The Story of the Poonch Kingdom
One of the most backward and in a certain way remote Districts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is the district of Poonch which falls in the Jammu Division. Along with the neighbouring District of Rajouri its referred to as the Rajouri Poonch area or the Pir Panjal belt in the local political parlance just as the Doda/ Kishtwar area is called the Chenab Valley belt. This had further ramifications as both these belts have a Muslim majority in an otherwise Hindu majority Jammu Division. As I always say the most complicated part of India is the state of Jammu and Kashmir and it takes like forever to even begin to understand the complex make up of the state.
Coming back to Poonch, it was once an important Hill Kingdom ruled by Rajput Hill Rajas, as was the norm in the lower Himalayas but over a period of time they had converted to Islam just like the Rajas of Kishtwar. The majority population of Poonch consists of Gujars and Bakarwals, along with Pahadis, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Rajputs and some Dogras.One feature which kinda unites the populace is that almost everyone speaks a version of Pahadi which is understood and spoken across the board. Traditionally Poonch has always been more of Punjabic / Potoharic (As in belonging to the Potohar Plateau) than Jammuic or Kashmiric. I guess you get my drift.
Now the story of how Poonch came to be a part of the Riyasat (By Riyasat I mean the state of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed in 1947 before India got independence) is a rather interesting one, as Poonch and its Rulers always stressed on a separate identity for Poonch from Jammu or from Kashmir. As with all the regions in this Region Poonch came under the Rule of the Sikhs in 1819 when the Sikhs used the Region as a Platform for the acquisition of Kashmir after expelling the Afghans. The local Muslim Rulers were sidelined and the Hill Kingdoms in the area like Rajouri, Poonch, Bhimber etc were put under direct Sikh Rule.
And then in 1821 the Sher-E-Punjab appointed Gulab Singh as the Raja of Jammu even though he belonged to a minor faction of the Jammu Royal family. Raja Gulab Singh as he now came to be called had two other brothers as well Dhyan Singh and Suchet Singh, both of whom, just like Gulab Singh were in the service of the Sher-E-Punjab and together the Dogra brothers held immense power in the Sikh Court. In continuation to the favours shown to the Dogra brother in 1827 appointed Dhyan Singh as the Raja of Bhimber, Chibbal and Poonch. Just like his brother Dhyan Singh now became Raja Dhyan Singh and had a Kingdom of his own. As Raja Dhyan Singh was one of the most important Minister at the Court most of his time was spent in Lahore and on his behalf Raja Gulab Singh took care of Poonch and even crushed a rebellion there by the Hill tribes consisting of the Muslim Rajputs, the chibbalis and the Sudans.
In the vicissitudes that followed the death of the Sher-E-Punjab, saw the killing of Raja Dhyan Singh, Raja Suchet Singh (the 3rd Dogra Brother) and Raja Hira Singh (the son and Heir of Raja Dhyan Singh) and as a part of the whole mayhem when Raja Gulab Singh fell on the less favoured side and appeared weak the Poonch Kingdom was taken away by the Sarkar Khalsa and handed over to Faiz Talib Khan of Rajouri and so it stayed until a few years.
And the the first Anglo Sikh War took place and as a result Raja Gulab Singh became the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and all the territory to the North of the Ravi River which included Poonch. The Maharaja handed over Poonch as a Jagir to Jawahir Singh and Moti Singh the surviving sons of his murdered Brother Raja Dhyan Singh.
But the brothers were not satisfied and took their case to the British arguing that Poonch was an independent Kingdom which was granted to them and they were not a part of the Maharaja’s Riyasat. But the British ruled otherwise and said that the Maharaja was still their suzerain. At the same time both Brothers starting quarreling with each other and their matter had to be settled. And by this time the Maharajaship had passed onto Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the son of Gulab Singh, who was a powerful Ruler as well as personality. He wasnt very fond of his cousin Jawahir and had him exiled to Amabala on an annual stipend for “treacherous conspiracy” and conveniently Jawahir Singh had no sons. Moti Singh’s son Baldev Singh contested this and said that Poonch belonged to the descendants of Raja Dhyan Singh. But the British were not amused and said Poonch was a Jagir (which Raja Dhyan Singh’s descendants vehemently opposed as they said it was a State) and an internal matter of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
How ever Baldev Singh’s descendants though in nominal control of Poonch always contested this and send various emissaries and delegations to the British asking for a separate Poonch but the British disagreed. At the same time the Poonch “Rajas” maintained a good relation with their Cousins who Ruled the Riyasat and held high positions within the administration of the Maharaja’s Government, including Raja Jagatdev Singh who was at one time the Diwan of Kashmir. Raja Jagatdev Singh was also issued a Sanad by the Maharaja but they continued to question the status of Poonch vis a vis Jammu and Kashmir. The Poonch Rajas maintained “Poonch Houses” in Rawalpindi as well as later in Dehradun. There was also a Poonch House in Kud which was built as a present by Raja Jagatdev Singh for his favourite Queen. The Raja of Poonch as per the terms was the owner of all the land in Poonch and though there were reforms in Jammu and kashmir there were none in Poonch and this led to widespread discontent as the populace were heavily taxed by both the Raja and the Maharaja.
Finally this discontent boiled over after the Second World War and the almost 60000 Ponchis who had fought in the Second World War became a powerful force in the war over the Riyasat. They were Muslim Rajputs and most of the leaders pledged allegiance to Pakistan which was natural at that time. Without going into the details of the “Poonch Rebellion” which deserves a separate Story, let me just mention that the original Poonch is now split into two parts under India and Pakistan.
A pic of the dilapidated Poonch Fort by Safed Haathi. From 2017. This beautiful building is now sadly a Government Office and slowly falling into decay.