewise sent back from the third courtyard, found the groom and both the other servants mounted; so be mounted himself, and the horse was ruptured and died.

There can indeed be little doubt that the exactions of the Government are supplemented by a variety of exactions on the part of its servants. So far, however, as their judicial authority is concerned, they are probably rather inert than oppressive. But there is one great exception to their inactivity. Cow-killing is regarded and punished as the most heinous of crimes. The bulk of the population, it must be remembered, is Mahometan, and would readily eat beef if it could be obtained. The Hindoo rulers, however, punished with death till recently an offence which among, their Mahometan subjects is as purely artificial as Sabbath-breaking among Hindoos. On the representations of the British Government, the capital penalty ceased to be exact, but the killing of a cow still entails penal servitude for life. Not only is the offender himself liable to be thus punished, but the whole of his family suffer from him and all persons cognizant of his crime. Mr Thorp affirms that imprisonment for life is in Cashmere equivalent to capital punishment, and he notices as a peculiarity of trials for cow-killing that, at the close of each day’s investigation, the accused receive a severe flogging. This cruelty may be intended to produce a confession, but it is by no means uncommon to find the heinousness of the imputed crime treated among semi-civilized races as partial evidence of its commission.

Mr Thorp has succeeded in showing that Cashmere is under an extremely bad Government, and his pamphlet may do something to moderate that sentimental preference for native States and systems which has to a certain extent succeeded the total ignorance of India which once prevailed. But he has done almost nothing toward furthering his main object, the annexation of Cashmere. The argument is scarcely necessary against the position that grinding taxation and the cruel punishment of one class of offences furnish a sufficient reason for deposing a dynasty whose rights have been solemnly recognised by treaty. The Maharajah’s Government keeps the peace, preserves friendly relations with the British Empire, and does all in its power provide for the comfort of the numerous Englishmen who visit Cashmere every year.

Christian cemetary in Sheikh Bagh near city centre where Robert Thrope is buried.
Christian cemetery in Sheikh Bagh near the city centre where Robert Thrope is buried.

Mr Thorp contends, indeed, that the Cashmere Government has violated the treaty of 1846. Not to speak, however, of the impossibility of maintaining that every breach of a treaty must be followed by confiscation of territory, this part of the pamphlet before us is singularly weak. The 4th article of the treaty binds the Cashmere Government not to alter the limits of its territories without the concurrence of the British Government. It is not easy to say what the article had in view, but it may have been inserted by persons who felt their ignorance of the more northerly boundaries of Cashmere, and who may perhaps have thought that the State might grow into a great power by aggrandizement on the side of Thibet. Conquest on the northern side of the Himalayas was in fact attempted by the celebrated Jung Bahadoor from Nepaul, but it is understood to have ended in signal disaster.

Mr Thorp says that the Maharajah of Cashmere has added to his dominions several small territories not included in their true boundaries. Whether this is so, nobody can say without a long investigation; but it is clear on Mr Thorp’s showing that the annexations if they took place, were quite open and notorious. Mr Thorp would place the strictest construction on the treaty, but, it is wonderful that he should be ignorant that breaches of a treaty known to the power which has the right to complain, and not remonstrated against at the time, are held to be condoned.


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