Shawl Weaver's Revolt: Tryst with destiny

Shawl Weaver's Revolt: Tryst with destiny

April 29 is an important date of our history that should never be forgotten

"A nation that forgets history will have no future" – B. Sheik Ali

Nations under occupation usually wake up from the slumber (in most of the cases it’s the system enforced slumber) through political agitations and protests. The occupier may be able to crush the agitation but the spark remains there which continues to kindle for times to come. One such incident of our modern history is Shawl Weaver’s uprising of 29th April 1865, popularly known as Shawl Baaf Tehreek.

In 18th and 19th century shawl industry was the biggest industry of our state in terms of income generation as well as employment generation. As per Justice Mohd Yousuf Yousuf Saraf, "27000 weavers were employed in the shawl industry in the working of 11000 looms." (Kashmiris Fight for freedom -Vol 1-P 290)

Dogras had "purchased" Kashmir and its people from Britishers through a notorious deal “Treaty of Amritsar" in lieu of seventy five lakhs of nanak shahi siccas(rupees). So for them Kashmir was nothing more than a business deal, hence never merited a humane response! And their only concern was to impose more and more taxes so that revenues of the state can be increased substantially and in this way first they could recover the "principal amount invested" and thereafter start getting returns on their "investment".

Zahir ud din, noted journalist and author in his book, Bouquet, writes, "Gulab Singh imposed an annual tax of Rs 47/ on each weaver and issued strict orders restraining them from abandoning their looms unless a substitute was in place. As if this was not enough that the tyrant regime imposed 25% duty on each shawl. The shawls then were sold at prices ranging from Rs 150/ to Rs 5000. In late 1847, Kashmiri’s karkhandars (shawl factory owners) asked for a reduction in taxes, fixed wages for artisans and codified laws for the shawl industry. However their demands were not met". (Bouquet-P188)

Taxation pressure continued unabated on the industry. As per economic historian D.N Dhar, exports of shawls ranged between 2.5million to 2.8 million rupees annually (figures taken from Zahir ud din’s book).

Once Gulab Singh passed away and Ranbir Singh took the reins of government in hands, shawl weavers again started hoping against the hope for better days. But he proved a bigger tyrant than his father. He set up a department for shawl industry which was called Dagshawl department. This department was given the "project" to raise 12 lakh rupees annually from the trade. Justice Yousuf Saraf writes that Pandit Raj Kak Dhar acquired this department on contract. He was asked to submit Rs 12 lakhs in the treasury. Rest he had every sort of freedom to exploit the poor weavers and nobody was there to question his brutality and exploitation. As per Justice Yousuf Saraf, "That left him completely free to realise it through rates arbitrarily fixed and recover the same in any manner and by any method. Dogra army was always at his disposal.” (Kashmiris fight for freedom – P 291). Each weaver had to pay him (Raj Kak Dhar) Rs 49 annually, not to speak of illegal cess extracted by the department. At the same time, the weaver didn’t have the choice to change his employer.

Justice Yousuf Saraf in his book quotes Bamzai and this single paragraph speaks about both the brutality of Dogra Raj and helplessness of poor weavers. “The result was that after working from morning to night a shawl weaver could get no more than 4 annas in wages per day. A weaver could thus earn 7 or 8 rupees per month out of which he paid Rs 5 in tax which left him 3 rupees to live on. The lazy and sickly weavers could not pay the tax and thus became a debtor of the government.” (Bamzai-P 614).

This economic drain of Kashmiris by Dogra Raj was leading to their starvation. So a delegation of weavers met Wazir at Qazigund and apprised him about their difficulties. But no steps were taken by government. Another deputation tried to meet Diwan Kripa Ram but on the advice of Pandit Raj Kak Dhar he refused to meet them. This enraged the whole community of weavers and they decided to start one final fight for their rights. And the date that was chosen for this historic uprising was 29th April 1865. On this day, led by Shiekh Rasool and Abli Baba, the weavers and their Khandwaaws (apprentices) marched through the streets of Srinagar city towards the palace of Kripa Ram, Governor of Kashmir (Zahir u din).

Mohammad Sultan Pampori writes about the event: "The weavers from all parts of the city marched in a procession towards Zaldagar. They raised slogans and burnt effigy of Pandit Raj Kak Dhar, the "Daroga" (officer commanding) of Shawl department." (Kashmir in chains – P 55)

In the meantime, Raj Kak Dhar "explained" to Diwan Kripa Ram that the processionists wanted to kill him. Hearing this Kripa Ram decided to teach these agitators a "lesson". He sent a large force under Col Bijoy Singh to disperse and crush the agitation. Bijoy Singh and his troops pushed the people towards narrow Haji Rather Bridge (Zaldagar Bridge). And then began the massacre of poor Kashmiris. Army opened fire on processionists. Finding no escape route, hunderds jumped into Dal Lake. As a result 28 people died and dozens others were seriously injured.

This sent ripples across the Muslim community of city. They also joined the agitating weavers. Justice Saraf writes, "On the next day the victims were paraded in a procession with the declared intention of placing them before Ranbir Singh to seek justice. They were stopped in the way and forced to bury the dead without being provided an opportunity of representing their grievances to their ruler. The organisers were arrested, some of whom were released after whipping, torture and fines. Among those removed to Jammu and imprisoned there, Rasool Sheikh, Ali Pal, Abdul Qadoos alias Qoodeh Lala and Sona Shah died in prison". ( Kashmiris fight for freedom -P 291).

As per Robert Thorpe, Ranbir Singh had ordered his soldiers to deal severely with the "rebels". He "wished" that dead bodies should be buried secretly lest the world gets to know about this massacre. (From his book, Kashmir Mis-government).

About Qoodeh Lala and Sona Shah (who were among the leaders of weavers), Zahir u din writes, "Qoodeh Lala and Sona Shah were imprisoned in the Bahu Fort of Jammu after they failed to pay a fine of Rs 50000 each to the government. Hundereds of others protesters were held in prison at Habak, where many died of cold and hunger." (Bouquet -P 190).

The naked brutality on the part of Dogra Raj enraged entire Muslim Community of Valley. They were suppressed hence couldn’t express their anguish and resentment. But government knew that lava against them was building up among the masses. So they wanted to divert this anger and break this newly established unity of Kashmiri Musalmans. And the card they used and played at that time was Shia-Sunni "strife". About this "plan", Justice Saraf writes, "This tragic incident was soon followed by a clash between weavers and their employers. It was a coincidence that the employers happened, mostly, to be Shias while the weavers were Sunnis. Pandit Raj kak and his associates successfully channelled it into a ‘sectarian’ strife to divide Muslims into two hostile religious camps so that instead of directing their joint efforts and energies against his excesses, these could fritter away in mutual recriminations. Unfortunately they did, in some measure, succeed for a short time but ultimately the Muslims were able to see through the game". (Kashmiris fight for freedom-P 291-292).

This was how the first modern peaceful political movement of Kashmiri Muslims started and was finally crushed. But it had played its part. The spark had been kindled, it rose into flames and within few decades a full-fledged political movement emerged on the political landscape of the state which finally crushed the Dogra Raj under its weight. But unfortunately the short sightedness of "our" leaders landed us into the cycle of another repression, where only the names changed but not the system of injustice and subjugation.

Unfortunately this important date of our history has been forgotten or rather we have been made to forget it. Our leadership which boasts about leading us from the front has failed to document the saga of these sacrifices. Whatever efforts have been  made for documenting this important event have been on the part of some individuals while as leadership has shown cold response towards all such efforts. It’s time for them to stand up and move beyond rhetoric and their "normal" routines. Need is to record every single event of our glorious resistance movement. And this particular event is no less than a shining star of our resistance against autocratic Dogras. It’s our May Day. It’s the day on which Kashmiri Working class started its struggle against the atrocities of Dogras with new vigor and energy. It’s the day on which Kashmiri Muslims made their tryst with destiny. Let every effort be made to document our sacrifices so that in this struggle of hegemony against oppression, the oppressed have an upper hand over the oppressor – morally, ethically and historically.