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A State With A Contested Past

Salman Haidar

By Mridu Rai
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 335, Rs. 695.00


History hangs heavy on Kashmir. The state’s complex and contested past resurfaces repeatedly in its present-day dilemmas, and today’s headlines are often coloured by references to disputes of the past. To understand what is going on right now draws one into what is a never-ending debate about events that took place half-a-century ago or more. Mridu Rai takes us even further, all the way back to 1846 when the Dogra state was founded in Jammu, the point, in her view, at which Kashmiri society began to be riven into unequal halves, ruler and ruled, exploiter and exploited, Hindu and Muslim. In her telling, that is the source and fount of today’s troubles, and she makes a well-argued case of it.        The early story of the Jammu rajas needs no repetition and Mridu Rai is less concerned with Gulab Singh’s rise than with the nature of the state he founded. Initially, this was a traditional type of polity tied to the Sikh durbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, with fluid boundaries and layered internal sovereignty, in that the state included multiple sources of political and religious authority. The Sikh wars changed all that. The victorious British, for reasons of their own, wanted clearly defined frontiers and did not take kindly to the existing cross-holdings of land and religious endowments among neighbouring rajas. A more uniform pattern, with stronger centralized authority and less scope for pockets of local influence, suited them better.  They also gave their approval to the creation of an overtly Hindu state in Jammu, in the belief that this would bestow legitimacy on Gulab Singh, more so after the downfall of the Sikh state that had set him on his throne. Gulab Singh went up further in British esteem when he took their side during the great uprising of 1857, whereafter he was given an invented Rajput past so as to identify him with what the British took to be the pre-Muslim ruling hierarchies of India. There was an obvious gap between this Hindu state structure and the Muslim religion of most of the subjects. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that the rights of the subjects, and not only those of the rulers, became a matter of concern to the paramount power, but efforts to persuade the Jammu ruler towards more benign and even-handed governance were never more than half-hearted and achieved ...

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