Maqbool Bhat's legendary aura far exceeds his small village in Trehgam Kupwara, however, people in his village retain only a handful of his memories and the young remember what has been handed out through anecdotes, Nayeem Rather reports.
TREHGAM: “Let’s go to the shrine of Azadi,” said Shahmaal Begum, the stepmother of Maqbool Bhat, leading way to their dilapidated ancestral house, where Maqbool Bhat was born and raised. The house, in shambles, is a two storey building. It is made of mud and wood. Dust is flaking off the walls. Three or four posters, carrying the pictures of Maqbool Bhat, are tacked on the main door. Above the door, JKLF flags are wedged in between the crevices of bricks; the flags lay solemn for the most time, only occasionally fluttered by the cold breeze.
Shahmaal opened the door and the smell of damp mud emanated from inside the corridor. The corridor was dark. We were barely able to see each other’s faces. And the corridor ended at a spiral staircase. We ascended the staircase slowly, turning right and then turning left. On the second floor, Shahmaal opened a door—the door remains locked—of the room of Maqbool Bhat.
The room, where Maqbool Bhat would sit, read and sleep, is small, dark and claustrophobic. Inside the room, the posters of JKLF lay bundled on the floor, besides a bundle of posters carrying pictures of Maqbool. A dozen sticks lay cushioned with the wall—the sticks are used to hoist the flags. The room has only two windows, which overlook the area surrounding the house. Maqbool Bhat would peek out from the window to look outside.
“This is where Maqbool Soab would sit and read”, Shahmaal said, pointing towards a corner, near a window.
“This is where he became Maqbool Bhat”, she added after a while.
Shahmaal rues one thing; no one visits them, not even the JKLF people.
“Looks like people of the cities have forgotten that he lived here in this village.”, she said.
The village of Trehgam lies south-west of Kupwara town—around eight kilometers away from the town. I took a bus from the town. The bus, braving snow and mud, rumbled slowly uphill. The bus was packed with the passengers—mostly students coming or going to winter tuitions. I sat on a seat near some students. The students were curious as to where I was heading. I am going to Trehgam, I told them.
“Oh, the village of Shaheed Maqbool Bhat!” one of them exclaimed. Then we began to talk about Maqbool Bhat. They have heard stories about him. The students began to talk about politics.
“He was a lion—a real lion. I have heard many things about him from my father. Had he not been hanged Kashmir would have got its freedom”, a student began. The other joined in with their views on him. All their knowledge about Maqbool Bhat was oral—what they have heard from the elders. They have not read any books about him, they said. They will once they get older and learn to read better English.
Then the bus stopped and they boarded off. I waved at them and they waved back.
On approaching Trehgam, a military camp—64 Mountain Brigade—welcomed the visitors. The camp stands on a raised patch of land closer to the road. The bus slowed its pace. The passengers looked out from the windows at the concertina wire and the bunkers and the soldiers in them—a familiar sight. Then the bus picked up its pace, moving uphill, till it reached the main market of Trehgam.
I boarded off the bus. The market was bustling with people. By the roadside of the market, lies the graveyard. I went inside the graveyard. In the middle of the graveyard are three graves—the graves Maqbool Bhat father Ghulam Qadir Bhat, and his two brothers. And closer to these graves lies the grave-in-wait for Maqbool Bhat.
“This grave awaits Maqbool. It is a wound and a witness to the injustice done to Kashmiris by India,” Bashir Ahmed, a shopkeeper said.
He added: “Every day I go to the graveyard and pray for the dead. I stand in front of the grave and pray for the return of the remains of Maqbool and I pray for the freedom of Kashmir. This graveyard is filled with dozen boys who were martyred for the noble cause—freedom. Does India really think we will forget?”
Have you met Maqbool Bhat, I asked.
“No, I haven’t met him in person. But that doesn’t matter. I know who he is. I know”, he said.
There were more people joining us in the graveyard—the local villagers. Most of them were silent, sighing and smiling occasionally. A teenaged boy went closer to the grave-in-wait and brushed off the snow from its edges; he brushed off snow from the poster nearby. After a while, we left the graveyard.
The teenager, a class 9th student, said, “Maqbool Bhat is our Che Guevara. I have read about Che and I find a similarity between him and what I have heard of Shaheed Maqbool. They even look alike on posters. He will remain in our hearts forever; he showed us the path. And I feel proud that I was born in this village. One day I will write a book on him; his message was beautiful—the message of freedom”.
Opposite the graveyard and across the road, lies the main Masjid of the village—a two storey monumental structure, painted in green, and in its side, almost in embrace, lies a temple, a one storey structure, painted in light saffron color; the symbol of swastika is impossible to miss from a distance. It is a Shaivite temple built by the Pandits of the village.
Khalid, a management student, pointing towards the masjid and the temple, said, “That is the idea of freedom of Kashmir: a free, democratic, secular country where people of every faith could live in harmony and peace. That is what Maqbool Sahab symbolizes and preached all his life”.
It is said that the political career of Maqbool Bhat began from that Masjid. People have heard that he delivered his first political speech from the pulpit of that Masjid.
The figure of Maqbool Bhat is a rural legend. And a mystified one. Most people I met with in the village remember Maqbool Bhat as a ‘father of the nation’ and a ‘great political leader’. Maqbool has risen to the stature of a saint.
However, very few remember or have heard of the beginnings of Maqbool’s political career. His close childhood friends—Wafadar Malik and Ghulam Ahmed Shah—are dead. What people in the village remember are the memories of the memory or the oral narrations that have passed from one generation to another about Maqbool—narrations that mystify his figure, a man who could have done anything; even given freedom to people of Kashmir.
“He was a pious man. He was a visionary. If they had not hanged him, Kashmir would have been free by now. He was a real Mujahid,” Ali Mohammad, a local, said. Did you know him when he was alive? “No, but I have a memory of him giving a speech, I was too young to understand anything”, he added. That is all Ali Mohammad remembers.
His stepmother Shahmaal Begum remembers Maqbool thus: “Toathe (the family nickname of Maqbool Bhat) was in class five when I married his father Ghulam Qadir Bhat. He was a shy kid. He would shut himself up in his room and study. Once, when he passed class eight, his father, who was a tailor, would teach him the tailoring. I have seen Maqbool Soab sewing clothes; he would sometimes sew Shalwar Kameez…
“Later on, when he passed his Matriculation exam, it was during those days that he became active in politics. He would go to the town and come back after a week. Many young people of his age would come to our house, and till late in the night would discuss politics. This was also the beginning when police would come and ask for him. And he would hide. In the village, the first recollection I have of his ‘being a political leader’ was when he preached on a Friday in the Jamia Masjid Trehgam. And since that day, Maqbool Soab became a leader.”
This is the limit of what she recalls, except for one incident when she went to visit Maqbool Bhat in a Baramulla jail. She doesn’t remember the dates. The incident, she says, had vanished from her memory until she met with, in 2017, to meet with her another incarcerated son, Zahoor Ahmed Bhat. It was there in the jail that she was reminded of meeting Maqbool Bhat.
“I have only met him once in jail. He didn’t talk much. He was in a cotton shirt. He enquired about the well being of me and our family. He just told me to pray for the success of the mission he is on,” Shahmaal says.
There is another popular story of his political beginnings.
I met with the nephew of Maqbool Bhat, Junaid. Junaid is a BBA graduate. We walked through the streets of the village; he pointed towards a wooden silo, an old structure where Maqbool Bhat began his politics.
“I have heard two stories many times over and over from Ghulam Ahmed Shah, the friend of Toathe (Maqbool Bhat). He told me that they would organize meetings in the wooden silo. They would sit whole night, beginning the meeting with the recitation of the Holy Quran and then share ideas with each other. The meetings were mostly about the political issues facing Kashmir and how to organize people to take political action…” he said. Then he tried to remember some details but he forgot.
“And”, he began suddenly, “another story is the one that made him popular in the village. One day Maqbool Bhat and his group entered the Jamia Masjid. They saw people having Kehwa inside the Masjid—it might have been some religious festival. He was angry at the people there. He thought this eating and drinking in Masjid is sacrilegious. He gave a speech immediately, asking people to give up these practices and start fighting for the cause of freedom. He began to talk about the exploitation of peasants at the hands of the clerics. His words angered many; only a few, especially the students, paid heed to his words. And slowly his following increased in the village and he became a local leader. This incident is considered as the beginning of his political life”.
I left Junaid and went on a small tour through the narrow streets of the village. At the shop front, I talked to a group of young boys. I enquired whether there are any people who are part of JKLF in this village.
Imran, a 27 years old youth said, “Shaheed Maqbool will remain in our hearts forever but times have changed. People want Azadi and these days I don’t think anyone is part of JKLF in this village or any other party. There is now Burhan wali azadi. Times have changed but that doesn’t mean Shaheed Maqbool Bhat is irrelevant. I think Burhan is an extension of Maqbool Bhat”
Other nodded in agreement.
Shabir, another youth, added; “Maqbool Soab laid his life for Kashmir and Islam. I believe that his sacrifice won’t get wasted. Look I am not saying that we should pick up guns, I think the best tribute we can pay the martyrs is to do whatever helps the freedom movement. And Azadi is inevitable”
I left them. Before leaving the village, I went back to the house of Maqbool Bhat, to say goodbye to Shahmaal Begum. She came out into the courtyard. Before I left, she pointed towards the picture of Maqbool Bhat, gazing down at us and on the courtyard, and said,
“My children didn’t see the azadi, neither did Toathe. But your generation will not live without azadi. You are destined to see it”. There were tears in her eyes. I left her there and soon was heading back to Srinagar. ♦