Robert Thorpe: Martyr or Just Another Brit?

Dr. Sheikh Showkat HussainNovember, Origins Comments

There are three generations of martyrs which must not be forgotten, Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain questions the very authenticity of documenting Robert Thorpe as the first martyr.

The question as to who is the first martyr of Kashmir has intrigued Kashmiris in general and a student of Kashmir history in particular. Robert Thorpe is believed to be the first in this chain of martyrs. About the biography and the contribution of Thorpe we need to authenticate the details. The veracity of the very statement of his being the first martyr can be put to a profound historical analysis. This forms the subject of this article whereby the study reveals some more facts which we must not forget for seeking a better understanding of history. A study, which the author carried out reveals that prior to Thorpe’s death we had three generations of martyrs.

First generation: 

In 1846 Britishers sold Kashmir valley to Maharaja Gulab Singh. Sheikh Imamudin the last governor of Sikh dynasty to Kashmir resisted this deal with the support of natives. There was a direct confrontation between Kashmiris supporting Sheikh Imamudin and the army of Gulab Singh in Srinagar. The Gulab Singh’s army was defeated near Sheikh Bagh and compelled to retreat from Kashmir. Kashmir remained independent for a period of six months. Those who got martyred in the battle of Sheikh Bagh were buried in the vicinity of Sheikh Imamudin’s residence and the area was named as Saheed Gunj. The graves disappeared with the passage of time but the name Saheed Gunj still continues to be there. The word Saheed Gunj should have been sufficient to provoke us to go for a research on raison detre of this name but our self-styled historians are pre-occupied in providing grist to the mill of Kashmiriyat and syncretism. For others, history of Saudi Kings remained a priority. Britishers came to the rescue of Gulab Singh and dispatched their army for his support. The natives were no match to the British army Sheikh Imamudin had to leave Kashmir and Gulab Singh got possession of Kashmir in November 1846.

Second generation: 

With the advent of Gulab Singh and departure of Imamudin people of the valley were coerced to submission. Gulab Singh faced another rebellion. Muslims of Poonch refused to accept his rule. He ruthlessly suppressed this rebellion. In his Travels, Vigne narrates that some of the rebels were flayed alive “under his own eyes…He ordered one or two of the skins to be stuffed with straw. The figures were then planted on the wayside so that passers-by might see it. Gulab Singh called his son’s attention to it and told him to take a lesson in the art of governing”. The Poonch thus contributed the second generation of Kashmiri martyrs against dynastic rule of Gulab Singh.

Third generation: 

Gulab Singh was succeeded by Raja Ranbir Singh in 1857. It was during his times that Robert Thorpe came to Kashmir. He narrates an incident when Shalbafs of downtown Srinagar assembled outside the house of Raj Kak Dhar. Dhar was a minister of Ranbir Singh and notorious for his oppressive policies. The Shalbafs carried a mock coffin of Raj Kak. Dhar summoned three to five hundred policemen to disperse them. During the ensuing stampede, several Shalbafs were drowned in Zaldagar Kanal. There are some reports which suggest that about forty Shalbafs died in this stampede but according to Thorpe the number is six. Raj Kak Dhar died within few months of this mock funeral.

Robert Thorpe: 

After defeating Sikhs, Britishers passed on Kashmir to Gulab Sigh. Primary reason for conferring title of the state upon Gulab Singh was that Britishers didn’t wish to overburden themselves with defense of inhospitable terrain of Jammu and Kashmir. They were pre-occupied with consolidating their power in Punjab. Once they controlled Punjab they were scared of Russian expansion in Central Asia. Britishers developed a new interest in J&K wanted to get a pretext for intervention. For this purpose they dispatched a fact finding mission to Kashmir. Gulab Singh managed to portray a better image of his administration with the help of Raj Kak Dhar. Britishers motivated some locals to come forward with materials on misgovernment on the part of Dogras. Kashmiri Pandits being prime beneficiaries of his rule were siding with Maharaja. Muslims being uneducated were unable to render this job. So they handed over the assignment to some of their own nationals. These included some missionaries and army officers. Robert Thorpe was one of them.

Robert Thorpe prepared a detailed account of sufferings and miseries of Kashmiris in the form of a book “Kashmir Misgovernment”. He did so not because he was worried about Kashmiris, but to provide a justification for British intervention. The book was product of his commitment to expansion of the British Empire. He wanted them to take over control of the state directly. Britishers were scared of direct intervention lest it may lead to an open confrontation with Russians who were in vicinities of the state. Thorpe tried to pacify these fears. He pleaded that there was no scope for such an eventuality as relations between Britain and Russia “will be those of peace, not war, and that we shall, at no distant period, so-cooperate with her in spreading the blessings of civilization and settled Government among oppressed peoples and savage tribes…… an amicable division between Russian and England is quite practicable. What has not been conquered by one power might without any opposition be conquered by the other.” Thorpe died in mysterious circumstances. It was alleged that his death was because of poisoning but a British doctor who examined his dead body ruled out poisoning and attributed it to rupture of heart, a natural reason.

The work of Robert Thorpe achieved the objective for which it was written. Maharaja Ranbir Singh was made to accept deputation of a British Resident to Kashmir. Soon after his death resident assumed his functions influencing almost all functions of the Dogra dynasty including the one that landed Kashmir into the lap of India in 1947.

After going through these accounts one can easily understand who were the first martyrs of Kashmiri resistance against the dynastic rule of Gulab Singh and his progeny. They were none other than the martyrs of Saheed Gunj, Poonch and Shalbafs of downtown Srinagar. Why then portrayal of Robert Thorpe? In spite of the fact that his death remains a mystery and his loyalties were to none other than the British imperialism? Is it a reflection of our mental slavery or a true depiction of a Kashmiri proverb “Kashur Chu Par Daruk”. Whatever be the reason, it speaks volumes about our alienation from our own self, our own history and roots of Kashmir’s resistance movement. If none of the above is true then it can be nothing other than an attempt to distort our history and portray those who have sold us and have been instrumental in facilitating our occupation as our emancipators.

About the Author
Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain

Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain

Sheikh Showkat Hussain is a Kashmiri political analyst and a prominent scholar of human rights and international law, he has authored several books on the Kashmir conflict.