Kashmir: Unsung heroes of the world’s first labour movement

Not many people know that the first trade union movement in the world has origins in Kashmir dating back to 1865.

ACROSS the globe, people observe Labour Day on May 1 to commemorate the protests in 1886 at Haymarket Square, Chicago and express solidarity with workers.

But not many people know that much before this incident, the world’s first organised labour and trade union movement had taken place in the streets in Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

Almost 21 years before the Haymarket incident, weavers and workers associated with shawl weaving took to the streets of Srinagar on April 29, 1865, protesting against high taxes.

At least 28 workers were killed and hundreds injured by the State action by the Dogra administration, which ruled the independent country of J&K at that time.

The first known workers’ protest was by the shawl weavers of Kashmir, who were protesting against their miserable plight in 1865. This image is representational and AI generated.

Kashmiri shawls in history

For centuries, Kashmiri shawls— soft rugs loosely worn over shoulders— have mesmerised the world receiving accolades from even Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ever-extravagant wife, Josephine, is said to have owned as many as 60 of them that Napoleon had taken from the Turkish treasury in Egypt.

Empress Josephine wearing a pashmina shawl from Kashmir. Source: Antoine Jean Gros. Wikimedia Commons

Not only was the Kashmiri pashmina shawl a symbol of high fashion in Europe, where it is better known as Cashmere, and elsewhere, because of its soft material and exquisite designs, but its high cost also made it a status symbol.

Almost 21 years before the Haymarket incident, weavers and workers associated with shawl weaving took to the streets of Srinagar on April 29, 1865, protesting against high taxes.

It is said that Mughal emperors were fond of Pashmina shawls and would often gift them to foreign dignitaries, contributing to their popularity in Europe.

A portrait of Abd-ar-Rahim, a Mughal noble, wearing a Kashmiri shawl. He was a poet and patron of the arts and served as the khanikhana, or commander in chief, of the Mughal armies during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (Image Credit: Freer Gallery of Art)

Experts say the history of shawl weaving in the region dates back to ancient times. Historian Zain-ul-Abideen Rahinuma, while listing many things that Hazrat Khadija brought along with her when she married Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the year 595, also mentions a Kashmiri shawl.

Rahinuma has written an elaborate profile of Hazrat Khadija and has listed the items she carried in her trousseau.

According to the Treaty of Amritsar of 1846, between the British East India Company and the Dogra ruler, Gulab Singh, the latter was expected to annually give the British government three Pashmina shawls.

Article 10 of the treaty states, “Maharaja Gulab Singh acknowledges the supremacy of the British government and will in token of such supremacy present annually to the British government one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls.”

Pashmina goats in Changthang in Ladakh region of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The plight of Pashmina shawl artisans

Despite the popularity of this loom, historians have recorded that back in Kashmir, the condition of those associated with the production of shawls was pathetic.

Shawl makers of Kashmir: This chromolithograph is taken from plate 2 of William Simpson’s ‘India: Ancient and Modern’. Downloaded from the British Library Web Site. Transferred from en.wikipedia

According to Mridu Rai, author of Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir, the system of taxation imposed by Hindu Dogra rulers in the region was such that only the barest margin of subsistence was allowed to the Muslim Kashmiri workers.

The production of silk, saffron, paper, tobacco, wine and salt was a State monopoly. A duty of 85 percent was levied on all woollen manufacturers. Under these pitiable working conditions, the shawl weaver could, thus, hardly earn seven rupees (US $0.092) per month.

In case a weaver left work, the Daag-e-shawl would arrest his wife, children, and parents and impound his house,” records the book.

From this earning, the workers had to pay five rupees (US $0.066) as tax, as recorded by British army officer Lord Birdwood.

The amount left with workers also included the cost of wool, etc., and they could not afford to buy cereals or vegetables and would eat only water chestnuts to keep a connection with the soul.

A chromolithograph by William Simpson (1823-1899) showing a master weaver with two apprentices weaving a Pashmina shawl.

The shawl weavers were allowed neither to leave Kashmir nor change their employment so that they were nearly in the position of slaves. Because there was fear with the Hindu ruler that migration of the weavers will reduce his revenue,” writes a European traveller Andrew Wilson, in his book The Abode of Snow: Observations on a Journey from Chinese Tibet to the Indian Caucasus through the Upper Valleys of the Himalaya. He had visited the region in 1873.

The special taxation department called Daag-e-shawl was known for arbitrarily collecting exorbitant taxes for the ruler and regulating the work of weavers with factory owners or proprietors.

In case a weaver left work, the Daag-e-shawl would arrest his wife, children, and parents and impound his house,” records the book.

Further, a new practice started that the ruler would auction this department to a contractor, who would, in turn, collect taxes. In 1865, the ruler had contracted this department to a wealthy Kashmiri, Raj Kak Dhar, in return for 2 million rupees (US $26,402).

This left Dhar entirely free to realise this amount through arbitrarily fixed tax rates and employing soldiers to fleece workers,” says historian Mohammad Yusuf Saraf.

Nearly 125,000 people in Kashmir were associated with this trade in 1865, which included weavers, washermen and other skilled labourers. According to revenue records, this industry would annually generate five million rupees (US $6,594)— a handsome amount in the 19th century.

Day of protest

Their patience reached a limit and the weavers took out a procession against high taxation and miserable working conditions and demanded nominal wages on April 29, 1865.

Ironically, the shaalbaaf movement of Kashmir has not even received any recognition from trade unions or global labour movements. 

They also demanded an end to the ban on their migration as well as bars on opting for another profession. They were also asking for a meeting with the diwan, a representative of the ruler in Srinagar.

But a column of the Dogra Army under Col. Bije Singh stopped them at the narrow Haji Pather Bridge over River Jhelum. Historians have recorded that in the stampede, 28 unarmed weavers were thrown into the river and scores were injured by bullet shots.

Next day, the dead bodies were recovered from the stream and were paraded by the weavers to drive the attention of the ruler. The organisers of the procession were stopped and arrested and even flogged,” says Rekha Chowdary, a teacher at the University of Jammu.

Spinning and weaving pashmina shawls, Srinagar, Kashmir, India c.1901 (photo) by Frederick (attr. to) Barnard. This photograph is taken four decades after the protest.

Protest leaders

Rasool Sheikh, Ali Pal, Abdul Qudus and Sona Shah— the leaders who had led the procession— were imprisoned in Bahu Fort prison in the Jammu region.

They never returned to Kashmir and died in jail. Neither was an inquiry instituted, nor any memorial ever dedicated to the first trade union movement of the world, which happened much before the Chicago incident or even before the Russian or Chinese communist revolutions, which were a result of workers’ resistance to exploitation.

Ironically, this movement has not even received any recognition from trade unions or global labour movements. This piece of history is also lost to oblivion in the Kashmir region.

This piece first appeared in the Kashmir Times here.

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