Story and art by Suhail Naqshbandi
Kashmir: a brief history
Over the centuries, Kashmir has been ruled by several dynasties and kings – from Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire to the Mughals to Ahmad Shah Durrani of the Durrani Empire and later, Ranjit Singh of Punjab.
During the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845, the Sikh Empire was defeated by the East India Company. Kashmir, which was under Sikh rule, was sold by the British to Raja Gulab Singh, the first Dogra king of neighbouring Jammu, on March 16, 1846, under the Treaty of Amritsar. Involving a sum of 75 lakh nanakshahi rupees, plus an annual present of one horse of the finest breed, twelve shawl goats of approved breeds and three pairs of cashmere shawls, this sale of 84,471 square miles included the purchase of 2.5 million human beings too.
The Dogras are a community based in India and Pakistan, who live predominantly in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, and in adjoining areas of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and northeastern Pakistan.
Dogra Rajputs ruled Jammu from the 19th century, when Gulab Singh was made king of Jammu by Ranjit Singh. His brother Dhian Singh was appointed as the prime minister of Punjab. Through the Treaty of Amritsar (1846), the Dogras obtained Kashmir too.
The Dogra dynasty became a regional power after Rajput Maharaja Gulab Singh and his subjects received special martial recognition from the British Raj. Gulab Singh’s rule extended over the whole of the Jammu region, a large part of the Ladakh region, and a large part of the Indian Punjab (now Himachal Pradesh).
Begar: forced labour
Gilgit was of strategic importance to the Dogra rulers and the British Raj as it was close to the border with Imperial Russia. In order to prevent any advance from the Russian Empire and to quell resistance from neighbouring areas, a military garrison was set up in Gilgit. Given the hostile terrain and a dearth of local supplies, coolies were engaged to ferry the supplies and arms to the garrison from Srinagar.
These coolies were extremely poor peasants seized forcibly from their villages in rural Kashmir under a discriminatory practice called ‘begar’, that is, forced labour, passed on from the autocratic administrative systems of previous rulers. The coolies had to take this forced journey through dangerous high passes and frosty peaks with meagre rations, inadequate clothing and footwear made of hay, and a massive burden of supplies. Many of them succumbed or were paralysed and maimed by frostbite.