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The life and times of Robert Thorpe

Robert attended school first in Durham and then in Surrey. He was commissioned in the 98th foot regiment of Army in February 1858. He resigned in February 1867.

We must not insulate ourselves and only care about those close to us. Everyone counts equally.
-Jane Strand-

On 22 November 1868 Lieutenant Robert Thorp was found dead in mysterious circumstances in Srinagar on the base of Kohi-Suleiman hill where we have now the United Nations Military Observer for Government of India and Pakistan’s (UNMOGIP’s) office. He had been murdered. However, he was not the only Britisher who was assassinated in Kashmir State during 1860s. George Hayward, a British military intelligence agent, was killed on 18 July 1870 by the men of Mir Wali, chief of Yasin principality*. Hayward had, during a previous trip to the Gilgit region, exposed the war crimes of Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s Dogra troops which they had committed in Yasin between 1860 and 1863. Hayward sent details of Dogra atrocities to Calcutta newspaper The Pioneer which it published under his name.

Dogra troops had indulged in wholesale massacre of Yasinis including “tossing babies into the air and cutting them in half as they fell” (p. 340 The Great Game Peter Hopkirk). Hayward had done Yasinis a service by exposing Dogra bloodletting against them. Yet the Yasin Chief got him killed. The finger of suspicion was raised against Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Kashmir and Mehtar Amanul-Mulk of Chitral.  Hayward lies buried in Gilgit Christian cemetery.
Hayward is to Gilgit region what Lt. Robert Thorp is to Kashmir.  In November 1868 Lt. Thorp, aged 30, was strangled to death. Dr Caylay, Ladakh Agent, who was in Srinagar at the time, examined the body and reported “rapture of heart” as the cause of death. Again, the finger of suspicion for the assassination was raised against Maharaja Ranbir Singh (who had more than one reason to be annoyed with Lt. Thorp).

British India Government desisted from taking any action against Maharaja Ranbir Singh because he had served them in good stead during 1857 mutiny. Not only did he furnish troops and money to their war effort he also went personally to fight against Indian freedom fighters whom he later described in a letter to the British Government of India as “faithless bastards”(p. 47 Maharaja Ranbir Singh Sukhdev Singh Charak). Lt. Thorp initially came to Kashmir as a tourist and a hunter of big game. Soon, his attention was diverted towards the sorrows of Kashmiri Muslims who were labouring under the worst kind of misrule that they had ever witnessed (p. 223 Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade Tyndale Biscoe). So he made it his business to study and expose the pattern of misrule unleashed against them by Maharaja Ranbir Singh and his agents. Contrary to popular belief in Kashmir that Lt. Thorp was born of a Kashmiri mother called Jana and a British father named Colonel Robert Thorp, Jane Strand has a different story to tell.

According to her, Lt. Thorp’s both parents were English: His father was Thomas Thorp, a solicitor (lawyer) in the town of Alnwick in Northumberland who died in March 1854. And his mother was Elizabeth Jane Tudor of Bath, Somerset. Elizabeth died in March 1890. Lt. Thorp had a brother named William Tudor Thorp who was a vicar (clergyman) in the Church of England. Jane Strand happens to be William Tudor Thorp’s great granddaughter. And therefore, by that very fact, she is the great grandniece of Lt. Thorp. She lives in Norway. She is married to a Norwegian. Robert attended school first in Durham and then in Surrey. He was commissioned in the 98th foot regiment of Army in February 1858. He resigned in February 1867. He even traveled to Tibet in early 1868. Towards the end of 1868 he was assassinated in Srinagar.

Those days Englishmen were allowed to stay in Kashmir only for summer months – from April to November. So Lt. Thorpe was constrained to visit Kashmir during summers to complete his research on Kashmir misgovernment. Later, he brought the miserable condition of Kashmiri Muslims into the notice of Governments of India and England by publishing his findings. His research titled Cashmere Misgovernment continues to be a major historic document of what happened to Kashmiri Muslims during 1860s.

Maharaja Ranbir Singh was a bigoted Hindu who had absolutely no sympathy for Kashmiri Muslims who constituted majority of his subjects. For his own co-religionists he opened Sanskrit schools and raised temples in and around Jammu city, the most prominent among them being the Ragunath temple complex with its Sanskrit school. Moreover, he spent huge amounts of money on the maintenance of foreign Hindu religious establishments such as at Haridwar, Kashi, Prayag, Badrinath, etc.(pp. 278-9 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S. S. Charak). For the miniscule Kashmiri Pandit minority, he built temple complexes throughout Kashmir Valley including at Martand, Bijbehara, Pampore, Khir Bhawani, Gadadar, Sharika, Sharda*** (p. 280 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S. S. Charak).

Grave of Robert Thorp at Christian Cemetery, Sheikh Bagh, Srinagar on 22 Nov, 2018 /Picture credits: Ashiq Hussain

The huge expenses thus incurred were extracted from poverty stricken Kashmiri Muslims in the shape of temple tax, Sanskrit tax and other taxes. Even prostitutes and grave diggers were taxed heavily (pp. 130-31 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S S Charak). A prostitute was not allowed to change her profession. If a starved coolie carried the luggage of a traveler in Kashmir Valley, he had to surrender half his earning to Maharaja’s coffers. Likewise houses, marriages, cattle, beasts of burden, grazing, were taxed to the maximum (p. 133 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S S Charak).
Kashmir State under Maharaja Ranbir Singh was a kind of bania (shopkeeper) that reserved a monopoly on the sale of grain. The State collected grain from tillers and stashed it away in storehouses and then sold it to city folk. Even if people had money they could not buy grain beyond a certain limit with the result they were forced to go hungry for considerable part of the year. The State allowed the grain to rot on the threshing floors (called Khal) and in storehouses rather than allowing people to buy and eat it. Also the State did not allow trade between city and village folk. Likewise, the State enjoyed monopoly on silk, saffron, the aromatic root called koth, opium poppy, narcotic drug marijuana (bhang/charas), paper, tobacco, salt, minerals, fruit trees, timber (pp. 131 and 298 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S S Charak).

The State taxed shawl industry to the extent of 85% and land produce to the extent of 75%. At harvest time Maharaja’s agent called Shakdar closely watched the crops lest the tiller might “steal” part of the produce. This Shakdar falsely accused him of stealing part of the crop. The poor fellow thought it better to bribe the agent rather than get involved in a case of theft.

Also Kashmiri Muslim was taken on corvee (begaar), the wageless forced labor, to Gilgit and Astor to carry ammunition and grain for Dogra troops. He was not allowed to touch the grain that he had grown and was now carrying on his back on treacherous mountain passes even if he died of starvation en route (pp. 73-76 Cashmere Misgovernment Kashmir Papers Robert Thorp). During famines, which recurred in Kashmir Valley at regular intervals, Kashmiri Muslims perished like flies because of the wrongs of Maharaja’s administration. At such times his agents would search Kashmiri Muslim households to check if they were hiding grain. They kept a strict vigil on starving Muslim lest he might indulge in cow slaughter which was punishable by death – the death being meted out by boiling him in oil and hanging his fried remains from a pole for vultures to feast upon (p. 119 Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade Tyndale Biscoe); or they might resort to fishing – fishing being banned since the death of Maharaja Gulab Singh in August 1857. The reason for banning fishing was that the late Maharaja’s spirit had taken its abode in the body of a fish in Kashmir Valley, so said the Brahmins at that time.

During 1865 famine three Kashmiris Muslims were sighted by an English traveler on the bank of River Jhelum where they had been kept for three days and nights wearing stinking fish around their necks in the shape of garlands. Their crime was that they had violated the ban on fishing (p. 30 Wrongs of Cashmere Kashmir Papers Arthur Brinkman). The net result was that population of Kashmir Valley progressively dwindled throughout Ranbir Singh’s rule (1856 – 1885) as his coffers swelled. Whereas the Maharaja encouraged and funded Sanskrit learning among Hindus he did nothing for the education of Kashmiri Muslims who filled his coffers by paying him taxes. On the contrary when Wahabbi (Ahli-Hadis) preachers started educating Muslims in Shopian, Maharaja Ranbir Singh persecuted them ruthlessly and hounded them out of Kashmir (p. 285 The Valley of Kashmir Walter Lawrence).

It was this tyranny that became the focus of Lt. Thorp’s attention. He studied how Ranbir Singh’s agents, mostly Kashmiri Pandits, fleeced Kashmiri Muslims and who these agents were. They included: the Dum (a sort of policeman); Harkara (informer); Tarougdar (revenue official responsible for weighing of State share of land produce); Shakdar (watchman of crops); Sargowl (head of 10 Shakdars); Kardar (collector of land revenue); Patwari (record keeper of houses and cultivated land); Mukadam (village headman and assistant to Patwari); Thanedar (police officer and magistrate with power to inflict corporal punishment); and above all the Tehsildar, officer of a district, (pp. 50-52 Cashmere Misgovernment Kashmir Papers Robert Thorp).

Tehsildar reported directly to the Governor. Those days the Governor of Kashmir Province was the dreaded Kripa Ram, the author of Gulabnama, and Gulzari-Kashmir. He also was a bigoted Hindu and is credited with the authorship of an anti-Islam book titled Raddi-Islam – The Rejection of Islam. It was with his support and assistance that Pandit Raja Kakh Dhar, Daroga Dagshali, Chief of Shawl Department, drowned 28 shawl workers at Zaldagar in Srinagar on 29 April 1865 for demanding permission to buy more rice to eat. They were expected to work and pay huge taxes but at the same time they were not allowed to buy sufficient rice to feed their families.
Robert Thorp published the details of how shawl industry worked; and of the extortionate taxes levied on it; and also of shawl workers’ massacre to the outside world (pp. 62-66 Cashmere Misgovernment Kashmir Papers Robert Thorp).

Apart from exposing the tyrannical rule of the Maharaja, Robert Thorpe also exposed and protested against his imperial adventures. It so happened that in 1861 the Muslims of Eastern Turkistan (called Sinkiang since 1884) rose up in rebellion against Chinese authorities. When the Muslim insurrection spread throughout the province an adventurer called Buzurg Khan returned from exile in the Western Turkistan Khanate of Khokand. He was accompanied by his protégé Yaqub Beg. It was January 1865 (p. 322 The Great Game Peter Hopkirk). Within two years Yaqub Beg managed to wrest Kashgar and Yarkand from the Chinese as well as from local rebels. He installed his patron Buzurg Khan as the King of what now came to be called as Kashgaria.

Taking advantage of the unrest and political uncertainty in Eastern Turkistan, Maharaja Ranbir Singh dispatched in 1864 a small force across Karakoram Pass sixty miles deep inside to Shahidullah (Xaidulla) located on Leh-Kashgar caravan route (p. 22 Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy A. Lamb; p. 203 Maharaja Ranbir Singh S S Charak). There they set up a fort on the left bank of river Karakash.

A British surveyor of the time called W. H. Johnson, who had a nexus with Maharaja Ranbir Singh, showed the northeastern frontier of Kashmir State on official British Indian maps some hundred miles away into the trans-Karakoram region to cover Shahidullah garrison. This measure on his part extended Kashmir State by some 21000 square miles of territory including Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin wasteland (p. 23 Kashmir A Disputed Legacy Alastair Lamb).

Lt. Thorpe protested through his write-ups that occupation of Shahidullah was a violation of 1846 Treaty of Amritsar because the boundary of Kashmir State, according to British perceptions, lied along the Karakoram watershed. In 1867 Maharaja Ranbir Singh recalled Shahidullah garrison. Later that year Yaqub Beg’s troops pillaged and destroyed the Shahidullah fort (p.89 Cashmere Misgovernment Kashmir Papers Robert Thorp). Ranbir Singh’s occupation of Shahidullah for some years and subsequent Johnson mapping set up a sort of fake claim for Maharaja Ranbir Singh on territory which belonged to Eastern Turkistan. Post-1947, the Shahidullah occupation and Johnson map became the root cause of bloody dispute between India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other side over Shaksgam and Aksai China.

For the service that Johnson thus rendered, Maharaja Ranbir Singh rewarded him in 1872 by appointing him Waziri-Wazarat, Governor of Ladakh, after he retired from British service; but Robert Thorp, who challenged his claim on trans-Karakoram region; and proposed to the British Government of India outright annexation of Kashmir as a punishment, had to suffer assassination. He was murdered, allegedly by Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s agents, in 1868. He lies buried in the Christian cemetery of Sheikhbagh Srinagar.
There is a plaque in Alnwick erected in his memory.

  1. Yasin is now party of Pakistan administered Gilgit-Baltistan territory of former Princely Kashmir State.
  2. Chitral is now part of Pakistani Province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
  3. Sharda is now part of Pakistan Administered Azad Kashmir territory of former Princely Kashmir State.
The work that killed Robert Thorpe The legacy of Robert Thorpe

Ashiq Hussain

Ashiq Hussain is a columnist based in Indian held Kashmir and has written three books on the K-conflict.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. I’m pleased to see that the family background of Robert Thorp has at last been corrected. Our Thanks to Jane Strand for identifying the errors, and recording the corrections. I trust these will be taken on-board and reflected in other records & references to him, and his work in Kashmir. He was my great-great-uncle, and brother to my great-grandfather William Tudor Thorp, after whom I am named.

    1. Thank you for taking time to read the article. We in Kashmir will always be indebted to Lt. Robert Thorp for his huge sacrifice towards the people of Kashmir. If you further wish to contribute towards this article, please mail us at editor@inkbind.org

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