Of Robert Thorpe and the colonial narrative in Kashmir
Robert Thorpe, a British Army officer, is believed to have visited Kashmir as a tourist in 1865 AD when Maharaja Ranbir Singh was the ruler of the state. A theory is being developed by some ‘Thorp sympathisers’ that he was allegedly murdered in November 1868 by the forces of Ranbir Singh for his ‘crime’ of speaking against the Dogra autocracy. It is said that his mother was a Kashmiri Muslim who had been married to E. Thorpe after the later converted to Islam. Robert Thorpe’s visit to Kashmir was based in the backdrop of his mother’s woeful stories about Kashmir. All this made him visit Kashmir in 1865 when the young Thorp was just 27 years old. During Thorp’s stay in Kashmir, it is said that he was very critical of the Dogra state for its oppressive policies towards the Kashmiris. It is believed that he wrote occasionally in the British newspapers against the Dogra oppression imposed on the Kashmiris. His writings were later published in a book Cashmere Misgovernment in 1870 by the Mission Society of England.
In the whole discourse, if an objective study is undertaken, we will find that ‘historical claims’ are not as simple as they are made to be. Firstly, it is still a mystery and very much debatable whether Robert Thorp was murdered or died a natural death. Some believe that Thorp was poisoned and others refer to strangulation as the reason for his death. The report of Dr. Caylay, the Ladakh agent who was in Srinagar then, nullifies the whole murder discourse; he reported ‘rapture of heart’ as the cause of Thorp’s death. Despite the lack of conclusive and reliable historical accounts about the cause of Thorp’s death, there is a section of people in Kashmir who conveniently call his death a conspiratorial murder. Secondly, a historical discourse is being built on the part of some writers in Kashmir who relate the Thorp’s death with the loss of a ‘saviour’ of Kashmiris. One fails to comprehend how a person could be a saviour of Kashmiris when he never spoke of its independence but always insisted that Britain should intervene in the state’s affairs. Mr. Thorpe had obviously reprimanded the British state for transacting Kashmir to the Dogras but indirectly pleaded that Kashmir should have been ruled by the British themselves, therefore, views the remedy of Kashmiris’ pathetic condition in British imperialism rather than in self-government. This attitude of the so-called first martyr leads us to believe that he was either unimpressed by the cheap bargain of Kashmir by his masters (British) or was foreseeing Kashmir as an abode for missionary work which was curtailed by the Dogra rulers.
Mr. Thorpe was more concerned about the British Empire rather than the Kashmiris. There is, however, no denying the fact that Thorp having his roots from his mother’s side in Kashmir was relatively sympathetic to the Kashmiris but one cannot outrightly absolve him from his sympathy towards the imperialistic state.
Why was Thorpe tasked to write against Dogra oppression? This is a million dollar question. The British actually were consolidating their position in Punjab after they defeated them and once they controlled it, they were foreseeing the Russian expansion in Central Asia as a potential threat. Therefore the Britishers developed a new interest in J&K and were deliberating on how to get a pretext for intervention. For this imperialistic purpose, they dispatched a fact-finding mission to Kashmir which included some Army officers and Christian missionaries. Robert Thorp was incidentally one of them.
Thorp’s eighty-page book Cashmere Misgovernment cannot be taken as the gospel truth when there are other primary and secondary sources available to substantiate the historical facts. For instance, if the same book is being read in an objective way one could normally extract that his preparing a detailed account of sufferings and miseries of Kashmiris was merely a pretext for the British intervention in Kashmir which actually happened soon after the death of R. Thorpe. Yes, barely after a decade or so, the British Government appointed an English resident at Srinagar in 1885. Soon the third ruler of Dogra dynasty, Maharaja Pratap Singh, was deposed. Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, the Kashmir-based political activist and scholar, argues, ‘Robert Thorpe’s book was a product of his commitment to the expansion of the British Empire.’
Indeed, the objective of Thorpe’s work achieved to a great extent the reason for which it was written when the second Dogra ruler Ranbir Singh was coerced to accept a British Resident in Kashmir who safeguarded imperial interests in the state. Robert Thorp’s elevation as the sympathetic saviour of Kashmiris or for that matter to consider him the first martyr of Kashmir is a brazen attempt to belittle the role of the indigenous Shaheed Gunj martyrs of 1846 and poor shawl weavers who laid down their lives protesting against the excesses of the Dogra autocracy in Zaldagar in 1865, long before Robert Thorp died as the ‘first martyr’. The league of Thorp-admirers selectively prefers to undermine the role of Sheikh Imam-and-Din and his followers who fought against the Dogras to secure freedom for the Kashmiris much before in 1846.
Disregarding the contribution of local shawl weavers, artisans and labourers and exaggerating Mr. Thorpe who wasn’t in principle against occupation per se is a case of distorting history.
Tailpiece: Since Robert Thorpe’s 150th death anniversary is all set to be observed by our civil society and writers on November 22 this year, I humbly wish to remind them that intellectual honesty demands not to manufacture heroes in fanciful imagination but to locate them painstakingly in true historical accounts. Kashmir has seen many tragedies; scripting a distorted history is just another.
The author is a PhD research scholar at Centre of Advanced Study in History at Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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