The ignored exoduses of Kashmiri Muslims—Part I: Slavery and subjugation

British tourists and junior officials on vacation requisitioning labour under Beagar system and took full advantage of them. In one breath they condemned this custom and in the next justified it as being the only way to get "Lazy Orientals" to do any work (1910).

The word “exodus” has become almost rhetorical in the Kashmiri political discourse, however, the political connotations underpinning it have largely ignored the many mass migrations and displacements of poor Muslim peasants and artisans under Sikh and Dogra regimes.

The Afghans wrecked havoc in Kashmir, their rule marked beginning of the end. The author of history of Kashmir entitled Bagh-e-Suleiman, Saiduddin Shahabadi, wrote against the tyrannies met out on the Koshur:

“The garden of Kashmir became a wound of pain
The master’s pleasure became people’s indigence
They fell upon the soul of Kashmir
As voracious dogs set loose
The doors, walls, roofs and streets,
And every soul complained like a doleful flute
The hearts of the tyrants were as hard as stone,
They were too implacable to feel people’s pain.”

Repression from the rulers, poverty and famine after famine reduced the poor Kashmiri Muslims to the most downtrodden and underprivileged of 18th century, forced to make a choice between survival and home.

Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor would later sum up the nature of these exoduses by versifying:

“Had there been opportunities of my survival within home;
the poor would have not been roaming during the dread nights of winter.”

According to the Punjab Census Report 17 Feb 1881, “Kashmiri is the language of the valley of Srinagar in Kashmir which nowhere touches our border. But famine and other causes, already fully discussed in the chapter on the Fluctuations of Famination, have driven a considerable number of immigrants at one time or another from Kashmir into the Panjab; and the language is now spoken by no fewer than 49,534 inhabitants of the Province.”

The enormity of migration was such that in 1891 AD, “The Punjab Census Report re-enumerated about 1,11,775 Muslim born in Kashmir as having settled in the Punjab. This was equivalent to the entire population of Srinagar. According to the 1911 Census there were 1,77,549 Kashmiri Muslims in the Punjab.

With the inclusion of Kashmiri settlements in NWFP this figure rose to 2,06,180. Kashmiri Muslims migrated to several Punjabi cities such as Sialkot, Lahore, Amritsar and Ludhiana.

According to Christopher Snedden, Kashmir became Ranjit Singh’s most productive province, chiefly because of the Sikhs’ rapacious exploitation of all Kashmiris, regardless of their religion.

“Indeed, the Sikhs were even more brutal and exploitative than the Afghans, with Kashmiris suffering special taxes and oppressive measures, such as having Srinagar’s main mosque, the Jamia Masjid, closed for twenty years.” writes Snedden in his book, ‘Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris’.

Victoria Schofield in her book, ‘Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War’, explains with grief that, “Everywhere the people were in the most abject condition, exorbitantly taxed by the Sikh Government and subjected to every kind of extortion and oppression by its officers”

G.T Vigne, who visited the valley in the 1840s succinctly comments on the reasons of such a repression, he comments, “Ranjit knew well that greater the prosperity of Kashmir, the greater would be the inducement to invasion by East India company… and most assuredly its (Kashmir’s) ruin has been accelerated, not less by his rapacity than by his political jealousy, that suggested to him, at any cost, the merciless removal of its wealth”.

An unknown Kashmiri poet, rendered helpless at the wrath of the Sikh soldiers, cries in agony:

They came on the wild beasts
They ripped the hungry of bread and flesh
The Kashmiris have fallen,
Helpless, useless and unaided
Oh God do you hear the poor?

Sikh rule tried to articulate and assert Hindu and Sikh identities different from the Mughals and in doing so they made pronouncements, in the lands they captured, that were antagonistic towards the Muslims. The Sikh Darbar was situated thousands of miles away from Kashmir and was administered by the appointees of Durbar who were, as Francis Younghusband calls them, “hard and rough masters”.

When the travellers from West came to Kashmir they were shocked to see the vestiges of a past populousness while the actual population seemed thinned out. The lands had become uncultivable, the towns were rendered ghost-like uninhabited and those living, their conditions of helplessness evoked extreme pity and sadness which shall be quoted all through this write-up. There is no record of any census having taken in the Sikh Period.

Travellers like William Moorcraft and Baron Hugel give us rough figures based entirely on their judgement.

Moorcraft writes that the population of the city of Srinagar, although much diminished was still dense, “One hundred and twenty thousand persons”, he writes, “are said to be employed in the shawl manufacture alone; and although this is the chief employment of the population, yet other trades and occupations essential to the support of the country is estimated at 8,00,000.”

But Hugel who visited Kashmir only fourteen years later, wrote that the population had declined to one-fourth i.e to 2,00,000. The reasons for these huge differences in population estimates by the two travellers are obvious and often evident from the documentations in their memoirs.

Moorcroft, who visited Kashmir in 1824, says that “everywhere the people were in the most abject condition, exorbitantly taxed by the Sikh Government, and subjected to every kind of extortion and oppression by its officers… not one-sixteenth of the cultivable surface is in cultivation, and the inhabitants, starving at home, are driven in great numbers to the plains of Hindustan.”

This is the first time there are clear references made to mass migrations of Kashmiri lower class to other regions of sub-continent. To make it clear, there were three classes during the Sikh rule: The upper class Sikh nobility, the middle class Pandit and elite Muslims who were employed in revenue and administration and the lower class Muslim peasants and artisans.

Moorcraft goes to mention that cultivators were “in a condition of extreme wretchedness and the Government, instead of taking only one-half of the produce on the threshing-floor, had now advanced its demands to three-quarters.”

Every shawl was taxed 26 per cent upon the estimated value, besides which there was an import duty on the raw material with which they were manufactured, and a charge was made upon every shop or workman connected with the manufacture.

Baron Charles Hugel, who visited Kashmir in 1840’s wrote with much horror about the shawl manufactories, “One of the most wretched abodes that my imagination could well picture”.

Every trade was taxed says Moorcroft, “butchers, bakers, boatmen, vendors of fuel, public notaries, scavengers, prostitutes, all paid a sort of corporation tax, and even the Kotwal, or chief officer of justice, paid a large gratuity of thirty thousand rupees a year for his appointment, being left to reimburse himself as he might”.

The country was divided into 36 Parganas and each Pargana was under a revenue farmer. He had to pay a fixed amount to the Governor and was free to collect as much as he could from the poor peasants.

Another important official in Pargana, the Sikh kotwal was in-charge of a body of troopers and had to perform the varied duties of a police officer, public works officer, sanitary officer, etc. But more often he perpetrated deeds of violence and oppression on the people than looked after their comfort. And many a kotwal levied unauthorised tolls and taxes on the people, the proceeds of which he pocketed himself.

Besides the land revenue, the Sikhs levied a number of taxes and duties. Toll at the rate of one tanga was taken from every traveller who passed the Pir Panjal and the Banihal Passes. Imports from India were heavily taxed and so was the shawl-wool coming from Tibet.

At Baramgala, the entrance to the Valley via Pir Panjal, duty on salt was realized at the rate of a rupee for a man’s load; the annual produce of this duty being said to have amounted to 2,000 rupees. Moorcroft states that, “At the time of our visit the sum paid by the farmer was thirty-eight lakhs of Punjab rupees, equal to twenty-nine lakhs of Sicca rupees, or about two hundred and ninety thousand pounds; but a much larger sum was extorted from the people, although it was only to be realized by the greatest rigour and oppression”.

The practice of Beaggar (forced labour) which was initially started by the Afghans continued and reached to its worst during the Sikh rule. Poor Muslim peasants were selected randomly and sent off to far off areas like Glilgit. Majority of them would never return. The Sikhs, Moorcroft goes on to mention, “seemed to look upon the Kashmirians as little better than cattle … the murder of a native by a Sikh is punished by a fine to the Government from sixteen to twenty rupees, of which four rupees are paid to the family of the deceased if a Hindu, and two rupees if a Mohamedan.”

Rows of old & infirm women clearing weeds at Polo-ground under the Beaggar system with a supervisor keeping an eye on them with a long cane in his hand to punish them in case they slow down (1890).


The effect of this oppressive taxation was the abject poverty the common Kashmiri lower class were thrust into and as result many of them started to flee the country towards greener pastures of Lahore and Amritsar. When Moorcraft left the Valley in 1823, about 500 emigrants accompanied him across the Pir Panjal Pass.

Villages, where Moorcroft stopped in the Lolab direction, were half-deserted, and the few inhabitants that remained wore the semblance of extreme wretchedness. Islamabad was “as filthy a place as can well be imagined, and swarming with beggars.” Shupaiyon was not half-inhabited, and the inhabitants of the country round, “half-naked and miserably emaciated, presented a ghastly picture of poverty and starvation.”

Vigne who visited Kashmir in 1835 provides picture of this desertion of the Mulk-e-Kashmir by its poor natives. According to him “Shupaiyon was a miserable place, bearing the impression of once having been a thriving town. The houses were in ruins.” Islamabad was “but a shadow of its former self.” The villages were fallen into decay. The rice-ground was uncultivated for want of labour and irrigation.

To add to the misfortune of the Muslim peasants, in 1832-33 a severe famine caused the death of thousands of people, so much so, that when Colonel Mian Singh came as the Sikh Governor in 1833, he witnessed from the balcony of the Shergarhi Palace that there was not a single lamp lit in the city and heard no cock crowing in the morning, all the fowls having been eaten by the famine-stricken.

In an anthology of 70 research documents on the history and culture of undivided Punjab called ‘Punjab revisited’ a reference is made to the famines “Owing to a large influx of Kashmiris into Amritsar during the great famine which occurred in Kashmir in the year 1833 A.D., the number of shops increased in Amritsar to 2,000 and the yearly out-turn of pashmina work to four lacs of rupees.” Thus emigration had reduced the population to one-fourth by 1836.

Dogra rule was declared a “Dharam Raj” by Gulab Singh.

Dr. Elmslie who stayed in visited Kashmir from (1865-1872) laments that out of 45 Jagirs only 5 belonged to Muslims (95% of population). Muslim peasants worked as dumb cattle on fields of Pandits and some elite Muslims.

The peasants were forced to pay various kinds of taxes on cows, houses, fruit orchards, and household animals etc. The artisans and craftsman were forced to work for rich till they lost their eyesight. Under Dogra regime, those overburdened with taxes had their houses and cattle seized.

Poet Wahab Pare laments:

How many oppressions of the time can I count?
The authoritarian rulers have steeped the Mulk into chaos.
Anyone who is employed has to pay tax,
The plundering department is called Nakdi Mahal (cash only)
How many oppressions can I count on my fingers?
Every lion here has a hundred or more dogs with him to rip the people apart.

John. B Ireland, an American who visited Kashmir in 1850s, exclaimed in wonder that, “on the birth of every lamb the owner must pay a tax of one Anna,.. the birth of calf is four annas. For a marriage one rupee. A fishing boat four annas per day. Walnut trees ten annas a year for the oil, and if the crop fails, must be made up with ghee”.

Kashmir Pandits and elite Muslims on the other had were waived off from such taxes. They were expected to pay only 1 trak for a kharwar wherever they cultivated the land.

The Muslim cultivator, hence, had to feed not only the Dogra Durbar but the whole contingent of the middlemen between himself and the state, most of whom were Pandits.

Similarly, under Dagh Shawl system, Muslim shalbaf (shawl weavers) had to pay Rs. 5 in taxes out of a maximum earning of Rs. 7-8 per month. The taxation was worse than those imposed by the Sikh officials.

Robert Thorpe in his account recalls the apathy of a worker in shalbaf industry, “Only death could act his saviour against the exploitation of state.”

The officials additionally benefited from the sale of peasant labour to the state and the foreign visitors. Although, it was not an innovation of the 19th century Kashmir, its institutionalisation as an integral plan of administrative and economic structure was certainly unprecedented.

In Kashmir Beaggar existed in many forms. The most conspicuous form of it was the Gilgit Beaggar named so because the peasants were used as porters for carrying goods and supplies for the Kashmir troops stationed in Gilgit – the harsh mountainous outpost to the north of Kashmir at a distance of about 300 miles from Srinagar.

In the absence of any pucca road leading there, and an inadequate transport system, peasants particularly from the countryside were pressed into service for transportation of supplies. Without any provision for remuneration, all that they were provided with was a seer (800gms) of rice per day, enough to keep body and soul together, and the straw for making their straw shoes.

Two young Kashmir labourers on Beaggar duty on Gilgit road in 1914. The heavy load of about 200kg could not be carried by a single horse, so an ingenious method was devised so that the load can be carried by a pair of labourers together.


Every year thousands of coolies would be pressed for the carriage of loads to Gilgit, of whom very few returned to their homes with the result that ‘Gilgit had become almost synonymous with ‘hell’. Besides the fact that the peasants were forced to do this labour and were paid no wages at all, what made the journey worse were the passages leading through narrow passes and mountains that often exposed the coolies to frost-bite and sickness; starvation and cholera were not uncommon.

As a result, most of the coolies would perish en-route to Gilgit or on their way back home. Unburied corpses on the Giljit road was a common sight.

The third Dogra ruler, Pratap Singh (1885-1925), while on an inspection tour to Gilgit in 1893, himself saw skulls and bones of men scattered at a spot. Some coolies were sold as slaves to the wild inhabitants of that inhospitable region. The poor Muslim peasants were reduced to animals of burden without any hope for wages for such a labour.

The famine hit the poverty trodden again in 1877-78. Heavy rain fell in the autumn, before the crops were gathered in. The rice and maize which was the staple foods rotted till half was lost. During the winter, rain continued. Combustion set in and the grain became black and rotten. When it was evident that there would be no rice and maize for food, the officials became nervous and ordered to sell at cheap rates the grains collected in revenue and stored by the government, without husbanding a portion for seed purposes.

The Foreign visitor, Missionary Arthur Neve, who was then posted in Srinagar, has left the following records of the Famine:

“but the fatal mistake was the great delay in making the official assessment of the crops that autumn. In those days all taxes were levied in kind, and the village assessment was not made till the crops were ripening. It was commonly believed by all the Mohammedan cultivators that the delay was deliberate, as the result of orders by Wazir Pannu to punish the Mohammedans, who had the previous year sent a deputation to complain to his highness of the exactions of one or two of his chief officials… And there were gruesome stories of the rapacity of many of the officials in buying up rice and retailing at huge profits, through other contributed to relief funds. There was even a rumour that some hundreds of starving people had been purposely drowned in the Wular Lake, to which colour was lent by the student death of an eye-witness and informer within a few hours of making the report”.

Lawrence cites in his book, Valley of Kashmir “when I commenced the work of inspecting villages in A.D 1889, there was hardly a village where I did not see deserted houses and abandoned fields, the owners of which had perished in the great famine of A.D.1878”.

The condition of the people was described by a Mr. Wade of church mission society in these words, “Men, women and children are dying now daily of starvation and many others are seen on every side crawling about who bear the seal of death on them. Quiet recently I have seen them dying in their villages, unsheltered and uncared for, lying in mire and filth, too weak to rise, and only able to open and shut their mouth to signify that it was food they wanted, and their relations and neighbours, when money was given them, would look up hopefully and say: ‘for Gods sake give us a little food.’ I have seen them lying dead in their houses with starving ones waiting their turns to die; dead by the roadside, their relations and their friends too poor to obtain a piece of cloth in which decently to wrap them, or unknown and therefore, unburied; in one case at least the body had been half-devoured by birds and beasts.”

In this situation the Kashmiri Muslim had only two options to survive, either to bow down to enforced hunger and death before the authority or to migrate from Kashmir. Even migration was a punishable crime. During Ranbir Singh’s rule when a number of Muslim families tried to move to Lahore and other Muslim majority areas several migrants were drowned in Wular Lake as a punishment for migration.

According to Ayesha Jalal, “Kashmiris settled in other parts of India, especially Punjab and the NWFP, retained emotional and familial links with their original homeland. Like most diasporic movements, that of Kashmiri Muslims drew upon the myth of return and the vision of a free and prosperous Kashmir.”

The conditions of these Muslims was no better even after migration. Under all the international laws of that time anyone resident in a place for more than five years enjoyed the same rights as its indigenous inhabitants but since “Kashmiri” referred to a distinct nationality, the term became an implement for discrimination, a distinct nationality never accepted by Punjabis for decades. They did not enjoy equal property rights even after years of living and working in these distant lands. Muhammad Iqbal’s family is one such example, which could not own a home for decades after their migration from Kashmir.

Iqbal, harks back to the homeland of his forefathers with a lament:

Tor iss dast-i-jafakesh ko yarab jisne
Ruh-i-azadi-i-Kashmir ko pamal kiya.

The first exodus of Kashmiri Muslims, which spans roughly over 200 years, remains buried in the travelogues and memoirs of the Western travellers and the torn record books of official censuses.

While the numerical, emotional and human magnitudes of the tragedy are humongous, the phenomenon has hardly made to serious intellectual and political discussions of current times.


Image Credits: Showkat Rashid Wani.

Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, a medical Doctor by profession, and a student of history. 


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