Custodial killings: history

April 29 is important for a variety of reasons. On this day in 1865, 28 shawl weavers sacrificed their lives while fighting 300 percent increase in taxes on shawls. And, this is the day when the phenomenon of extra-judicial executions started in Kashmir.



In 1856 Ranbir Singh ascended the throne. Gulab Singh suffered an attack of Dropsy which ultimately killed him in 1859. Ranbir Singh strictly followed his father and imposed severe tax on the shawl weavers. Raw material, import of wool from Ladakah was also taxed. Besides custom duty, tax was also imposed on the finished products. According to some historians around 300 percent tax was imposed on the shawls which broke the back of shawl industry. At that time around 125 thousand were involved in the shawl industry. These included weavers, washer men, skilled laborers having know how of printing. The industry generated more than Rs 50 lakhs annually.   In 1865 shawls worth 254 thousand British Pounds were exported from Kashmir.

  However, the weavers got peanuts. Most of them made around Rs 5 to 7 every month that too after working 16-18 hours a day. They had to pay tax to the tune of Rs 5 monthly. They could not change their profession or stop working.  Heavy fine was imposed on the weavers who had unsuccessfully migrated to Lahore.  Some of them were jailed.  It is worth mentioning here that Afghan governor, Haji Karimdad Khan had imposed the tax and it was then called Dag Shawl.

Kashmir’s shawl industry was always in shackles. Tax on shawls was introduced by an Afghan Governor, Haji Karim Dada Khan. It came to be known as `Dag Shawl’.  

By 1856 the tax increased by 300 percent. A department known as Dag Shawl Department was constituted and Pundit Raj Kak Dhar was made its inspector. Dhar tried to achieve the target with utmost brutality. He wooed the factory owners and the burden of taxes was put on the poor weavers. The weavers were also directed to remain faithful to their respective factory owners. They could not change profession or migrate from Kashmir.

Faced with starvation, the shawl weavers of Srinagar chose to fight. On April 29, 1865 they organized a procession. The protesters assembled in a ground near Zal Dagar. Effigies of Dhar were torched. Dhar called on the then Governor Kripa Ram. He told him the protesters had plans to march towards his residence. Kripa Ram sent his soldiers to `teach weavers a lesson’. The soldiers led by Col Bijoy Singh stormed the protesters and herded them towards a narrow bridge on Kut-e-Kul. The bridge, Hajj Rather Sum, collapsed. Twenty-eight protesters were drowned and scores injured.

According to noted pediatrician and author of Wounded Paradise, the soldiers opened indiscriminate fire killing 28 weavers on the spot. Notwithstanding severe restrictions on movement, the people fished out all the bodies from the river and decided to march to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s palace along with the bodies next morning. However, a historian believes the people did not wait till next morning. They marched towards the palace same evening. The procession was intercepted. Scores of weavers including their leaders were taken into custody. Sheikh Rasool and Abli Baba were tortured to death in a dungeon in Shergarhi palace. This is where the phenomenon started.  

On May 1 some prisoners including Ali Paul, Rasool Sheikh, Quda Lala and Sona Shah were sent to Jammu. Ali Paul and Rasool Sheikh died of tuberculosis in Ram Nagar Jail. Quda Lala and Sona Shah met the same fate. Nobody knows how the first martyrs of Trade Union Movement were treated.  No charge sheet was produced in any court. No enquiry was constituted. The inaction of the government only encouraged the army and the bureaucracy. Kashmiris continued to suffer.

The local trade union leaders cannot escape responsibility of not setting the historical records right. Most of them do not even know that a major incident took place at Zaldagar on April 29, 1865. They take out processions and hold debates and seminars on May 3 but have miserably failed to tell the world how, when and where the first organized strike of the workers was observed.

They can rectify the wrong by taking measures now. A memorial must come up at the site of the massacre at Zaldagar. This is the least they can do. Let them start the noble job this year by holding a seminar on the Zaldagar martyrs.  

The great martyrs have been ignored by the government as well. Surprisingly government assigns more importance to the struggle against Dogras from 1931. This is the time when Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah appeared on the political firmament of Kashmir. The struggle of the shawl weavers and great trade unionist GN Gilkar finds no mention anywhere.

The day, April 29, is also important for the human rights defenders. This is the day when the phenomenon of extra-judicial executions started in Kashmir.  Can they ignore it?