A brief look at the history makes it clear that the oppression and colonial exploitation of Kashmir began long before the formation of the two modern nations. Even at the time of annexation to the Mughal Empire in 1589 AD, Kashmir was never ruled by the Kashmiri people. After the Mughals, the area was ruled by Afghans (1753-1819), Sikhs (1819-46), and Dogras (1846-1947) until the Indian and Pakistani states took over.
The Mughals, who did nothing to alleviate the region’s poverty or fight famine, instead planted hundreds of gardens in Kashmir and turned it into a luxurious summer haven for the rich. The Afghans not only enslaved the Kashmiris and sent them to Afghanistan but also imposed excise taxes on the famous shawl makers of the region, which caused the shawl industry to shrink. Then came the Sikhs, who, according to British explorer William Morcraft, treated Kashmiris “a little better than cattle.”
The discrimination that the Muslim majority of Kashmir is facing today first came to light during the Sikh rule. At that time, if a Sikh killed a local, he was fined 16 to 20 Kashmiri rupees by the government, of which 4 rupees went to the victim’s family if the deceased was a Hindu, and only 2 rupees, If the deceased was a Muslim.
And when the British East India Company defeated the Sikh Empire in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, Kashmir was sold to the Dogris as if it was not the home of millions but a “commodity”. Gulab Singh, a Dogra who served as the ruler of Jammu in the Sikh Empire, chose to side with the British in the Anglo-Sikh War. After the war, the East India Company sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh for Rs. 7.5 million to repay his loyalty.
Gulab Singh and successive Dogra rulers, who at that time had independent access to the Kashmir Valley, imposed additional excise taxes on Kashmiris so that they could collect Rs 7.5 million paid to buy Kashmir. Moreover, as a sign of their continued loyalty, the Dogra rulers consistently complied with the demands of the British for money and power. Under Dogra’s rule, Kashmiris were forced to fight in all the wars of Britain and had to fight, including two world wars.
The Dogra rule was possibly the worst period in Kashmir in terms of economic stagnation and extortion. Most of the farmers were landless as Kashmiris were not allowed to own any land. The Dogra rulers took about 50-75% of the cultivated crops and the working class had virtually no control over production and its use. The Dogra rulers also reintroduced the system of begging (forced labor) under which the state could employ laborers for a meager salary. Not only was every possible occupation taxed, but Kashmiri Muslims were forced to pay tax if they wished to get married. The ridicule of the exorbitant tax system reached new heights when the “zeldari tax” was introduced to pay the tax itself!
During the Dogra rule, the Kashmiri Pandits – the local Hindus in the Kashmir Valley – were slightly better than the Kashmiri Muslims, perhaps as a result of the administration’s pro-Hindu bias. They were allowed to get high-level jobs and work as teachers and government employees. This meant that Hindus dominated the so-called “petite bourgeois” in the predominantly Muslim population. It became difficult to get out of poverty.
The workers’ resistance against the Dogris began in 1865 when the Kashmiri shawl makers protested to improve their working conditions. The government brutally crushed the uprising, and in the three decades since the protests, the number of people making Kashmiri shawls has dropped from 28,000 to just 5,000. Despite the setback, Kashmiri workers continued to fight for their rights. In 1924, workers of a silk factory in Srinagar went on strike against their economic exploitation.
In 1930, some young, left-wing Muslim intellectuals formed the Reading Room Party to come together and find a way forward for Jammu and Kashmir and its people, free from dictatorship and oppression. They soon began organizing meetings in mosques, and gradually this “political consciousness” began to spread from intellectuals to the middle class. Over time, they moved from mosques to large-scale open meetings.
In view of this growing spirit of rebellion in the Muslim community, in 1931, the Dogras approved the formation of three political parties in the valley – the Kashmiri Pandit Conference, the Hindu Sabha in Jammu and the Shiromani Khalsa Darbar of the Sikhs. This meant that only non-Muslim groups were allowed political representation in the valley, depriving the majority population (Muslims) of government and political parties.
The same year saw a number of Muslim movements that sprang up in response to state repression. But escalating tensions escalated on July 13, when a mob of thousands tried to break into Srinagar Jail during the trial of a young Muslim man named Abdul Qadir in a fraud case. Police worked with a lot of brutalities, killing 22 protesters. On this, scholar and activist Prem Nath Bazaz wrote that the sentiments of the mob who reached the jail were not anti-Hindu but against oppression. Nevertheless, the post-July 13 riots took a religious turn when Hindu-owned shops in the valley were looted. Few attributed this to the inexperienced politics of the Reading Room Party as well as the hostile and discriminatory attitude of Hindus towards the Muslim majority. Since the incident, however, all stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute have been trying to sectarianize Kashmiri history. The struggle of the working-class Muslims of the valley is limited to their religious identity as if the religion they follow makes their anger somewhat unjustified.
Although the Muslim working class suffered greatly during the Dogra rule, their condition did not improve even after the separation of Britain from the Indian subcontinent and the partition of colonial India into two nation-states.
Under the scheme distributed by the Indian Independence Act, Kashmir was given the option of becoming independent or joining India or Pakistan. The then Dogra ruler Hari Singh initially wanted Kashmir to be an independent state, but when the Pakistani tribesmen tried to invade the region, he agreed to join India in October 1947.
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent troops to protect Kashmir from a possible Pakistani invasion. As a result, Hari Singh signed a document to annex the state to India. Article 370, which guarantees Kashmir’s sovereignty in the Indian Union, was also included in the Indian Constitution as a direct result of this document. Unfortunately, it became clear in later decades that India had no intention of safeguarding Kashmir’s sovereignty as it began to act like any other occupying imperialist power and resume repression of the region’s long-standing Muslim population.
At first, Nehru (a Kashmiri himself) seemed sympathetic to the cause of Kashmiris. He repeatedly promised to hold a referendum to determine the faith of Jammu and Kashmir. At that time, the formation of an independent Kashmir was also considered a possible outcome. However, decades have passed, and the referendum that Nehru promised never materialized. Pakistan and India have raised the issue from time to time and accused each other of obstructing the vote. For the convenience of both states, the referendum was eventually forgotten.
Since October 1947, India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir, claiming to have the best interests of the local population in mind. But they jointly suppressed the Kashmiri voices that criticized the actions of both the countries and demanded independence.
One such example was the case of Maqbool Bhatt, a founding member of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and a supporter of the organized struggle for Kashmir’s independence. He was arrested and hanged by the Indian state, but Pakistan also made every effort to stop Maqbool from organizing the Kashmir independence movement as it was a supporter of Kashmir’s sovereignty.
Over the years, India and Pakistan have made every effort to control the Kashmir narrative. Not only did India resort to brutal methods of repression, such as physical violence, mental violence, fake encounters, rape, and illegal trials, it also provided an alternative history and statistics to turn Indian public opinion against the plight of Kashmiri Muslims. Changed numbers and facts. Pakistan, meanwhile, was not an innocent supporter of the Kashmiris’ struggle, as one of its former presidents, Pervez Musharraf, openly admitted that the state-supported and trained, armed groups active in the valley, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT).
Despite the silence of the imperialist powers and their best efforts to suppress them, Kashmiris have been fighting for their right to self-determination for hundreds of years. Today, imperialist attempts to control the valley continue in the guise of nationalism, despite much irony. India’s decision to end the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in this way is nothing but shameless imperialist aggression.
Future generations will remember August 5, 2019, as another worst chapter in Kashmir’s long history of imperial oppression. Best of all, this latest attack on the dignity of the people who have endured centuries of persecution marks the beginning of an unprecedented period of resistance and struggle for Kashmiris’ independence.