On 24 January 2017, 11 politicians in Jammu and Kashmir managed to pass a resolution in the 36-member J&K Legislative Council, urging the PDP-BJP coalition government to declare 23 September a public holiday in honour of the last king of the State, Maharaja Hari Singh, who was born on that date in 1895.
Expectedly, the resolution has sparked a political controversy. Some people even accused the National Conference, NC, currently in opposition in the State assembly, and which has eight members in the Legislative Council, of acquiescing to this controversial resolution. Because together with Congress, which has seven members, the two parties (NC and Congress) have a considerable presence in the Council. But on the day of the resolution, they remained absent and made it possible for the 11 members from the ruling coalition (which includes eight members of BJP) to pass it by a voice vote. Three members voted against it. Many of the PDP’s 11 members, of course including Hari Singh’s grandson Vikramadatiya Singh, supported the resolution. PDP MLC Firdous Ahmad Tak and the house leader, Naeem Akhtar joined the BJP members in praising Hari Singh’s contribution to J&K. But since the State already observes 28 public holidays in a year, further increase was not feasible, reasoned Naeem Akhtar. Now, the resolution is pending the approval of the cabinet, and, in the meantime, the two grandsons of Hari Singh have warned of an agitation if the resolution is not approved by the government.
Purpose of holidays?
Due to their engagement in the mundane chores of daily life, people tend to follow an individualistic course. So, holidays provide an occasion whereby they can reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. However, State can also use holidays to project a certain image of the nation, because holidays are instrumental in recreating the past in a selective way. Thus, holidays become a tool of nation-building. Many scholars (David Cressy 1994; Charles Turner 2006; Sripura Roy 2007; Laura Adams 2010) have worked on this theme. Ali Usman Qasmi (2017) uses the concept of calendar holidays to understand how national identity of Pakistan is formed, and he shows how “various identarian values, political considerations and social processes play an important part” in this process. This means deliberate selection of certain events and figures (who are accorded prestige eventually) and the willful neglect of others. The ultimate purpose is to foster what Zerubavel (1995) calls “the master commemorative narrative” which is used to channel a certain ideology and political message. But it can always be challenged or modified, as the Turkish administration did under the present president Recep Tayyib Erdogan by celebrating the Ottoman past, which was neglected by the Kemalists who took over from the Ottoman rulers.
In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the system of state holidays plays a function of reiterating its secular image, which means events and figures related to different religious communities are commemorated and thus ascribed solemnity.
But the question is: does Hari Singh deserve a state holiday in his name? And, why is this agenda being pushed by the Jammu-based groups? I will try to address these questions in turn.
Legacy of the Gulab Singh’s Dynasty Rule
Many historians say that Gulab Singh was an able military man but a shrewd, crafty intriguer, and his rule in general was characterised by exploitation of peasantry in all regions of his kingdom. His rule was also a period of economic and political repressions (Bazaz 1954; Rai 2004; Snedden 2015). From being a young sepoy in the Sikh Empire in 1809, he rose to become one of the influential generals in Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Durbar (1799-1849), because he could put down local rebellions and extract revenues, and knew how to advance his interests. He purchased the Kashmir Valley from the money he looted from the Sikh empire (Snedden 2015). Bawa Satinder Singh in his biography The Jammu Fox (1974) calls Gulab Singh a “veritable economic vampire.” For Christopher Snedden (2015 book), the British were convinced to handover the Kashmir Valley to Gulab Singh because “he was best placed to effectively control Kashmir and look after British interests there.”
As per the veteran communist and former NC leader Krishen Dev Sethi, it was Gulab Singh and his two brothers Suchet and Dhyan Singh who were instrumental in “crushing the resistance movement of Jammu for getting favours from the Lahore Darbar.” Gulab Singh had killed Mian Diddo, who was leading the anti-Durbar resistance movement, thus marking “the start of first of Gulab Singh’s many treasons with Jammu,” (Kashmir Life: 2 Feb 2017).
Finally, Sethi asks how can Gulab Singh and his kinsmen be heroes when they had formalised a shameful agreement which not only “affirm their loyalty to the Khalsa Sarkar and agreed to pay annual gifts,” but “also agreed to send girls to Lahore Darbar from Jammu.” Besides, Gulab Singh dynasty rule was not a Dogra rule, but a Jamwal-Rajput rule, i.e., a dominant caste rule. If these rulers exploited the Muslim peasantry and craftsmen, they didn’t spare the suppressed castes among Hindus either. Sethi cites certain Dogri poems and phrases which talk about the tyrannous rule of Gulab Singh and his kinsmen.
Gulab Singh’s successors Ranbir and Pratap didn’t do anything substantially progressive or emancipatory during their reign either. Ranbir is credited with introducing a juridical system Ranbir Penal Code RPC in 1870’s, but Pratap is held directly responsible for causing enormous loss of life during the 1877-79 famine in which, as per Sir Walter Lawrence (1895), only two-fifths survived of the total population in Kashmir (p.213). This tragic event birthed a Kashmiri proverb “Drag tsalih ta dagh tsali na!” (famine may leave, but the pain will never go away!).
The Role of The State Council in Reforms
Since the inception of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the colonial British government intervened many times to influence the State’s administrative decisions, largely based on its own strategic considerations. However, in 1889, the British Indian government, as a Paramount power, significantly restricted the sovereignty of Maharaja Pratap Singh by establishing the State Council (1889-1905) in Jammu and Kashmir, through which some very important reforms were started in key areas of education, land, roads and military. Maharaja Pratap Singh had no choice but to support the new measures because the Paramount power had put pressure on him (Zutshi 1986). It was the State Council who appointed Sir Walter Lawrence as the Settlement Commissioner, which initiated the earlier land reforms. And it was the State Council which set up the rules in 1891 and 1904 that ensured at least some kind of reservation for the natives in the state services. It was these initial reforms started by the State Council that Pratap and Hari Singh formalised later because the Paramount power directed them to do so.
It is important to point out that though British had strategic concerns in starting these reforms, but the Muslim subjects of the State welcomed the State Council. This is evident in the 1909 petition which a thirty-seven-member representatives of the Muslim community sent to the Private Secretary of the Viceroy: “No sooner the Kashmir Resudency [sic] was established here that the things took a turn for the better.” In the wake of the July 1931 killings by Hari Singh’s soldiers, the appointment of Glancy Commission was also a British colonial government intervention. So, one should keep in mind the British factor while talking about the reforms in the pre-1947 Jammu and Kashmir which are sometimes wrongly attributed to Hari Singh.
To be sure, Hari Singh, who became the ruler in Sep 1925, was relatively progressive, as he modernised his State and supported the State Council’s reform programmes. But to say he did not discriminate against any religious community is not factually correct. For example, in 1931, he allowed three political parties — Kashmiri Pandit Conference, the Hindu Sabha, and the Shirmoni Khalsa Darbar, but clearly left the majority Muslim population without an organised political party (Korbel 1954). As per the 1932 Glancy Commission report, there were only 718 Muslim teachers out of 2201 in the State. In 1931, only 2052 Muslims were employed in mid and high-rank state services out of 8683 and out of 355 gazetted posts, only 55 were held by Muslims. There were 5200 Hindu grain and pulses dealers as against 1091 Muslims. The State Arms Act allowed only Dogras and Rajputs to own fire arms. Though 73% population was dependent of agriculture, ownership of land was held by assamidars (landlords) and the de facto owner was the ruler.
There wasn’t much improvement in the socio-economic conditions of Muslims and Scheduled Castes even after a decade of Hari Singh’s reign. The 1941 census shows that out of a 4 million population, 77% were Muslims, but only 4% Muslims and 1.5% Scheduled Castes were literate. The total literacy rate was just around 7%. Freedom of press and freedom of assembly was highly restricted. For example, between 1943-44, Muslim-owned newspapers like Jamhoor, Itihaad and Al-Mujahid were banned, while as Hamdard (edited by Prem Nath Bazaz) was heavily fined (Durrani 2004).
The resignation of Prime Minister of the State Sir Albion Banerjee on 15 March 1929 was further indictment of a discriminatory system, which led Banerjee to say, “Jammu and Kashmir State is labouring under many disadvantages, with a large Muhammadan population absolutely illiterate, labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages and practically governed like dumb-driven cattle.”
The 1931 political upsurge provides a clear indication that Hari Singh administration was discriminatory. This fact also becomes evident in the Glancy Commission report of 1932, which recommended measures for the improvement of the Muslim community and non-interference in their religion.
It was the tumults of post-1931 which pressurised the Maharaja to appoint a Franchise Committee under Sir Barjor Dalal, which recommended a Legislative Assembly. Eventually, the 75-member Praja Sabha (People Assembly) was established under the Constitutional Act (22 April 1934) but it had only recommendatory powers as under section 3, the Maharaja “reserved in himself all of his pre-existing powers.” Moreover, 35 members were nominated by the Maharaja and only 8% population was eligible to vote, because one had to have $1500 worth of property and be literate to have voting rights. Women had no voting rights at all. Even though the Jammu and Kashmir Constitutional Act (Sep 1939) conceded certain privileges to Praja Sabha in theory, still Maharaja could overrule in almost all matters. For example, the High Court was not the final arbiter of the Constitution or the Praja Sabha had the right to discuss the State budget but couldn’t vote against it. This was the reason that the Supreme Court of India observed in 1952: “it [the 1939 Constitution] did not constitute even a partial surrender by His Highness of his sovereign rights in favour of the Praja Sabha.”
And yet, the most significant event that casts serious doubt about his secular credentials is his role in the horrific massacre of the Jammu Muslims in 1947. Over 200,000 Muslims were killed and driven out from the eastern Jammu province under his nose, altering the demographics in Jammu region: from 44% Muslims in 1941 to only 27% in 2011.
So, those who cite examples of his developmental projects need to answer this: can we measure a ruler’s legacy only by the narrow parameters of material development while ignoring the moral and ethical responsibilities which seem to have been willfully neglected by him during the critical moments of 1947? Moreover, why did Nehru admonish him in a letter for only talking about his dynasty’s rights while neglecting the rights of his subjects?
Political Economy of the Revisionist History
That Hari Singh’s heirs would try to build a positive image of their family rule is understandable. But this whole campaign can be seen from a political economy perspective also. Both brothers Ajatshatru and Vikramadatiya Singh hold significant positions of trustees in the influential Jammu and Kashmir Dharmath Trust, one of the largest religious managing bodies. Apart from a school and a research center, the Dharmath Trust controls over 175 temples (including Raghunath temple in Jammu and Kheer Bhawani in Kashmir). And annually, it generates millions of rupees.
The Dharmath Trust was liberally utilised by Maharaja Pratap Singh to fund the construction of numerous temples and religious ventures to recreate Banaras in Jammu. Till 1935, the Dharmath Trust was managed by the State government. However, in 1959, Hari Singh appointed his son Karan Singh as the sole trustee of the re-constituted Dharmath Council. Currently, the organisation is composed of Karan Singh as its Chairman Trustee, his two sons as trustees, while for a five-member council eminent members of Jammu society are appointed. The Singh brothers belong to a dominant caste in Jammu: Jamwal-Rajput. The Kashmiri Pandits have tried to challenge the hold of Rajput Jamwals over the Trust by filing a PIL in May 2012, urging the government to takeover the organisation. But the State government objected to it (Outlook, May 19, 2012). This has created acrimony between the two groups to the point that the president of the Dharmath Trust issued a veiled threat to Kashmiri Pandits in May 2015, “Attempts by a section of the Kashmiri Pandits who are living securely in the Dogra heartland to vilify Dr. Karan Singh and the Dharmarth Trust are highly condemnable and will be counterproductive for the community,” (U4UVoice, 6 May 2015).
So, it seems there is what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms as ‘social, cultural and economic capital’ is at stake here. For Hari Singh’s heirs and those related to them in class and caste, the Dharmath Trust and their lineage is an indispensable part of their capitals. To reproduce these capitals, a positive image of lineage is essential for legitimacy and wider respect. This movement to re-package Jamwal-Rajput monarchs as Dogra heroes is done by invoking Dogra pride, a strategy to make all sections of the Jammu society part of it, by framing the issue as “about the pride of Jammu region.” In this process, eliding the history of oppression against the Scheduled Castes and Muslims of Jammu.
This subtle imposition of dominant caste symbolisms and meanings obscure power relations in the Jammu society, because it is considered legitimate by other groups once “pride of Jammu region” is invoked. And all this is done through a process of what Bourdieu calls misrecognition: “The process whereby power relations are perceived not for what they objectively are but in a form which renders them legitimate in the eyes of the beholder.”
Since the early 2000’s, a kind of public relations campaign was started to resurrect the image of Jamwal-Rajput rulers, who remain largely unpopular in the history or at least unpopular among a large section of people in Jammu and Kashmir and beyond. During Mufti Sayeed’s first term as the Chief Minister, a Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair was set up in University of Jammu headed by a Chair Professor. Siddiq Wahid, former vice-chancellor of IUST and the former BJP member Prof Hari Om have served this position in turns. Reportedly, vice-chancellor of Jammu University Prof Amitabh Matoo (2002-2008) had “set a condition of quitting ‘active politics’ to Prof Hari Om before joining the Jammu University again on a two years’ contract for the prestigious Gulab Singh chair” (Twocircles.net: 22 August 2007). In Sep 2006, senior NCP leader from Jammu, Thakur Randhir Singh, asked for Maharaja Hari Singh Chair in Jammu University and a chapter in history textbooks to highlight the “glorious achievements” of the last monarch which had been, as per Ranbhir Singh, conspiratorially hidden (Greater Kashmir: 26 Sep 2006). In October 2009, a commemorative postage stamp on Maharaja Gulab Singh was released by Indian Postal Services. Ironically, Gulab and Ranbir Singh were staunch British allies during British colonisation of the sub-continent. The initial successes of this PR campaign led Manu Khajuria write in 2015,: “Though most historians have wronged Maharaja Hari Singh, more have now arisen to counter it, not in an attempt to seek a consensus, but because they believe that there are two sides to every story,” (Daily O, 21 Sep 2015). In her column, Manu tried to portray a distinctly favourable image of Hari Singh, showing him as a progressive, secular, and visionary king. But, since her column was more of a hagiography, it was obviously self-defeating. But ultimately, the 2016 resolution was initiated by Hari Singh’s 51-year-old grandson Ajatshatru Singh, who is a BJP-nominated Member of J&K Legislative Council. Ironically, he had served as a minister of state in the National Conference government (1996-2002) before joining BJP in November 2015. While his elder brother and hotelier, Vikramadatiya Singh, is a member of PDP since August 2015.
National Conference’s Devender Singh Rana supported the resolution of declaring Hari Singh’s birthday as a state holiday and may have also played a role in convincing his party members to let the resolution pass. And it won’t be unreasonable to speculate that Vikramadatiya Singh’s presence in PDP was a strategic move to lobby for this latest resolution. If that was the intention, then Rajput-Jamwal’s have achieved the first step. Fortuitously, in Mehbooba Mufti they are likely to find a willing partner to fulfill their plan, probably subject to a quid pro quo.
But, if the J&K cabinet ultimately announces 23 September as a state holiday, would it mean that Hari Singh embodies principles and values that people in Jammu and Kashmir commonly share? Would it mean they share the same understanding of history as far as Hari Singh’s rule is concerned? If not, then a reasonable solution, to avoid an imminent agitation from Jammu, would be to make it a restricted holiday, confined to Jammu region only. It would be hypocritical and an anti-thesis to the State’s own narrative to have a state holiday on 23 Sep following the state holiday on 13 July commemorating those who were killed by the Hari Singh administration on 13 July 1931.
Muhammad Tahir is a Ph.D researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland
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