Zaldagar martyrs calling

Three days from now, Kashmiris will observe martyrs’ day. Pro-Indian parties and `separatists’ will go to the graveyard to lay wreaths on the graves of martyrs who `laid down their lives’ while fighting autocracy.

The chief minister and other senior leaders of the National Conference will also visit the graveyard to mark the `beginning of the end of autocratic rule’.

July 13 is an important date in Kashmir history and the persons who offered sacrifice on this day in 1931 must be remembered but April 29, 1865 is equally an important date. Scores of people achieved martyrdom on that day when Dogra soldiers stormed a peaceful demonstration of shawl weavers near Zaldagar Bridge. But this date goes un-noticed for unknown reasons.

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 and import of wool from Ladakh were also taxed. Besides custom duty, tax was also imposed on the finished products.

According to some historians around 300% tax was imposed on the shawls which broke the back of shawl industry. At that time around 125 thousand persons were involved in the shawl industry. These included weavers, washer men, skilled labourers having know how of printing. The industry generated more than Rs 50 lakh 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.

Meanwhile a Pandit, Raj Kak Dhar got the contract of the shawl department for Rs 12 lakh. He set up his office at Saraf Kadal (Zaina Kadal) and imposed tax to the tune of Rs 49 on the shawl weavers.

Dhar was patronized by the government and would take army along to recover tax. The weavers approached the then governor Kripa Ram to apprise him of their woes but he did not listen to them.

To press their demands the weavers took out a procession on April 29, 1865. The protesters staged a demonstration in a ground near Zaldagar. They later decided to march towards the residence of governor. Meanwhile, Raj Dhar managed to instigate the governor who sent Col Beach Singh to take care of the protestors. The army herded the protesters towards Haji Rather Sum (A small bridge on Kut-e- Kul.) The bridge collapsed. Around 28 people drowned. Many sustained injuries. According to Dr Altaf Husain the author of Wounded Paradise, the Dogra Soldiers also opened fire on the protesters.

Notwithstanding brutal repression, the people fished out all the bodies from the river and planned to take them to Ranbir Singh’s palace next morning. However, army intercepted them and foiled the march. The leaders were taken into custody. Some of them were severely fined.

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 inquiry was constituted. The inaction of the government only encouraged the army and the bureaucracy. Kashmiris continued to suffer.

It is unfortunate that the contemporary trade union leaders have forgotten the martyrs of 1865. Like their counterparts in rest of the world they too commemorate the sacrifices of the Chicago martyrs. Like trade union workers, people by and large, are also unaware of the incident. This was the second organized protest by workers in the world. The first ever protest by workers was also registered by Kashmiri shawl weavers. On July 6, 1847 around four thousand shawl weavers observed strike against exploitation by the Dogra rulers. Soon after thousands of weavers migrated to Lahore via Shopian. A British officer, Lt Reynell Taylor rushed to Shopian and persuaded the weavers to refrain from migrating to Lahore. Some grievances were taken note of.

Kashmiris need to read their history. They have never accepted oppression and this is what makes them great.

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