The Working Class of Kashmir

This is the first story in our #KashmirSeries which we will be running for a month to mark two years since the 2016 Kashmir Unrest began following Burhan Wani’s extra judicial killing by the Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir Police on 8 July 2016. The widespread civilian protests in response to Wani’s death have been met with a severe military clampdown. A recent report by the United Nations has estimated that over 140 civilians have been killed by security forces in the area since the unrest began.

The following is an extract from an essay by Gautam Navlakha, “The Kashmir Question: Nation-state, War, and Religion”. The extract gives an overview of  some of the discriminatory policies folllowed by the Dogra regime, and how the resulting inequalities influenced the events during the Indian Independence and Kashmir's accession to India. The complete essay can be read here



… Nelson Mandela once told Bill Clinton that “the nature of struggle is not decided by the oppressed people but by the oppressor”. In other words, the point Mandela was making was that the form that a struggle or a movement takes is determined, largely, by what kind of response or approach the rulers choose to employ.


… A hundred years of Dogra Hindu Rule, from 1846 to 1947, had prepared the soil for the Kashmiri toilers (who were predominantly Muslims) to feel “othered,” through exploitation, and the policy of religious discrimination, against them.1



The British Empire was built through multiple annexations and treaties, over 200 years, starting in 1757. The genesis of the Kashmir problem lies in the events of 1846, when Kashmir was sold for a sum of Rs 7.5 million by the East India Company to a Hindu General — a senior commander in the Sikh kingdom which ruled Lahore (now in Pakistan) — who had switched his loyalty to the East India Company during the 3rd Punjab War in the 1840s. The East India Company had come to acquire the fiefdom of Kashmir from the Lahore Court as indemnity for war. The sale itself was in lieu of services rendered by the Dogra Hindu general, Gulab Singh, to the East India Company by refusing to come to the aid of the beleaguered Sikh Kingdom of Lahore. Thereafter, the royals of Jammu and Kashmir provided the largest contingent of military force to the British Indian Empire whenever asked for. Once the Hindu general bought Kashmir from the East India Company in 1846, the Hindu Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir came into existence.


The regime of the Dogra Hindu Maharaja — who came to become the owner of Kashmir by virtue of purchasing it from the East India Company in 1846, as part of the Treaty of Amritsar — treated Kashmir as his personal fiefdom. It took his army 24 years, from 1846 to 1870, to put down the various rebellions in Kashmir. During this period, the Maharaja trusted his Dogra troops, who were mostly Hindu. The structure and policy of the Dogra Hindu absolutism discriminated against the Kashmiris, and, in particular, the Muslim masses of the valley, who were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the state. They were, virtually, bound to the land by a decree of the Maharaja which prevented peasantry from leaving Kashmir without the permission of the ruler through a system of “rahdari,” or a form of passport. The Maharaja claimed “begar,” or unpaid labour for the asking, and revenue from the produce of the land, as the sovereign. Feudal exactions and extra economic coercion drove Kashmiris to penury and their land into the hands of the rich and the privileged.2 It was only in 1934 that proprietary rights were granted to Kashmiri Muslims. More than 80% of the wealth of Kashmir had, by then, passed into the hands of the Dogras, the Sikhs, and the Kashmiri Pandits. Only a sliver of Muslims belonged to the social elite. The lack of an organised movement till 1930–31 helped the state machinery, manned by non-Muslims, to coerce and oppress the subordinate classes.3

The backwardness of the Muslims was a product of the policy of the Maharaja which kept them out of power and patronage. He did not provide them with equal opportunities in trade, industry, education, jobs, and agriculture. The Muslims of the state, thus, became the worst sufferers under the triple burden of colonialism, feudalism, and social discrimination. This was evident in the juridical structure under the Maharaja, which laid down that everyone, except a Dogra man, could be hanged for murder.4

This institutionalised discrimination against Muslims was part of a feudal structure that was specific to, and the basis of, the Dogra Hindu rule. The Hindus from outside the region were given opportunities to establish businesses, trade, and industry on far more favourable terms than those offered to the Muslims of the valley itself. "The communal nature of the feudal economy was evident in the fact that, out of 25 jagirs that were granted during the first five years of Maharaja Hari Singh, only two went to the… Muslims."5



… By the time Kashmir witnessed the end of the Dogra Hindu Rule, in 1930–40, the clear merger of class and religion was evident in the struggle of the toilers of Kashmir, who had to face the Hindu King and his supporters, who were predominantly from the Hindu social elite circles. In Jammu, the appeal of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC), which saw its salvation in an alliance with the AIML, gained more popularity. There was no appreciable Marxist movement in the kingdom which could unite the Muslim and Hindu toilers against their common enemy, i.e., the feudal kingdom. Mobilisation began and remained largely confined along religious divides, because there was a predominant exploitation and discrimination of Muslims. Meanwhile, the lower caste Hindus in Jammu remained largely unorganised.

… [In] 1927, the Maharaja heeded the demand of the Dogra Mahasabha (which represented the elite, upper caste Hindus of Jammu) and the Kashmiri Pandit Association (which represented the Kashmiri Hindu elite) of according preferential status to the natives of Jammu and Kashmir as state subjects, entitling them to be owners of property in the kingdom and providing them preference in state services. This demand was a result of their grouse that the Maharaja preferred Hindus from outside the kingdom to serve in his administration and favoured them for grant of jagirs (estates). What the Dogras and Kashmiri Pandit elite, however, did not anticipate then was that once this state subject-hood was granted, the educated among Kashmiri Muslims would, legitimately, raise the demand for their representation in state services and more resources for their education. When this happened, the Hindu elite vehemently protested this demand, perceiving it as an encroachment into what they saw as their exclusive domain. Thus, the religious divide—where Muslims were placed at the bottom and the Hindu upper castes at the pinnacle— as well as its consolidation in the 19th century, now confronted the Muslim populace’s assertion for the first time. This, the Hindu elite, bitterly opposed.6

The feudal policies of the Maharaja, discrimination against Muslims, and the hostility of the upper caste Hindus set the stage for the 1931 uprising. …


In 1938, the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC) split into two, with a section led by Sheikh Abdullah forming the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (AJKNC). The latter described the 1931 uprising as "…a war of the oppressed against the oppressor. Its aim is nothing more or less than to seek justice and redress. If the ruler was Muslim and his subjects the Hindus, the war would have been fought on similar grounds.”7 Not unexpectedly, the Maharaja's presentation of the events of 1931 succeeded in alarming the Hindu chauvinist section in India. In the name of Indian nationalism, a resolution was passed by the All India Hindu Mahasabha, in its Akola session of 15 August, 1931, which stated, "The Hindu Mahasabha looks upon with fear at the fiery propaganda carried on against the Maharaja of Kashmir." The Maharaja was far from passive; he blessed the formation of three political parties, i.e., The Kashmiri Pandit Conference, the Hindu Sabha in Jammu, and the Sikhs' Shiromani Khalsa Darbar. Inside Kashmir, most leaders among the Kashmiri Pandits adopted a narrow, communal, and opportunist posture. They pressed ahead, calling for job security for themselves, along the lines accorded to Anglo–Indians by the British Raj.8



… Since the Muslims of the Kashmir valley bore the brunt of the feudal exploitation, they, quite naturally, happened to be the first to raise the banner of revolt against it in 1930–31. The movement, under pre-eminent Kashmiri leadership, re-named itself as the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (AJKNC) in 1939. Subsequently, AJKNC affiliated itself to the All India States People's Conference (AISPC), an organisation floated by the INC. It arose out of a difference in perspective. AJKMC viewed the oppression of Muslims in terms of their religious opposition to the ruler and, therefore, saw the solution in a theocratic state. The AJKNC, on the other hand, viewed the oppression to be a result of feudalism and saw the ending of the feudal hold of the jagirdars as the solution. The ethnic divide between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri Muslims was grounded in the fact that, in Kashmir, the Muslims were poorly represented in membership of the expropriating class when compared to the Muslims elsewhere. Thus, the class position and interests of the Muslim elite in the Jammu area came in the way of fighting the jagirdari system and demanding its abolition.9

It was against the backdrop of such political changes that the toilers formed one of the strongest detachments of the AJKNC in the years 1940–50. …

…A memorandum sent by the AJKNC to the Cabinet Mission, in May 1946, affirmed the right of the people to absolute freedom from autocratic rule. The basic underlying principle of this idea of Kashmiri identity was its anti-feudalism. The process of consolidation of the Kashmiri national identity was aided by several factors. …. It was, by no means, an isolationist search. Therefore, the final parting of ways between the AJKNC and the Muslim League, by 1946, reflects a conscious political choice made by the pre-eminent Kashmiri political formation to seek an arrangement with the INC for an accession which provided maximum internal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, while also allowing them to push ahead with their anti-feudal programme. The point to note is that this identity developed more clearly as a result of the movement to overthrow the Dogra Hindu rule.

… The national movement in Kashmir forged ahead amidst a popular all-India movement against the British Raj, even as the Hindu and Muslim division was gaining ground. The anti-feudal struggle reached its next high point in 1946. Launching this struggle for a decisive victory, Sheikh Abdullah, on May 15, 1946 reiterated at Srinagar:

The demand that the princely order should quit the state is a logical extension of the policy of “Quit India.” When the freedom movement demands complete withdrawal of British power, logically enough, the stooges of British imperialism should also go and restore sovereignty to its real owners, the people… (T)he rulers of Indian states have always played traitor to the cause of Indian freedom.  The time has come to tear up the Treaty of Amritsar, and quit Kashmir. Sovereignty is not the birth right of Maharaja Hari Singh. Quit Kashmir is not a question of revolt. It is a matter of right. (emphasis added) 10



Immense possibilities, therefore, existed for bringing the toiling people, who spoke diverse languages and belonged to different religions, closer.

The manner in which a government handles various situations does influence the course of events.


…The Indian Home Minister, in March 1948, had insisted on the Maharaja's prerogative to appoint the Prime Minister and approve the Cabinet. What is more, it was suggested that the existing bureaucratic structure of the autocracy should continue. Very clearly, it was being suggested that the Indian government was mistrustful of the AJKNC leadership. This is borne out by what India's first Director of Intelligence Bureau, B N Mullik, had to say about India’s Home Minister Sardar Patel's hostility towards the AJKNC. Sardar Patel, says Mullik, " …apprehended that Sheikh Abdullah would ultimately let down India and Jawaharlal Nehru, and would come out in his real colours… .”11 And, since the Maharaja worked under the advice of the Indian dominion and his administration was heavily biased in favour of non-Muslims, it was more in tune with the interests of the Indian government.


… [There] are two Acts of the Parliament that are particularly relevant. First, in 1963, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution made anyone questioning the territorial integrity and unity of India an offender.12 Thereafter, all candidates were obliged to take an oath to uphold the “integrity of India.” Using this provision in the Constitution, the Indian government enacted an act called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, which proscribed any organisation, if deemed to be preaching secession. The Act said that anything “which intends, or supports any claim to bring about on any ground whatsoever the cession of a part of the territory of India, or the secession of a part of the territory of India from the Union; or which incites any individual or group of individuals to bring about such cession or secession” is “unlawful.” It was this provision which was used to rig the Kashmir elections in 1967, when the Returning Officer rejected the nomination papers of the Plebiscite Front candidates. Second, in 1971, even as India was helping in the dismemberment of Pakistan and helping Bangladesh to emerge the very same year, the Plebiscite Front was banned in Kashmir, and membership and support of the party invited stringent punishment.

[Thus], each new situation narrowed the possibilities for accommodation. Independence from India, thus, became a credible alternative when the prospects of internal autonomy for Kashmir, within India, receded. Every new situation reduced whatever chances there were of working out a solution within the political boundaries of India. The breach that developed in 1953, since then, set a new pattern of relations where, more than elsewhere in India, the Central government took direct control.


1. Rai, Mridu. Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and theHistory of Kashmir. Permanent Black, 2004, New Delhi.pp 149.
2. ibid
3. Chandra, Prakash. “The National Question in Kashmir.”
Social Scientist, vol.13, no.145, pp 38, June 1985.
4. ibid. pp 39.
5. ibid.
6. Rai, Mridul.
Hindu Ruler, Muslim Subjects. 2004, pp 154 & 256. 20.
7. Chandra.“The National Question in Kashmir.” 1985. pp 39.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.
10. ibid.
11. Akbar.
Kashmir: Behind the Vale. 1991. pp 146.
12. “Terror of Law: UAPA and the myth of national security.” Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation, April 2012.