How July 13 changed British India’s policy towards Princely states, resulted in the British Parliament discuss the situation in Kashmir and hit the international headlines, writes Haseeb A Drabu

A July 13, 1931 photograph showing the residents mourning the killings in the premises of Jamia Masjid Srinagar.

The Martyr’s Day is dutifully remembered and well recorded as the start of the freedom struggle of Kashmiris against the monarchy. What has not been adequately appreciated is how it resonated across the sub-continent and had a major impact on politics and policy beyond Kashmiris and Kashmir Valley.

The Event

In popular anecdotal history, July 13, 1931, is an event of historical significance, portrayed as if it happened on the spur of the moment one. Abdul Qadeer, a non-local, made a fiery speech and was charged with sedition. At his trial, people gather and the police guns down 22 unarmed protestors. This is the unfolding of events on that particular day.

It suits the competing narrative to present it as a sudden and spontaneous mob frenzy out to kill non-Muslims. Indeed, the official Census of 1941 records it as “a stir among the “dissatisfied elements” in Jammu and Kashmir that that led to the “excitement of communal feelings” in the state. The British press ironically reported, it is a “communal rebellion in which not a single Hindu has been killed!”.

The Process

More than the “event” which is commemorated symbolising death as the sacrifice for the cause, July 13, 1931, is the culmination of a process. It was a political revolt driven by economic compulsions; a classic plebeian uprising. Its origins lie in 1865; on April 29, 1865, to be precise with the shawlbaf agitation against the atrocities by the Dogra regime. The shawlbaf agitation was perhaps a first organised one in the history of class struggle in India. By 1917, the movement had gained traction, in 1920 it got momentum and in 1924 it crystallised, only to finally erupt in 1931. The economic trigger in 1931 was the spike in the price of rice in the summer that year as the crop has been badly affected by floods and disease

Political activists had worked on it for decades, even as poets had prayed for it. Allama Iqbal’s, poem written in 1921 in the form of a Saqi Nama in Bal-e-JIbreel. He composed in Nishat Bagh, as an appeal to the divine to intervene in Kashmir.

ḳhirad ko ġhulāmī se āzād kar
javānoñ ko pīroñ kā ustād kar
taḌapne phaḌakne kī taufīq de
dil-e-murtazā soz-e-siddīq de
jigar se vahī tiir phir paar kar
tamannā ko sīnoñ meñ bedār kar

The symbolism and the imagery in the poem bear out that the poem is about Kashmir, doubtless. Three years later the silk factory revolt happens! Not to forget the laments of our very own Mahjoor.

This internal dynamic needs to be juxtaposed with the fact that in 1931, Jammu and Kashmir was the largest princely state in British India, one of the only three premier 21-gun salute states. And even though it was not a part of British India, it did enjoy a British protectorate. As such, the happenings in the largest princely state would obviously be of considerable political and policy importance.

An undated photograph showing the people paying their respects on the Martyrs day. Seemingly, Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq is leading the prayers.

Policy Shift

Looking beyond the confines of Srinagar, the events of July 13, resulted in the most significant change in the policy of British India towards the Princely states. Such was its impact that the British India Government refused to invoke – for the time ever — the “Indian Princes (Protection Against Disaffection) Act of 1922. Thus, July 13, 1931, marked a major reversal in the British Policy towards the Princely States.

The fact, which cannot be overemphasized, is that in supporting the anti-monarchy movement in Kashmir after 1931, the British were making a significant statement by disassociating it from the anti-colonial sentiment that was brewing in the sub-continent at that time. Interestingly, around the same time, speaking in at the Second Round Table Conference, Mahatma Gandhi had declared the princes as his ‘kith and kin’.

This happens at a time when the Princely states were seen by the British as a bulwark against the rise of Indian nationalism.  As Lord Irwin, evocatively said, the Indian Princes are the “brother builders” of the British who were committed to protect the ‘rights, privileges, and dignity of the princes’

Never before till then had the British India Government intervened so decisively and supported so openly any anti-monarchy agitations in India. The support to freedom fighters in Kashmir set off alarm bells in all the Princely states, which accounted for 40 per cent of the area and 23 per cent of the population of pre-Independence India.

Princes Panic

Many of the monarchs of other states, led a delegation to the Viceroy. They wrote to the Secretary of State for India about the British support to subjects of a Princely state. The Secretary of State has recorded his impressions of the meeting referring to the Princes as being “almost demented over the Kashmir issue”. This in itself is a damning indictment of the Prince’s predilections!

Local kids lay floral wreaths on the graves of 1931 Martyrs at Martyrs Graveyard in Srinagar on July 13, 2017. KL Image/Bilal Bhadur

The July 13 events thus shook the edifice of Princely states from Bikaner and Bhopal. This had never happened before. Indeed, the Kashmir movement inspired the struggles in Alwar and Bharatpur.

Once it was clear that they were not on the side of the Maharaja, the movement gained momentum. The action started getting hot nearer the epicentre when the civil disobedience movement was started in Jammu. So empowered they had begun to feel that on October 30, 1931, an “ultimatum was issued to the Maharaja’s Government” to accept all their demands within 24 hours! This was unheard of.

Surging Support

Support for the struggle of Kashmiri Muslims came from outside the state. Though, as early as 1909 the All India Mohammedan Educational Conference meeting in Rangoon had made an appeal to the Maharaja about Kashmiri Muslims, it was more of lip service.

July 13, 1931, galvanised support on the ground with processions all over – Delhi, Sialkot, Hissar, Mussoorie, and Lahore — expressing solidarity with the people of Kashmir. A meeting of the leading Muslims was convened at Shimla on July 25, 1931. It was here that the idea of an All India Kashmir Committee was mooted and its foundation was laid. It was decided to observe August 14, as Kashmir day. It was observed in Lahore, Sialkot, Delhi, Surat, Gorakhpur, Bombay Calcutta and Shimla.

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Associated with this show of solidarity was lobbying by prominent national leaders which enabled Kashmiris to make their case before the Middleton Commission on December 5, 1931. This resulted in the matter being discussed in the British Parliament on November 30, 1931. Sir Patrick HannonConservative and Unionist Party Parliamentarian asked the Secretary of State for India “whether he is aware of the disturbances in Kashmir and if the commission presided over by Mr Middleton will make a report. Can the Middleton Commission do anything to ease the wounds which have been opened”?

Such was the impact and so widespread was the support that British newspapers, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph reported it. Kashmir, for the first time, had become international news.


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