Sikh Rule and the Kashmiri Pandits Administrators

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After Kashmir is added to the Khalsa Raj

Taking over Kashmir the Sikhs found the affairs of Kashmir in a terrible mess, but they soon found it was not an easy matter to contribute any constructive effort to ameliorate the lot of the people. Apparently the chief aim of the Governors deputed from Lahore, soon proved to be the desire to amass as much wealth as possible, and with this money they bought their immunity from the wrath of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who manifested his concern on more than one occasion over the sufferings of the Kashmiri people.

After the conquest of the country by the Sikhs, Dewan Chand remained in charge of the country's administration for a few months, but things only went from bad to worse. Dewan Chand had all the qualifications of a great General but he lacked those qualities which could make a successful administrator. Summoned back to Lahore, he presented a sum of rupees (twenty-five lakhs) to the Maharaja and thus secured his immunity. He was succeeded by Dewan Moti Ram, a man of genial temperament and a peace-loving disposition. Pandit Birbar Dar was put in charge of the revenue administration. Birbar conducted himself with great ability and tact with the result that Maharaja Ranjit Singh was highly pleased with him and on the occasion of the Dussehra festivities sent him a costly present of a Chauga, a Kalgi, a moti (pearl) mala (necklace) and a gold bracelet, and other gifts.

Some seek to destroy the mosque of Shah Hamdan

It was during Moti Ram's regime that an attempt was made by some Sikh Generals to destroy the mosque of Shah Hamdan, but at the intercession of Pandit Birbar Dar the intention was given up. Whatever the fate which later on betook Pandit Birbar, this incident is enough to show the catholicity and the prudence of the Pandit. A smaller mind with no eye on the future would certainly have seized this opportunity as God-sent. But Birbar struck a different and more harmonious note. Moti Ram too, in spite of his virtues, could not effect an improvement in the administration. The result was that after a brief period of a year he was replaced in 1820 by Hari Singh Nalwa, the famous Sikh General. Pandit Birbar remained in charge of the revenue administration. Not long after Ranjit Singh expressed his desire to meet the prominent notables of Kashmir, Pandit Birbar Dar, Birbar Razdan, Sahaj Ram Dar, Mirza Pandit and Khwaja Munawar Shah and many others including Pandit Nidhan Kaul (the writer's father's great grandfather) left for Lahore.

On reaching Daulatnagar the party was overtaken by cholera and Mirza Pandit Dar and some others died after contracting the disease. Pandit Birbar Dar and his surviving companions proceeded towards Lahore and gained an audience with the Sikh ruler. The Maharaja was highly pleased with the regularity of the accounts which were presented to him by Pandit Birbar Dar. An elephant, a pair of golden bracelets and a Khillat was given to him. Laden with these gifts and honours Pandit Birbar Dar and his party came back to Kashmir. He reached Kralpura (a suburb of Srinagar) where was present for his reception of Ganesh Pandit Dar, who was a son of Pandit Sahaj Ram Dar, and a near collateral of Pandit Birbar himself. But Birbar received him with indifference, and passed an order after some time for the resumption of the villages which were granted to Ganesh Pandit on a Mustajari basis. Ganesh Pandit Dar, a chip of the same block, could not take this insult lying down. He went to the Subedar Hari Singh, and related the whole episode to him. Hari Singh expected that Pandit Birbar would pay him a visit before proceeding to his own house which was at the farthest end of the valley. But Birbar Dar, though he passed the house of the Subedar, did not enter there, because of the in-auspiciousness of the hour.

Pandit Birbar Dar dies in prison

Hari Singh's suspicions roused by Ganesh Pandit were confirmed and the result was that their relations became strained. Birbar was dismissed and he was even charged with entering into a conspiracy with the Muslim hill chieftains to overthrow Sikh rule, after which Birbar was summoned to Lahore. Ganesh Pandit Dar was appointed in his stead and his brother Pandit Ramjoo was appointed as the Administrator of Kamraj. However, the charge of conspiracy against Birbar proved false to the entire satisfaction of the Sikh ruler, yet Pandit Birbar never able to regain his lost glory and prestige. Then reports poured in to the Sikh ruler that Hari Singh, because of the repressive measures which he had adopted against the people, the General had lost the peoples confidence. He was replaced by Moti Ram who was appointed as Subedar a second time. With the deputation of Moti Ram, Birbar Dar also secured permission to go to Kashmir. But not long after this his relations with Moti Ram also became embittered. Moti Ram sent him to prison and confiscated all his movable property on the plea that he had embezzled some of the Sarkari moneys. Not long after Birbar died in custody, a strange irony of fate that the person who made it possible for the Sikh ruler to occupy the country and who greatly contributed to the strengthening of the administration should have died as a prisoner!

Diwan Moti Ram did not remain long in Kashmir, because of the untimely death of his son, which unhinged his mind so much that he proposed renouncing the world. His successor Chuni Lal committed suicide when he was summoned to Lahore to explain his inability to collect the revenues. Chuni Lal's successor Diwan Kripa Ram was a man of luxurious habits who was always out on trips to places noted for their natural scenery. The regime of Kripa Ram was not at all happy. Both man and nature robbed it of its peace. To crown the misfortunes which the people had to undergo as a result of severe earthquakes and cholera, Raja Zabardast Khan of Muzaffarabad backed by almost all the hill chieftains raised the standard of revolt against the Sikh rule, and greatly harassed the Sikh troops.

Ganesh Pandit Dar was specially deputed to deal with the newly risen menace.Without firing a single shot the Pandit managed the whole affair to the entire satisfaction of the Sikh ruler. By his consumate diplomacy, Ganesh Pandit Dar created a division in the enemy's ranks. The hill chieftains deserted Zabardast Khan, who left alone had no alternative but to throw himself at the mercy of the Pandit who took him with himself to the Subedar. The Subedar having received from Zabardast Khan costly presents for the Sikh ruler allowed him to go after he was made to leave a hostage behind. With this signal service, rendered to the Sikh ruler, Ganesh Pandit rose very high in the estimation of the Maharaja who, as will be presently seen, employed him on many an enterprise which involved a great deal of trust on behalf of the Maharaja and tact and ability on the part of the Pandit.

Bhiman Singh Ardali now became the Subedar in 1831, appointing Ganesh Pandit Dar as his Chief Minister. Bhiman Singh did not remain in Kashmir for more than a year, but even this one year witnessed no better days and in particular there broke out a terrible Shia-Sunni riot, which entailed huge miseries on the Shias. Ganesh Pandit dealt with the situation with consummate skill and soon succeeded in restoring the cordial relations between the two communities. The majority of the Shawl factory owners were the Shias. Their ruin would have been the precursor of a greater ruin to the Sunnis, who were generally factory workers. Relief and rehabilitation of the Shias was necessary and this was done by Ganesh Pandit without any loss of time.

Ganesh Pandit and Shahzada Sher Singh

Bhiman Singh was followed by Shahzada Sher Singh, who was appointed as the Subedar of Kashmir in the year 1832. He was accompanied by Basakha Singh as his Assistant, but soon after that some events took place which embittered Basakha Singh's relations with the Prince. In the meantime Pandit Suraj Bhan who was a Kardar apprised the Darbar of a revolt on the Ladakh side which was backed by petty Rajas of the locality. Ganesh Pandit was deputed to deal with it. Ganesh Pandit Dar raised troops from the hill tribes and made for Iskardu at the head of an imposing force. He inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Raja of Iskardu. The Iskardu Raja became a tributory to the Sikh ruler, and Ganesh Pandit was granted extensive Jagirs in lieu of his victory. Ganesh Pandit was now at the height of his glory. Sher Singh sought his help for ridding himself of the insolent Basakha Singh. The Pandit who himself did not favour the presence of an intruder went to Lahore and secured the dismissal of Basakha Singh, who having fallen into disgrace secured his former position only after the payment of a huge sum.

Mosques closed

By this time the Pandits in Kashmir had come to the top in large numbers; this was inherent in the situation. The Sikh rule itself was an imposition from above. The Sikhs did not trust the Muslims, nor did the Kashmiri Muslims ever reconcile themselves to being subjects of the Sikh ruler. The petty Muslim hill chiefs were always on the war path, and though they could not withstand for long the great might of the Sikh ruler, yet the harassment they caused was by no means insignificant. The policy of the Sikhs in Kashmir was therefore to keep the Kashmiri Muslims fully and completely subdued so as to eliminate any chance of their rising. Some of the principal mosques which afforded a meeting ground for the people were either confiscated or closed for prayers. Even Azan (the call to prayers) was stopped. This reminds one of the destruction of temples for similar reasons at the hands of Sikandar and Ali Shah, though there is no charge against Sikhs of having destroyed a mosque, excepting that once they expressed designs on Shah Hamdan mosque which they gave up at the intercession of Pandit Birbar. The cultivators were heavily taxed. They were left with no incentive for tilling the soil. Mismanagement that was rampant created famine conditions. And as a matter of fact, people died by hundreds and a devastating famine soon followed. Thousands left the valley and settled in the Punjab.

A lacs six decrease in population

It is estimated that during Sher Singh's regime the population of the valley dwindled to two lacs from eight. The administrators who were mainly in charge of policies were deputed from Lahore, but the local bureaucracy was mainly manned by the Pandits. These Pandits had powerful supporters at the Lahore Court, where a number of Kashmiri Pandits held very prominent places of trust and honour. Maharaja Ranjit Singh tried on more than one occasion to set the matter right by punishing the delinquents, but as he himself shared the belief that the stability of the rule in Kashmir depended upon the spirit of the people of Kashmir being in complete subjection, even he could achieve no tangible results. The Sikh policy it seems was not to allow the growth of a rich class in Kashmir. In this they made no exception between the Pandit and the Muslim. Wherever a suspicion arose about the possession of wealth by some person it was taken from him in the shape of Nazarana (presents).

During Sher Singh's regime, Nazaranas were recovered from the high class Pandits in the following manner:

Pandit Suraj Bhan ... Rs. 175000
Munshi Tilak Chand ... Rs. 75000
Pandit Himat Joo Fotedar ... Rs. 25000
Pandit Kanwal Bhan ... Rs. 35000
Shankar Pandit Kotru ... Rs. 15000
Chandra Pandit ... Rs. 25000
Other Pandits - more than ... Rs. 100000

Similarly Nazaranas were recovered from Muslim Shawl merchants. The result was that most of such people - both Hindu and Muslims - shifted from Kashmir and settled in other parts of India and Punjab where they found themselves more secure and safe. Jamadar Khushal Singh who was sent to assist Sher Singh proved a veritable engine of oppression for the people. The Maharaja soon recalled him, but even then the ruin of the country was complete. Pandit Chandra Bhan, a local Pandit, who was accused of having assisted the Jamadar in his unlawful activities, was arrested along with some other Muslims and Pandits. All these people were released only when they had purged themselves of their guilt by offering huge sums of money.

Colonel Mian Singh

Though the Maharaja received huge sums of money from Kashmir during this period, yet he could not allow the affairs to deteriorate to an irremediade extent. He had himself planned a visit to Kashmir, but changed his intention because of famine that had broken out in the country. It was time now that a new policy was introduced. Sher Singh was recalled and Colonel Mian Singh a man of a humane and just temperament was appointed in his place. Mian Singh reached Kashmir on 12th Chet 1891 Bikrami (1834 A.D.).