Silk, wool and workers' blood

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Remembering Kashmir's first organised demands day, also the first in the history of class struggle in India.

WHEN half-blind Mohammad Sadiq died in 1988, his son attempted to smooth the old shawl weaver's thumb and forefinger, which had warped into the claw shape needed to grasp the thin wooden needle with which he had embroidered hundreds of exquisite shawls for some of the world's richest people. Sadiq had long hoped to be able to afford the minor surgery that would have corrected his condition, but never could. Even in death his fingers did not yield.

One hundred and forty-one years ago, Srinagar's shawl-bafs rose against the regime of Maharaja Ranbir Singh in an unprecedented protest against exploitation and injustice. Twenty-eight shawl-bafs gave their lives in the struggle, one of the great moments in the history of India's working class. Today, their sacrifices are almost forgotten - and the workers they fought for have precious little to celebrate. The magnificent pashmina shawls Sadiq gave his eyes and hands for sold for up to Rs.300,000; he made just Rs.40 a day.

In vogue amongst elites as early as the time of the Mughal emperor Babar, fine Kashmiri shawls were exported to Iran and the plains of India for centuries. The best shawls were made from the soft pashm wool brought in by caravans from the Tian Shan and Ush Tarfan mountains, through Yarkand and Ladakh. Europeans brought in to train Maharaja Ranjit Singh's armies encountered them in the course of the 18th century and began sending them home.

Kashmiri shawls came to be known in Europe in the late 18th century, after Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France gave the empress Josephine one as a present in the course of his 1798-99 military campaign in Egypt. Her use of the shawls set off a Europe-wide fashion trend, and French dealers soon began descending on Srinagar to feed the growing demand at home. When the Dogra monarchy took power in 1847, it set about exploiting the trade to help consolidate the revenues of the fledging state.

Maharaja Gulab Singh's regime imposed an annual pool tax of Rs.4,700 on each weaver and barred the weavers from leaving their looms unless a substitute was in place. In addition, a 25 per cent duty was imposed on each shawl, which sold at prices ranging from Rs.150 to Rs.5,000. In late 1847, Kashmir's karkhandars, or shawl-factory owners, asked for a reduction in taxes, fixed wages for artisans, and codified laws for the shawl industry. However, their demands were not met.

Coming at a time of recurrent famine, the new taxation on the shawl trade provoked a quiet rebellion by the artisans. Upwards of 4,000 shawl-bafs went on a de facto strike, abandoning their looms and heading to Lahore and Amritsar along with their families. Farmers and workers, desperate for food and wages, joined them in large numbers. Gulab Singh's regime hit back, using force to stem the migrations. Efforts were made to seal Jammu and Kashmir's frontiers with Punjab to prevent the exodus.

Weaver Nasir Ahmad, 15, works on the loom with needles, whose position he decides by reading the notation sheet (right).

Despite the hardship, European demand ensured that the shawl industry continued to flourish. Between 1860 and 1870, according to the economic historian D.N. Dhar, exports of shawls ranged between Rs.2.5 million and Rs.2.8 million annually. Maharaja Ranbir Singh's administration now set up the Dagshawl Department, which was charged with raising Rs.1.2 million each year from the trade. Pandit Raj Kak Dhar, the department's daroga, or inspector, set about doing so with great enthusiasm - and great brutality.

Dhar, with the support of the karkhandars, placed the tax burden on the shawl-bafs. The shawl-bafs were also barred from seeking to improve their wages by changing their karkhandar. Not surprisingly, the shawl-bafs faced enormous hardship. Each weaver was expected to pay Rs.49 a year towards the new tax, which meant over half of their average wage of Rs.7 a month was now being expropriated. In addition, the staff of the Dagshawl department extracted illegal levies.

Faced with starvation, Srinagar's shawl-bafs chose to fight. On the morning of April 29, 1865, the shawl-bafs and their khandwaws, or apprentices, peacefully marched through the streets of Srinagar towards the palace of Kripa Ram, the Governor of Kashmir. Effigies of Raj Kak Dhar were burned by the protesters, and slogans raised against the Dagshawl Department. It was, as the historian F.M. Hassnain has recorded, "perhaps the first organised demands-day in the history of class struggle in India".

Kripa Ram was determined to teach Srinagar's workers a lesson they would not forget. As the protesters reached the old-city neighbourhood of Zaldagar, troops under the command of Colonel Bijoy Singh surrounded the procession and demanded that the workers disperse. They refused. What followed was horrific. The unarmed men were fired on at point-blank range and then charged with spears as they fled. Hundreds jumped off the bridge of Haji Rather Sum at Zaldagar, hoping to hide in the marshes along the Dal Lake.

At least 28 bodies were later recovered from the Zaldagar area and buried in complete secrecy. Over 100 other shawl-bafs are thought to have sustained both serious and minor injuries in the violence and during the protesters' subsequent efforts to escape into the Dal. Fines were imposed not just on the shawl-bafs who had directly participated in the demonstration, but also on the patwaris, or local government officials, of the areas from which it originated.

Historians have been unable to determine the names of all those killed on April 29, but the fate of the leaders of the 1865 shawl-baf uprising is well recorded. Sheikh Rasool and Abli Baba were tortured to death in a dungeon in the Shergarhi Palace, while Qudda Lal and Sona Shah were imprisoned in the Bahu Fort at Jammu after they failed to pay a fine of Rs.50,000 each to the Maharaja. Hundreds of other protesters were held in prison at Habak, where many died of cold and hunger.

It takes no great imagination to see why the 1865 protest failed: the shawl-bafs were politically disorganised and no match for the state's coercive resources. Events were to deal even greater blows. In 1870, the Franco-German war destroyed exports to Europe. Then, the great Kashmir famine of 1877-79 drove thousands of artisans out from the city into the countryside, or even further into the plains of Punjab. Wages fell, by the account of a contemporary, George Moorcroft, to less than Rs.2 a day.

By 1891, there were just 5,148 shawl-bafs left in Srinagar, down from a peak of 28,000 in 1865. Writing in 1895, the imperial administrator Walter Lawrence observed that the "surroundings of the artisans are miserable and squalid, and it is sad to contrast the beauty of the art work with the ugliness of the workmen's lives." He grimly noted that "no artisan in Srinagar will do work unless he first receives an advance for food."

As time passed, the 1865 workers' rebellion was erased from Kashmir's political memory. From the 1920s, when the representatives of the new middle-class began to arrive home armed with political ideas acquired at the universities of Aligarh and Lahore, questions of religious identity became centre stage. Clerics used religion to defend tradition and deference to authority; the new political leadership did so to legitimise their claim that they spoke for Kashmir's people against the Hindu monarch.

Despite the polemical commitment of at least some of the new political forces to socialism, workers' concerns were peripheral to political mobilisation. Bar a brief strike by Srinagar's silk workers in 1924, there was little effort at mobilisation or political action along class lines. Kashmir's new elites, much like the old ones, had no interest in working class radicalism. The plaque on the Haji Rather Sum bridge today commemorates its new construction in 1967, not the massacre that took place there a century ago.

Plunging his needle into the white silk on which he is embroidering a delicate, six-coloured flower, Abdul Qayoom speaks with unconcealed violence in his voice. "I would rather drown my three sons in the Dal Lake, than see them follow me into this trade." Most likely, they will have no choice: the 2.5 acres of land (1 hectare) that Qayoom shares with his four brothers and the Rs.50 a day he makes embroidering silk fabric simply do not provide the income that will give the children a chance to learn another trade.

Like their counterparts everywhere in India, artisans in Kashmir face hideous exploitation. Jaalak-dooz experts, who make the delicate floral and graphic patterns seen on Kashmir shawls and fabric, are paid on a piece-work basis. Artisans at Ali Mohammad Dar's workshop, for example, are paid Rs.80 for each 12.5 gram (one tola) of thread they embroider. In practice, that works out to an average wage of just Rs.40 for an eight-hour day, less than half of what can be made by laying bricks or working on road projects.

Some artisans, such as Noor Bagh resident Ghulam Mohiuddin Bhat, have taken to doing just that. While Bhat still embroiders shawls in the winters, when construction work comes to a halt, he has chosen not to teach his children the skills of the shawl-baf. "Sure, breaking stones is hard work," he says, "but most people don't understand just how difficult making a shawl is. I do not know a single shawl-baf over the age of 35 who does not have serious problems with his hands or eyes."

Fifteen-year-old Nasir Ahmad, who dropped out of school last year to join his father at the loom, is headed down the road Bhat knows so well. For the next ten months, he has contracted to work on a pashmina shawl that will sell in a showroom in New Delhi for over Rs.100,000. Of that, Ahmad will receive Rs.30,000. The material that went into making the shawl will have cost his contractor, or vasta, another Rs.10,000; a similar amount would have gone into secondary costs, such as etching designs on to the fabric.

Given just how much skill a shawl-baf must master, what Ahmad will earn from his work is doubly absurd. Making a shawl requires an intimate knowledge of the coded language that dictates the placement of the thin wooden needles that guide thread into patterns. It needs great delicacy, too, to ensure that the delicate pashmina fibre does not snap. Much of the design work is so delicate that the artisan must watch it through special magnifying glasses; a single flaw, shawl-bafs know, could spoil the whole.

Just a handful of vastas - men who have the capital to commission the production of dozens of expensive shawls, carpets or embroidered pieces, and the cash to purchase shops - harvest the profits that ought to be going to the artisans. Despite pious proclamations by successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir about their determination to protect artisans' rights, the State does not have a single shawl-baf cooperative, nor a system to ensure that workers get a fair share of the profits from their work.

Increasingly, artisans are also facing pressure from their old enemy: machines. Mechanised looms, manned by migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, produce embroidered patterns that to the uninitiated seem identical to artisans' jaalak-dooz work - at a quarter of the cost. Jammu and Kashmir has no system to certify genuine artisan-made products, which allows machine-woven products to be passed off easily as the real thing. Manufactures have, artisans say, led to a sharp decline in demand over the past four years.

Few doubt what needs to be done. "Artisans need loans to be able to build up a stock that they can market on their own," says Mushtaq Ahmad, who owns a small workshop on the fringes of Srinagar. "We also need a cooperative that will sell our products," he continues, "and government support for outlets that will be free from the control of the vastas and large dealers." For Ahmad, this is a dream: "Nothing will be done, because we have neither the money nor the influence to compel the government to act."

Defeatism? Two years ago, Srinagar's jaalak-dooz artisans staged their first organised industrial action in over a century. The strike petered out in less than eight weeks after the karkhandars raised the remuneration for piece-work by Rs.5 per tola. Not enough people cared about the strike to put pressure on the government, since only small numbers of relatively rich people actually purchased the artisans' output - and the vastas had more than enough stock to ride out the dislocation caused by the artisans.

Intervention is needed if the shawl-bafs are to survive - and soon. Kashmir's artisans are important not just because of the worth of the art they produce, but because of what their work represents. At a time when Jammu and Kashmir's politics has been reduced, for the most part, to petty questions of religion and ethnicity, each thread is a reminder of the existence of alternative identities forged in workers' experiences of exploitation and oppression: identities that transcend both gods and geography.

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