Travelling through time and space through someone else’s narrative can at times be more meaningful than a physical journey. Ajaz A Baba revisits a book on Kashmir published 135 years ago and looks through the eyes of the book’s author at the tragedies and travails Kashmiris have suffered
It so happens at times that a writer’s own life story becomes more interesting than his work. Robert Thorpe, author of Cashmere Misgovernment, sits perfectly in this example. Indeed Thorpe’s short life of 30 years, terminated in a brutal manner as it was, has all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy. It starts with romance and ends with violent death possibly due to poisoning or strangulation.
In the 1830s when Kashmir was under Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s rule, Robert Thorpe’s father, a British army colonel, was vacationing in Kashmir where he got enamored to a local girl Jana. The romance culminated in marriage. The colonel took his Kashmiri bride to England where she gave birth to three children. Of these it was Robert Thorpe, born in 1833 in England, who followed his father’s footsteps to India as a lieutenant of the British army. Subsequently, he travelled to Kashmir to tread the hills and dales of his mother’s native land.
It was 1867 and Kashmir in the meantime had gone from the tyranny of Sikh rule to a far worse state of slavery. The entire country of Jammu and Kashmir, as it existed then, was sold by the British for seventy-five thousand Nanak Shahi rupees to a former general of Ranjit Singh and a rapacious turncoat of the Dogra dynasty Gulab Singh.
Robert Thorpe sought to bring to light the miseries of his mother’s native land. That naturally irked the Dogra rulers leading to his deportation.
Thorpe somehow managed to return to Kashmir where he was found dead under mysterious circumstances on 22nd November 1868, possibly murdered by poisoning or strangulation by Maharajah Ranbir Singh’s men. Thorpe lies buried at the Christian cemetery at Shiekhbagh, Srinagar. The epitaph reads: He gave his life for Kashmir and VERITAS’ (Latin for ‘truth’).
The picture that arises out of Thorpe’s book is one of rapacious plunder. The people of Kashmir are helpless serfs who eke out a bare subsistence out of the abundance produced by their land, most of the produce being taken by the rulers
There are people who reject the glorification of Robert Thorpe as a hero who died for the love of Kashmiri people, his kinsmen on the maternal side. They contend that he was merely a British agent who sought to provide Britain an excuse to violate its treaty with the Dogra rulers of Kashmir. Nobody however challenges the veracity of his documentation on the miseries the Dogra rulers inflicted on Kashmiris.
Interestingly, the British authorities did not inquire into the suspicious circumstances of Thorpe’s death. Maharajah Ranbir Singh had loyally served the British during the 1857 uprising in India against British rule. He had personally taken part in the British military operation to suppress the revolt in addition to supplying men and money for the campaign.
Whatever the intentions behind Thorpe’s efforts to document the misery of Kashmiris and the cruelty of the rulers, his Cashmere Misgovernment published posthumously by Longmans, Green and Company, London in 1868, remains a stark account of life in Kashmir under the Dogras. At mere 80 pages, Cashmere Misgovernment is a pretty slim volume, more of a booklet than a book, yet the carefully researched facts that it is packed with give an accurate picture of the sufferings of the people under the tyranny of the Dogra rulers.
Robert Thorpe does not make wild accusations. He substantiates his arguments with relevant facts and cogent statistics about the social, political and economic exploitation of the oppressed Kashmiri masses by the rulers. Moreover, the case against the oppressive regime is not made on the basis of hearsay. It is based on his observations and interactions with the people of Kashmir. He openly invites people to visit the place to verify the truth of his observations. “There is only one question to be asked and answered, with regard to the work, and that is, ‘Are the statements herein contained concerning the Jammo Government true or untrue?’. And there is only one method by which that question can be answered, namely, by the course which I have myself pursued, of strict and laborious investigation in Cashmere itself.”
The picture that arises out of Thorpe’s book is one of rapacious plunder. The people of Kashmir are helpless serfs who eke out a bare subsistence out of the abundance produced by their land, most of the produce being taken by the rulers. Everything was taxed–the crops, sheep, goats, cows, fruits, the cloth woven by people for their own use–and the zamindar who ultimately ends up with less than one third of what he produces.
The Dogra kings ruled the vale from a distance through a governor and different officials whose main job was to collect the land produce and taxes from the people. In villages this official machinery included the tehsildar, thanedar, kardar, patwaree, mokuddum, surgowl, shudur, tarougdar, hurkara, doom, etc. These officials too got their own share in legally laid down amounts out of the zamindar’s portion after the government took away its share. “It is highly probable that exactions are made in excess of the legal amounts…,” Thorpe writes in his book. The system promoted an institutionalized form of corruption particularly as the natives of Kashmir had no one to turn to for justice.
Another example of the tyranny of the Dogra regime brought forth by Thorpe is, as he puts it, “….the prevention of all trade and barter between the people of the towns and the people of the villages…two large classes, with different wants….” This deprived the city folk of the produce from the villages and the villager from the necessities the city could supply. It also resulted in a situation sometimes where “there were people in Srinagar…with money in their pockets, in a state of semi-starvation…” because the zamindars had no surplus to sell them and the government stores chose to withhold supplies.
Shawl weaving at that time was a source of livelihood to a large number of people in Kashmir. The condition of people working in this sector was even worse. They were heavily taxed and strictly monitored by dagshali, the government office set up for the purpose. The loom weavers, shawl-bafs, and their families lived a life of semi-starvation. “The most detestable piece of oppression against the shawl-bafs is, however, this–that none of them are permitted to relinquish their employment without finding a substitute which, of course, is almost always impossible… The shawl-baf may become half blind, as many of them do from the nature of the work; he may contract other diseases which the sedentary life and the fetid atmosphere of the low rooms engender and ripen; he may long to take up some other employment, which will permit him to breathe the fresh air, to recruit the unstrung nerves, the cramped sinews, and the weakened frame; and to prolong the boon of existence, which the fearful toil of the loom is hurrying to its close! Nothing but death can release him from his bondage, since the discharge of a shawl-baf would reduce the Maharaja’s revenue by 36 chilkees (rupees) a year,” writes Thorpe. The only release from the labours of a shawl-baf other than death is to flee Kashmir and there is indeed a great deal of migration of these shawl-bafs to Punjab. “He flies like a hunted felon… and his crime is poverty!” Thorpe writes.
The most detestable piece of oppression against the shawlbafs is, however, this–that none of them are permitted to relinquish their employment without finding a substitute which, of course, is almost always impossible
Since Gulab Singh purchased Kashmir from the British, he and his descendants treated the land and its people merely as a profit-making enterprise. The Maharajah felt no compunction in allowing and encouraging prostitution and then profiting from the earnings of prostitutes by taxing them. Thorpe documents this in detail: “The sale of young girls in Cashmere to established houses of ill-fame is both protected and encouraged by the Government, and helps to swell that part of his revenue which the Maharajah derives from the wages of prostitution. The license granting permission to purchase a girl for this purpose costs about 100 chilkee rupees, and an additional payment is, I believe, made to Government when the unfortunate victim enters upon her miserable career. The very fact that such sales take place is due to the grasping and avaricious nature of the Government, since none but the very poorest and lowest classes of the people ever sell their children.
Indeed the people were miserably poor and yet they were heavily taxed. “All classes of the Mussulman community are tax-payers except the tailors. Even the boatman, whose pay is only company’s Rs.2- 8(2 rupees and 8 annas)… I went into some of the cottages, and found them in as miserably a condition as the appearance of the people outside betoken–windowless, fireless, lightless and bare… their food is only rice, and the coarse vegetables they produce in their lake gardens; and the only fuel they can procure is dried horse dung! And these people pay taxes,” documents Thorpe.
Cashmere Misgovernment gives a graphic account of begaar or the practice of forced labour that was prevalent at the time. The Maharajah maintained troops in the far off and largely inaccessible Gilgit province. In order to keep these troops supplied with rations Kashmiri peasants were forced to carry supplies to Gilgit. Most of them never returned, perishing on the way because of extreme cold, semi-starvation and the perils of the arduous trek. Thorpe records this extreme exploitation in another section: ‘None save those who have seen such can fully realize their horrors. No imagination is powerful enough to realize them; the waste, hopeless aspect of the wind, which strikes you with the force of an eagle’s wing as it sweeps down upon you through the ravines; above and around you are snowy peaks and summits, and precipitous slopes of rock, upon whose edge sits the avalanche waiting for his prey. Through such scenes, heavily laden, the zemindars take their way… Slowly the conviction fastens upon them that they shall never quit those frightful solitudes, never see again their homes, nor those who dwelt there waiting their return, far off in the sunny vale of Cashmere!’
In such a place where injustice is institutionalized, rampant and starkly evident in every aspect of life, it is of course futile to expect any mechanism or system where people can seek any justice. Thorpe doesn’t miss this fact. He writes, “No formal sentence is pronounced in any case when imprisonment is awarded, whether for small offences or great ones. The prisoner is sent to prison, and neither he nor anyone else knows how long he may be kept there. Possibly there are many who have been forgotten… The punishment for killing a cow used formerly to be death; but on account, I believe, of the remonstrance of the British Government, it was changed to imprisonment for life. The method, however, of carrying out the mitigated sentence renders it scarcely more merciful than the capital penalty.”
Robert Thorpe’s Cashmere Misgovernment is a vivid portrait of Kashmir in the 1860s–a place full of hopelessness, misery, poverty, exploitation and want under the yoke of a callous and repressive regime ruling by proxy through a brutally corrupt officialdom.
Revisiting the past sometimes helps to understand the present more clearly and Cashmere Misgovernment supplies a vital link in understanding the so-called Kashmir conundrum which actually is no conundrum, but a saga of unending iniquities—the present included.