Kashmir history owes a lot to a number of British officers who helped the exploited residents to get certain rights that the East India Company literally denied through the Treaty of Amritsar writes M Saleem Beg
The treaty commonly called Bainama Amritsar was signed on March 16, 1846 AD, subsequent to and in consequence of the disintegration of the Sikh empire of Punjab. Under the treaty, a huge territory west of River Ravi and east of River Indus was ceded and transferred to the Dogra Raja of Jammu, Maharaja Gulab Singh. The treaty, through different clauses, bestowed the unfettered right to the Maharaja over the life and property of the local population which led to extortionary taxation resulting in unprecedented human suffering.
The treaty and its violent implementation led to embarrassment for the British rulers who made some serious attempts for corrections in running the affairs of the ceded territory, particularly Kashmir. These corrections were introduced by deputing British officers for bringing order and accountability to the system of administration.
At a time in history when events and actions revolved around men of adventure and merit, Kashmir has had a fair share of such people who were serving the British Empire in India with distinction and a great amount of objectivity. They were professionals in different fields with passion and concern for the common good and keen realization of the miseries and abject living conditions inflicted on the Kashmir populace.
Immediately after the acquisition of the territory, Maharaja Gulab Singh surpassed his predecessor rulers in heavy taxation, mostly on peasants and the lucrative shawl industry. As a result of this unbearable burden, on June 6, 1847, within a year of the transfer of Kashmir to Maharaja under the Treaty, about 4,000 shawl-bafs managed to flee the valley for Punjab to escape this ruinous taxation and compulsory weaving laws.
To prevent the growing emigration of the Shawl–bafs, a Rehdari system ordering his troops to plug all the escape routes and passes was also put in place. When the British Government got to know about this inhuman treatment of the subjects living in the ceded territory, they deputed Lieutenant Reynell Taylor, Assistant to the Resident at Lahore and later Major General of British Army to Srinagar to investigate the grievances of Muslims. He was accompanied by another British officer, Mr Melvin.
According to the period records, soon after his arrival, a meeting of the Muslims of Srinagar was convened at the Maisuma Maidan on June 21, 1847. Taylor himself records that ‘the queries were raised by Kashmiri Muslims whether the two officers had full powers to do whatever they liked, whether, in the case of complaints, they were to interfere authoritatively to procure redress. Whether they could guarantee the subsequent safety of those who came forward with substantial complaints’.
Taylor had nothing positive to offer though it was subsequently rumoured that ‘he succeeded in persuading the Maharaja to dismiss Diwan Karam Chand,’ the highest official of Durbar. Based on the report from Lt Taylor Lord Hardinge, the Governor-General sent a demarche, a strong warning to the Maharaja and sought a reduction in taxes, Baaj, Nazrana, the introduction of new regulations for the reorganization of Shawl industry and some other action to relieve the burden on Kashmiris. The visit of Lt Taylor thus served as an alarm and also set rethinking and remorse about the treaty of Amritsar itself.
The British rule in India also saw the introduction of a wide range of modern planning tools, methods and applications required for socio-economic uplift. The most significant of this was a land survey that would enable the rulers to understand land boundaries, locate and map the boundaries and corners of geographic features of the country.
They, therefore, set up the Trigonometrical Survey of India (TSI) with the aim of creating scientifically drawn maps by professional surveyors. In the case of Kashmir, they also persuaded the Maharaja as early as 1855 AD to grant permission to the TSI for undertaking the mapping and survey of the territories ceded to the Maharaja.
Major T G Montgomerie was assigned the survey, who laid a solid foundation of the survey tools and protocol. However, he died even while the survey was in process and after his death, J Peyton followed upon the work of his predecessor and prepared an authentic map of Kashmir and its surrounding mountains and sub valleys. Thus a map of Kashmir, first-ever to the scale of an atlas, was published by the Survey General’s office at Dehradun in 1861.
After the formal publication of the scaled atlas by the Surveyor General of India from Dehradun based on the work done by the TSI, the work on the preparation of a Gazetteer was undertaken in 1870 AD by an able and eminent British officer, Charles Ellison Bates. The entries in the gazetteer included demography; physical geography; political boundaries; industry, trade, and service activities; agriculture historical, and archaeological points of interest; longitude, latitude, and elevations; distance to relevant places; pronunciations; official local government place-names.
Bates makes a reference to the servitude and exclusion of Kashmiri Muslims from the tyrannical rule by mentioning that the State charged taxes only from the Muslim population and non-Muslims were fully exempted from such taxation. The exemption was also extended to Syeds and some peer families of Muslims. He also refers to the number of Government servants numbering 5573, none of them a Muslim. Out of 403 jagirdars, only five were Muslims. There were 285 Muslims out of 7500 petty government servants. So much for a 95 per cent Muslim state population, an arrangement silently acquiesced by the British rulers.
Oppression and Exploitation
Under the treaty of Amritsar in 1846 AD, the British government transferred practically the ownership of land to the family of Gulab Singh. Land revenue being the main source of income for the State, the ruling establishment operated a very oppressive and arbitrary collection system that resulted in reducing the agrarian population to penury and starvation. In order to mitigate the sufferings of the local peasants, the British rulers persuaded Maharaja Pratap Singh to carry out a settlement of the land records in order to bring some discipline and order to revenue collection.
Accordingly in the year 1887, the services of Andrew Wingate, the British Bureaucrat, later Sir Andrew Wingate, KCIE, ICS, were loaned to Kashmir Durbar. Wingate brought with him the vast experience of surveys and boundary settlements in the western part of the Indian subcontinent. He initiated settlement operations in Kashmir and undertook a survey of two Kashmir Tehsils, namely Lar and Phak on a pilot basis. He also recommended a reduction in taxation, more rights to the peasants including hereditary and proprietary ownership of land and abolition of forced labour.
The Lawrence Sahab
Accordingly another eminent British officer, Walter R Lawrence was appointed as the Settlement Commissioner. Lawrence carried on his settlement operations in a highly systematic and professional manner. He drew up a map of every village, recorded details relating to the class of lands, source of irrigation, number and kind of trees, revenue payable etc. He classified the soil into different types and divided the entire area into assessment circles.
An important feature of Lawrence’s Settlement pertained to the ownership of land. The fixation of the state revenue demand for a longer period helped the cultivators to improve the soil and this, in turn, increased production.
M Y Taing, an eminent Kashmir historian, referring to the path-breaking work of Sir Walter Lawrence writes that “the settlement in practical terms transferred the ownership of land from Maharaja and mutated all lands into hereditary ownership of the peasants. This was the first step in history to restore the dignity of a devastated people through the worst kind of subjugation for centuries. Kashmiris called Sir Lawrence Laran Saheb with the utmost affection”.
These personalities have become part of the history of the progression of Kashmiris from a medieval unjust system to the new concepts and entitlements of a modern State. All subsequent up-gradation and evolutionary actions like the Abolition of Big Landed Estates Act, Propriety rights to the tillers etc were built on the foundations laid by them. We as a Nation owe all of them our admiration, gratitude and indebtedness.
( The writer is Convener INTACH, and former Director-General Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir.)