February 13, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

February 11. Maqbool Bhat Day. visited Trehgam, the village where the author of Kashmir's armed struggle hailed from...

Up two flights of narrow wooden steps into this battered double-storeyed building, you find a small latched door on your right.

Open it and you are in what was once Mohammed Maqbool Bhat's world: A small low-ceilinged room, wooden-floored, dark, except for the dash of sunlight the partially open bird-window admits.

"This was Totha's room," Bhat's sister, Mehmooda, says. Totha in Kashmiri means 'dearest.'

Trehgam is moderately large, a few kilometres along an excuse of a road from the border town of Kupwara. Piles of straw spell its rural culture.

February 11, the 17th anniversary of Bhat's execution in New Delhi's Tihar jail, evoked a strike call from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference -- one that has received less than complete response.

The first Kashmiri to pick up the gun, Bhat is known as Shaheed-e-Kashmir or the Martyr of Kashmir.

In Trehgam this year, there are no VIPs from Srinagar visiting his family. No APHC leader, nor any of his followers in the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. If that bothers Mehmooda, she does not show it. The family quietly goes about observing the anniversary of Maqbool's death.

They had sat with 27 students of the darul-ul-aloom (school for Islamic education) in the morning, reading the Quran for the peace of their hero's soul. Now, it is time for a small feast.

The cease-fire seems to have given the family some respite -- the army has not come knocking on their door this year, which, says Mehmooda, is otherwise normal every February 11. "Last year they came four, five times, asking who all had come here. They tried to take Mansoor's (Bhat's youngest brother, a militant killed in an encounter) photograph, the only one we have... I fought with the officer. I told him that, whatever he does, we would observe this day."

Seventeen years have passed since Bhat was hanged and his body refused to his family. But his memory lives, larger than life, in the minds of the Kashmiris.

There is no photograph of Bhat in this house, no personal belonging. His family says most of whatever they had has been destroyed/taken away by the army.

"There were albums and his letters... we had hidden those, sewed them inside cushions," Mehmooda says. "But they found it during a search operation (in the early 1990s)."

On the rusted ramshackle gate opening to her late brother Ghulam Nabi's house, there is a drawing: A young moustached face looks at you gravely through powerful eyes.

"That's Mansoor's work," a family friend tells you.

To Kashmiris, Maqbool Bhat symbolises the spirit of freedom. He is revered, a sort of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh rolled into one, his image second only to that of "Sheikhsaab (Sheikh Abdullah)."

Perhaps that's an unfair comparison. As a keen Kashmir watcher points out, "Sheikh Abdullah lived a much longer life, while Maqbool Bhat was in the public eye for less than 20 years."

Bhat authored the armed Kashmir movement in 1965 -- 'insurgency' as New Delhi would have it, 'freedom struggle' as Kashmiris call it.

He was the first to demand independence for Kashmir. In his small room in Trehgam, as his family tells you, he used to gather his friends and teach them about Kashmir.

"Sometimes," remembers Abdul Ahmad Shah, Mansoor's friend, "he used to talk to the people at the Pandits' shamshan ghat (cremation ground)."

A five-minute walk from his house, it had -- still has -- a spring running through, whereon is a thin, longish island.

"His audience comprised of his friends and the illiterate people of the village," continues Shah. "Maqbool used to make them all sit in a line there. He had a small blackboard on which he used draw Kashmir and explain how we were all slaves. Mansoor and I, we were small children then, but we used to watch him."

A little later, in 1958, Bhat, aged 20, crossed over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

"That was the fifth time he was trying (to cross over)," says Abdul Rashid Parray, who was with him on a failed attempt. "On his fourth attempt, we managed to reach the Line of Control in Kupwara.

"There were three of us. We put up in a house at the border. The next morning, we packed some provisions and were just about start when my uncle, who was the village head, reached there on a horse. He handed us over to the police. We were all beaten up..."

"After that Maqbool's family sent him to Baramulla (some 60 km away) for studies. But that didn't stop him from crossing over. He was an intelligent man, a man of great thoughts. He knew what he wanted. He was not for Pakistan or India, but for Kashmir."

"He was a true freedom fighter," is how Hashim Querishi, Bhat's protégé, who later came into the limelight when he masterminded Independent India's first hijacking, puts it.

Bhat spent the next few years in Muzaffarabad. In 1962, he formed the Kashmir Independence Committee, which he later merged with the Plebiscite Front.

It was in 1965 that he formed the National Liberation Front. And with that started the armed struggle of Kashmir.

The next year, Bhat returned to India with a group of NLF activists. But they were spotted. In the encounter that followed, an army officer was killed and Maqbool Bhat arrested. He was tried for murder and sentenced to death in Srinagar. Two weeks later, he escaped and returned to PoK -- only to be arrested there. He was dubbed an 'Indian agent' and tortured.

Later, he was released on the orders of Pakistan's supreme court. But that incident, as he wrote in a letter to a friend, made him see the other side of Pakistan. 'I was happy to be safe in my home but this happiness was short-lived... What happened in the Black Fort had shaken me and forced me to rethink on who was a friend and who was a foe.'

Bhat returned to India and was arrested. He was shifted to Tihar jail, where he remained till his execution on February 11, 1984.

That hasty move was brought about by the killing of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham, UK, who had been kidnapped by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militants to secure Bhat's release.

"I was then in London to organise a hijack to free Maqbool," says Hashim Querishi, who had by then been released from a Pakistan jail where he was imprisoned for the 1971 hijacking. "When I came to know about the kidnapping I fought with Amanullah (Khan, JKLF leader, now in Pakistan). I told him it was wrong. And when they hanged Maqbool Bhat, I slapped him."

Mhatre's murder cost Bhat his life. But, in his death, he acquired a place in Kashmiri hearts that can perhaps never be usurped.

Sensitive. Quiet. Intellectual. Secular... Those who knew Bhat do not have enough adjectives to describe him.

"His first and last love was Kashmir," says one such person. "He fired the romantic spirit of the Kashmiris, especially the younger generation."

"I met him twice in jail," says Mehmooda. "The first time I was a child of about 10. The second was when he was in Tihar. I was 16 then. He was in chains, I remember, but he looked hale and hearty. When I wept, he told me, 'Be brave. I have taken a step for the nation... I am in chains, but I don't feel chained. I prefer the other world.' "

None of Bhat's family -- not his stepmother, not his siblings -- got to see him before he was hanged.

"We went to Srinagar airport," says Mehmooda, "but the police stopped us from leaving for Delhi."

The execution saw Kashmiris take to the streets, demanding his body be released to his family. The authorities refused and buried him in Tihar. There were processions, protests galore, but to no avail.

Today, as both Bhat's family and Querishi point out, there are many who try to capitalise on his name. They claim Bhat as their own, as did a Pakistani colonel whom Mehmooda met in PoK on a recent visit there.

"He tried to tell me that Maqbool was for accession to Pakistan," she says. "But I told him no, he was for an independent Kashmir."

Mubina, Bhat's niece, has another point to make. "They never returned any of his personal belongings from Tihar," she says. "I hope they will at least allow us some soil from where he is buried. We have reserved some space for him here."

So they have. Between the graves of Ghulam Nabi and Mansoor in Trehgam's small graveyard, home to many of Bhat's followers.

You might also want to read...
Memories fester in Maqbool Bhat's village

Photographs: Chindu Sreedharan. Design: Lynette Menezes.

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