The resolution in J&K Legislature on Hari Singh’s birthday as a holiday reflects the Hindu right-wing’s growing assertion in the state’s affairs, inflicting a blow on PDP’s credibility in the Valley where the Dogra monarch remains a tyrant.
On July 13 last year, in her first visit as chief minister to Martyrs’ Graveyard in summer capital Srinagar, Mehbooba Mufti, while paying tributes to the 21 Kashmiris buried there, described them as “brave heroes” who laid the foundation of democracy in the state.
“They laid down lives against suppression and autocratic rule (of Maharaja Hari Singh),” she said, “The biggest tribute to these martyrs would be to uphold democratic values for which they fought.”
The 21 Kashmiris were killed by the forces of Dogra monarch Hari Singh in 1931 when they had assembled outside Srinagar’s Central Jail where an anti-autocrat activist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was put on trial. “They are our true and brave heroes,” Mehbooba said.
Seven months later, her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) joined hands with its alliance partner, BJP, to pass a controversial resolution in the state legislature, calling to declare Hari Singh’s birth anniversary on September 23 a state holiday. The move, besides splitting the state parties from Kashmir and Jammu is threatening to deepen the regional divide between the two regions.
Hari Singh was the last Dogra king of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir whose rule started in 1925 and lasted till 1949, although he retained the title of Maharaja till 1952 when the two decades long political movement led by National Conference founder Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah led to the transition from monarchy to democracy in the state. Like his predecessors, three Dogra rulers, Hari Singh’s rule remained mired in controversies and by the time he rose to power, the peoples’ movement had already picked up against the Dogra regime. While Hari Singh, who is viewed through different political prisms in Kashmir and Jammu regions, remained a controversial figure – during his rule over two lakh Muslims were massacred in Jammu and he presided over the July 13 event which ultimately changed the course of J&K – some historians credit him for bringing reforms in the education sector, for introducing laws to prohibit child marriage and bringing state subject law that prevents outsiders from owning property in J&K.
However, others argue his rule can’t be viewed in isolation from the nature of colonial order that was on its last leg in J&K as well as across India. While for J&K’s Muslim majority community, Hari Singh was a tyrant who would force people into bonded labour and had deprived them of their rights, for mainland Jammu, the Dogra rule meant the concentration of power within the region and political supremacy over Kashmir. For them a state holiday on his birth anniversary won’t just be about “celebrating” the monarch, it also gives a sense of achievement to Jammu for whom he was a symbol of Jammu’s dominance.
“Maharaja gave us our identity, Article 370,” PDP MLC Firdous Ahmed Tak said in praise of Hari Singh in the Legislative Council when the resolution came up for discussion on January 25.
It was BJP member Ajatshatru Singh who had moved the resolution for declaring September 23 a public holiday, which was backed by all BJP members. The first PDP member to support the resolution was Vikramaditya Singh. Both Ajatshatru and Vikramaditya are grandsons of Hari Singh and sons of veteran Congress leader Karan Singh. While PDP member and education minister Naeem Akhtar praised Hari Singh for maintaining the state’s identity, he urged Ajatshatru to withdraw the resolution, assuring him that the proposal could be considered in the future. But that wasn’t to be. And in absence of opposition National Conference and Congress, the house passed the resolution. This was for the time that a resolution had been passed in the memory of the Dogra monarch.
“It is murder of democracy and insult to people who sacrificed their life while fighting the Dogra autocrats,” said National Conference member Muhammad Akbar Lone. The issue, in fact, echoed in both the houses of the state legislature with National Conference members staging walkout from the upper house in protest demanding withdrawal of the resolution while members from National Conference and independent MLA Engineer Rashid created ruckus in the Assembly. The passage of the resolution is seen as the BJP’s assertion in state government after the party allied with Peoples Democratic Party to form the
J&K remained under the Dogra rule for over a century, starting from 1846 and during this period, according to historian Ashiq Hussain, lakhs of people were “systematically persecuted” in all three regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – by successive Dogra rulers to maintain their rule. Like his predecessors, Hari Singh represented the colonial power structure and his rule continued to be one of tyranny and oppression for majority community of the state. While July 13, 1931, marked the beginning of the two-decade long struggle against Hari Singh, the October 1947 massacre of Muslims in Jammu, presided over by the Dogra autocrat, was one of the worst horrors witnessed in the sub-continent.
In his book, ‘Being The Other: The Muslim in India’, Saeed Naqvi quotes Ian Stephens, editor of the British paper The Statesman, on the massacre: “Over 2,37,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated – unless they escaped to Pakistan along the border – by the forces of the Dogra state headed by the Maharaja in person and aided by the Sikhs. This happened in October 1947, five days before the Pathan invasion and nine days before the Maharaja’s accession to India,” the book quotes, suggesting this happened with the approval of Hari Singh.
Maharaja Hari Singh’s involvement in the massacre, with the support of the RSS, is evident from a letter Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel on 17 April 1949 (quoted in Frontline magazine): In the report, among other things, a reference was made to a growing Hindu agitation in Jammu province for what is called a zonal plebiscite. This idea is based on the belief that a plebiscite for the whole of Kashmir is bound to be lost and, therefore, let us save Jammu at least. You will perhaps remember that some proposal of this kind was put forward by the Maharaja some months back. It seems to me that this kind of propaganda is very harmful, indeed, for us. Whatever may happen in the future, I do not think Jammu province is running away from us. If we want Jammu province by itself and are prepared to make a present of the rest of the State to Pakistan, I have no doubt we could clinch the issue in a few days. The prize we are fighting for is the valley of Kashmir. [This is what Nehru had dug in his heels for. The consequences are for all to see to this day. This propaganda for a zonal plebiscite is going on in Jammu, in Delhi and elsewhere. It is carried on by what is known as the Jammu Praja Parishad. Our intelligence officer reported that this Praja Parishad is financed by the Maharaja. Further, that the large sums collected for the Dharmarth Fund, which is controlled by the Maharaja, are being spent in propaganda for him.
Mahatma Gandhi also commented on the situation in Jammu on 25 December 1947 and his remarks have found mention in volume 90 of his Collected Works: “The Hindus and Sikhs of Jammu and those who had gone there from outside killed Muslims. The Maharaja of Kashmir is responsible for what is happening there…Muslim women have been dishonoured.”
In Kashmir, the PDP’s support for passage of the resolution is seen as “surrender to the BJP for power” at a time when the party’s credibility is struggling to recover from the dent left by the 2016 uprising in which 96 civilians were killed by security forces. Now, ironically, J&K will observe Martyrs’ Day and have holidays on the birth anniversaries of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who fought for democracy, and Hari Singh, who is known as a tyrant in Kashmir.