Maharaja Hari Singh and his era of social reform in J&K

Manu Khajuria
23rd September is the 121st Birth Anniversary of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Ruler of Jammu Kashmir State, whose Royal Title was  Shriman Indar Mahindar Rajrajeshwar Maharajadhiraj Shri Jammu Kashmir Naresh Tatha Tibet Deshadhipati. Maharaja Hari Singh was the last Dogra ruler of a Dynasty which held together an improbable State for a century. The Dogras created the State of Jammu and Kashmir which included Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan, Muzaffarabad-Mirpur, Aksai Chin and Saksham Valley with feudatories like Hunza and Nagar. It was one of the biggest Kingdoms enjoying autonomy and internal sovereignty till 1947. Not only is the State multi cultural, multi linguistic and multi religious, but it’s far reaching frontiers are an evidence of its formidable military prowess, unparalleled in history.
Maharaja Hari Singh ascended to the throne in 1925. His reign was marked by complex political events, conspiracies, and sweeping changes which had the power to completely overtake any mere mortal. Despite his inner turmoil he stood tall and stoic for his Kingdom, while taking some of the toughest decisions no other King had to before him. The fact that he maintained a dignified silence in face of vicious slanderous campaigns against him so that his beloved Jammu Kashmir could get a fair chance in an Independent India, stands proof of both his love for his State and his Nationalist nature. His birth anniversary allows us the opportunity to celebrate a modern King who was a progressive thinker and social reformer.
A Hindu King who ruled over a Muslim majority is how he is often limitedly described, but it is only right in context of current events to see how he rose above the communal stereotyping and stood by his words – “Justice is my Religion” ; his first statement after assuming the high office in 1925. A man not keen on religious rituals, he did not discriminate between his Hindu and Muslim subjects. Indifferent to the opinions of his fellow co religionists, he gave  importance only to meritocracy and appointed the best of Muslims in his court, administration and the army. Before  Sheikh Abdullah’s virulent anti Dogra campaign and many an unholy nexus that changed the winds, the Army was a fine blend of Dogras, Sikhs, Gorkhas, Pathans, Hindu and Muslim Rajputs from Mirpur and Poonch, many of whom are now in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir and still swear loyalty to the Dogra Dynasty.
Khusrau Jung who belonged to the royal family of Hyderabad in the Deccan, was in Maharaja’s employment. Malik and Nur Muhammad Khan from Baluchistan were his ADCs. Maharaja Hari Singh’s head cook and head waiter were also Muslims. His secretary was Abdul Qaiyyum Khan and one of his close friends was Sardar Abdul Rahman Effendi an Afghan refugee related to King Amanullah. In his kitchens only halal meat was cooked so that Muslims could eat as well. He was the first Maharaja of Jammu who went to the Mosque, standing respectfully throughout the prayer. After the prayer he offered the Imam who had led the prayers, five hundred rupees and a pashmina robe. His progressive views on religion caused much displeasure to his Hindu subjects resulting in rumours that the Maharaja had converted to Islam on the sly. He remained indifferent to all such talk.
Malka Pukhraj the legendary songstress and one of the gems of Maharaja’ s Durbar was not only appointed as a court singer but it is an example of the Maharaja’s progressive views on religion that he had her, a Muslim girl singing bhajans in the Mandi Palace early mornings alongside shloka chanting Pandits. “Faiths should not be so weak that they be threatened by touch. Everyone’s God is the same and the differences have been fabricated by us” is something he often said. When overpowering ambitions of some individuals coupled with the British interference lead to political mischief resulting in Hindu Muslim riots the Maharaja was shocked and deeply hurt. Malka Pukhraj in her autobiography writes that he said ” I have never differentiated between the Hindus and Muslims for the two communities are like my two eyes” expressing his anguish.
He was a King who shattered the glass ceiling in more ways than one. He passed legislation against many a social evils unlike his counterparts in the sub continent.  He abolished untouchability and sacked the priest of Raghunathan Temple  when he found out that the priest had refused entry to the lower castes despite his explicit orders. He opened all public schools, colleges and wells to ‘ untouchables’ in 1931. A social reformer both ahead of his times and courageous he was a champion of women’ s emancipation. Maharaja Hari Singh stopped the rampant practice of child marriage and actively promoted widow remarriage. He made trafficking and organised prostitution illegal. He was also successful in rooting out the practice of Sati.
A great educationist, his endeavours to promote literacy in the State were proactively inclusive of women’s education. Primary and secondary education were free. Besides making primary education compulsory in 1930, a special department for female education under a deputy director was set up. Free conveyance was provided including staff who would escort girls from home to school. Under Maharaja a special drive against illiteracy achieved a lot of success with around 4000 adult literacy centres functioning in the State.  During his reign the number of primary schools went up from 706 to 20728 in Jammu & Kashmir. Free education till matriculation, scholarships and grants for backward classes, nominal fees in colleges, and Urdu being added as a medium of instruction were in keeping with his vision of promoting literacy and higher education across a wide section of the people.
Maharaja Hari Singh left behind a stellar best practice model in the development of health care in the State. Today when  the State is in dire need of an overhaul and development of health care in all three regions it is hard to believe that it was once a pioneer in health care infrastructure, under the Maharaja’ s rule. Jammu Kashmir had one of the biggest hospitals in the sub continent – the Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. The State also enjoyed the distinction of having the first Tuberculosis Department in the sub continent. The number of hospitals, dispensaries, qualified and specialised staff were significantly increased in Maharaja Hari Singh’s time.
The Maharaja paid special attention to tourism and handicrafts industry. Gulmarg and Pahalgam were developed in a planned manner and the number of tourists increased from 8604 in 1931-32 to 24659 in 1936-37. Local enterprises were greatly encouraged and many manufacturing units were set up. The infrastructure development that he initiated building roads, bridges, tunnels, hydro power stations in addition to modern communication services like telephone, telegraph and wireless, all lead to significant rise in industrial production. In fact the increase in the volume of trade though a boon for all, was especially beneficial for the Kashmiri Muslims who were primarily craftsmen and tradesmen.  Brilliant agriculture reforms which changed the taxation system, land ownership and debt clauses, abolishing of begar and forced labour, all brought much relief to the agriculturists.
He  was a King of many ‘ firsts’ setting up a Flood Control Department, Price Control Department in the WW II and the revolutionary Jammu and Kashmir Bank in 1938 all,of which improved the quality of life of the people. In a memorable speech in London in 1931-32 in Round Table Conference on Indian Constitutional Reforms, Maharaja Hari Singh fearlessly demanded honour and equality for India. This stance earned him the wrath of the British who unleashed a conspiracy against him which finally ended with him being the first high profile exile who died in Mumbai, far away from his beloved Jammu Kashmir.
Learning by inquiry into the past, with an ability to sift through counter narratives objectively gives us the skills to deal with our present better. Though most historians have wronged Maharaja Hari Singh, safe in their popular narrative, more have now arisen to counter it, not in an attempt to seek a consensus, but because they believe that there are two sides to every story. One has been told and the other needs telling. Maharaja Hari Singh’s  legacy as a Ruler of a vast and diverse Kingdom, who loved his land and all his people, is something we need to know and learn from.
(The author is UK based Scholar)