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March 16: The Blackest Day in Kashmir History

A William Carpenter lithochromograph showing Gulab Singh with his son in 1855. Photo: Kashmir Life

By Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja

The 16th of March is the blackest day for all Kashmiris. On this day in 1846, Kashmir and Kashmiris were sold to Raja Gulab Singh, whom Lord Hardinge called ‘the greatest rascal of Asia’ by a nation – Britain – which Napoleon called ‘the country of shopkeepers’. Ironically, this sordid sale of the transaction was erroneously termed as ‘The Treaty of Amritsar’. As soon as this ‘fateful 16th day of March’ passed, the Dogra Raja, along with what Robert Thorp calls ‘his fanatic ministers and rapacious officials’, ushered in a reign of terror in the valley. Taxes were levied exorbitantly and almost everything other than air and water (to quote Walter Lawrence) was taxed. It was no surprise for the ruler to give Kashmiri Muslims, who happened to be around 93% of the population according to Lawrence, the treatment of the “Other”. It may be because the Dogra Raja considered Kashmir a purchased property, unlike the Jammu region which Raja Gulab Singh had acquired as a jagir from Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1820. Subsequently, for a century, the life of Kashmiris was ironically under the dual imperialism of the British and the Dogras that of derivation, pain, and suffering. The European travel accounts of this period call it ‘horrible’.

Irony died a thousand deaths as this infamous transaction (in which the whole Kashmir was sold for 75 lakh nanak shahi rupees) was given the color of a ‘treaty’ by the people, who are known to the world for their liberalism, democratic values, fair play, and sense of justice; who had abolished tyrannical and despotic monarchies in their own homeland and established in their place a democratic political system, making Great Britain the mother of parliamentary democracy. It was the same nation, which gloated over its democratic credentials and ‘white man’s burden’, handed over Kashmir to a tyrannical, despotic chieftain in lieu of some cash.

The non-native Dogras worked overtime to inflict pain upon Muslims and make them feel so. So long as Kashmiris remained under the domination of Dogras, they had never been better than slaves. The Dogra fiefdom often invoked the ‘treaty’ to establish their legitimacy and assert their control over ‘everything’ written in the deal. Here ‘everything’ includes de jure and de facto ownership of self-esteem, happiness, life, liberty, and identity of its inhabitants. Through this shoddy sell-out, they devised a plan to take revenge on every Kashmiri Muslim – dead, living, and yet to born. The 16th March treaty is historically significant because it pushed Muslims of the state to the limits of marginality to ensure that they are not resuscitated as an independent entity. It permanently changed the socio-psychological, demographic, and economic profile of the state. It spelt an unsurprising turnaround of economic and political fortunes for the Dogras and their co-religionist Pandits, shifting of demographic statistics to their favour in Jammu region and dehumanized Muslims in the most painful manner.

The faithful successors of the Dogras are pleased to make it impossible for Muslims to escape from the imposed marginality of highest order unleashed by the treaty. On a daily basis, the psychological wounds left open aren’t allowed to heal; they’re scratched, so that scars are made permanent and sensibilities trampled. Be it the shrill reminder of 1947 Jammu massacre (read genocide) by Dogra forces or the BJP state legislator Chowdhary Lal Singh’s public support to the rapist of 8-year-old poor nomad girl, Asifa, or the mood to declare Hari Singh’s birthday a state holiday, March 16th behaves like an intimidating djinn that fails exorcism. A whole generation of Kashmiri Muslims would prefer to ignore the bitter past graciously and begin to rework together. In Europe, after the death and destruction, nationalities buried their difference and evolved a consensus on embracing ethnic and religious diversities within the territorial boundaries. In our case, the attempts to build consensus among two parts of the same state divided more by history than geography – Hindus in Jammu and Muslims in Kashmir – are frustrated by religious fanatics, Islamophobes, racial supremacists, and the deep state in India, who live on this harvest of hatred and division. This is the sinister way in which they make the treaty a living experience. They abort our attempts to undo some bitter history and fail us to evolve a national consensus that does not have roots in Indian tradition. Ordinary Kashmiris have become alien to themselves and this self-estrangement leaves them bewildered about their identity and future. As Kashmir mourned the 172nd year of its slavery on 16 March this year, the unresolved question still pleads for attention: had Kashmir not been sold in 1846, would it have been resold in 1947?

Bio:
Mohammad Ashraf Khwaja
is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre of Advanced Study in History at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, India. He can be reached at sahibkhawaja@gmail.com

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