Maharaja Hari Singh: A modern, progressive ruler

Raman Suri
Through the declaration of October 26 and September 23 as holidays on account respectively of the Accession Day and the Birth Anniversary of Maharaja Hari Singh, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has set a new target for itself to make both these events memorable and worth remembering for ages to come. Primarily what’s needed is a chapter on Maharaja Hari Singh’s life in the history books of Jammu and Kashmir, a museum solely dedicated to the works and life of Maharaja, a statue in Kashmir as well as in Ladakh and week-long festivities in each district every year.
A long-drawn struggle and old desire of the majority of those who had not even seen the Maharaja has finally its desired results. Known for his massive reforms, Maharaja Hari Singh was the fourth and the last Dogra monarch of the erstwhile princely state who ruled from 1925 to 1947 and stood witness to several historical events that unfolded in due course of time, revealing his abilities to handle all situations meticulously. For him, everyone was equal and he ensured that each one got equal opportunities of progress under his kingship.
From eradicating illiteracy to social evils and inequality from the state, he ensured that farmers got their dues. The agriculture reforms that he introduced liberated farmers from the clutches of moneylenders. Sensing the developments unfolding immediately after independence in 1947, he was quick to sign the Instrument of Accession with India on October 26 to enable the Indian army descend in Kashmir to fight and push back Pakistani intruders and tribal raiders. Thereafter, political developments made him live in Mumbai, where he breathed his last in 1961.
This is most unfortunate that Jammu and Kashmir took so many years to recognise Maharaja’s contribution, but finally it is joyful that now J&K has given him his due respect. Now that we have two holidays connected directly or indirectly to Maharaja of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, we need to move a step further to ensure that his rule and reforms are reflected properly. Buildings like Amar Mahal Museum, the golden throne, artifacts, arms and ammunition dumped in Tosha Khana and documents lying in archives should become a part of history teaching.
The move will connect people with the history for ages to come. We are already late and from here onwards we need to pace up. It was only in 2007 that the first Park dedicated to the Maharaja Hari Singh was inaugurated near Civil Secretariat in Jammu. Thereafter, magnificent statues of Maharaja were unveiled near Tawi bridge, one near Bagh-e-Bahu, another one on the banks of river Tawi, in Samba district near Veer Bhoomi Park, and inside BJP headquarters at Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Bhawan, Trikuta Nagar, Jammu.
Before 1947, Jammu and Kashmir was one of the 562 princely states that acceded to India. One last hitch called Article 370 that was a hurdle in the development of J&K was also abrogated on August 5, 2019 and the erstwhile state was bifurcated into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh based on geographical, cultural and political aspects. This was the day when erstwhile state’s own code of punishments called Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) besides State Subject laws were also repealed and whatever residual shortcomings in the accession were spoken about, were done away with.
Today when everyone in trying to cash in on the declaration of public holiday, the fact remains that the contribution of each and every individual including social and political organisations is acknowledged. This is also a fact that as the BJP government at the Centre and Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha administration in J&K were sensitive towards the public demand, they realised the gravity of the situation and decided to declare September 23 as public holiday. From here onwards, we need not indulge into petty politics but find a way forward as to how and when a statue of Maharaja is installed in Kashmir and Ladakh besides a chapter on his life and rule is added into the school text books.
Maharaja Hari Singh, who was an alumnus of Mayo College Ajmer, after completion of his military training at British-run Imperial Cadet Corps at Dehradun was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the State Forces in 1915 by Maharaja Pratap Singh. After becoming the ruler of J&K, he conducted free and fair elections and also formed Praja Sabha Jammu and Kashmir in Legislative Assembly to rule by laws implemented under the Ranbir Penal Code (R.P.C) which the Praja Sabha pronounced. He wanted the assembly to have a democratic set up.
The 75-member structure of Praja Sabha formed by Maharaja included twelve government officials, sixteen state councillors, fourteen nominated and thirty-three elected representatives. This 33 elected member assembly had 21 Muslims, 10 Hindus and 2 Sikhs. Recommendations of the house were suitably honoured by Maharaja who also ensured that primary education is compulsory in the state. Prohibiting child marriage and opening places of worship for everyone were other social reforms that Maharaja executed under his seal and signature.
Bestowed with several honours, the last Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir ruled for 29 years and died at the age of 66 but had made immense contribution to uplift the lives of common masses. Born to Raja Amar Singh and Bhotiali Chib on 23 September 1895 at the palace of Amar Mahal Jammu, he was made the King of J&K in 1923 but after independence when monarchy was abolished, he moved to Bombay and breathed his last there on April 26, 1961.
Maharaja Hari Singh was the only surviving son of Raja Amar Singh, the brother of Maharaja Pratap Singh, the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the Maharaja had no issue, Hari Singh became his heir to the throne of Jammu and Kashmir. At the time when monarchy was abolished, he was forced by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel to appoint Sheikh Abdullah as the Prime Minister of J&K.
The story of Maharaja’s life follows. His three wives couldn’t bear any child and died. Hari Singh finally married Tara Devi Sahiba of Kangra and the couple was blessed with a son Karan Singh, who rose to become ‘Sadr-e-Riyasat’ in 1952 and Governor in 1964. The successive governments are required to collect and display everything connected with Maharaja Hari Singh in a separate museum where his vast empire that stretched up to Poonch and Chenani, Kashmir and Frontier Provinces of Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit are showcased. Hari Singh’s handling of food shortage in Kashmir way back in 1921-22 is still remembered by people.
The erstwhile King was in favour of education for all including women and he took decisions to abolish gender-biased practices. Instrumental in eradicating many social evils like female infanticide and dowry, he is also known for abolishing polyandry which was prevalent in Ladakh. Immoral trafficking in women was stopped and women were trained in handicrafts so that they could become financially independent. He also advocated for widow remarriage, ownership of property rights to women and also empowered women by establishing a separate women education department.
His other reforms include inter alia, eradication of untouchability. An avid animal lover, he was the first King to establish a sheep farm, sheep husbandry department, and also introduced many small animal rearing schemes which helped nomadic tribes like Gaddis, Gujjars, Bakerwals, Changpas and Chopans enormously. Mobile dispensaries for people were introduced as health care reforms. A strong believer of the freedom of press, he also encouraged many to start publications of newspapers both from Srinagar as well as Jammu and also introduced the Press and Publication Act in April 1932.
Many historians believe that Jammu and Kashmir that came into existence in 1846 was a perfect example of British-assisted expansionism. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the Sikh empire disintegrated. The British annexed Punjab and through the Treaty of Lahore on March 9, 1846, they forced the Sikhs to cede Kashmir to the British. The British, through the Treaty of Amritsar on March 16, 1846 then sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the Dogra chieftain of Jammu who served the Sikh empire, for 75 lakh Nanak Shahi rupees.
Today, when Jammu and Kashmir is jubilant over the recognition of Maharaja’s reformative rule, he, for centuries ahead will be remembered as the most progressive and modern ruler of J&K who unfortunately died in oblivion in Mumbai and was cremated in Chandanwadi crematorium. His ashes, as desired, were however flown to his home in Jammu and immersed in River Tawi and also scattered over this City. It is hoped that a chapter in textbooks and a museum solely dedicated to Maharaja Hari Singh will be next in line before the celebrations of this particular holiday begins next year.
(The writer is Bharatiya Janata Party J&K Executive Member)