Before I start relating the first of many untold stories buried deep in the heart of Kashmir’s history, I will talk about freedom. The call for Kashmiri freedom is not new; it began in the 19th century, at a time when Kashmir was occupied by the ruthless dictatorship of the Dogra rule. With every generation, the call for freedom survived and sustained itself, and with every new generation came dictators ruling over Kashmir through force and illegal occupation. The sacrifices for the struggle for freedom carried with them the burden of countless deaths, endless unmarked graves, enforced disappearances, rape and torture. For well over a century, Kashmir has wept for freedom.

It was as recently as the late 80s however, after a bomb explosion hit the Central Telegraph Office in Srinagar, that international organisations were forced to divert their attention towards the ill treatment of the Kashmiri people by occupied forces. Leader after leader from Delhi came with promises to resolve the Kashmir dispute and give the right of self determination to the people as was promised by the UN when India took the issue before the UN Security Council in 1948.

Hoping beyond hope, Kashmir remained committed to its cause. But time passed, and nothing fruitful came from those promises once made. What emerged were endless stories of massacres, from Bijbehara to Maisuma; India had openly declared war.

As the debate for freedom rages on, it is important to remember the genesis of the struggle and the people it bore. Their stories remain untold, and so I choose to write this; my first piece, about Kashmir’s first freedom fighter, Robert Thorp. A man who left behind his life’s comfort to fight against the dictator and gave the first call to “freedom” in Kashmir.

The hero who gave his life for Kashmir in the 19th century was born in England. Robert Thorp’s father visited Kashmir in the fateful days when Kashmir was ruled by a Dogra dictator. It was there that he came across a Kashmiri girl and lost his heart to her. They married and went to live in England. Robert Thorp grew up in the kind lap of his Kashmiri mother who would tell him stories about Kashmir and the suffering of the people who lived in the most beautiful place on earth. When Thorp finally visited Kashmir, he was mesmerized by its beauty. However, the plight of his mother’s people deeply pained him, and he came out openly against the then Dogra rulers. Thorpe’s posthumously published book, ‘Cashmere Misgovernment’ is perhaps the first book giving information on the taxation system, shawl industry, forced unpaid labour under the Dogras, the 1846 Amritsar treaty between Maharaja Gulab Singh and the British government and other aspects of life in Kashmir. It says:

“Those gaily-coloured threads of wool are not the only ones which these looms weave to their completion. Threads of life, more costly than those of the soften pashm, whose price will be demanded by Heaven yet, are spun out there on the loom of sickness and suffering. Death or flight are the only doors of release open to the heavy-laden shawl bafs; and thus we have arrived at an understanding of the causes which have produced those extensive emigrants of the Cashmere shawl bafs to the Punjab.”

Robert Thorp’s anti- government activities gave sleepless nights to the rulers who employed every overt and covert method to silence him. He did not budge an inch from his stand. It is believed that Thorpe had to pay with his life for his outspoken criticism of the Dogra autocracy. Because appropriate measures were taken to distort Kashmiri history, most Kashmiris believe that the freedom struggle started in 1931. Had this not been the case, Robert Thorp would be a household name in contemporary Kashmir. The Coalition of Civil Society, an amalgam of several voluntary organizations, constituted an award in his honour. The first award was given to an American, Patricia Gosman, for her works on Kashmir. Another award went to Aasiya Jeelani who was killed in a land-mine explosion at Kupwara district of Northern Kashmir while monitoring Parliamentary elections.

Still, too few people know about him. Nobody has worked on him other than the renowned intellectual Fida Muhammad Husnain. Even successive governments that ruled Kashmir after the fall of the Dogra Empire in 1947 made every effort to erase the identity of his existence in Kashmir’s history.

According to most historical accounts, the Dogra rulers were so disturbed by Thorpe’s criticism that they deported him from the state. He managed to quietly return, but died on November 22, 1868 under ‘mysterious conditions’ at the age of 30. He now lies buried, almost forgotten, at the Sheikh Bagh Christian graveyard.

The writer is a Human rights defender/attorney working in Indian administered Kashmir.

shamdani.hussain@gmail.com