Forgetting an iconic ruler of J&K

Col J P Singh
Out of all the four Dogra rulers, Maharaja Pratap Singh’s era stands out as an era of peace and enlightenment for his subjects, particularly for Kashmiris who as a result of which went way ahead of their counterparts in Jammu & Ladakh. Maharaja, as the third Dogra King ruled Jammu & Kashmir for 40 years from 1885 to 1925, the longest of the all the Dogra emperors.
He was born on 18 July 1848, corresponding to 1st Sawan 1905 in Reasi Haveli of Maharaja Ranbir Singh which is now in dilapidated condition housing the District Court. On the death of Maharaja Ranbir Singh on 12 September 1885, he was declared King by the British ‘officer on special duty’ on the very next day who also declared himself promoted to Resident. He objected to the self promotion of the British officer stating that it will curtail his authority but was ruled out.
By 1855, then Kashmir, particularly Srinagar had undergone significant social and cultural transformation. River Jhelum was the central artery of communication in the valley which was also connected to the outside world by two major road networks. They were further developed. Large and small boats ferried people and goods up and down the Jhelum and lories did the same on the land. Commenting upon his rule, British historian Walter Lawrence wrote, “He has done much to change the position of his subjects. His kindness to all classes in Kashmir has won the affection of his people”. Yet a little is known or heard of this benevolent ruler. Ironically not a single statue of this great King is seen anywhere in J&K.
In 1889 he was subjected to personal humiliation through a diplomatic ‘coup-de-grace’ engineered by the British. He was deposed as ruler accusing him of mis-governance, hobnobbing with Russians and plotting to murder his brothers and the British Resident. Since it was contrary to the Treaty of Amritsar, the matter went to Jury in London. The outcome was that maharaja was reinstated but with curtailed powers. A ruling Council was imposed upon him which included his brother Raja Amar Singh and a British Agent. Hence he had to endure and agonize over political deprivations right from the beginning. But that didn’t deter him from undertaking development initiatives for the welfare of his subjects. Despite British apathy, he ensured completion of Jhelum Valley Cart Road, a scenic mountain road of the world, starting from Kohala to Baramulla. This was the 1st major initiative in road connectivity. In 1897 it was brought to Srinagar. In 1892 Bannihal Cart Road (BC Road), connecting Jammu with Srinagar was thrown open to public transport. Besides these highways, many other roads and tracks from Srinagar to Gilgit and to Leh where built. Connectivity was extended to various other places. The benefits of these roads on general public may be judged form the fact that before Maharaja Pratap Singh’s reign, there wasn’t any Tonga / Bael Gari (wheeled conveyance), nor even a hand driven cart seen in the state. By the time his rule ended, large boats, lories, small buses and other motor vehicles became the principal means of conveyance and transportation.
He was very generous by nature and a visionary by conviction. Besides road connectivity, he was keen to connect Srinagar with rail. Survey was completed and plan prepared but couldn’t be executed because of prohibitive costs. Another dream project was to build a 79 mile long mono-cable steel ropeway from Jammu to village Doru, across Bannihal and from there to connect Srinagar by a 46 mile long railways. That too could not be started due to lack of finances. (Seeing that Kashmir valley is still not connected by rail 75 years after independence, his dream of connecting valley with rail 130 years ago speaks volume of Maharaja’s dreams of transforming his state). However Jammu was linked to Sialkot by rail in 1890 after which Jammu got connected to Delhi. Today when everyone is talking about development as premier Modi’s agenda and Nitin Gadkari push for speeding up road connectivity, let us not forget that Dogra ruler was far ahead of times to develop his state.
To improve the lot of farmers and cultivators, the dept of Agriculture and Cooperative Societies were integrated for coordinated actions. In 1887 rights of farmers were clearly defined. The share of agriculture produce for the state was fixed at 1/3rd of the gross produce. Revenue was collected in cash. The land rights gave much needed security to the cultivators and became responsible for increased productivity and prosperity as well as the revenue of the state doubled. By 1912, jurisdiction of Tehsils & Districts was completely settled. A model agricultural farm was set up at Srinagar to project scientific methods of cultivation. By 1929, the number of Cooperative Credit Societies in the state rose to 1,100 with a membership of 27,500. This enabled farmers to untangle from the clutches of Sahukars. As a social reform, ‘Begar’ in its more objectionable form was abolished.
J&K was rich in forests resources. But nothing had been done to exploit them. In a path breaking initiative in 1891, His Highness established Forest Dept which soon began to give a very good account of itself. In the very 1st year it gave a surplus revenue of two and a half Lakh. The same rose to twenty lakhs in 1921-22 and to a record figure of fifty in 1929-30.
Lot of steps were taken to popularise education. Boys and girls schools and hostels were opened. Primary education was made free. Grants for education were budgeted. Several initiatives were taken to educate Muslims. Unqualified teachers were sent to Lahore for training. One degree college each at Srinagar and Jammu were opened. First one was started in Srinagar in 1905 and was named ‘Sri Pratap College’, the other in Jammu, established in 1907 was named ‘Prince of Wales College’, commemorating the visit of Prince of Wales, the future King George V. As a great visionary, he created institutions. Amar Singh Technical Institute was established in Srinagar in 1914 and Sri Pratap Technical School was set up at Jammu in 1924. By 1938, Sri Pratap College, with 1187 students was adjudged best being the second largest college affiliated to Panjab University. 75 years of independence behind us, we are still grappling with providing quality education to the youth.
Real drive in modernisation of health care occurred during this era. Kashmir Mission Hospital was expanded which soon became a hub of health care activities. In 1889, two govt hospitals were commissioned, one each in Jammu and Srinagar. Separate Mardana and Zenana hospitals were opened. In towns and important villages, dispensaries were started under qualified doctors. These initiatives went a long way in improving health of the people. Smallpox used to take a very heavy toll of life. Large scale vaccinations were administered to prevent it.
To prevent floods in Srinagar a wide spill channel was constructed in 1904 which diverted the flood waters of Jhelum. Several irrigation canals were constructed in Jammu and Kashmir. The longest and important of these is Ranbir Canal in Jammu with a total length of 251 miles including its tributaries for feeding the rich Basmati Rice bowl. It was completed in 1911 and cost Rs. 35,36,714. This Canal also helped in propelling the turbines of the Jammu hydro-electric stations. Another irrigation channel in Jammu, the Pratap Canal, irrigates vast tracts of land in Jourian, Khour and Pallanwala. 250 rain water harvesting ‘Talabs’ were constructed in Kandi areas with a view to minimise water distress. The power obtained from the hydro-electric works established at Mohara in 1907 was used not only for lighting and industrial purposes but also for dredging in Jhelum.
Besides agriculture; sericulture, viticulture and horticulture were made into flourishing industries. A silk factory was set up at Srinagar which attained the distinction of being the largest of its kind in the world. In order to feed it with the best quality of cocoons, seeds were imported from Italy and France.
A beginning was made in local self-govt by establishing municipalities at Jammu, Srinagar, Sopore and Baramulla which improved hygiene and sanitation. Maharaja abolished Muslims Marriage Tax. He closed the state shawl industry to encourage cottage industry.
Many anecdotes are attributed to him. During the visit of Prince of Wales, he befooled him by parading the same troops of State Force infront of him seven times in different attire with different weaponry depicting a large army and hence the place named Satwari meaning seven times. In official dinner hosted for the Prince, he had rustic food and fruit items laid out depicting poverty and scaring the Prince not to venture to take direct control of the State. As opium addict, he had liking for opium eaters. He would often invite them for meals and lay the good dishes out of reach. Non-addicts who came only for a hearty meal will pull the dishes cleverly and serve whereas real addicts will have whatever was infront while His Highness would rejoice the mockery.
Maharaja left for heavenly abode on 23 September 1925 at the age of 77 having ruled the longest and done a great deal for his subjects. A question before us today is are we justified in forgetting an iconic ruler?