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The Origins of the Quit Kashmir Movement, 1931–1947
In 1846, the Treaty of Amritsar installed the Dogras dynasty as the rulers of Jammu and Kashmir. Signed with the emerging British colonial state, this Treaty declared that, "the British Government transfers and makes over, forever, in independent possession, to Maharaja Gulab Singh and the heirs male of his body, the Kashmir Valley as well as the area of Gilgit to the north (in Aitchinson 1931: 21–22). This new "princely state" comprised territories which at one point in time had been independent principalities: Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Mirpur, Poonch, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, Muzzaffarabad, Nagar, and some other nondescript kingdoms. Article IX of the Treaty further emphasized that the British East India Company Raj would provide aid to the monarch of Kashmir in protecting his territories from disruptive forces. Article X underscored the monarch's allegiance to the British. As a manifestation of his acknowledgment of the primacy of the British East India Company rule, the monarch was required to present annually one horse, twelve shawl goats, and three pairs of impeccably woven Kashmiri shawls (ibid). Thus the British colonial authority asserted itself through the Dogra monarch, a relationship that would influence politics and interreligious dialogue in the region well into the twenty-first century.
Gulab Singh was succeeded by his son Ranbir Singh in 1847, who in turn was succeeded by his son Pratab Singh in 1885. With no male heirs, Pratab Singh tried to make a distant relative his successor. But the British intervened, installing his nephew, Hari Singh, in 1925.
The last maharaja, Hari Singh employed forceful means to extinguish nationalistic and anti-feudal movement growing in the region. This movement emerged from the difficult conditions under which Muslims lived in Kashmir. Although Muslims constituted a large percentage of the population, out of thirteen battalions in Kashmir, only one was Muslim. Muslims were disallowed from carrying firearms and sharp instruments, and lived under such strict surveillance that they were required to seek a license even to slaughter a chicken for an ordinary meal. Moreover, there was a strict ban on cow slaughter in the state, and the sheep or goats that Muslims sacrificed on religious occasions were heavily taxed. Most edible items, saleable artifacts and ceremonial services were taxed. Kashmiri farmers worked as mere serfs on the lands that were bestowed by the monarch on his clansmen (Khan 1958: 5–7). Kashmiri Muslims were denied the right to gain an education; excluded from the civil services; disenfranchised; and prevented from participating in political activities without governmental permission.
In this context, the All India States People's Conference (AISPC) adopted a constitution in 1939 that intended to help the people of the state form a responsible and representative government under the aegis of the monarch. Once the AISPC drafted and proclaimed its objectives, a number of organizations were formed in order to achieve these objectives. Prior to that, Kashmiri Pandits, intellectually and politically drawn to the nationalist reform movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, formed a Hindu revivalist party. In Jammu, political organizations were formed solely for members of the predominantly Hindu Dogras ethnic group, with the Dogra Sabha, established in 1903, as the most prominent example. Meanwhile, Kashmiri Muslims, led by their religious leader, the mirwaiz, Maulana Rasool Shah, formed the Anjuman-i-Nusrat-ul-Islam. Besides the dissemination of Islamic teachings, the Anjuman aimed at social reform and educational improvement for the Muslims of the Valley.
But while the political mobilization of Kashmiri Muslims was still in an embryonic stage, a governmental edict banned all Muslim organizations, effectively ending their involvement in the political discourse. To make matters worse, a burgeoning labor crisis in the Srinagar silk mill, which was owned by the monarch, revealed the terrible conditions that the mostly workforce had to endure; most of the underpaid, overworked, and shabbily treated laborers in the mill were Kashmiri Muslims (for details, see Ganju 1945). These widespread exploitative practices and the resentment engendered by them compelled eminent members of the Muslim community to voice their protest in a memorandum, which was presented to the governor-general of India, Lord Reading, in October 1924. Around the same time, the first generation of Kashmiri Muslims to obtain college degrees abroad returned home, ready to promote new ideals of nationalism, liberty, and democracy. A group of these young graduates, held regular meetings at a house in Fateh Kadal, Srinagar, which evolved into "Fateh Kadal Reading Room Party." This group contributed articles for various publications in which they protested the discriminatory practices of the monarchical regime.
A prominent member of the Fateh Kadal Reading Room Party, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah would emerge as the Muslim population's political leader in the early 1930s, thanks in large part to his outspoken opposition to the maharaja. In 1931, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmed organized the work of the All India Kashmir Committee. At a meeting between Mirza Bashiruddin and Abdullah, it was decided that the Sheikh would lead the movement and Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas would be the secretary. The All India Kashmir Committee comprised representatives from the Kashmir Valley, Moulvi Abdur Rahim, and the Jammu Province, Allah Rakhar Saghar. The duties allocated to the Committee included: 1) giving financial support to the political agitators; 2) providing financial assistance to the dependents of incarcerated political leaders, martyrs, and those wounded in confrontations with the police; 3) arranging for medical treatment of the injured; 4) arranging legal defense for political workers; 5) providing legal assistance to the preparation of cases before the Middleton and Glancy Commissions. It was through Dr. Iqbal that the Glancy Commission made its report advocating religious freedom in Kashmir and emphasizing that the government could not exercise its authority at places of worship. It also mandated that education should be universal and more primary schools should be opened. It underscored the need to appoint Muslims teachers and the establishment of a special office for the administration of educational institutions for Muslims. It emphasized that jobs should open to all members of society.
Until this time, Ahmad Ullah Shah, the senior mirwaiz, had been accepted by the Srinagar Muslims as their religious leader, and his authority had been ratified by the Dogra regime. When his nephew Muhammad Yusuf Shah assumed the leadership of the Jama Masjid in 1931, he had expected to don his uncle's mantle and exercise the same unquestioned authority. But, to his surprise, his stature was undermined by Abdullah, a young politician of obscure origins and revolutionary political opinions. In order to eliminate the threat posed to his position by Abdullah's rising popularity and clout, Yusuf Shah labeled him a heretic. Abdullah retaliated by aligning himself with Mirwaiz Hamadani, a rival religious leader.
Around this time, the Abdullah established the Muslim Conference (MC). Yusuf Shah responded by founding his own party, the Azad Conference. By April 1933, the tension between the Sheikh's Sher (lion) followers and Yusuf Shah's goatee-wearing Bakra (literally translated as goat) followers boiled over into a violent clash that took place during the Id-uz-Zuha (religious festival) prayers in Srinagar. Because of the Shah's inclination to toe the official line of the Dogra monarchy, Abdullah's followers viewed this confrontation as an uprising that directly challenged the regime. Thus, the Shah became an unappealing figure to the repressed Muslim masses. His stature sank even further when he accepted a stipend of Rs. 600 from the Dogra regime. (Copeland 1991: 248).
The maharaja's unwillingness to deploy even superficially democratic measures contributed to another uprising in 1933, to which the government responded with unwarranted violence. Subsequently, Abdullah and Abbas organized a civil disobedience movement, which led to the first democratic election in the state in 1934.
Over the next few years, the rallying banner and political ideology of the MC mobilized a collective sense of pride in regional identity. Abdullah created an efficiently organized network of young people who were committed to the party's ideology. His initial emphasis on a shared Muslim identity, which promised social and political enfranchisement, held great appeal for an abject and politically disenfranchised people. However, although the MC won fourteen out of twenty-one seats allotted to Muslim voters in the State Assembly, this branch of the government had only consultative powers.
Over the next decade, secular local political organizations that espoused a nationalist and socialist ideology, including the Kashmiri Youth League, Peasants Association, Students Federation, Silk Labour Union, Telegraph Employees Union. These groups enabled popular political leaders to shift their focus away from religious and sectarian conflict and toward the structural inequities legitimized by the state. In this context, Abdullah tried to forge a secular movement in the state. In order to disseminate his progressive ideas, the Shiekh and Prem Nath Bazaz, a Kashmiri Pandit secularist, founded an Urdu weekly, Hamdard, in 1935. In 1938, the MC was replaced by the secular All Jammu and Kashmir National Congress, presided over by Abdullah. This new secular orientation was also intended to align the party with the Indian National Congress. By 1944, these efforts had paid off. The NC came to be identified with the socially leftist republicanism that Abdullah had championed (Bose 2003: 21), and its particular context of an indigenous political movement pitted against the Dogra dynasty helped to develop a distinct entity: a new Kashmiri nationalism.
This timely political move won the approval of Hindus Muslims alike. (Korbel 2002: 246). Feeling confident, the Sheikh and his political organization demanded that the Treaty of Amritsar be revoked and monarchical rule ousted. He described the Dogra monarchy as a microcosm of colonial brutality and declared the Quit Kashmir movement as an outgrowth of the larger Indian struggle for independence.
However, the new movement did not garner the widespread support that the Sheikh had hoped for. Rather than bolstering the Sheikh's position among the members of the Muslim Conference, it merely antagonized the Hindus and Sikhs of the state who venerated the maharaja because they owed him their political, economic, and religious privileges (Bazaz 1950: 4–5).
In May 1946 the Sheikh was sentenced to nine years in prison for having led the seditious Quit Kashmir movement against the maharaja's regime. During the infamous Quit Kashmir trial, Abdullah attempted to articulate his reasons for opposing autocratic rule:
Where law is not based on the will of the people, it can lead to the suppression of their aspirations. Such law has no moral validity even though it may be enforced for a while. There is a law higher than that, the law that represents the people's will and secures their well-being; and there is the tribute of the human conscience, which judges the ruler and the ruled alike by standards that do not change by the arbitrary will of the most powerful. To this law I gladly submit and that tribunal I shall face with confidence and without fear, leaving it to history and posterity to pronounce their verdict on the claims that I and my colleagues have made not merely on behalf of the four million people of Jammu and Kashmir but also of the ninety-three million people of all the States of India [under princely rule]. This claim has not been confined to a particular race or religion or color I hold that sovereignty resides in the people, all relationships political, social and economic, derive authority from the collective will of the people. (Quoted in Bhattacharjea 2008: 237–38)
Despite the support that the Quit Kashmir received from some regional councils and state Congress committees, the movement was crushed tactically and militarily. In a telegram sent by the Sheikh to the members of the British Cabinet Mission in 1946, he declared that the Amritsar agreement conferred no privileges "equivalent to those claimed by states governed by treaty rights. We wish to declare that no sale deed, however sacrosanct, can condemn more than four million men and women to servitude of an autocrat when will to live under this rule is no longer there."
As the Kashmir National Congress made its support of secular principles and its affiliation with the All India National Congress more forceful, the gulf widened between three competing groups: secularists who demanded a religiously neutral government; those who espoused a syncretism that would bridge the divide between Muslims and Hindus; and those who advocated a legal system that would give primacy to Islamic laws and scriptures, represented mainly by the Muslim Conference. In this environment, the Kashmiri National Congress found itself gasping for breath in the quagmire created by the maharaja's repressive policies, which were aimed at deepening the divide. For example, the maharaja's government had passed a special ordinance introducing two scripts, Devanagari and Persian, in Kashmir's government schools, signaling the metaphoric dislocation of Kashmiri culture. Language was seen in relation to an array of matters: political power, ethnicity, and cultural and psychological denigration. Also, under the Jammu and Kashmir Arms Act of 1940, the government had prohibited all communities except Dogra Rajputs from owning arms and ammunition. Such communally oriented policies created a rift between the Muslim leadership of the Kashmir National Congress and their Hindu colleagues.
The rift within the organization was further widened by Mohammad Ali Jinnah's insistence that Abdullah extend his support to the Muslim League–the organization that fostered the creation of Pakistan–and thereby disavow every principle he had fought for. At the same time, the Indian National Congress supported the Quit Kashmir movement, and later reinforced the Sheikh's call for a national plebiscite. The Congress advised the maharaja, right up to 1947, to gauge the public mood and accordingly accede to either India or Pakistan.
Thus, on the eve of the partition, a period of political intrigue pitted the two emerging nations against one another, with the maharaja trying to hold onto power and democratic reformers hoping to build a functioning Kashmiri state. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru argued that Kashmir was required to validate the secular credentials of India, Jinnah, on the other hand claimed that Pakistan had no designs on Kashmir. As Navnita Chandha Behera (2006) writes, "If Kashmir was integral to the very idea of Pakistan, it is difficult to see why the Muslim League and the Muslim Conference did not ask the Maharaja to accede to Pakistan until as late as 25 July 1947." By then, it could be argued that politics in Kashmir had moved beyond the narrow limitations of religion, enabling the creation of a more pluralistic society. Indeed, it could also be argued that Abdullah perceived the evolution of Kashmiri nationalism in world-historical terms, as opposed to a mere domestic issue. He didn't subscribe to the notion that a powerful global ideology like pan-Islamism, or communism, or fascism would bring about a universal liberation. Instead, he advocated the creation of a democratic structure in which a popular politics of mass mobilization would be integrated with institutional politics of governance.
The decision to accede to either India or Pakistan placed Maharaja Hari Singh in a dilemma. To maintain his power, the maharaja disregarded the advice of the National Congress and the British and opted for outright independence. In doing so, the maharaja failed to recognize how independence would exacerbate the political and military vulnerability of the state. While Pakistan supported Hari Singh's decision, India did not.
I conclude the paper with a quote from the statement of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in the Court of the Sessions Judge in Srinagar during the Quit Kashmir Trial in 1946. In recognition of human agency and mediation, the Sheikh observed,
No State can succeed in raising the standard of its people's life without educating and training them to pursue creative and productive activities. The percentage of literacy in the State is 6, the percentage of higher education is 1, and the average income per capita is Rs. 11-/ per annum. This by itself is an eloquent commentary on the system and structure of government to which the slogan "Quit Kashmir" is addressed.
The eternal authority promised to the Dogra dynasty in the Treaty of Amritsar was cut short at the time of India's independence and partition in 1947. On 26 October 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the "Instrument of Accession" to India, officially ceding to the government of India jurisdiction over defense, foreign affairs, and communications. The accession of Jammu and Kashmir was accepted by Lord Mountbatten with the proviso that once political stability was established in the region, the wishes of the people would be respected. Abdullah would spend the next three decades working within this framework to push a progressive agenda that called for universal suffrage, equal rights for women, and agrarian reform. However, even with a semi-autonomous status, economic and political development in Kashmir was hindered by political maneuvering in India, as well as the regional competition that involved Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Moreover, Abdullah spent time in jail and exile, and his frequent absence from the political scene diminished his power to lead. Despite the promise and idealism of the Quit Kashmir movement, the region would continue to struggle long after Abdullah's death in 1982, and well into the twenty-first century.
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- Abdullah, Sheikh Mohammed