History & Culture

Sir Albion Banerji: J&K’s Hindu Brahmin Prime Minister who engineered Muslim Uprising against the Maharaja

In order to extricate truth from the contemporary political history of Kashmir, one quite often has to wade beneath the debris of myths, legends, gossip and exaggeration. Doing so, and not seldom, one even encounters stratified layers of hearsay and rumours that have buried facts in and about Kashmir to unfathomable depths for retrieval.  As a result, distortions in the narrative of Kashmir’s political history are not an uncommon encounter.  One such distortion that has attained the status of a ‘gospel truth’ in the recent history of Kashmir and has found almost an unquestionable legitimacy is that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the architect of the Muslim uprising against the Maharaja of Kashmir.

The truth is he was NOT.

The credit of raising the banner of Muslim revolt against the Maharaja belongs to ‘someone else’ who was not a Muslim but a Hindu Brahmin named Sir Albion Rajkumar Banerji.  Sir Albion served as the Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir between 1927 and 1929 during the rule of Maharaja Hari Singh.  He masterminded to sow the seed of Muslim rebellion against the Maharaja. However, in the developing circumstances that followed, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did become a political scarecrow to challenge Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule. Abdullah only fueled and fanned the flames of the uprising that were actually sparked by Sir Albion Banerji. But that does not make Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah its architect or the chief protagonist. For the Muslims of Kashmir this assumption that he was, for all obvious reasons, however, seems to come apparently easy.

While one may not question the purpose it has served them to raise their voice against the Maharaja then and ever since, in particular, against India in more audible decibels in the recent years, yet in the process, the truth as to who masterminded the Muslim rebellion against the Maharaja has got distorted.

It needs no emphasis that history is the most benevolent dimension of mankind but only so long truth is not distorted. And once that happens, there is nothing more menacing than history to bleed humanity. Kashmir is a classic case of this axiom where truth has been waylaid.  All that is needed in Kashmir, to bring it out from the present chaos of violence and bloodshed, is to salvage truth from the debris of distortions, rumours and hearsay.

And should, unfortunately, truth in and about Kashmir continue to remain hostage to historical distortions and over laden layers of misinformation morphed by rumors and hearsay, the Paradise will continue to bleed! Hence, this paper sifts facts as they stand out. It analyses the ingredients of  Muslim uprising in Kashmir in their essential contexts and thereby dismantles the hollow statue of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah  and in its place puts up one in granite that of Sir Albion Rajkumar Banerji to be acknowledged and recognized as the true architect and chief protagonist of the  Muslim revolt against the Dogra Rule in Kashmir.

However, the citadel of this history needs to be build by the matrix of undeniable facts, if the existing castle in air is to be replaced. And hereunder is how it has actually played out:

Appointment of Sir Albion  Banerji as the Prime Minister
Padam Deo Singh served as the Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir from 1925 to 1927. Next appointed to the position was Sir Albion Banerji. He remained in office for little over two years from 1927 to 1929. Sir Albion Banerji was born on October 10, 1871 in Bristol, U.K and reportedly the first ever Brahmin to be born in England. He studied at the Calcutta University and later earned his Master’s degree at the Balliol College in Oxford. He qualified the Indian Civil Service examination in 1894. After a distinguished career in the Indian Civil Service, he was appointed as the Diwan of Cochin in 1907 and served in that position till 1914.  Before being appointed as the Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir he also had tenure as the Diwan of Mysore from 1924 to 1926. Sir Albion Banerji died in Calcutta on February 25, 1950 at the age 78.

The All Powerful Maharaja Hari Singh’s Council of Ministers   

With Sir Albion Banerji assuming the charge of the Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir in 1927, the Maharaja’s principal advisors were three in number. They were Albion Banerji, P.K. Wattal and G.E.C. Wakefield.  Sir Albion   held the charge of External Affairs. Pyare Krishen Wattal was in charge of Home Affairs and the Public Works Department was headed by G.E. C. Wakefield. Sir Albion was an accomplished administrator and had an uncanny grasp and extreme competence in matters of political nature. P.K. Wattal was a very competent officer of the Indian Audit Service and a masterly hand in secretarial work. However, he was prone to jealousy and apt in scheming intrigues. He simply did not tolerate anyone else coming close to the Maharaja. Wakefield was best described as an “illiterate European”. He exhibited traits that best proved the theory that “Europeans who served the Indian Maharaja’s displayed the defects of both”. Besides discharging his official duties as a minister he handled the Maharaja’s estate and the royal lands.

From the very inception, the relationship between Sir Albion Banerji and Maharaja Hari Singh was not easy and cordial. The Maharaja was prejudiced against Albion Banerji and that was made still worse by the combined intrigues of Wattal and Wakefield. And as a result, Sir Albion rarely got an audience with the Maharaja. He virtually carried no authority. Although Wakefield and Wattal too did not get on well with each other and were practically rivals, yet they would join hands that estranged Sir Albion Banerji from the Maharaja. In matters related to administration, Wattal alone was apt with requisite experience and knowledge. He was duly assisted by K.M. Panikkar who also had occasions to work with the other two as well.

Sir Harcourt Butler Committee on the Rights & Privileges of the Indian Princely States

In 1927, the Secretary of State for India constituted a committee to go into the issue of the rights and privileges of the Indian princely states. It was headed by Sir Harcourt Butler, one of the members of the Viceroy’s Royal Council. All the princely states prepared to argue their case before the committee. In this regard the Chamber of Princes set up an expert committee under the charge of Sir Colonel Kailash Narayan Haksar who at the time was Advisor to Maharaja Hari Singh. Sir Leslie Scott was appointed the counsel to argue the case of the princes. For this job he was paid a fee of 15 lac rupees by the Prince’s Chamber.  Maharaja Hari Singh was a member of the Chamber Committee and hence closely connected to the work related to the Butler Committee. It was on the counsel of P.K. Wattal that Maharaja Hari Singh had come to believe that Indian princes could regain their lost privileges through the Butler Committee.

Banerji, Wakefield and Wattal duly assisted by  Haksar and Panikkar who had since joined the services under the Maharaja on January 2, 1928 prepared the report for the consideration of the Butler Committee. The Butler Committee visited Kashmir in April 1928. Maharaja Hari Singh received the Committee in Srinagar. The three ministers were sent there two days in advance. During the ongoing confabulations spread over next six months between the British India Government and the Chamber of Committee representing the Indian princes, Panikkar lost his father and had to return to his native place in Kerala. However, as soon as the obsequies were over he returned to begin work at Jammu. By then, proposals were underway to bring sweeping changes in Kashmir. These developments brought the struggle between Banerji and Wattal reach its climax where Banerji was left almost without a standing. The Maharaja never so happy with him decided to terminate his services and Banerji too made up his mind to leave Kashmir. The date of his departure was also fixed for sometime in March 1929.

Sir Albion Banerji’s Exit & the Fateful Misunderstanding

But before Sir Albion Banerji’s departure, a misunderstanding occurred in the Maharaja’s all powerful Council of Ministers. As Minister for External affairs, Sir Albion was required to get the Maharaja’s prior approval for any letters he sent to the British Resident. On one occasion, the Maharaja had asked him to draft a letter in the matter of the powers that the Resident claimed over Kashmir. Sir Albion drafted a well argued letter and sent it to the Maharaja.  The Maharaja sent the draft letter to his Advisor K.N. Haksar for his opinion. Haksar along with his opinion on the matter also redrafted the letter. The Maharaja then sent the revised draft back to Sir Albion Banerji. Banerji did not like the revision made to his original draft. He suspected the lesser mortal Panikkar to be the offender and submitted a memorandum to the Maharaja in protest highlighting that he had previously held the high positions of that of the Diwan and Chief Minister in two states and even made independent correspondence with the Paramount Power (the British Government) on numerous issues of great importance and no one ever had revised his letters. On receiving the memorandum the Maharaja was greatly annoyed with Sir Albion Banerji and they parted on far from cordial terms.

The Seed of Muslim Revolt

Soon after leaving the service in Kashmir, Sir Albion Banerji washed the dirty linen of his soured relationship with Maharaj Hari Singh in public. He published an article denouncing the administration in Kashmir. It appeared in the press on March 16, 1929 and alleged the sectarian and autocratic character of the Dogra Rule. The article accused Maharaja Hari Singh of being the enemy of the people by spelling out a scathing indictment of the administration of the Kashmir State and   criticized the Maharaja’s lavish life style sustained by a poor population.
Besides all that Sir Albion Banerji wrote in the article, the telling lines read:

Jammu and Kashmir State is labouring under many disadvantages with a large Mohammedan population absolutely illiterate, labouring under poverty and very low economic conditions of living in the villages and practically governed like dumb driven cattle. There is no touch between the government and the people, no suitable opportunity for representing grievances. The administration has at present no or little sympathy with people’s wants and grievances….”

Following his resignation from the cabinet in 1929, Sir Albion Banerji left for Lahore. There, addressing the All India States’ Peoples’ Conference, he yet again spitted venom against the Maharaja by stating:

In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, injustices of various kinds are prevalent. The Muslims, who form an overwhelming majority, are illiterate, steeped in poverty, and driven like dumb cattle. No rapport exists between the government and the people. There is no system to redress their grievances. Public opinion is not permitted. Newspapers are generally nonexistent. The root cause for this is the deplorable economic condition of the common people. The people of the state are exemplary citizens but they lack every comfort of life”.

The seeds of the Muslim revolt that occurred a year later in Kashmir were sown by Sir Albion’s article and his utterances in Lahore. They acted like a spark in the hay stack.

Metamorphosis from Lamb to Lion

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was still at Aligarh pursuing his post-graduation at the Aligarh Muslim University when Sir Albion Banerji raised the banner of revolt against the Maharaja. Banerji’s resignation followed by his vitriolic assault on the Maharaja through press and other public utterances rattled the higher echelons in the corridors of power in Kashmir. The government geared up to face saving. Committed Muslim loyalists of Maharaja Hari Singh like Agha Syed Hussain, General Samander Khan, Mirza Ghulam Mustafa, Colonel Ghulam Ali Shah and others issued rebuttals that claimed that Muslims in the state enjoyed equal rights and privileges and were leading fairly prosperous and peaceful life.

Sheikh Abdullah read these rejoinders in Aligarh and from there sent a letter to Muslim Outlook, Lahore, exalting Sir Albion Banerji’s claims and simultaneously decried the Maharaja misrule in Kashmir. The letter formed Abdullaha’s first venture into politics and filled him with strange rapturous feelings.

After completing his education in Aligarh, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah returned to Srinagar. At the time, echoes of Albion Banerji’s revolt against the Maharaja were still reverberating in the valley. To fan the freely flying sparks set by Sir Albion Banerji, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah organized other educated Muslims against the Maharaja and formed the Reading Room Party near Fateh Kadal at the residence of Mufti Ziauddin in 1930. Sometime later, the formal Managing Committee of the Reading Room Party came into existence. Mohammad Rajab was elected as its President and Sheikh Abdullah as the Secretary.  Others who lent support to the ‘Party’ included outsiders like Maulana Azad Subhani, the Khateeb of the Jama Masjid of Calcutta.

By and by the protests of the Reading Room Party became louder and it formally decided to submit the memorandum of Muslim grievances to the Maharaja who at the time was away to England to attend the Round Table Conference in London. Khwaja  Ghulam  Ahmad Ashai, a highly educated Muslim and a competent writer was assigned to draft the memorandum. Following the submission of the memorandum, to the President of the Ministerial Council G.E.C. Wakefield, the government invited the Muslim representation to present their case. Abdul Aziz Fazli and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah appeared before the Council comprising G.E.C. Wakefield, Thakur Kartar Singh, P.K. Wattal and General Janak Singh. Although the memorandum had no immediate effect but it gave Muslims of Kashmir some kind of political space. In the years that followed Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, ‘the lamb’ gradually metamorphed into the ‘lion’.

But Sheikh was not born ‘lion’; he was not the architect of the Muslim uprising against the Maharaja. That title will ever belong to Sir Albion Banerji, the Bengal Tiger, whose ‘growl’ will always be heard above and before the ‘roar’ of the ‘Lion of Kashmir’.

 

The Writer is a Member Secretary of N.S.Kashmir Research Institute, New Delhi

 

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