Britain and Kashmir

Indian and Pakistan border
Line of Control, dividing the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two parts, between India and Pakistan.

National census is accepted as the most authentic source of statistical information about the population of a country. However, it is not possible to trace accurate figures of Kashmiris in Britain as they are not recognised in the British ethnic monitoring system including census as a distinct ethnic category. Instead they are counted as Pakistanis if originating from the Pakistani occupied ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K) and Indian if originate from the Indian occupied ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ (J&K).  Therefore, we have to rely on academic estimates. The most common and frequently quoted estimate is offered by Rager Ballard who estimates that at least two third of British Pakistani are actually from ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Based on that the current population of British Kashmiris is between 700,000 to one million.

Of these over two hundred families are from the Valley of Kashmir and the rest originate from ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Here too the centre of labour migration to UK from its beginning in nineteenth century has been the Mirpur district which is now one of the three divisions of ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Other two are Poonch and Muzafarabad.

In the period before the division of Kashmir in 1947, the migration from Mirpur almost exclusively consisted of the peasants and artisans. This fact combined with the subsequent invasion, division and occupation of the State meant that Kashmiris started their lives in Britain at very bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

For several decades they not only remained an invisible community in terms of their ‘background’ national identity but also experienced double marginalisation and exclusion in the wider British society as well as within the British South Asians. However, with fourth generation growing up in Britain, the state and status of British Kashmiris appears to be changing. Ironically most of the recognition of Kashmiri presence in Britain carries negative percetions especially in relation to such issues as Forced Marriages, segregation, Extremism and Sex Grooming etc.

This section tells briefly the story of earliest links between British and Kashmir and the arrival of the earliest Kashmiris in Britain.

“We are here because you were there,” is the slogan of anti-racist movement in Britain. It reflects the history that migration from ex colonies to UK has taken place because these countries were colonised by British.

British in Kashmir

The very first link between Britain and Kashmir was the Kashmiri Shawl, a product of the Kashmiri (Ladakhi and Kashmiri) climate, labour and skills. This unique garment came to UK within few decades of the East India Company off shoring to India. British women loved this soft and delicate garment that soon became a status symbol for the middle and upper class ladies in London and across UK (Maskiell, M.  2002).

The earliest ventures of British to Kashmir, according to Bamzai (1967) were driven by political and commercial interests. The first British in what today is known as Kashmir state was Mr. Bogle who was sent to Tibet by Warne Hasting, first Governor General of India in 1774 to explore political and commercial relations between Kashmir  Valley and Tibet. A few years later in 1783 Gorge Forster, an officer of Bangla Army entered Kashmir on his way to St. Petersburg Russia. His observations of Jammu provide interesting insight into policies and practices of coexistence or ‘diversity and multiculturalism’ by the then Jammu ruler Raja Ranjit Dev (1750-1771).

“Runzeid Dev, the father of the present chief of Jumbo, who deservedly acquired the character of a just and wise ruler, largely contributed to the wealth of and importance of Jumbo. Perceiving the benefits that would arise from the residence of Muhammadan merchants, he held out to them many encouragements and observed towards them a disinterested (sic) and honourable conduct. He avowedly protected and indulged his people, particularly the Muhammadans, to whom he allotted a certain quarter of the town which was thence denominated Mughalpur; a mosque was erected in the new colony. When he was riding through their quarter during the time of prayer, he never failed to stop his horse until the priest (Moazan) had concluded his ritual exclamation [Azaan]. An administration so munificent and judicious at the same time that it enforces the respect of the subjects, made Jumbo a place of extensive commercial resort, where all descriptions of men experienced, in their persons and property, a full security” (p:589)

Then we learn of Vigne who visited Kashmir in 1835 and produced a detailed account of the Shawl industry. Follwing the first Anglo-Sikh war, when Punjabi Sikh rulers could not pay the indemnity money, the British took over the control of Kashmir Valley that was at that time under the Sikh rule. However, instead of annexing it in the British India they transferred it ‘forever in independent possession to Maharaja Gulab Singh and the heir’s male of his body, all the hilly or mountainous country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Ravi.’ This treaty was signed on 16th March 1846 and Maharaja Gulab Singh was to pay the indemnity money of 7.5 million rather the full amount of 15 million Punjab Durbar owed to the British East India Company.

Subsequently, the interaction between what became ‘The British India’ and ‘The Princely India’ of which Kashmir was part increased and several studies were carried out of the geography, economy, politics, cultures and ethnic composition of the State of Jammu and Kashmir by several British military and civil officers. Fredrick Dew, Walter Lawrence and Alexander Cunningham are some of the most known and frequently quoted ones.

The first Kashmiri in Britain

Other regular British visitors to Kashmir were the military officers and civil servants who either did not want or could not afford trips back home during summer holidays. For such officers Kashmir became an ideal place to escape the scorching heat of Indian plains during summer. Tosha Maidan near Srinagar was one of the popular summer resorts that attracted large numbers of tourists mainly from British India. According to Yousaf Saraf (1977) in the summer of 1833 one colonial army officer Colonel Thorpe came here on holidays. While socialising with the local elites he caught sight of a girl and the sight turned into love – the love at first sight. According to Saraf she was daughter of Dayim Rathore, the then ruler of Kishtawar principality. All we know about this ‘Daughter of Kishtwar’ is that her name was ‘Jani’, and she was exceptionally beautiful and Col. Thorpe fell in love with her at first sight and could not leave Kashmir without her. He was told that the only way to marry Jani was to become Muslim. He converted to Islam and brought Jani with him first to India and then to his home, Britain in 1830s. So the first ever known Kashmiri to Britain was Jani of Kishtawar. Nothing specific is told about the arrival of the first ‘British Kashmiri’ couple to Britain or their life as to where they lived and what the three children they had were called etc.

However, it can be traced from the available information that the story of this ‘transnational’, British Kashmiri marriage did not end here but took a rather dramatic turn when one of their sons Robert Thorpe Junior also joined army and went to visit what was literally his ‘motherland’ or, at least, ‘mother’s land’, in 1860s.

By now Kashmir was turned into a Kingdom through Amritsar. At the time of Thorpe’s visit to Kashmir the state was ruled by Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the son of Gulab Singh. While in Kashmir Lt. Robert Thorpe, like his father, also became deeply involved. However, his involvement was not with the beauty but misery of Kashmir. During his stay in Kashmir, he travelled around in the state and collected significant primary and secondary data (first and second hand information) on taxation, shawl industry, judiciary and police systems and the execution of various laws and policies. He wrote several articles accusing British government of selling Kashmir’s Muslim majority population to a Hindu ruler whose rule he claimed was characterised by suppression and exploitation. He argued for Kashmir state to be merged with British India. His articles were published in Britain as well as in Indian press and as can be expected were not appreciated by the people in power.

According to father Biscoe who visited Kashmir in 1890, trouble came to Thorpe who was ordered by the Maharaja Government to leave Kashmir and on refusal was bounded with his Kahatt (bed) and soldiers carried him out of the Kashmir boundaries. He sneaked back to Srinagar but to no avail as next morning, he was found dead after his breakfast.

However the story told by Zaheer-Ud-Din (2011) informs that the Jani was actually Jana and was from Sugen Yarinar village in Budgam district. According to Din, Thorp’s father E-Thorpe visited Jana’s village often and on one of his visits he saw Jana and fell in love with her. Din does not tell why E- Thorpe visited Jana’s village? According to this version Jana was not a daughter of any Royal Dahim Rathore but a buffalo herder from a Teli (oil pressors) family and when colonel fell in love he confided to Habibullah Teli, an uncle of Jana who was in army and made all the rrangements for marriage.

The rest of the story is similar to the one told by Saraf and father Biscoe. Another additional information Din offers which can perhaps leads to the reason for the deportation of Thorpe is that foreigners were allowed to stay in Kashmir for maximum two months and Thorpe stayed longer to study the appalling conditions of people in the birthplace of his mother.

He was found dead on the next morning on the Suleman Taing Hill after him sneaking back to Kashmir on  21 November 1868. Was this a murder? Saraf, Y, and Din, Z claim he was poisoned whereas Zahid, T claims that he was strangulated. 

He is buried in the British cemetery at Sheikh Bagh Srinagar. The epitaph on his neglected grave without any cross in this Christian cemetery reads “Obit (Obituary) – Robert Thorp- Veritas (means truth in Latin) – He gave his life for Kashmir.”

His articles were published after his death under the title of ‘Cashmere Misgovernment’. The book that can possibly be described as the first social study of Kashmir provides useful information on the taxation system, shawl industry, beggar (forced unpaid labour), the 1846 treaty between Gulab Singh and British government and migration of shawl workers from the Kashmir Valley. Many of these shawl workers’ families settled in Mirpur from where along with Mirpuri peasant and workers they were to migrate to Britain in the closing years of nineteenth and early years of twentieth century.

A close reading of the Thorp’s writing would show racial and communal conotations that chracterisied the British colonial discourse. For example his main criticism of British is that instead of taking Kashmir over they handed this ‘Mulsim majority’ state to a ‘Hindu ruler’ who could not govern it because of being an ‘Asiatic’.

Another mention of a British-Kashmiri marriage appeared in the history of Asian migration to Britian by Rozina Visram titled ‘Asians in Britain’ (2002). Identifying various museums with collections from South Asia during the colonial rule she mentions of Newbridge House Museum, County Dublin in Ireland where belongings of Thomas Alexander Cobb (1788-1836) are kept ‘who married to Nazir Begum, the daughter of Aziz Jehan of Kashmir’ (p:5). Were there more transnational and cross religion marriages taking place between Kashmiris and British? This needs further exploration.

Half a century later a Kashmiri Crown prince fell in love with a British beauty but with completely different consequences than Thorpe and Jani affair. The migration of Kashmiri labour from Mirpur Azad Kashmir began in later 19th century and turned to  chain migration by the mid twentieth century. Read that in the next Issue of KashmirWala.

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Shams Rehman is an independent writer, researcher, TV anchor, linguist with special interest in the politics of independent Kashmir and Kashmiri diaspora, Transnationalism and Pahari language and literature development in Britain. He studied Sociology at Karachi University. Later, he studied Development Studies and Sociological Research at Manchester University, UK (1997, 2003).

References 

Bamzai, PNK, (1967) ‘A History of Kashmir: Political, Social, Cultural, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day’, Metropolitan Book Co, Delhi.

Biscoe, T.C.E. (1922) ‘Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade’ Seeley, Service & Co Limited, London.

Din, Z. (2009), ‘When Robert Thorpe gave his life for Kashmir’, http://kashmircrisis.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/flashback-nov-22-1868-when-robert-thorp.html.

Forster, G. A. (1798) Journey from Bengal to England through North India, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Persia into Russia, 1783-1784, London.

Maskiell, M.  2002,  Berserks: A History of Indo-European ‘Mad Warriors,'” by Michael P. Speidel, ….Maskiell, Michelle, “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000, Journal of World History 13.

Saraf, Y. (1977) ‘Kahsmiris Fight for Freedom’, Ferozsons, Lahore.

Thorpe, R. (1870), Longmans, Green and Company, London.

Visram, R. (2002) ‘Asians in Britain’ Pluto, London.

Zahid, T. (2008), ‘Kahsmiris Forgotten Robert Thorpe’, http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2008/Mar/6/kashmiris-forget-robert-thorpe-his-grave-46.asp

Photograph courtesy: isn.ethz.ch

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