Kashmir’s first labour unrest, more than 150 years ago, was the outcome of the accumulation of immense exploitation that Kashmir’s working class was subject to by despots and their local clients, reports Masood Hussain

Weaving Dreams: This chromolithograph drawn by Scottish artist, war artist and war correspondent William Simpson who visited Kashmir somewhere between 1859-60.

When Srinagar’s 28 shawlbaufs, the shawl-weavers, drowned in the Keat-e-Koul ditch near Zaldagar on April 29, 1865, it merely did not mark the first recorded labour unrest in history. It was not the first major indicator of the political awakening of Kashmir alone. The massacre marked the beginning of a crisis that, over the years, compromised Kashmir’s principle craft that had reigned European fashion streets and introduced Kashmir to the rest of the world.

The massacre bridged the two odd sides of Cashmere Shawl’s uneven history. Prior to it, the Shawl was in huge demand and the artisans, coerced by the worst working conditions and exploitation were unwillingly putting in all efforts to keep the export going. After Zaldagar, though improvements started taking place, the Shawl fell from its grace even though sections of the artisans were not so unwilling to work. Gradually, Kashmir started losing the artisan and the market as the famed shawl’s freefall has not stopped in the last 150 years.

Zaldagar was a major milestone in attempting an undoing the web of exploitation that despots innovated, with the help of the native bourgeoisie, to make the best of Kashmir’s craftsmanship. There were only two principal sources of Kashmir’s survival – Shali and Shawl; the paddy was the principal peripheral produce and Shawl the only urban outcome. At one point in time, the despots would exact more tax from shawls than from the Shali.

Historians may not disagree that for nearly 300 years, the Shawl as the real mover and shaker of urban economy dictated urban social stratification. There were 19 professionals associated with the diverse processes of shawl-making and they all would eventually get their identities, in certain cases castes as well, from their occupation.

It needs a lot of magnification of the stretches of the Srinagar map shawl that the actual details and skill of the artisans is visible.

Afghans’ Initiated Crisis

Historians believe that the Afghans did the fundamental intervention that became the mother of exploitation for the ages. It was Karim Dad Khan, the Afghan governor (1776-83), who set the foundation of the Dag-e-Shawl. It was sort of a stamping in which part of the stamp would be issued and the rest retained by the department and released when the product would complete and the owner would pay all the taxes.

In the subsequent years when Kashmir was taken over by the Sikhs (1820-46), they also came with their interventions to get the most out of handicrafts. Some of these interventions were pathetic, defying all contemporary economic logic. No weaver had the right to change his master. No weaver could leave the job unless he gets a replacement. It was perfectly illegal to migrate and would entail jail if caught fleeing.

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“The daily wages of each (weaver) is four anas, of which he must pay two to the governor; and for the two remaining anas, singara, a kind of vegetable, is sent into his house, and, I need scarcely mention, at the same rate at which it is sold to the coolies,” Baron Erich Von Schoenberg, who visited Kashmir during the fall of Sikh rule, noted in his Travels In India and Kashmir. “This singara is the cheapest of all kinds of food, and were it not so abundant; it would not be possible for a large portion of the inhabitants of Kashmir to live on the slender pittance allowed by the governor.”

Voluntary Blindings

“They were forced to work on very low wages and in order to escape the tyranny of officials, some of them cut off their fingers and even blinded themselves,” Saroj Koul has recorded in her doctoral thesis Life and Conditions of the People of Kashmir during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, quoting Birbal Kachru’s Tarikh-e-Kashmir. “Their economic condition was below subsistence level. It was very rarely that they could afford to purchase meat on festive occasions.”

File image of the artisan working on a shawl (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Working to somehow weaken Lahore’s Sikh Durbar, the East India Company was desperate to have its pie in the roaring Cashmere Shawl business. They attempted to shift the weavers to Punjab. “The English government made an attempt to bring some of these (Kashmiri) weavers to Ludhiana, on the Sutlej,” records Schoenberg. “A large bazaar was built, shops and houses for the workmen were erected, and everything done that was supposed likely to please and encourage them. Pashm and wool were to be brought from Rampur, the depot of the trade with Thibet. These materials were to be given at first cost to the workmen; but, incredible as it may appear, the attempt failed. The houses and shops that had been erected at Ludiana were gradually deserted, and the

Kashmerians returned to their oppressors in the valley, rejecting the milder sway of the English.”

Kashmir Purchased

When Gulab Singh purchased Kashmir, the first agitation he faced was from the shawlbaufs. Within days after he took over, Gulab took the Dag-e-Shawl to the next level. In the first decision, the Dogra ruler took over control over the Shali, the main produce and the staple food of the Valley. In the next, he exercised control over the handicrafts. Before the Treaty of Amritsar, the Sikhs were seeking three annas of tax for every rupee. Gulab Singh started levying Rs 96, a year, from almost 1000 shops each operating in Srinagar. Later, the tax went up to Rs 120.

Maharaja Gulab Singh

At the same time, the Maharaja’s government would seek Rs 47-8 Chilki rupee as the tax from every weaver.

Since the government was controlling the food, as per the arrangement that the despot had worked, the tax-collecting contractors – the Dag-e-Shawl department would supply part of the wages as food at the rates fixed by the government. The food supplies being extended to the weavers would never exceed eight kharwars (a kharwar is equivalent to 16 trakh or 80 kgs). This was completely inadequate for the weaver’s family. It eventually was sort of collusion: the government was operating through the Karkhanadar, the employer of the weaver. The government would sell paddy to Karkhanadar and he would supply it to the weaver from whose earnings he would pay the government. It created situations where for a kharwar, the Karkhanadar would extract Rs 2 against the market rate of Rs 1.25!

The Agitation

It was on the basis of all these issues that the weavers stopped working on June 6, 1847, and decided to migrate to Punjab. They were almost 4000 in number. A top East India Company official was in Srinagar and he played a key role in managing that crisis. They had two offers – either permit them to migrate or change working conditions in Srinagar. Maharaja issued some instructions but these were not implemented by his officials. So, gradually the number of Karkahans fell from 7000 with 27000 weavers in 1846 to 6000 with 15000 weavers in 1847. As the looms witnessed a sort of exodus, the Maharaja enhanced the monthly wages of weavers by 1.5 anna.

But the larger situation did not change. The new master of Kashmir continued taxing every process that went into the making of the Shawl. Taxing would start with the purchase of the raw wool in Ladakh and continued with every step it changed hands till the final product was ready for sale. Besides, the government imposed Baj and Nuzrana, other taxes.

Dag-e-Shawl became a sophisticated exercise. The collections from the shawl business were outsourced to a contractor, usually a person known to the sovereign, who would employ a lot of people for assessment and collection and would have the right to involve the army if required. At one point in time, this department was run by not less than 200 people.

Saifuddin Records

The most credible record is that of Saifuddin Mirza, the man who would work for the Company as the Khufya Navis (he would write despatches about happenings for his masters and retain a copy in Srinagar) and report them about the happenings on a daily basis during the Dogra era. Later, his relative Qamaruddin succeeded him. This priceless treasure covering the events between 1846 and 1859 was discovered in 1960 and is protected. On July 17, 1860, Qamaruddin recorded, a weaver Sadiq Bhat, having “injured his thumb to escape oppression” and on March 7, 1858, another weaver, a resident of Kursu village applied “red hot iron on his body”.

History books suggest that the average tax yield from Shawls averaged seven lakh rupees a year between 1846 and 1869. At one point in time, the money that was raised from the Shawl taxing was more from the Shali, the other major taxed commodity in Kashmir. But in 1865, the government wanted the tax collector Raj Kak Dhar to pay Rs 12 lakh. By then the overall Shawl exports were around Rs 28 lakh a year and the French traders would come to Srinagar for purchases.

Raj Kak Dhar

Dhar was not an ordinary person. He was one of Gulab Singh’s key functionaries in Srinagar from the very start. He had inherited his influence from his father Birbal Dhar who had persuaded (the other player being the East India Company) Lahore Durbar to wrest Kashmir from the cruel Afghans. Once that happened in 1819, Birbal was the Chief Adviser to the Sikh governor, a position of power, the family retained for long.

A chromo-lithograph by William Simpson illustrates the return visit of Viceroy Lord Canning to Maharaja Ranbir Singh on March 9, 1860. It shows a shawl being offered to the visiting British leader. Maharaja is sitting next to the visiting Viceroy.

After the power shifted to the Jammu family, Rak Kak was a major Jagheerdhar and a major high official of the despot. “When Gulab Singh got the power in 1846 AD, he stayed in Kashmir for some time and in 1905b (1849) left Raj Kak Dhar in-charge of Kashmir and himself went to Jammu,” Dr Parveen Pandit has mentioned in her book Life and Conditions of The people of Kashmir (1846-1885). “This practice always continued; whenever the Dogra Maharajas remained outside Kashmir the administration was mainly conducted by the Governors. Raj Kak Dhar remained in office for six months and everyone, high and low was happy with him.”

Initially, he was overseeing revenue. It was during that tenure that in June 1847, the Company sent Lt Renell Taylor to investigate the complaints of cruelty against Gulab Singh, Dhar managed the open durbar for his master. The Englishmen had summoned the residents and asked them: “Are you happy with the Maharaja’s rule or not?”

Historian Hassan Khuihami has recorded: “Some of the people who were tutored by Pandit Raj Kak Dhar, shouted back “Yes, we are” and Taylor Sahib went back to India with a disgusted heart about the character of the people.”

While Dhar was a firm supporter of the Dogra misrule, historians have recorded that he did speak for the people, occasionally. The most credible record is that of Saifuddin Mirza.

“On November 17, 1849, Maharaja was in a fix about the chaotic conditions of Kashmir and Pandit Raj Kak Dhar (Officer-in-charge of the Department of Shawl) Darog-i-Shawl fearlessly admitted in the open court that the wretched condition of the people was due to the excessive demands and oppressive measures of the government and suggested to treat the people sympathetically,” Pandit is quoted in Mirza’s Roznamcha.

The assertion had its costs: Dhar was dismissed with an indemnity of Rs 8000. But that did not impact the status of the biggest collaborator. In 1852 when the administrative divisions of Kashmir were reorganised – increased from three to seven, Dhar would eventually head one of them. He remained one of the three governors of Kashmir in the absence of Gulab Singh till he died by dropsy. The two others were Mian Hethu Singh, one of Gulab’s illegitimate sons, and heir apparent Ranbir Singh. Dhar’s influence outlived Gulab Singh.

The Conflict

After Dhar bagged the contract as the Darogah Shawl, the head of the Dag-e-Shawl department, he is understood to have set up his office at Saraf Kadal. An increased demand led him to hike the levy from the weavers and the Karkhanadars. He would mobilise the troops to recover taxes. The floods and famine of 1833 had already broken the back of the industry as thousands had died and so many had fled to the plains for livelihood. The new demand triggered a crisis for the weavers.

Empress Eugenie wearing her Kashmir shawl

In 1865, Diwan Jawala Sahai, the Man Friday of Gulab Singh died. He was the person who is said to have offered a loan to Gulab Singh when the latter purchased Kashmir under the Treaty of Amritsar. This was the reason why, Gulab Singh had decreed that a member of the Jawala Sahai family had to be a minister in the government always. Kripa Ram, Sahai’s son, was already in the service of the ruling family. Early that year, he was appointed as Kashmir governor. Knowing that the new ruler was on his way, a delegation of around 1200 weavers went to Banihal and met him. Their pleas were simple: reduce the tax, permit them to have more Shali for their families and extend the paddy at market rates. Kripa Ram, also the official biographer of Gulab Singh, promised the weavers that they must see him once he formally takes over his responsibilities in Srinagar.

The weavers attempted at least twice to seek an audience but failed. The tensions were brewing as Darogah was seeking more money. One day they decided to come out in a procession and meet the governor.

The processions of that era were different and it was almost the same among Muslims and the Pandits. The Shawlbaufs came from different parts of the city and started moving towards Zaldagar. They made a wooden bier as if they had to carry a dead person for the last rites. As the bier was ready, they took the mock funeral in a protest and the slogans were simple: “Raj Kak is dead who will give him grave?” History records suggest the procession was a big one.

As the news reached Raj Kak, it unnerved him. He went to governor Kripa Ram and “wrongly reported to him that the protesters would attack his home”. The governor gave him a contingent of troops under the command of Colonel Bije Singh. They charged the procession and the weavers panicked and fled. They ran towards the Bridge of Haji Rather Bridge in Zaldagar to take refuge somewhere near where the medical college is now. But the culvert collapsed. They fell into the marshy stream and many drowned.

Later, 28 dead persons were recovered from the marsh. It is widely believed that almost a hundred protesters survived with injuries.

Follow Up

After the bodies were recovered, the weavers wanted to take them in a procession to the governor but the Kripa Ram ordered for quick burial and the protests were banned. In the next step, the Dogra government started identifying the people behind the unrest. There is no record of the number of arrests that took place.

Using historic reference, the scholars have mentioned the arrest of Rasool Sheikh, Ali Pal, Abdul Qadoos alias Qoodeh Lala and Sona Shah. They all are believed to have been arrested, tortured at Sherghari and later shifted to Bahu Fort and Ramnagar Jails in Jammu and heavily fined. Ali Pal and Lala have died of tuberculosis. Some weavers with marginal involvement in organising the first major labour unrest in history were arrested and detained in Habak wherefrom they were set free after torture and fine.

Dhobis, or washermen, wash shawls and clothes on the banks of the River Jelhim in Aali Kadal old city srinagar Monday January 02, 2017. Dhobis are traditional laundry workers who wash clothes by hand and dry them in the sun, an occupation, which has been in existence for generations

Interestingly, the colonial media in India did not give much importance to the historic development. “A Calcutta paper tells us that an outbreak has taken place among the shawl makers of Cashmere in consequence of the exactions of the Maharajah,” Allen’s Indian Mail recorded in its July 6, 1865 publication. “They struck work, and the military had to be called out, but, strange thing to relate regarding an Asiatic populace, the malcontents paraded the streets en masse, and burnt the chief pundit in effigy for his supposed share in the tax which was to add to their difficulties.”

The same issue (Vol 23, No 678) adds: “An upcountry paper adds: A letter from Cashmere, of a later date than that which we inserted in our last issue, tells us that the shawl manufacturers had settled down quietly and that the pundits were still in prison. The Maharajah shows no signs of moving from Jummoo.” This was the worst instance of recording history because no Pundit was jailed in the Zaldagar case. Instead, the protesters were jailed and even killed in custody.

The interesting part of the story is that Raj Kak Dhar died within six weeks after the weavers took out his mock funeral. He had no son. His daughter inherited the huge estate and history’s one of the most notorious Dhars’ was lost to history, forever.

Shawl Sheen Lost?

Delayed Corrections

The despots took their own time to respond to the crisis that had sent generations of weavers to their graves by induced starvation, enhanced taxation and by terror and torture. A trickle of corrections came, albeit too late. Showkat Ahmad Naik, in his pre-doctoral research Kashmir Economy under the Dogras, insists that once the ruler came to know of the “real intentions” of the weavers, a slew of measures were ordered.

By 1867, weavers were permitted to have 11 kharwars of Shali a year. In 1868, the despot remitted the tax by 11 chilkies. Three years later four annas per kharwar on the sale of paddy to the weavers were remitted. Naik has written that the Maharaja constituted a court within the Dag-e-Shawl set up for “taking care of the grievances of shawl weavers and to punish them for erroneous activity” and it has 50 sepoys attached to it. In the subsequent decade, most of the taxes were withdrawn. By then, however, the conflict in Europe had undone the Shawl demand. With the slight change in the working conditions in decades, they had to lament the loss of the market.

The freefall that the Zaldagar initiated has not halted even 150 years later. The artisans who work in the Shawl sector are far and few in between, and Kashmir lacks any substantial alternative to manage the ‘fake’ that Amritsar is still manufacturing. The tragedy is that the Kashmiri traders purchase and popularise the Amritsar fake shawl as the artisans are shifting out of a non-remunerative craft!


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