The 266th day of the Gregorian calendar, the first day of autumn, when the days begin to get shorter and nights longer, September 23 is celebrated across the world for many reasons. It’s Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the Autumnal Equinox holiday in Japan, Blessed Rainy Day in Bhutan, the AFL Grand Finale Parade in Australia’s Victoria state and Heroes’ Martyrdom Day in Haryana.
Last week, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) greenlighted yet another regional public holiday on this day. Schools, colleges, banks and government offices in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir will remain closed on September 23 every year to celebrate Maharaja Hari Singh’s birth anniversary.
It is for the first time in independent India that the erstwhile monarch of a princely state is being celebrated in such a way. It didn’t come easy. For years, Rajput and Dogra groups in Hindu-majority Jammu had been protesting in demand for this holiday in memory of the former Dogra ruler of J&K, one of 562 princely states that integrated with India after independence in 1947.
The revocation of Article 370 in 2019 divided the Muslim-majority J&K into two union territories—the other being Ladakh—and virtually wiped out a legacy of the Dogra empire, prompting intensified protests for a public holiday on Hari Singh’s birthday.
“I’m extremely happy that a holiday has been declared in his name. It should have been done a long time ago,” says Jammu lawyer Danish Rajput. “He left his kingdom in the hands of the government of India in order to save people in J&K from intruders. He certainly deserves a holiday in his name.”
Declaring the holiday, the BJP said it was a “tribute to nationalist forces.”
But Mohit Bhan, spokesperson for the People’s Democratic Party, is certain that the BJP, by declaring the holiday, is “only trying to hide it’s nefarious design of dismantling the legacy of the Dogra culture.”
Hari Singh always wanted J&K to remain an independent state, so he signed a standstill agreement with India and Pakistan soon after the British formally left India on August 15, 1947.
But later that year in October, he signed the Instrument of Accession, agreeing to accede his state to the Dominion of India.
A lot had transpired in those two and a half months.
When India was being partitioned, Mohammad Ali Jinnah assumed that J&K, by logic of its majority Muslim population, would become a part of Pakistan. That didn’t happen. And Hari Singh gave no indication of giving up the state’s independence. Pakistan then decided to use force, and a tribal invasion to drive out the Maharaja was given a nod.
On October 24, 1947, tens of thousands of marauding tribal Pathans swept into J&K. Their aim: Takeover the state’s capital, Srinagar, from where Hari Singh ruled.
The Maharaja sought India’s help. His prime minister, Mehr Chand Mahajan, later said: “I requested any military aid on any terms. Give us the military force we need. Take the accession and give whatever power you (India) desire to the popular party. The [Indian] army must fly to save Srinagar… or else I will go to Lahore and negotiate terms with Mr. Jinnah.”
On October 27, J&K’s accession to India was complete – the 1st Sikh battalion flew into Srinagar and soon secured it from Pakistani invaders.
But political strategies were just beginning to unfold.
Indian National Congress’ Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who got himself appointed as the prime minister of J&K and wanted to be the absolute head of the state, negotiated with Jawaharlal Nehru to exile Hari Singh.
Vallabbhai Patel, the deputy prime minister at the time, then assured Hari Singh that his stay outside J&K was required and would be just a ‘temporary phase.’ The Maharaja took a train to Bombay on June 20, 1949. Only his ashes returned to Jammu in 1961.
“He was not only a king of Jammu but of Kashmir, too. Hindus, Muslims had equal rights and freedom during his rule. So, I think J&K’s Muslims should be equally happy about a public holiday in his name,” said Jammu’s Rajput.
That’s not entirely true. Opinions across Kashmir are conflicting.
“Who can deny the contributions of Maharaja Hari Singh to the development of J&K. His contribution to the field of education stands out. He was the one who made primary education compulsory. He was the one who started the identification of scenic spots and their development for tourism. His contribution toward local handicraft and its commerce is no less,” said Dr. Nazir ul Islam Bhat of the Islamia College of Science and Commerce.
But Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, former head of Kashmir University’s Political Science department couldn’t disagree more.
“The Dogra dynasty was not sovereign, but a feudal system that wasn’t in tune with our belief of democracy. Making heroes out of the Dogras is like getting the British back to India, undoing the freedom movement of J&K,” Baba said.
“A very small population of the state – may be 15%–located in a certain center of Jammu supports the Dogra regime and might be happy about the public holiday declaration. Over 70% of the population in J&K does not identify Dogras as heroes,” he said.