In 1846 British East India Company sold Kashmir valley to Maharaja Gulab Singh. Sheikh Imamudin, the last governor of Sikh dynasty to Kashmir, resisted this deal with the support of natives. There was a direct confrontation between Kashmir people supporting Sheikh Imamudin and the army of Gulab Singh in Srinagar.
Gulab Singh’s army was defeated near Sheikh Bagh and compelled to retreat from Kashmir. Those who got martyred in the battle of Sheikh Bagh were buried in vicinity of Sheikh Imamudin’s residence and the area was named as Shaheed Gunj. The graves disappeared with the passage of time but the name Shaheed Gunj still continues to be there.
The British, however, came to the rescue of Gulab Singh. The natives were no match to the imperial army, Sheikh Imamudin had to leave Kashmir and Gulab Singh was installed as ruler in November 1846.
People of the valley were coerced to submit but Gulab Singh faced another rebellion. This time around the Muslims from Poonch challenged his authority. He ruthlessly suppressed this rebellion. In his travels, Vigne narrates that some of the rebels were flayed alive “under his own eyes… He ordered one or two of the skins to be stuffed with straw. The figures were then planted on the wayside so that passersby might see it. Gulab Singh called his sons attention to it and told him to take a lesson in the art of governing.”
Gulab Singh was succeeded by Ranbir Singh in 1857. It was during this time Robert Thorpe came to Kashmir. He narrates an incident when shalbaffs of downtown Srinagar, assembled outside the house of Raj Kak Dhar. The shalbaffs carried a mock-coffin of Raj Kak Dhar who summoned three to five hundred police men to disperse them. During the ensuing stampede several shalbaffs drowned in Zaldagar canal. Some reports suggest that about forty Shalbaffs died in the stampede. Robert Thorpe reports that number of dead was six. Raj Kak Dhar died within few months of this mock-funeral.
The main reason for British conferring title of the state upon Gulab Singh was that they didn’t want to get overburdened with the defense of an inhospitable terrain. Their pre-occupation with consolidating power in Punjab didn’t allow them to expand area of operation for their army. Once they controlled Punjab they were scared of Russian expansion in Central Asia. They developed a new interest in J&K and wanted a pretext for intervention.
They dispatched a fact finding mission to Kashmir. Gulab Singh managed to portray a better image of his administration with the help of Raj Kak Dhar. British motivated some locals to come forward with materials on mis-governance of Dogras.
Kashmir Pandits being prime beneficiaries of Dogra rule could be expected to collaborate. Muslims being uneducated were unable to do this job. British handed over the assignment to some of their own nationals. These included some missionaries and army officers. Robert Thorpe was one of them.
His father, Colonel Thorpe of British Indian army had come to Kashmir for holidays in 1833. Colonel Thorpe during his short stay in Kashmir fell in love with a local girl from Kishtwar– Jani Bibi. She was daughter of Dayim Rathore, then ruler of Kishtwar.
Colonel Thorpe wanted to marry her but Dayim put a condition of conversion to Islamic faith for marriage. He accepted the condition and marriage took place. The couple had three children. Robert Thorpe was one among them. Name Robert Thorpe depicts that conversion to Muslim faith remained confined to marriage. Like his father he too joined British army. On account of his proximity to Kashmir, Robert Thorpe was chosen for this assignment.
He prepared a detailed account about Kashmir in the form of a manuscript ‘Cashmere Misgovernment’. It was published after his death by Longmans, Green and Company, London in 1870.
The work was elaboration of land tenure, revenue administration, taxation of shawl enterprise, transportation of supplies for troops and Begaar. He exposed practices of corruption, poverty and oppression which were symbol of early Dogra administration.
Robert Thorpe did so not because he was worried about Kashmiris, but for providing a justification for British to intervene.
The book was product of his commitment to expansion of the British Empire. He wanted them to take over control of the state directly. British were scared of direct intervention lest it invokes an open confrontation with Russians who were maneuvering in vicinities of the state.
Robert Thorpe tried to pacify these fears. He pleaded that there was no scope for such an eventuality as relations between Russia and Britain, “will be those of peace, not war, and that we shall, at no distant period, so-cooperate with her in spreading the blessings of civilization and settled Government among oppressed peoples and savage tribes… an amicable division between Russian and England is quite practicable. What has not been conquered by one power might without any opposition be conquered by the other…The chief obstacles to trade in this region are in the incessant depredations and rapacious exactions made by petty Asiatic despots.”
Robert Thorpe died in mysterious circumstances. It was alleged that his death was because of poisoning. A British doctor however, examined his body and ruled out poisoning. The doctor attributed his death to rupture of heart, a natural reason.
The work of Robert Thorpe achieved the objective for which it was written. Maharaja Ranbir Singh was made to accept deputation of a British Resident to Kashmir. Soon after the death of Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Resident assumed his office influencing almost all functions of the Dogra dynasty including the one that landed Kashmir into India in 1947.
There have been attempts of portrayal of Robert Thorpe as martyr of Kashmir, in spite of the fact that his death remains a mystery and his loyalties were to none other than the British imperialism. These attempts are reflection of our mental slavery or true depiction of a Kashmiri proverb “Kashur Chu Par Darukl…” done with whatever intentions, his work nevertheless did depict realities of Kashmir to the world when Kashmiris were unable to do it on their own because of their illiteracy and unfamiliarity with English language.
(Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain is an expert in law and teaches at Central University of Kashmir. The article has been taken from his unpublished book “19 Profiles”.)