Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris

By Christopher Snedden

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We now come to an intriguing matter concerning the Sikh Empire: the significant role played by two powerful and influential brothers from Jammu, Gulab and Dhyan (Dhian) Singh. In particular, as we shall see, the British took Raja Gulab Singh very seriously. The Sikh Empire had many non-Sikhs serving as soldiers and administrators. These included Gulab and Dhyan Singh, plus their other brother, Suchet, from the Jammu area that was located immediately to the south of Kashmir and north of the Sikh Empire’s Punjab heartland. Jammu had some strategic importance as its hilly uplands were relatively remote from traditional invasion routes into India that crossed Punjab. People had sought refuge from invaders in such areas, including most recently from marauding Afghans. Nevertheless, there was no distinct geographic division between Jammu and Punjab. Essentially, Jammu was an undulating-to-hilly extension of the Punjab plains that rose northwards to the Pir Panjal range located at the southern edge of the Kashmir Valley, with this range providing a natural boundary between Kashmir and Jammu. There also was no political separation between Jammu and Punjab, as maps of the time show. Additionally, the Jammu region was an area to which Punjabis travelled for trade, conquest, familial and religious reasons, as did Jammuites to Punjab. In a direct line between Lahore and Srinagar, Jammu town, after which the region was named, was located roughly midway. However, Lahore was considerably easier, and more attractive, for Jammuites to access. They therefore did not seek to actively escape from the overlordship of Sikhs, with whom they had considerably more in common ethnically and culturally than with Kashmiri Muslims. Unlike today, there also were no rigid political or economic divisions or man-made barriers between Punjab and Jammu, with the rulers of Jammu often having lands in Punjab, and vice versa.

As the capital of the Sikh Empire, Lahore was a major attraction for non-Sikhs. One reason was that the Khalsa Dal offered significant opportunities for capable outsiders to work, fight and prosper. This army included many Muslims and Hindus, and even some Christians, with most of the latter being foreigners. Equally, because of Ranjit Singh’s more secular attitude, people could make significant reputations in the Lahore Court, regardless of their religion. Non-Sikhs who prospered included the two Hindu brothers from nearby Jammu: Gulab and Dhyan Singh. They played a major part supporting and advancing the Sikh Empire, and their careers within it. Indeed, they became powerful and prestigious officials who enjoyed Ranjit Singh’s trust and affection. Of particular significance to our story is the eldest brother, Gulab Singh.

Writing in 1831, a well-informed Frenchman visiting Lahore stated that the illiterate Gulab Singh was ‘Ranjit Singh’s favourite and successor’.86 A later biographer considered the Jammuite to be ‘the most influential personage in the Sikh Empire and [that he] was its chief feudatory’. While Gulab and Dhyan undoubtedly helped Ranjit Singh to rule his domain, in return the Sikh Empire gave legitimacy to their rule of principalities and smaller jagirs in the Jammu region, plus some significant privileges. It was a symbiotic relationship in which all parties prospered.

Gulab Singh was an ethnic Hindu Dogra of the Jamwal Rajput clan. The Dogras peopled the hilly tract of country at the northern end of the Punjab plains located between the Chenab and Ravi rivers. The word ‘Dogra’ may be a derivation of the word ‘Dograth’, which refers to this country.88 Gulab was born in 1792 at Samba, Jammu, into a minor arm of the local ruling clan. His father was a soldier. They were descended from Dogras who established their rule in the Jammu region in the mid-1700s as the Mughal Empire weakened substantially and as Afghans and Sikhs vied for power in the north-west of the subcontinent. By the time Gulab was seven years old, Ranjit Singh had captured Lahore and made it his capital. In 1808, Ranjit captured the Jammu area, which ended whatever autonomy Jammu had previously enjoyed.

The next year, Gulab Singh, aged seventeen and with little or no education, determined that the Sikhs offered the best opportunity for him to advance his status. This possibly followed three years serving the Raja of Kishtwar, who Gulab apparently joined as he had quarrelled with the then Raja of Jammu. Gulab joined the Sikh Army as a sepoy and did well, fighting with accomplishment in many Sikh actions. These included several campaigns against the Afghans, fighting in Kashmir (1813–14; 1819), Jullundur (1815) and Multan (1818), and successfully putting down a revolt in the Jammu hills (1819). In Jammu, Gulab used his substantial local knowledge and growing reputation for duplicity and brutality to bring to heel this ill-disciplined province whose inhabitants were notoriously difficult to manage and collect revenue from. As a result, Gulab became feared for ‘his cruelty and tyrannical exactions’,89 which became so excessive that one biographer labelled the Jammuite a ‘veritable economic vampire’.

Because Gulab Singh was a brave and capable soldier, in the 1810s, he caught the eye of the Sikh Maharaja. This was significant as both men thereafter engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership that brought them extensive benefits. For the effective but vigilant Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Gulab provided a non-Sikh ally whom the ruler could trust, an important factor in a fractious empire in which Ranjit was the senior Sikh. The ambitious Gulab Singh used Ranjit as a vehicle for Gulab to advance himself and his interests. Gulab Singh apparently first came to Ranjit Singh’s notice in the Kashmir campaign of 1813, after which Gulab was given control of the Reasi area, north of Jammu, in 1815. Later, because of his actions suppressing the uprising in Jammu in 1819, Ranjit Singh recognised the Jammuite as ruler of Jammu in 1822.

Significantly, Maharaja Ranjit Singh personally attended Raja Gulab Singh’s installation ceremony. Gulab was thirty years old. Unusually, Ranjit allowed his trusted subordinate considerable autonomy in the Dogra-dominated but unruly tributary state, including allowing Gulab to maintain his own armed forces, largely unhindered.

By 1823, when Ranjit Singh granted Jammu to Gulab Singh as a hereditary principality, the Dogra had added the areas of Rajouri, Basohli, Kishtwar and Akhnur to ‘his’ state. Later, in 1834, Gulab’s forces captured the rugged and remote region of Ladakh, which was crossed by four major mountain ranges: Karakoram, Ladakh, Zanskar and Great Himalaya. This, arguably, was Gulab’s most important gain as he obtained control of the valuable trade in fine wool, or pashm (hence, pashmina), produced by goats in Ladakh and surrounding areas. Pashm was used in the important and lucrative production of Kashmiri shawls.

In 1837, Gulab suppressed a rebellion in Poonch, a jagir in the northwest of greater Jammu belonging to his brother, Dhyan. Locals still remember Gulab Singh’s brutality in this and other actions, as I discovered in 1999.

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