Martyrs’ Days: Memorializing 13 July 1931 in Kashmir: Mridu Rai
Guest post by Mridu Rai
It is widely believed that the Kashmir conflict has its roots in the Partition of India in August 1947. This view perpetuates the understanding of the conflict as one between India and Pakistan. However, recognising that the roots of the conflict lie in an earlier history – indeed, that there was a history before August 1947 – changes our understanding of the ‘intractable’ conflict in Kashmir. This guest post by MRIDU RAI, author of the book, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir (2004), discusses the salience of the events in Srinagar on this day, exactly 80 years ago.
In the darkness of despair we saw a vision,
We lit the light of hope, and it was not extinguished…
…We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river.
The vision became reality…Bondage became freedom.
And this we left to you as your heritage.
O generation of freedom remember us, the generation of the vision…
-Liam Mac Uistin
These lines of thankfulness for the sacrifices of generations of rebels who brought independence to Ireland in 1921 were written in an Irish poetic genre known as the aisling. The latter was devised in the eighteenth century as a way to express protest without drawing the heavy hand of Power’s censorship. In the typical aisling the personified nation appears as a vision to mourn the torments of the present and augur the approaching return of providence. Liam Mac Uistin’s poem evoked the solemn bequeathing of a legacy by those who envisioned freedom and struggled to achieve it to those generations, present and future, who were to enjoy its fruits. And at its heart was the invocation to remember. Such remembrance is not to be nostalgia; it is not to be a mere wistful reminiscing of the past. Instead, it is meant to serve as a powerful collective act of memorializing to galvanize a striding forward and a renovation of the past into the present and the future.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, ever since nationalism became the predominant ideological vehicle to counter colonial dominance in India, memory became apotheosized in its culture. Events, people, places, words, memory became symbolized. And memory became History; History, however, mapped out in specific ways. Memory-as-History had to perform new ideological work. In the service of nationalism, and national imagining, its labour was to secure, represent, and symbolize that which is always precariously on the verge of being lost. One such loss that needed to be captured and reversed was the oblivion that follows death. History and memory came to be mustered for the task of what Jules Michelet, the nineteenth century historian of the French Revolution, described as exhuming the dead:
… each death leaves behind a little good—its memory—and demands that we tend it…I have given to many of the dead the help that I will myself need. I have exhumed them for a second life…They now live among us…In this way is a family made, a common city [built in which dwell] the living and the dead.
The purpose of exhumation was the powerful one of turning these deaths into sacrifices. Whether or not they themselves had seen it as such, the Historian, speaking on behalf of the anonymous dead, re-signified their deaths as the proffering of life for the Revolutionary dream and for the ‘imagined community’ it produced. The dead became martyrs and their sacrifice was to be commemorated ever after for a nation—a city in which the dead and the living commune with each other—to come into being.
In India, too, nationalism partook of these innovatory elements of Europe’s nationalisms. From the Munda ulgulan of 1900 to the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh in 1919 and the many other fallen in anti-colonial protests, the anonymous dead were conscripted as the martyred foot soldiers of a nation-in-the-making. For Kashmiris, made double-subjects of the British empire in India and of the princely state the latter had installed under Dogra maharajas in 1846, nationalism’s work of forging a nation and giving it political articulation involved taking a double step. It had to overthrow the yoke both of Dogra thraldom and of colonial dominance. Their martyrs could not be the same as those of the Indian nation. And it was 13 July 1931, not the familiar markers on the Indian independence movement’s calendar, that gave Kashmiri nationalism its first sacrificial deaths for commemoration.
Srinagar, 13 July 1931
Several historians have elected this date to mark the inauguration of the ‘freedom struggle’ of Kashmiris against Dogra rule. Neither the events of that day in Srinagar nor the death toll of twenty-two demonstrators and one policeman seem so outstanding as to command remembrance when compared to contemporaneous developments in British India. But this date was not intended to serve the fashioning of the Indian nation. In Kashmir, the date’s emblematic importance drew from the fact that it was the first time a gathering of Kashmiri Muslims had openly challenged the Dogra maharaja and his government.
The portentous events of that day had followed upon rumours, spreading since mid-1931, about the maharaja’s officials mistreating Muslims and deliberately offering insults to Islam in Jammu. The report that elicited the most vehement reaction was about a Hindu police constable who had not only prevented a Muslim subordinate from saying his prayers, but had added to this insult the injury of throwing the latter’s copy of the Qur’an to the ground. Later investigation found the account of this incident to have been exaggerated although not entirely without basis. However, it brought to a head a gathering discontent born out of a number of factors other than the purely religious among Muslims in the state and, by the time its reports reached Srinagar, it set the stage for the unprecedented occurrences of the following days. On June 25th, Abdul Qadir, identified by some as a Pathan and others as a Punjabi servant of a European vacationing in Kashmir, made an inflammatory speech at a meeting held in a Srinagar ‘mosque’ that condemned the Dogra maharaja and ‘incit[ed] his hearers to kill Hindus and burn their temples’. He was promptly arrested. A general impression created by accounts of subsequent events was of an unprovoked attack led by Srinagar Muslims against hapless Hindus. However, contrary to later reconstructions of the events of the day, Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindus, shaken by the expression of such hostile sentiments as those of Qadir, had not been sitting by idly as unwitting victims of a carnage-about-to-happen either. They had been disseminating their own set of rumours to rally other co-religionists into action. One such, spreading like wildfire—and indicating the fear felt by a ‘minority’ that had until then enjoyed security of power that they were in danger of possibly losing ground in the state to an increasingly vocal Muslim ‘majority’—was that the Dogra ruler was about to lift the state-wide prohibition on cow slaughter. And were this to come about, it would have been no mean concession since the ban defined the identity of the state as one in which Hindu religious tradition enjoyed primacy. Thus, in the days preceding the fateful date of ‘matyrdom’, segments of both the Hindu and Muslim populations in Kashmir were raising their defences and the situation was moving inexorably towards a confrontation.
On July 13th, when Abdul Qadir was to be tried at the Central Jail in Srinagar, a crowd had attempted to enter the penitentiary to protest his prosecution. Retaliating, the police fired into the gathering that then scattered and went on a ‘rampage’ in Srinagar city. In Maharajgunj, a quarter of Srinagar inhabited predominantly by Kashmiri Pandits and Punjabi Hindu traders, ‘crowds of Mohammadan hooligans’ attacked shops, looted large quantities of goods and ‘committed indiscriminate assaults’. The British Resident in Kashmir had reported that ‘there had…recently [been] much discussion among Mohammadans [in Kashmir] about their grievances against the comparatively small Hindu community…which, as a result of a mistaken policy of many years standing, ha[d] been allowed to monopolize most of the appointments in the State’ (emphasis added). Yet, the Resident confessed that ‘no one [had] for a moment suspected than [sic] any danger was to be feared in the city of Srinagar’. Evidently taken by surprise by the overt ‘activism’ of the Kashmiri Muslims, the maharaja’s government devised makeshift and quick fix solutions. Relying on the tested strategy of his predecessor, Maharaja Hari Singh ‘received a deputation of all the leading Muslims of the city’ with a view to removing their apprehensions. Meeting with the ruler, members of these eminent Muslims assured him of their ‘unfaltering loyalty’. However, as the Resident suggested, the greatest difficulty the maharaja would have to face would come, not from the small Kashmiri Muslim élite but, from the public disapproval of his policies freely expressed in British India and particularly in Punjab.
The events of July 1931 had catapulted a number of new actors onto the political stage of Kashmir each seeking to capitalize on the momentum of Muslim restiveness unleashed through these incidents. A younger generation of Muslim politicians led by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah and aiming at broad social bases of mobilization was pitted against the older and more socially exclusive, élite leadership of the Jama Masjid Mirwaiz and others. These Kashmiris were joined in their competition for the leadership of Muslims in the valley, by two rival sets of interests from the Punjab represented by the Ahmediyas and the Ahrars. By mid-August 1931, the Resident was already reporting on dissatisfaction among Kashmiri Muslims being fuelled by letters from Muslim organizations from outside the state urging them to keep up their agitation. Under such prompting, Kashmiri Muslims led by Sheikh Abdullah had refused to meet with the Maharaja on August 6th, 1931, aiming to ‘procrastinate’ until August 14th. The latter date had been declared ‘Kashmir Day’ throughout ‘Muhammedan centres in British India’ by the Kashmir Committee formed only a week after the killings of July 13th and supported by large numbers of the valley’s Muslims long settled in the Punjab.
In the aftermath of July 13th, and viewing with trepidation the bleeding of political protest across their carefully demarcated and vigilantly policed borders between the Punjab and the Dogra state, the British colonial government of India exercised its prerogative as paramount power to appoint a commission, working under the direction of B. J. Glancy, to examine the grievances that had caused the disturbances. Its report of 1932 included a powerful indictment of the Kashmir durbar’s partisan functioning in favour of its Hindu subjects to the neglect of Muslims. Strikingly, the report had also invalidated the principle of ‘first peoples’ on the basis of which the Dogras and Pandits had re-imagined Kashmir as ‘originally’ Hindu. Glancy’s report provided a corrective to nearly a century of marginalizing the largest number of the Kashmir state’s subjects. Through its many recommendations, it re-inscribed Muslims into their history and region. And, perhaps unconsciously, it also redefined the contemporary territory of Kashmir — no matter what lay beneath its historical layers — as Muslim. From hereon, the challenge gathered a momentum that would end with stripping the legitimacy of the Dogra princes to rule over Kashmiris. Over the following decade, this newly ‘grounded’ assertiveness extended into a wider struggle for the fulfilment of a spectrum of economic and political demands that culminated in the unravelling of Dogra sovereignty itself in 1947.
Remembering Martyrs’ Day, 1947 to the Present
Days of commemoration are not themselves beyond History. Acts of remembrance are always intended to the serve the construction of the present, even as their legitimating meaningfulness is seen as extending into the limitless future. Whereas, 13 July 1931 was conspicuously memorialized ever since it was marked by death symbolized as sacrifice, until 1947 it had been annexed to the struggle against the Dogra monarchy. After 1947, it came to be marshalled for quite a different need in Kashmir; that of nation building. Indeed History-as-Memory can be seen as a defining sign of the period extending from 1947 to the present, bookended by a freedom insufficiently achieved through its being made subservient to Indian nationalism, on the one hand, and a final break with India’s unmet democratic promises through militant rejection on the other.
Barely fifteen years after B.J. Glancy’s remedial steps had finally reinstated Kashmiri Muslims into their homeland, this recognition of their claims to Kashmir’s soil was overwhelmed by the assertion of Indian nationalism’s sole claim to the territory of the entirety of the subcontinent—that which remained after the carving out of Pakistan—from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Indeed, since independence in India, there has been a steady recycling and circulation of the rhetoric of vivisection derived from partition narratives, of memories of the bloodbath that accompanied that division, of hyperbolically expressed fears of another partition/balkanization and of a ‘total disintegration of India’. These have served to reinforce dramatically both the idea of the nation as geo-body and of its parts as ‘atoot ang’. And secessionist sentiments and movements in Tamil Nadu and the Northeast so soon after the Indian nation had allegedly come into its own, only aggravated this nationalist anxiety. In these circumstances, any arrant expression of regional pride was deemed suspect but especially so when emanating from a province whose inclusion in the union was contingent and codicillary. July 13th would continue to be celebrated but would have to be conceptually subordinated to 15th August (and in the Kashmir across the border to 14th August).
But within Kashmir, there was still the urgent need for a commemoration with salience for its people. This was especially so since in the minds of its people the accession of Kashmir to the Indian union was far from being a settled matter. After 1947, Sheikh Abdullah’s nation-building program rested on his economic reform program, ‘Naya Kashmir’, and the ideological construct of Kashmiriyat, a regional mirroring of Nehruvian secularism in India, that asserted that being Kashmiri was more important than being Hindu or Muslim. The National Conference now appropriated Martyrs’ Day, which had in any event come to be associated with the Sher-e-Kashmir since 1931, even more firmly as its special day. However the party also grew increasingly centralized and intolerant of internal dissent as the first euphoria of snatching freedom from the Dogras began to show, by the 1950s, signs of celebration fatigue. Indeed the more intense the challenges—both external and internal—to its hegemony grew, the greater reliance it placed on jubilation, ovation, commemoration and memorialisation of that day in July now long gone to bolster the legitimacy of its dominance. As one Kashmiri, Mohammad Ashraf, growing up in those decades recalls in his blog, “the memory we have from our school days is of the massive turnout and a colourful tribute paid to these martyrs on this day every year. Every locality would send its own procession. There used to be an official procession of smartly dressed policemen who would pay a formal tribute to the martyrs.”
Yet national day celebrations are a poor substitute for effective governance. As the National Conference showed increasing signs of corruption and authoritarian overbearance, Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor, one time poet laureate of Abdullah’s brand of Kashmiriyat-informed nationalism, now delivered a powerful indictment of the redacted version of freedom that had become Kashmir’s lot. ‘…Poverty and starvation, Repression and lawlessness, It is with these happy blessings, That she has come to us’ he wrote. As time passed and the workings of human memory, in holding the past together, proved increasingly wanting, the commemorated date became a fertile ground for contest over what the past of subject and community meant. In any case, it has to be remembered that July 13th could not have universal appeal in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Dogra Jammu could not find much cause for exultation in that date and even in the valley the memory was tarnished for Kashmiri Pandits by recollections of the attacks on their community that was also part of that day’s happenings.
In 1975, the Indian centre headed by a particularly authoritarian Indira Gandhi had released a chastened Sheikh Abdullah from his long incarceration in jail, forcing the Delhi Accord on him and de-fanging the politics of independence for Kashmir he had championed on and off ever since the accession. And alongwith this capitulation and quiescence its celebration of Martyr’s Day became a more tempered affair. As Ashraf recalls for us, ‘the processions were continued on a grand scale till 1975 when there was a u-turn in the movement. The official tribute continued even after that date but on a smaller scale. The common people would go on their own to offer fateh to the martyrs as they were considered the pioneers who had in reality started the movement, which was still going on!’ Thus, as the National Conference became entirely the party of the status quo after 1975, there was also a clear disjuncture between what July 13th came to signify for the party and for the people. To the point that Sheikh Abdullah’s grave itself needed to be sequestered from the wrath of those of his people who hold him and his political successors as traitors. And more recently, with the National Conference-led state government’s even more tightened pact of convenience and dependence with Delhi, the official celebration has become a positively furtive affair. Last year, in the bloody summer of 2010, when the violence of Indian security forces had already begun reaping martyrs from among protestors armed only with stones, if at all—many of them so young they could not have been conscious of the nature of their ‘sacrifices’—the government had moved so far from its citizenry that it could mark this chief day of popular remembrance only through anti-popular seclusive celebration. Referring one last time to Mohammad Ashraf, he writes that on that Martyrs’ Day last year, the ‘leaders did not even stay for the customary speech. They very quickly laid wreaths and showered flower petals on the graves…The entire area had been turned into a virtual prison…The entire city had been put under curfew…[and] For the first time common Kashmiris were prevented from offering fateh on the Mazar-i-Shuda [Martyrs’ Graveyard]’.
This year, it looks like it is going to be more of the same. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat conference, had announced last Friday, his intention of leading a peaceful procession from the Jama Masjid to the Martyrs’ graveyard on July 13th in commemoration of the day and as a renewal of the pledge to continue the struggle for the liberation of Kashmir. However, a day before Martyrs’ Day, on July 12th, the state government has placed him and other pro-azadi leaders under house arrest. Will this be yet another year of a national celebration cloistered from the attendance of the nation? Will it be another secretive marking by so-called popular leaders of government too afraid to afford any communion with their people?
Whereas in the decades immediately following 1947, July 13th could still be remembered with buoyancy and hope, after 1989 it had become the subject of elegy. As optimism yielded to a pervading loss, as thousands of Kashmiris filled the hundreds of martyrs’ graveyards dug up in a frenzy to the bury the mounting numbers of the dead, the symbolism of grief took over and pathologized memory. There were few more eloquent voices to emerge from the turmoil of the 1990s than that of Agha Shahid Ali. His laments for the dead became the collective expression of Kashmiri grief. Encoding a powerful challenge to oppression within his verses, History and Memory were sundered from each other. Memory became the weapon of the dominated to confront History, the instrument of the dominant.
And after 1990, no memory and memorialisation of Kashmir’s past could properly ignore a gaping hole in its society. As the valley was vacated of its most important minority of the Kashmiri Pandits, the memory of Martryrs’ Day came to be partitioned. One particularly acerbic denunciation of the remembrance of that date pitched very recently from the ranks of Roots in Kashmir, a radical organization with Hindu-supremacist links that claims to represent Pandits in exile, even seeks to recuperate for glorification the unrepresentative monarchy that had been resisted in 1931. It characterizes Maharaja Hari Singh as a ‘patriot’ and the offending Abdul Qadir as an accomplice in a British conspiracy to dislodge him. Other Pandit expressions of loss and exile have been less polemically delivered and less compromised in their stand on a common future in Kashmir. They are for that reason also more poignant. In these instances, the memories of individual Pandits returned continually to retrieve a form of historical remembrance that located and supported communities of marginalized victims. And their striving found an echoing response in the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali; a lyrical recalling of the departures in which pointed divisions were sought to be dissolved in a narrative of shared suffering, extending history into the memories of those who were excluded.
Again I’ve returned to this country where a minaret has been entombed …each house buried or empty Empty? Because so many fled, ran away, and became refugees there, in the plains, where they must now will a final dewfall to turn the mountains to glass. They’ll see us through them—see us frantically bury houses to save them from fire that, like a wall, caves in. The solders light it, hone the flames, burn our world to sudden papier-mâché
Thus spoke the poet of the fractured present but with the entreaty to remember those departed; both the dead and the exiled. May this July 13th be a solemn remembering of the legacy of Kashmir’s generations of the vision. On this Martyrs’ Day, through remembering their fallen innocents, may they create a new freedom by standing up to oppression with a vision of peace!
(Mridu Rai teaches South Asian history at Trinity College, Dublin. A slightly different version of this piece was first published, on 7 July 2011, in the online magazine The Kashmir Walla.)
Notes and References
 Jules Michelet, ‘Preface’, Histoire du XIXe Siècle, vol. 2, cited in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), p. 198. The translation from the French is mine and is a rough one. Michelet’s excerpted original words are as follows: “…chaque mort laisse un petit bien, sa mémoire, et demande qu’on la soigne … J’ai donné à beaucoup de morts trop oubliés l’assistance dont moi-même j’aurai besoin. Je l’ai exhumés pour une seconde vie…Ils vivent maintenant avec nous … Ainsi se fait une famille, une cité commune entre les vivants et les morts.”
 In British India, the closing years of the 1920s, following the withdrawal of the first non-cooperation movement and the pro-Khilafat mobilization, had witnessed bloodbaths brought about by Hindus and Muslims retreating from a common struggle into their separate and hostile camps.
 I understand this may have been the Khanqah-i-Muaula (Shah-e-Hamadan) shrine.
 R/1/1/2064, Crown Representative’s Reports (Political Department), Maharaja Hari Singh’s Message, dated 9 July 1931, IOL.
 Ibid. From the Resident in Kashmir, dated 17 July 1931 & From the Resident in Kashmir, dated 3 August 1931.
 Ibid. From the Resident in Kashmir, dated 17 August 1931.
 Kashmir First, ‘Back to 1931!’ (last accessed July 6, 2011)
 Koul, Radhika, ‘July 13 in the Pages of History‘ (last accessed July 6, 2011)
 One such example is Siddhartha Gigoo’s recent novel The Garden of Solitude (New Delhi: Rupa, 2011)