BOOK REVIEW: ‘HINDU RULERS, MUSLIM SUBJECTS’ BY DR. MRIDU RAI

EXPLORING THE NEGLECTED PRINCELY PAST OF JAMMU AND KASHMIR: THE RULE OF DOGRAS

Much of the historical treatment of Jammu and Kashmir started with either the emergence of Sheikh Abdullah on the political landscape of the valley or with the dilemma faced by Maharaja Hari Singh immediately before signing the instrument of accession. While scholars like P.M.K Bamzai have written about medieval Kashmir, much remains to be written about the political culture and institutions of the Dogra rule. Such an approach towards the historiography of Jammu and Kashmir has either effectively marginalised the Princely past of the state or has shrouded it in the polemics of Kashmiri nationalists led by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. Hence, the book titled, ‘Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects’ by Dr. Mridu Rai is a valuable addition to the study of Jammu and Kashmir as the book engages with the history of political culture and institutions within the Dogra state very much independent of the above mentioned historical tropes.

The central argument of the book revolves around the formation of what Rai calls a ‘Hindu state’. She states the newly created Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir in search of legitimacy styled themselves as the chief patrons and protectors of Sanatan Hindu Dharma. This effectively rendered the majority of Muslim subjects within the state marginalised from the structures of economic and political power within the state. While British did try to intervene and reform the political structure of the state in order to accommodate the interests of its majority Muslims population, they were ultimately unsuccessful in introducing far reaching reforms as political power under the Maharajas could never be effectively divorced from Hindu religion.  

The book starts by giving an account of how Gulab Singh carved out a state for himself from the Sikh dominions after the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846. Rai’s most important contribution in this section is her discussion of the consolidation of Dogra rule into a territorially bound political unit, where every Jagirdar owed allegiance to Maharaja alone and not the Sikh Durbar of Lahore. 

Maharaja in turn worked under the paramountcy of the British Empire and derived his sovereign rights over his territories from the Treaty of Amritsar.

After the Proclamation of Queen Victoria in 1858,  the claims of the Princely states were said to be rooted within the indigenous political and social structures. But authority of the Dogras apart from a few areas in Jammu, was directly derived from their treaty obligations to the British. Here, Rai goes on to argue that Dogras in order to gain legitimacy within their kingdom styled themselves as Suryavanshi Rajputs and descendants of Lord Rama. They based their claims to political power in the Hindu antiquity and in order to bolster this claim styled themselves and their state as the chief protector and patron of Sanatan Hindu Dharma. 

Throughout the book Rai has argued that the pre-colonial and pre-Dogra notion of political legitimacy was intimately intertwined with religious patronage. This project of consolidation of a territorially bound political unit was accompanied by carefully regulating the affairs of religious institutions within the state and making them dependent on the state patronage for their survival. By cutting off endowments to the temples of the state that came from outside the state especially from the Sikh empire, Dogras were free from competition that had characterised the patronage networks of Hindu religious institutions. By weeding out competition and institutionalising the grants given to Hindu religious institutions, the Maharajas of Jammu and Kashmir were able to strengthen their legitimacy to rule on religious grounds. 

Tracing the history of ‘religiosity’ of the state and its quest for legitimacy, Rai points towards continuities and  discontinuities between the policies of religious patronage under Ranjit Singh and later Gulab Singh and his successors. In fashioning themselves as ‘Hindu’ rulers, Dogra Maharajas assisted in construction and maintenance of Hindu monuments throughout the state, Muslim shrines and mosques were ignored and were largely cut off from funding that was provided earlier by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This has been cited as evidence by the author of the political power within the state that excluded Muslims.

But while Dogra Maharajas are shown to be operating within a context where the boundaries between political and religious were blurred, the paramount power over them was not. Throughout the book, the colonial state is shown to be concerned over the plight of poor Kashmiri Muslims in stark contrast to the attitude of Kashmiri Pandit bureaucracy and their Dogra overlords. These contrasting notions of the purpose of political power are shown in the book  to repeatedly collide over the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir.

Rai argues that the primary cause for the increasing emergence of such disagreements after the second half of the nineteenth century is the emerging notions of nationalism and accountability in Britain during this period. The legitimacy in the eyes of the British had to be based on notions like the welfare and protection of the subjects rather than a religious conception. This is illustrated by her most notably in the contrasting workings of the colonial archeological department and the archeological department of the Dogra state.  

The presence of this colonial paramountcy and its frequent clash and interference within the administration of the state on the behalf of its subjects to protect their ‘rights’ opened up limited channels for political competition and freedom of expression, both of which were used by the National Conference in Kashmir to mobilise Kashmiri Muslims. 

Rai also suggests that by the beginning of twentieth century the shift in Durbar’s political language of religion to the language of rights happened under the pressure of the British. But at the same time she says that this shift was more or less cosmetic as in practice the interests of Kashmiri Pandits and the Dogras remained paramount and the opposition to these interests by Kashmiri Muslims (including Sheikh Abdullah) was also expressed in the vocabulary which was embedded both in rights of Muslims as well as in anti-Kashmiri Pandit and anti-Hindu rhetoric. She also argues that the secular shift of Abdullah happened only after the need for support of Hindus emerged in the elections of Praja Sabha (only representative body of state constituted in 1938). Even after that the shift towards a more religiously inclusive was not complete in the rebel leadership of Kashmir.   

This book by Mridu Rai fundamentally challenges the notions of a secular Kashmiri identity (Kashmiriyat) as supported by Indian nationalists under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. The central argument of the book revolves around the relationship of the state with religion in the Princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But is Jammu and Kashmir unique in choosing such modes of political power? 

The Princely state of Hyderabad with a Hindu majority and a Muslim minority elite, can be considered a demographic inverse of Jammu and Kashmir. Here too much like the state the bureaucracy had a number of Muslims nobles and officials which was disproportionate to their numbers. Rai also gives an example of the Begum of Bhopal who refused to fund the maintenance of Sanchi Stupas due to her opposition to idol worship. Similarly, a study on the Princely states of Rajputana by Sussane Rudolph argues that a Hindu notion of political power existed in these states, with primacy given to caste and clan ties. Hence, drawing up on the religious modes of legitimacy seems to be the norm rather than a uniqueness within the Princely States of India.

While the precedence of British interference within the affairs of princely states had been established long before 1857, it was only after establishment of the Residency within the state that British actively began to meddle in the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. While Rai has argued that the changing British attitudes regarding legitimacy and rights of the subjects were primary drivers of political reform within the state, Sussane Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph with their study of Rajputana states argues that British paramountcy over the princely states was also concerned with the ‘internal’ security of the state. Hence, the British pressure for reform was also geared towards stabilising internal affairs of the state. Hence, Rai’s argument of a fundamental attitude change can gain much from looking at the affairs from this realpolitik perspective. 

The book also highlights how Muslim sects like Ahamdiyas and Ahrars of Punjab influenced and funded the political activities of Kashmiri Muslims. While one can see, in this context, the growing concern of Muslim civil society with treatment of minorities in the state, it has striking parallels with Hindu organisations like Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj expressing the same for Hindus in the case of Hyderabad. Hence, the situation of Jammu and Kashmir in many ways goes on to illustrate the larger fractures that were emerging in communal relations within the Princely states where political power was intricately connected with the religious affiliation of the ruler.

While the book has relied predominantly on the British sources to argue about the religious modes of legitimacy within the state, it is also important to remember that British purposely depicted Princely India as ‘religious and pre-modern’ in contrast to British India. This was done in order to show the benevolence and progressivism of the latter. This fact has been mentioned by the author herself in the book but nonetheless has not been explored to its fullest extent while scrutinising the sources. The argument proposed by the author needs further substantiation from sources that can illuminate much more on the self-perception of Dogras regarding the nature and function of power wielded by them during this period. This is obviously a difficult task due to the scarce availability of Dogri sources on the account of very low literacy in the community. Nonetheless, such exploration is needed before the validity of Rai’s central argument can be firmly established.    

The regional angle to the power structure is also missing within the book. While it is mentioned in passing that Jammu Muslims formed a major chunk of the army and major chunks of government jobs given to Muslims within the state went to Muslims of Jammu, these ‘Muslim subjects’ seem to be largely absent from the book. Borrowing these facts one can also argue that the Dogra state rather than being a ‘Hindu’ state is ‘Jammu rule’ over Kashmir (and also Ladakh). The regional angle does not figure prominently within the entire book and most of the discussion remains confined to the Hindu domination (both Dogra and Kashmiri Pandits) over Kashmiri Muslims. 

The model of kingship and political power proposed by Rai in her book also gives an exalted importance to court rituals and religious patronage. But what does get lost in her analysis of the political power are the details and nuances of the coercive power wielded by the Dogra state. While religious modes and symbols are important indicators of the nature of political power one has to also examine the coercive apparatus (most importantly army) that the state wielded to get complete picture of how a ‘Hindu’ state was able to rule over largely ‘Muslim’ subjects. This becomes even more pertinent if we pay attention to the widespread recruitment of Muslims from Jammu region in the army that took part in both the World Wars. 

This book by Dr. Mridu Rai goes a long way in illuminating the often neglected dimensions of Jammu and Kashmir’s history. This book does point towards that gap in literature and attempts to fill it albeit in a limited way. It is this discussion of political culture within the state that will be extremely useful for any scholar attempting to engage with the inter-community relations within the state and observe the communal legacy of Dogra rule that continues to influence the politics of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Samarth Gupta is currently pursuing Ashoka Scholar’s programme at Ashoka University. He is completing an advanced major in Political Science.

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