After gracing royal wardrobes of imperial London and Paris, and serving the impoverished population for more than a century, Kashmir’s silk industry that exported the ‘finest silk in the world’ via the Silk Route to Europe is now fast fading. The fall linked with social and political aspects of Kashmir, has already collapsed the world’s biggest silk factory known for sparking off the first rebellion in Kashmir,
Defying his ripe age with a sharp memory, octogenarian Samad Dar recalls the times when civilians would follow a regimental routine on Srinagar’s streets. That early morning footfall would be followed by the resounding remark: “Resham Khean ha draai” (Workers of the Silk Factory have left for work.)
Those were pre-partition times and the Silk Factory would be called Reshamkhan, now known as Sericulture Development Department. Heading for the factory along with his father, Samad remembers it as the revolutionary era, when the industry that employed workers from all the corners of the state, would create a chain of work, and produce the finest silk in the world.
The first station in making of the smooth silk was from the mulberry section of the industry where skilled workers would make and pick up the disease-free and quality eggs of caterpillars and distribute them among farmers, famously known as Kiramkashs.
These cocoon farmers were one of the few Kashmiri workers barred from Begair — the forced labour, which would send Kashmiris to Gilgit and other harsh plains — under the treacherous Dogra regime.
Then the mulberry section through their division in every district would supply mulberry leaves (the only food that silk caterpillars eat) to these Kiramkashs. “Kashmir was then a home to a large number of mulberry trees, like Chinars,” Samad, living a retirement period for over two decades now, says. “Cutting of mulberry trees was banned.”
The life and devotion of caterpillar towards the nature even made the poet Ahad Bhat to connect the silk thread to the inner soul and existence of human beings: “Beheth peath keom chu menz waaraay, Mea dil neum zeawijay taaray” (Sitting amid the farm/Caterpillar steals my heart, with his finest thread.)
The next station would be Rambagh Silk Factory—where the Kiramkashs would bring cocoons, then yielded into silk threads.
“The place employed almost two thousand skilled and patient workers, working on British-imported machines,” Samad says. “As a kid I would often wonder, how does Taarkash [silk weaver] pick an almost invisible silk thread.”
The thread would be rolled, moved to the next station, at Rajbagh, where workers on latest machines would turn it into fabric. “That best quality silk fabric would reflect the nature and people of Kashmir,” Samad says. The silk would be then exported through the Silk Road, before gracing some of the big European markets.
Besides producing world-class silk, the industry housed the culture of resistance debate and sparked off the first rebellion against the Dogra regime in Kashmir.
“I remember my father speaking of the time when the silk industry workers stood against Maharaja in early 1920s,” Samad continues. “The strike was against low wages and ill-treatment with workers. More than 10 workers were killed by the Dogra forces, thus laying the foundation for the freedom movement in Kashmir. The martyrs of Reshamkhan are the pioneers of the present day struggle.”
But with the 1947 Partition, the Kashmir Silk Factory didn’t remain the same. For housing the defiant voices, it faced the backlash of the new regime—New Delhi—and its regional political managers.
“During the vibrant Sixties and Seventies, Reshamkhana had a workers union called Laborers Union. It was on every political party’s watch-and-wish list,” says Habibullah Dar, a retired Head Seed Examiner at Sericulture Department. “The government in power would always try to pick a man of their line to be the president of the Union. Such was its influence on Kashmir’s polity.”
Being a composite campus of varied workers at the same time, the industry was host to different ideologues.
“It had pro-Abdullah, pro-Bakshi or Shera-Bakra people in it,” says octogenarian Habibullah, the ex- president of the Silk Industry Employees Union, who even faced jail for his activism. “It was a big arena for political debates.”
In a bid to control the institution where dissent voices would emanate, the state government decided to split the industry into Sericulture and Kashmir Filature, in 1972. The divide doomed the industry, as the ensuing events led to its quick fall. And as the government sat over the crisis, the factory’s property soon became the target.
“With the anarchy, the land loot of the industry started,” Habibullah says. “It was distributed to other departments for political interests. Thousands of mulberry trees were chopped down throughout the valley on pretext of road widening.” The apathy forced many Kiramkashs to distance themselves from the industry. This multi-front offensive was fast pushing the yesteryears’ glory to obscurity.
With the advent of the rebellious 90s, political and bureaucratic interests again surfaced to ruin the last vestiges of the industry. As the government continued distributing the industry’s properties to other departments in the name of development, it reduced one of the biggest silk factories in the world that exported silk across Europe an abandoned structure with rusting machines.
With less than 20 caretakers now, Rambagh Silk Factory is being sought to be modeled into a heritage site, so is Rajbagh Silk Factory. The only active unit of Kashmir’s Silk Industry is Sericulture Development Department. It continues to produce eggs and distribute them among the remaining Kiramkashs, who were encouraged to take up farming by different schemes by the Central Silk Board.
Following the fall, the department had gone for de-monopolization, where filatures from other states would check the cocoon quality produced by Kiramkashs in Kashmir through different units. Nearly 8000 Kiramkash families, as per the official records, have produced 3,60,000 kilograms of silk in Kashmir division in 2016-17. But the produce is nowhere near to its bygone numbers.
“But as its assets are being targeted for political interests,” says Nazir Ahmad, President Sericulture Employees Association, “government must come to the rescue of this great and old industry of Kashmir.”
It’s a matter of political will, many say, to bring Mahkemai Abresham or Silk Industry to life. “But in a place where oppression and resistance go side by side,” Nazir says, “silk seems to have paid the price for being a symbol of struggle and resilience.”
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