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|September 18, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Chindu Sreedharan
Memories fester in Maqbool Bhat's village
This is Trehgam, Mohammad Maqbool Bhat's village in Kupwara district.
Fifteen years after he was hanged in Tihar jail, Bhat's name still evokes unadulterated reverence hereabouts. He was the first one to say that the gun is the solution to Kashmir. He was the one who founded the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front. He is still the hero.
"Where can we find Bhat's mother?" we ask.
The villagers are only eager to direct us. Trehgam is part of the militancy-infested Kupwara district and falls under the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency.
We turn off the main road and progress about a hundred metres. On the left is the gate to a big two-storeyed bungalow in run-down condition. This is Maqbool's younger brother Ghulam Nabi's house. Nabi too was a militant. He was killed in Srinagar while trying to escape arrest.
Nabi's wife Syeda Begum lives here. Her children, she says, after asking us to come in and offering us tea, is in Srinagar.
"That is Maqbool's house," she says pointing to another two-storeyed bungalow, this one even more run-down than her own, nearby. A small wooden gate connects her compound with that of her mother-in-law. She calls out and an old, thin woman appears.
This is Shaha Begum, Bhat's stepmother. A mother who raised three sons and lost them all to militancy -- her youngest, Mansoor was killed by the police a while ago.
We get talking. We ask her about the election, whether she would vote...
"Never," she says, "We have never cast our votes and we will never cast it till the basic problem is solved."
"We want azaadi," she continues in answer to our queries. "We do not want to be with India. Nor do we want to be with Pakistan. We want that Kashmir should be independent."
Shaha Begum now lives alone. Her livelihood is the little land she possesses. "I always remember him (Maqbool). His face, his... everything..." she begins to cry. "I don't have a picture of his in the house because the police will tear it up if they see it. They have done it before. That's all now kept in Srinagar (with relatives)."
Syeda, who till now had kept her counsel, has a few words to say about the harassment they have faced from security personnel. "When Mansoor was killed, the STF people [the Special Task Force, a wing of the state police] came here. They said there were weapons in the house. They searched the house, beat her [the mother] up..."
The old woman, to attest the charges, shows black marks on her ankles. "She wasn't around or they would have caught hold of her too. They dunked my face in water. They tied a rope around my waist and hung me upside down," she says, now openly crying.
Outside, probably because we were guest of Bhat's mother, the locals open up to us. They answer our questions readily, asking us to use only their first names.
"We will not vote," says Basheer with vehemence.
Why? Is it because the militants have threatened you ?
"There is no threat perception here, at least not in Trehgam. This is an army village," he answers, "No, we are boycotting the polls on our own. To protest against the way the government is treating the Kashmir problem."
Adds Abdul, "Everyone knows we want freedom and nothing else." "If not forced to vote," joins in a middle-aged man, "there will be nil polling here."
Why, we ask, was there any kind of pressure from anyone?
"Yesterday a captain of the 24, Rashtriya Rifles was here with his men," the villagers answer, "He told us that all of us will have to vote. Or his men will make sure that we vote."
(The RR, for its part, denies the allegation: they haven't done it, nor will they do it, officers claim.)
And will you?
"We won't," the youngsters claim, "We will protest if we are forced..."
As we turn to leave, a villager adds, "If you want to save us from a beating, be here on the polling day."
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