Kashmir: An overview of political and historical evolution

Kashmir’s history is complex and intricate, so is the story of its politics and identity. There has been a Buddhist past, a Hindu past, the arrival of Islam, a brief spell of local rule, the Mughal invasion, the Afghan rule, and the Sikh Rule. The foundation of the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir was laid by the Dogras in 1846 but the Kashmir Valley has always perceived its history, culture, politics, and identity differently –different from other regions of the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

History tells us that the Mughals actually played no part in taking the edge off the region’s poverty or help it fight famines, instead built hundreds of gardens and palaces in Kashmir, transforming it into a luxurious summer refuge for the rich. After Mughals, the Afghans not only sent the natives of Kashmir to Afghanistan as slaves, they also imposed extortionate taxes on the region’s famed shawl weavers, resulting in the shrinking of shawl industry. Next came the Sikhs, who, in words of a British Explorer William Moorcroft, treated the Kashmiris “A little better than cattle.” Finally, in 1846, when the British East India Company defeated the Sikh Empire in the first Anglo-Sikh war, Kashmir’s historical destiny got changed forever.


Kashmir has always been an isolated valley hidden behind the high ramparts of the inner Himalayas. Mysterious and difficult of access, the world had formed hazy notions about its inhabitants and the kind of life they led. Different people had a different image of Kashmir that has been evoked naturally, in India as well as across the world. The beautiful mountains and the sacred rivers of Kashmir seized the imagination of Europe in the nineteenth century through accounts of several European travellers. But it was a popular poem by Thomas Moors that actually signified Kashmir as a household name in the Western World. The magnificent handicrafts and Kashmiri Shawls had already earned frame for its talented weavers and handicraftsmen. Be it the ladies of the royal families or the common middle-class housewives, Kashmiri shawls have always been highly demanded. When Kashmir was taken over by Maharaja Gulab Singh, in 1846, it was not only looked upon as a beautiful destination of India, but a home of material and skill-rich people.

Talking about the political events that took place under Maharaja Gulab Singh, there is a fallacious belief among a major portion of Kashmiris that their homeland, ‘Kashmir” was sold by the Britishers to Maharaja Gulab Singh for a meager sum of rupees 75 lakhs. But a deep study of both the treaties of Lahore and Amritsar clear this misconception mentioning that the territories that were handed over to Maharaja Gulab Singh included not only Kashmir, but also Jammu, Gilgit and Ladakh. The clandestine negotiations occurred between the Britishers and Gulab Singh that was responsible for the switching of Dogra Rule instead of Sikh Rule in Kashmir led to the birth of the idea of “Sale of Kashmir.” This idea was extremely resented by the Kashmiris but they were completely ignored. This can be noted as reason why there are strained relations between the Dogra Maharajas and their Kashmiri riots. This makeover was a clear conspiracy between the British and Maharaja Gulab Singh to forward their own interests.

After Maharaja Gulab Singh’s death, Maharaja Ranbir Singh accepted the Governorship of Valley. There was a slow and steady improvement in the economic conditions of the people. The reason of a slow reform was the incapable workforce and officials of immense labour which were required to remove the terrible effects of many centuries of mis-government. Maharaja Ranbir Singh set up three main sectors- the revenue, the civil and the military with clearly defined spheres of work. He also took steps to promote trade and commerce as he was well-verse with the importance of good communication both inside the state as well as within the country. However, his efforts towards enhancing the economic conditions of the population along with the promotion of intellectual and literary activities among them, got invalidated by the doings of his officials who were unable to co-operate with carrying out of the modernistic reforms put forth by Maharaja Ranbir Singh.

Then came the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh, which finally marked the beginning of modern education and political awakening in the state. It was the time when Jammu and Kashmir made overall development in all disciplines. The administrative system under the rule of Maharaja Pratap Singh possessed a group of officials, which were trained in the British India in the departments where special technical knowledge was required. This appointment of outsiders in the Government engaged the attention of Kashmiris certainly for a longer period of time which played a role in rising of many socio-political and religious organisations in the state. The main objective of the establishment of these organisations was the demand for grant of employment of their unemployed educated youth. They demanded that only the subjects of the state should be entitled to get appointed to the Government posts to which, Maharaja Pratap Singh issued the orders directing his Government that for the appointment of administrative departments, subjects of the states should be given preference. With the assumption of absolute power, the resident in forwarding of the frontier policy of the British carried out several reforms in the administrative machinery that benefitted the people. It also resulted in bringing to the state, the type of education, and medical relief as then prevalent in the provinces directly under their control. Also, the land revenue was properly assessed and was fixed in cash for a definite number of years, and the share claimed by the state was greatly reduced. It was a humble beginning in giving representation to the people in the two municipalities of Srinagar and Jammu.

Following the death of Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1925, his nephew Maharaja Hari Singh ascended the throne of Jammu and Kashmir. Under his rule, primary education was made compulsory in the State, the laws prohibiting child marriage were introduced, besides being the first person in the subcontinent who banned the hoisting union jack in his country he made many reforms in the country.

If we look back over the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the last seventy to eighty years have witnessed a tragic collision between the objectives for democracy and the grey realities of war. After several centuries of imperial rule, the territorial state of Jammu and Kashmir finally emerged in the nineteenth century and as the political state only after India and Pakistan became separate independent countries. Since 1947, two opposing trajectories were clearly evident. On one hand, India and Pakistan conflict devastated daily life of people and severely hampered governance in the former princely state whereas, on the other hand, all parts of the state steadily improved economically, even though their economies remained profoundly aid-reliant. The residents attained education and healthcare where once, not so long ago, they did not possess these benefits. Roads and rail lines were built, enabling connectivity and trade. Natural resources such as water were developed, and even though these resources were shared with India and Pakistan, still the residents had more than they did sixty years ago.



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About the author

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Ritika Karan

A frequent commentator on issues of contemporary importance, Ritika studies Economics at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Jammu