The First Martyrs of labour history of the world: Kashmir weavers’ agitation of 1865

Posted: May 9, 2018 in Arrest, Conflict and Peace, Human Rights, Right to Dissent

Every year, the world commemorates the victims of Haymarket affair that took place on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago, by observing May 1st as International Workers’ Day in their memory; albeit in Canada & US, 1st September is chosen as Workers’ Day. On that fateful day, the workers had gathered peacefully to demonstrate & advocate for better working conditions. But, how many in the world know that Haymarket affair was not the first labour agitation against the exploitation of working class in the labour history of the world. Setting the records correct, it was precisely 29th April, 1865 when Kashmir’s weavers,  locally known as ‘Shawl Baufs’, had hit the streets of Srinagar in protest against the high taxes that were levied upon them by the Dogra despots. 1. Before coming to that tragic & fateful day in the labour history of the world, the appalling conditions under which the Kashmiri weavers & artisans worked would not be out of place to a mention. Under the Dogra rulers ‘system of taxation, the barest margin of subsistence was allowed to the Muslim Kashmiri workers. The production of silk, saffron, paper, tobacco, wine and salt was a State monopoly. An ad valorem duty of 85% was levied on all woolen manufacture. 2. Under these pitiable working conditions, the shawl weaver could, thus, hardly earn 7 or 8 chilki rupees per month, out of which he had to pay five chilkies as tax and had to live on remaining 2 or 3 chilkies, only  3., by buying singara (water chestnuts) for feeding his family. 4. The shawl weavers were allowed neither to leave Kashmir nor change their employment, so that they were nearly in the position of slaves. 5. There was fear with the Dogra ruler that migration by the weavers to other State would “reduce his revenue.” 6. But, still, thousands of shawl weavers, escaping cruel clutches of Dogra monarch’s frontier guards, had made their way to British Indian Punjab. 7. The weavers worked under the supervision of a most notorious taxation department of the Dogra rulers which was called Dagshalli that would arbitrarily collect exorbitant taxes for the tyrant ruler and regulate their work with factory owner or proprietor. In case, a weaver left the work, the Dagshalli through the Dogra soldiers would bring his wife, children & parents before them who would imprison them forthe weaver’s escape &, otherwise even, for his consequential failure to pay such exorbitant Dagshallitaxes to the ruler through the factory-owner. 8. The Dagshalli department was purchased by a wealthy Kashmiri Pandit, Raj Kak Dhar, under a contract with the Dogra ruler for rupees 20 lakhs. This had left Raj Kak Dhar entirely free to realise this amount through arbitrarily fixed tax rates of the ruler by employing brute force of Dogra soldiers. 9.

Now coming back to that sad day of Kashmir’s tragic history. The weavers on that fateful day of 29thApril, 1865 peacefully took out a procession that marched to the ground [maidan] of Zadagar, Srinagar, protesting against such break-breaking taxation, nominal wages, miserable working conditions & ban on migrating to neighbouring State of Punjab for comparatively better wages. Meanwhile, Raj Kak Dhar unnerved by the protest of the impoverished unarmed weavers misinformed Diwan of Dogra administration who immediately dispatched Dogra Army under the command of Col. Bije Singh who pushed the unarmed hungry multitude towards the narrow Haji Pather Bridge and in the stampede 28 poor unarmed weavers were drowned in the stream and scores injured. Next day the dead bodies were recovered from the stream and with a declared intention to seek the tyrant ruler’s justice, the dead bodies were paraded by the weavers and other Kashmiris, whose sympathy was naturally attracted by mayhem,    in a procession to place them before him. They were stopped by the Dogra army in the way & not allowed to proceed to meet the ruler. The organizers of the procession were arrested, tortured, jailed & even flogged. Among those incarcerated in Bahu Fort jail were Rasool Sheikh of Tanki Kadal,  Ali Pal, Abdul Qadus alias Qudoo Lala & Sona Shah who died due to the torture.  10. In the history of Kashmir liberation struggle, these unsung heroes of Kashmir are remembered as First Martyrs. 11.

Being also, the First Martyrs in the history of labour struggle of the world, they seem to have been forgotten by the State & the world, probably because the event had not taken place somewhere in Europe or America, but in a forgotten landlocked vale of Kashmir. Despite that, no one can doubt, those Kashmir weavers who laid their lives on 29th April, 1865 for sacred cause of seeking justice for labour class deserve to be remembered by all justice loving people of the world who fight for the rights of labour class with equal respect & honour as shown to the victims of Haymarket affair.

Footnotes:

  1. Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir, by Prof Mridu Rai, (2004) page 62
  2. Two Nations & Kashmir by Lord Birdwood (1956) page 31
  3. Geography of the State of J & K by Pandit Anand Koul Anand (1925) page 31
  4. Kashir by Dr GMD ( D Lit France) Vol 2, page 746
  5. The Abode of Snow by Andrew Wilson (1875) page 398; ibid page Kashir page 746
  6. Kashmir Papers, S N Gadru, (1973) page 68
  7. Kashmir a disputed legacy by Aliaster Lamb (1991) page 13; Ibid, Mridu Rai (4000 had fled the valley)
  8. Freedom Movement in Kashmir by Gh. Hassan Khan (2009) page 21
  9. Kashmiris-Fight-For-Freedom by M Y Saraf, ( 2009) vol 1, page 291
  10. Ibid; in 1920 & 1924 the Kashmir witnessed again bigger Srinagar Silk Factory Workers’ Agitations that brought to the surface the appalling conditions in which the workers were placed, J & K, Politics of identity & separatism by Rekha Chowdary ( 2015) page 20
  11. Comprehensive History of Kashmir Movement by Shabnum Qayoom ( 2014) vol 1, page 319

M J Aslam, Author, academician, storyteller & columnist, Presently, AVP (JKB).

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