Maharaja Hari Singh is a symbol of Jammu’s dominance across the state, but for J&K’s Muslim majority, he was a tyrant. A resolution declaring his birth anniversary a state holiday could pit one region against another.
Srinagar: Controversies continue to chase the Mehbooba Mufti-led government in Jammu and Kashmir. This time, it is the adoption of a resolution by J&K assembly declaring the Dogra autocrat Maharaja Hari Singh’s birth anniversary on September 23 a state holiday, which has split the state political parties and is threatening to deepen the regional divide between Kashmir and Jammu.
This is the first time that a resolution has been moved and passed in the memory of the last Dogra monarch, who is viewed through different political prisms in the state.
The move, however, is largely being seen as the BJP’s growing assertion in state affairs. Since the party allied with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to form the state government in 2015, it has been behind several controversial issues from demanding the settlement of West Pakistan refugees in J&K to setting up separate colonies for migrant Pandits in Kashmir.
On January 25, BJP member Ajatshatru Singh moved a resolution declaring September 23 a public holiday, which was backed by all BJP members as well as the PDP’s Vikramaditya Singh. Ajatshatru and Vikramaditya are the grandsons of Hari Singh and sons of veteran Congress leader Karan Singh.
Speaking on behalf of the government, PDP member and education minister Naeem Akhtar credited Hari Singh with maintaining the state’s identity and secular character, but urged Ajatshatru to withdraw the resolution, assuring him that the proposal could be considered in the future. However, given the absence of opposition National Conference and Congress, the house passed the resolution through a voice vote on January 25, 55 years after Hari Singh’s death.
While the National Conference staged a walkout from the legislative council, demanding a withdrawal of the resolution, the issue has rocked the assembly as well.
“It is the murder of the democracy… this is disrespect to the people who gave their life while fighting the autocrats,” said independent MLA Engineer Rashid who even disrupted the proceedings of the assembly.
Maharaja Hari Singh – a controversial ruler
Hari Singh, the last of the four Dogra rulers of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, has remained a controversial figure. His rule began in 1925 and lasted till 1949, although he retained the title of maharaja till 1952 when the monarchy was abolished. As maharaja, he signed the instrument that resulted in his princely state joining the Union of India.
While historians credit him for bringing reforms in the education sector, for introducing laws to prohibit child marriage and bringing state subject law that prevents outsiders from owning property in J&K, there is a counter argument that his rule can’t be viewed in isolation from the nature of colonial orders that were operating at the all-India level.
By the time he ascended the throne, a people’s movement led by Sheikh Abdullah, the founder of the National Conference, had already gained momentum.
“It is in the context of the anti-colonial movement that [the] maharaja’s flexibility as far as matters of governance are concerned has to be seen,” said historian and commentator Ashiq Hussain.
For J&K’s Muslim majority community, Hari Singh was a tyrant who would force people into usury and bonded labour, and had deprived them of their rights.
But for mainland Jammu, the Dogra rule meant the concentration of power within the region and thus abolition of the autocracy meant a loss of their political supremacy to Kashmir. Having a state holiday on his birth anniversary won’t just be about “celebrating” the monarch as a historical figure; it also gives a sense of achievement to Jammu for whom he was a symbol of Jammu’s dominance across the state.
The Dogra rule lasted in J&K for over a century, starting from 1846. During this period, according to Hussian, “lakhs of people were systematically persecuted” in all three regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – by successive rulers to maintain their grip over the territory. Educated in London, Hari Singh represented the colonial power structure and soon after he took over as the last ruler of J&K, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Jammu.
July 13, 1931, marked the beginning of the nearly two-decade long struggle led by Sheikh against Hari Singh, which culminated with the end of his rule. On that day, 21 Kashmiris who were protesting outside the Srinagar’s Central Jail, fell to the bullets of Hari Singh’s forces. Since then, the day has been observed as Martyrs’ Day in the state and every year the chief minister visits the graves of the 21 Kashmiris to pay tribute.
In his book Being The Other: The Muslim in India, Saeed Naqvi quotes Ian Stephens, editor of the British paper The Statesman, on the massacre. “Over 2,37,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated – unless they escaped to Pakistan along the border – by the forces of the Dogra state headed by the Maharaja in person and aided by the Sikhs. This happened in October 1947, five days before the Pathan invasion and nine days before the Maharaja’s accession to India,” the book quotes, suggesting this happened with the approval of Hari Singh.
More trouble for PDP?
In Kashmir, the PDP’s support for passage of the resolution is seen as “yet another surrender to the BJP for the power” at a time when the party’s credibility is recovering from the dent left by the 2016 uprising in which 96 civilians were killed by the security forces.
On her visit to the martyrs’ graveyard on July 13 last year, Mehbooba, while paying tributes to the 21 Kashmiris, described them as “brave heroes” who laid the foundation of democracy in the state in 1931. “They laid down lives against suppression and autocratic rule,” she said. “The biggest tribute to these martyrs would be to uphold democratic values for which they fought.”
However, her alliance partner, the BJP, has never accepted this important event in history and none of its ministers or leaders have visited the graveyard.
Now, ironically, J&K will observe Martyrs’ Day and have holidays on the birth anniversaries of Abdullah and Hari Singh.
“There can’t be a comparison between Sheikh sahab and him [Hari Singh]. They are opening the old wounds to bring back the ghastly memories of the times gone by. They (the government) are pitting one region of the state against another,” cautioned National Conference additional general secretary Mustafa Kamal.