Ever since its inception, the region of Kashmir has been on a roller coaster ride of disruptions.
Be it cultural, demographic, or linguistic, Kashmir’s history is long and makes it the war-torn area it is today. This history has been shaped, for better or for worse, by the Dogras, the last royal dynasty to rule Kashmir. For their time, the Dogras were among the most progressive rulers in the subcontinent, but later, they crumbled under the weight of their own ambitions and follies.
One of the key occurrences in Kashmir’s history was the Treaty of Amritsar, 1846. Signed between the British and Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu after the first Anglo-Sikh war, this treaty handed over Kashmir to the Raja for a sum of 7.5 million Nanakshahi Rupees and made him the first ruler of the Dogra dynasty in Kashmir.
Raja Gulab Singh was a practical and strategic ruler. By occupying Kashmir and some of the Himalayan region, he gained control on the Pashmina trade route from Lhasa to Europe. His military skills and diplomacy flourished the economy and made him a force to reckon with. He was also progressive and established a secular and diverse kingdom encompassing various areas in northern and north-western regions of the subcontinent.
Yet, the one reason Raja Gulab Singh will be immortal in Indian history is his invasion of Tibet in 1841. Neither Indians nor Mughals had attempted this. The king’s Army Chief, General Zorawar Singh led the Dogras to conquer western parts of Tibet and is credited with extending India’s territorial boundaries northwards. The Raja governed this state for two years before passing away in 1858, and Raja Ranbir Singh ascended the throne.
Said to be the fiercest king Kashmir valley had ever seen, Raja Ranbir Singh was a visionary and compassionate ruler. Out of his many accomplishments, the one which distinguished him was reconquering Gilgit and subjugating the frontier states of Hunza and Nagar. By 1860, Raja Ranbir Singh was set: he expanded his defence forces and reformed them according to the European model but with Sanskrit terminology, organised expeditions far and wide, set up a comprehensive law and order system called ‘Ranbir Dand-Vidhi’.
The British did not like him and his independent streak much. Raja Ranbir Singh had no qualms about it; he even kicked out a British official from Kashmir in 1873 citing the treaty of Amritsar 1846. His kingdom flourished immensely during his tenure. Yet, the Raja was not without his lapses.
Raja Pratap Singh succeeded Raja Ranbir Singh in 1885 after the latter’s death. Unlike his predecessor, Raja Pratap Singh did not antagonise the British; he sought their recognition and even approved British residents at the court who ultimately dethroned him.
However, he came back to power in 1905, and modernised the kingdom. He constructed motorable roads to popular places like Sialkot, Abbottabad, and Rawalpindi, promoted education and tourism across Jammu and Kashmir regions, and focused on foreign relations. He also built a hydropower plant.
His successor, Raja Hari Singh was Western-educated, and more inclined towards rapid modernisation, further boosting development in the kingdom. Raja Hari Singh’s bent towards independence, which he vocally stated in a 1930 speech in London, irked the British. However, they were able to force the Raja to hand over Gilgit, Hunza and Nagar temporarily – the very areas his grandfather had captured – to them, by fomenting communal tensions and instability in the kingdom. After India’s independence and the instrument of accession, Raja Hari Singh left Kashmir along with the Dogra legacy. The Dogras, once mighty and progressive, were thus reduced to mere puppets in the end.
Many problems which persist in Kashmir well into 2021 have their roots in the Dogra rule. Many events which took place in and after 1947 are related to some decision (or lack of it) by a Dogra king. The Dogras contributed to extending India’s boundaries northwards and played a role in retaining its ties with Central Asia. Their thrust towards modernisation brought infrastructure and tourism to Kashmir, which it retains, to a large extent, to this day. However, Kashmir’s current problems can also be traced back to the Dogra rule.
Particularly, Raja Ranbir Singh’s inability to override the refusal of Kashmiri Pandits to allow converted Muslims to re-enter the Hindu fold has had long lasting consequences on Kashmiri society. Had he supported those Muslims (and had the Kashmiri Pandits accepted the reconversions), Kashmir’s demographic and cultural makeup would have been very different today. Kashmir would not have been a Muslim-majority kingdom, and its accession to India would not have been a complicated issue. Pakistan would have had little to no influence in the matter, and the ‘Kashmir issue’ we know today would have probably not taken birth in the first place. By extension, neither Article 370 and 35A, nor the genocide of Kashmiri Hindus would have happened.
Raja Hari Singh’s decision to join India was reluctant, and only under pressure due to the attack from Pakistan. While the Dogras are gone, this reluctance persists in the region, and even today, the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are deeply divided on various national issues.
Too much rested in the hands of the later Dogra rulers. Understanding their follies and mistakes is essential if one is to understand the burning Kashmir issue. Keeping in mind the current political climate, it is all the more important that our decision makers learn from the Dogras on what not to do. Had their decisions been scrutinised in detail by previous Indian leaders, perhaps some of the persisting problems in the valley could have been controlled, and Kashmir would have been less of an area in turmoil than it is today. It is not too late.
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