First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, Oct 29 2006
and The Statesman Oct 30 2006, Editorial Page Special Article.
At the advent of Islam in distant Arabia, India and Kashmir in particular were being visited by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims during Harsha’s reign. The great “Master of Law” Hiuen Tsiang visited between 629-645 and spent 631-633 in Kashmir (“Kia-chi-mi-lo”), describing it to include Punjab, Kabul and Kandahar. Over the next dozen centuries, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and again Hindu monarchs came to rule the 85 mile long 40 mile wide territory on the River Jhelum’s upper course known as Srinagar Valley, as well as its adjoining Jammu in the upper plains of the Punjab and “Little Tibet” consisting of Laddakh, Baltistan and Gilgit.
In 1344, a Persian adventurer from Swat or Khorasan by name of Amir or Mirza, who had “found his way into the Valley and in time gained great influence at the Raja’s court”, proclaimed himself Sultan Shamsuddin after the death of the last Hindu monarchs of medieval Kashmir. Twelve of his descendants formed the Shamiri dynasty including the notorious Sikander and the just and tolerant Zainulabidin. Sikander who ruled 1386-1410 “submitted himself” to the Uzbek Taimur the Lame when he approached Kashmir in 1398 “and thus saved the country from invasion”. Otherwise, “Sikander was a gloomy ferocious bigot, and his zeal in destroying temples and idols was so intense that he is remembered as the Idol-Breaker. He freely used the sword to propagate Islam and succeeded in forcing the bulk of the population to conform outwardly to the Muslim religion. Most of the Brahmins refused to apostatise, and many of them paid with their lives the penalty for their steadfastness. Many others were exiled, and only a few conformed.”
Zainulabidin who ruled 1417-1467 “was a man of very different type”. “He adopted the policy of universal toleration, recalled the exiled Brahmins, repealed the jizya or poll-tax on Hindus, and even permitted new temples to be built. He abstained from eating flesh, prohibited the slaughter of kine, and was justly venerated as a saint. He encouraged literature, painting and music, and caused many translations to be made of works composed in Sanskrit, Arabic and other languages.” During his “long and prosperous reign”, he “constructed canals and built many mosques; he was just and tolerant”.
The Shamiri dynasty ended in 1541 when “some fugitive chiefs of the two local factions of the Makri and the Chakk invited Mirza Haidar Dughlat, a relation of Babar, to invade Kashmir. The country was conquered and the Mirza held it (nominally in name of Humayan) till 1551, when he was killed in a skirmish. The line… was restored for a few years, until in 1559 a Chakk leader, Ghazi Shah, usurped the throne; and in the possession of his descendants it remained for nearly thirty years.” This dynasty marks the origins of Shia Islam in Srinagar though Shia influence in Gilgit, Baltistan and Laddakh was of longer standing. Constant dissensions weakened the Chakks, and in 1586, Akbar, then at Attock on the Indus, sent an army under Raja Bhagwan Das into Srinagar Valley and easily made it part of his Empire.
Shivaism and Islam both flourished, and Hindu ascetics and Sufi saints were revered by all. Far from Muslims and Hindus forming distinct nations, here they were genetically related kinsmen living in proximity in a small isolated area for centuries. Indeed Zainulabidin may have had a vast unspoken influence on the history of all India insofar as Akbar sought to attempt in his empire what Zainulabidin achieved in the Valley. Like Zainulabidin, Akbar’s governance of India had as its “constant aim” “to conciliate the Hindus and to repress Muslim bigotry” which in modern political parlance may be seen as the principle of secular governance ~ of conciliating the powerless (whether majority or minority) and repressing the bigotry of the powerful (whether minority or majority). Akbar had made the Valley the summer residence of the Mughals, and it was Jahangir, seeing the Valley for the first time, who apparently said the words agar behest baushad, hamee in hast, hamee in hast, hamee in hast: “if Heaven exists, it is here, it is here, it is here”. Yet like other isolated paradises (such as the idyllic islands of the Pacific Ocean) an accursed mental ether can accompany the magnificent beauty of people’s surroundings. As the historian put it: “The Kashmiris remained secure in their inaccessible Valley; but they were given up to internal weakness and discord, their political importance was gone…”
After the Mughals collapsed, Iran’s Turkish ruler Nadir Shah sacked Delhi in 1739 but the Iranian court fell in disarray upon his death. In 1747 a jirga of Pashtun tribes at Kandahar “broke normal tradition” and asked an old Punjabi holy man and shrine-keeper to choose between two leaders; this man placed young wheat in the hand of the 25 year old Ahmed Shah Saddozai of the Abdali tribe, and titled him “Durrani”. Five years later, Durrani took Kashmir and for the next 67 years the Valley was under Pashtun rule, a time of “unmitigated brutality and widespread distress”. Durrani himself “was wise, prudent and simple”, never declared himself king and wore no crown, instead keeping a stick of young wheat in his turban. Leaving India, he famously recited: “The Delhi throne is beautiful indeed, but does it compare with the mountains of Kandahar?”
Kashmir’s modern history begins with Ranjit Singh of the Sikhs who became a soldier at 12, and in 1799 at age 19 was made Lahore’s Governor by Kabul’s Zaman Shah. Three years later “he made himself master of Amritsar”, and in 1806 crossed the River Sutlej and took Ludhiana. He created a fine Sikh infantry and cavalry under former officers of Napoleon, and with 80,000 trained men and 500 guns took Multan and Peshawar, defeated the Pashtuns and overran Kashmir in 1819. The “cruel rule” of the Pashtuns ended “to the great relief of Kashmir’s inhabitants”.
The British Governor-General Minto (ancestor of the later Viceroy), seeing advantage in the Sikhs staying north of the Sutlej, sent Charles Metcalfe, “a clever young civilian”, to persuade the Khalsa; in 1809, Ranjit Singh and the British in the first Treaty of Amritsar agreed to establish “perpetual amity”: the British would “have no concern” north of the Sutlej and Ranjit Singh would keep only minor personnel south of it. In 1834 and 1838 Ranjit Singh was struck by paralysis and died in 1839, leaving no competent heir. The Sikh polity collapsed, “their power exploded, disappearing in fierce but fast flames”. It was “a period of storm and anarchy in which assassination was the rule” and the legitimate line of his son and grandson, Kharak Singh and Nao Nihal Singh was quickly extinguished. In 1845 the Queen Regent, mother of the five-year old Dalip Singh, agreed to the Khalsa ending the 1809 Treaty. After bitter battles that might have gone either way, the Khalsa lost at Sobraon on 10 February 1846, and accepted terms of surrender in the 9 March 1846 Treaty of Lahore. The kingdom had not long survived its founder: “created by the military and administrative genius of one man, it crumbled into powder when the spirit which gave it life was withdrawn; and the inheritance of the Khalsa passed into the hands of the English.”
Ranjit Singh’s influence on modern J&K was even greater through his having mentored the Rajput Gulab Singh Dogra (1792-1857) and his brothers Dhyan Singh and Suchet Singh. Jammu had been ruled by Ranjit Deo until 1780 when the Sikhs made it tributary to the Lahore Court. Gulab Singh, a great grand nephew of Ranjit Deo, had left home at age 17 in search of a soldierly fortune, and ended up in 1809 in Ranjit Singh’s army, just when Ranjit Singh had acquired for himself a free hand to expand his domains north of the River Sutlej.
Gulab Singh, an intrepid soldier, by 1820 had Jammu conferred upon him by Ranjit Singh with the title of Raja, while Bhimber, Chibal, Poonch and Ramnagar went to his brothers. Gulab Singh, “often unscrupulous and cruel, was a man of considerable ability and efficiency”; he “found his small kingdom a troublesome charge but after ten years of constant struggles he and his two brothers became masters of most of the country between Kashmir and the Punjab”, though Srinagar Valley itself remained under a separate Governor appointed by the Lahore Court. Gulab Singh extended Jammu’s rule from Rawalpindi, Bhimber, Rajouri, Bhadarwah and Kishtwar, across Laddakh and into Tibet. His General Zorawar Singh led six expeditions into Laddakh between 1834 and 1841 through Kishtwar, Padar and Zanskar. In May 1841, Zorawar left Leh with an army of 5000 Dogras and Laddakhis and advanced on Tibet. Defeating the Tibetans at Rudok and Tashigong, he reached Minsar near Lake Mansarovar from where he advanced to Taklakot (Purang), 15 miles from the borders of Nepal and Kumaon, and built a fort stopping for the winter. Lhasa sent large re-inforcements to meet him. Zorawar, deciding to take the offensive, was killed in the Battle of Toyu, on 11-12 December 1841 at 16,000 feet.
A Laddakhi rebellion resulted against Jammu, aided now by the advancing Tibetans. A new army was sent under Hari Chand suppressing the rebellion and throwing back the Tibetans, leading to a peace treaty between Lhasa and Jammu signed on 17 September 1842: “We have agreed that we have no ill-feelings because of the past war. The two kings will henceforth remain friends forever. The relationship between Maharajah Gulab Singh of Kashmir and the Lama Guru of Lhasa (Dalai Lama) is now established. The Maharajah Sahib, with God (Kunchok) as his witness, promises to recognise ancient boundaries, which should be looked after by each side without resorting to warfare. When the descendants of the early kings, who fled from Laddakh to Tibet, now return they will not be stopped by Shri Maharajah. Trade between Laddakh and Tibet will continue as usual. Tibetan government traders coming into Laddakh will receive free transport and accommodations as before, and the Laddakhi envoy will, in turn, receive the same facilities in Lhasa. The Laddakhis take an oath before God (Kunchok) that they will not intrigue or create new troubles in Tibetan territory. We have agreed, with God as witness, that Shri Maharajah Sahib and the Lama Guru of Lhasa will live together as members of the same household.” The traditional boundary between Laddakh and Tibet “as recognised by both sides since olden times” was accepted by the envoys of Gulab Singh and the Dalai Lama.
An earlier 1684 treaty between Laddakh and Lhasa had said that while Laddakh would send tribute to Lhasa every three years, “the king of Laddakh reserves to himself the village of Minsar in Ngarees-khor-sum, that he may be independent there; and he sets aside its revenue for the purpose of meeting the expense involved in keeping up the sacrificial lights at Kangree (Kailas), and the Holy Lakes of Mansarovar and Rakas Tal”. The area around Minsar village near Lake Mansarovar, held by the rulers of Laddakh since 1583, was retained by Jammu in the 1842 peace-treaty, and its revenue was received by J&K State until 1948.
After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, Gulab Singh was alienated from the Lahore Court where the rise of his brothers and a nephew aroused enough Khalsa jealousy to see them assassinated in palace intrigues. While the Sikhs imploded, Gulab Singh had expanded his own dominion from Rawalpindi to Minsar ~ everywhere except Srinagar Valley itself. He had apparently advised the Sikhs not to attack the British in breach of the 1809 Treaty, and when they did so he had not joined them, though had he done so British power in North India might have been broken. The British were grateful for his neutrality and also his help in their first misbegotten adventure in Afghanistan. It was Gulab Singh who was now encouraged by both the British and the Sikhs to mediate between them, indeed “to take a leading part in arranging conditions of peace”, and he formally represented the Sikh regency in the negotiations. The 9 March 1846 Treaty of Lahore “set forth that the British Government having demanded in addition to a certain assignment of territory, a payment of a crore and a half of rupees, and the Sikh Government being unable to pay the whole”, Dalip Singh “should cede as equivalent to one crore the hill country belonging to the Punjab between the Beas and the Indus including Kashmir and the Hazara”.
For the British to occupy the whole of this mountainous territory was judged unwise on economic and military grounds; it was not feasible to occupy from a military standpoint and the area “with the exception of the small Valley of Kashmir” was “for the most part unproductive”. “On the other hand, the ceded tracts comprised the whole of the hereditary possessions of Gulab Singh, who, being eager to obtain an indefeasible title to them, came forward and offered to pay the war indemnity on condition that he was made the independent ruler of Jammu & Kashmir.
A separate treaty embodying this arrangement was thus concluded between the British and Gulab Singh at Amritsar on 16 March 1846.” Gulab Singh acknowledged the British Government’s supremacy, and in token of it agreed to present annually to the British Government “one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed and three pairs of Kashmir shawls. This arrangement was later altered; the annual presentation made by the Kashmir State was confined to two Kashmir shawls and three romals (handkerchiefs).” The Treaty of Amritsar “put Gulab Singh, as Maharaja, in possession of all the hill country between the Indus and the Ravi, including Kashmir, Jammu, Laddakh and Gilgit; but excluding Lahoul, Kulu and some areas including Chamba which for strategic purposes, it was considered advisable (by the British) to retain and for which a remission of Rs 25 lakhs was made from the crore demanded, leaving Rs 75 lakhs as the final amount to be paid by Gulab Singh.” The British retained Hazara which in 1918 was included into NWFP. Through an intrigue emanating from Prime Minister Lal Singh in Lahore, Imamuddin, the last Sikh-appointed Governor of Kashmir, sought to prevent Gulab Singh taking possession of the Valley in accordance with the Treaty’s terms. By December 1846 Gulab Singh had done so, though only with help of a British force which included 17,000 Sikh troops “who had been fighting in the campaign just concluded”. (Contemporary British opinion even predicted Sikhism like Buddhism “would become extinct in a short time if it were not kept alive by the esprit de corps of the Sikh regiments”.)
The British in 1846 may have been glad enough to allow Gulab Singh take independent charge of the new entity that came to be now known as the “State of Jammu & Kashmir”. Later, however. they and their American allies would grow keen to control or influence the region vis-à-vis their new interests against the Russian and Soviet Empires.
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