My Kashmir Files: The Untold Story of the Riddle

By Venus Upadhayaya

My great grandfather, Pandit Sant Ram Dogra was the first graduate of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1800s. He was one of the first alumni of the prestigious Mohindra College, Patiala which provided civil servants for various princely courts in those days.

Sant Ram Dogra was appointed as an Assistant Settlement Officer in Maharaja Pratap Singh’s reign in Kashmir and was put on special duty to compile the customary traditions of Kashmir valley that would become the basis of a ‘uniform civil code’.

“Drawing on colonial policies in the Punjab where revenue collectors had been directed to ascertain the customary practices in each village, in 1915 Maharaja Pratap Singh appointed Dogra to prepare a consolidated code of tribal customs prevalent in the Kashmir valley,” said Historian Dr. Chitralekha Zutshi, in her book: Languages of Belonging.

Dogra toured the valley “exhaustively” and compiled his inquiries into “Codes and Customs of the Tribes of Kashmir,” which enabled the prevailing customs of different tribes in various villages of the Kashmir valley compiled and codified to the level of law.

“The codification of custom was part of the movement by the state to amend, consolidate and declare laws to be administered in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which found fruition in the Sri Pratap Jammu and Kashmir Consolidation Act 1977B (1920). Based on Dogra’s code, the Sri Pratap Act, while granting primacy to Hindu and Muslim Personal Law, recognized customary laws in cases where it had altered or replaced personal law,” says Zutshi.

The motivation behind this codification in Kashmir was the need for an assessment of land holding rights because the agricultural classes applied customary law in matters of land inheritance and land division.

Sant Ram Dogra was killed on his way home to see his newborn son. He was run over by his own horse buggy while riding his newly bought bicycle. Based on my grandfather’s age records, my estimate is that he died in 1918 or 1919. If the folklores are to be believed, his adversaries didn’t want to see his work culminating in state law.

The Dogra Code & Sri Pratap Act  

Codes and Customs of the Tribes of Kashmir are hard to find in print these days. I do have a soft copy preserved by an uncle abroad but during a recent trip to Kashmir, I decided to search for the book in the Sri Pratap Singh Library.

I was told that the collection of antique books was lost to the 2014 floods in the Srinagar valley. When I asked a young man at the front desk where I could get a copy of this book that came to be recognized as civil law in state high courts, I was told Kashmir follows “Sharia”.

This comment made me wonder if Dogra’s death was linked to his high-profile work and my research led me to Zutshi’s work. I don’t know if the Maharaja ordered any investigation into the case but a late historian from Jammu told me a few years ago that the early 1900s saw many court murders in the Dogra administration.

However, the ramifications of Dogra’s work as highlighted by Zutshi, herself of Kashmiri origin, do demand more research on what could have been a uniform civil code of the state of Kashmir under Dogras.

In those days, land ownership and disputes were central to everything in Kashmir. It directly impacted all subjects, including the very rich Hindu and Muslim landlords as well as the influential management bodies of the religious shrines of those days.

“In order that a custom may have the force of law, it is necessary that it should be invariable, continuous and uniform, reasonable and not immoral, certain and definite,” wrote Pandit Sant Ram Dogra in his compilation titled Code and Customs of the Tribes of Kashmir. “In the course of inquiry into the Tribal customs of the valley, I have taken down a good many precedents of a certain custom invariably found in the tehsil,” he stated.

Zutshi writes that Dogra’s code came to be recognized as the law in state courts, “particularly since there was no parallel body of Muslim law that litigants could draw on.” The problem arose because Dogra’s work replaced the “ambiguities and inconsistencies that governed the lives of Kashmiris including a whole lot of disputes” with an “exact science of customary law.”

“Since Hindu and Muslim personal law could be negated if a litigant proved the existence of a custom, the laws of religious communities often ceased to have a considerable impact on legal decisions meted out in state courts. As a result, the divisions within the Muslim community came into sharper focus, since customary law cut across religious boundaries, being dictated by tribe, locality, district, and so on,” said Zutshi adding that in a diverse Muslim society like Kashmir it created new challenges for shrine management.

Kashmiriyat Trampled

“At a time when shrines had become the terrain for battles over influence and power, such a code only served to add fuel to the already blazing fire,” wrote Zutshi.

The only way for those critical of Dogra’s code was to bring a personal law that could be used to override the customary law. But Zutshi tells us that this could have even more dangerous repercussions because it would have bought out the sectarian divisions among Kashmiri Muslims.

“After all if a corpus of Muslim law was to be written practically for the first time, whose law would it be – Sunni, Shia, Hanafi, or Ahl-i-Hadith, to name but a few divisions? These sectarian differences gradually aligned themselves along lines of Hindu-Muslim division that already existed in the community,” says Zutshi.

By this time Maharaja Pratap Singh’s reign had ended in 1925 leading to Maharaja Hari Singh’s that ended with accession to India in 1947. In my understanding, this social matrix of Muslim identity in Kashmir then formed the background to the politics of Sheikh Abdullah that stormed the valley and its religious institutions in the early 1930s.

The period also saw the beginning of the ‘Great Game’ and the two world wars whence colonial powers jostled for influence leading to a wider polarity between the existing political systems and the emerging socialist cliques around the world. The Dogra kingdom which was a frontier of the ‘Great Game’ between Colonial Britain and the Russian empire had no means to protect its traditions, customs, and more importantly its syncretism: Kashmiriyat.

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The writer is a Senior Reporter – India and South Asia with The Epoch Times. She is also researching the history, culture, and geopolitical significance of Jammu and Kashmir, her ancestral home. Email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

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