On February 18 this year, Maqbool Bhat would have been 80. Born in a peasant family in Trehgam village of Handwara in district Kupwara, Maqbool’s name today is invoked as a fatherly figure of Kashmir’s six-decade-old Independence movement. Maqbool’s father’s name was Ghulam Qadir Bhat and his mother died when he was an 11-year-old student at a primary school in Trehgam. Maqbool grew up under the shadows of the oppressive feudal system of the Dogra rule, which not only shaped his political awakening but lead him to pursue a path rife with danger and uncertainty: a path of political activism and struggle for Kashmir’s Independence from the dominions of India and Pakistan.
Not much is known of Maqbool’s political life and all we hear about Maqbool are paeans following his hanging by the Indian government in February 1984. What shaped Maqbool’s thought and lead him to follow his political goals right to the end are seldom talked and debated about. In this two-part, and over a 15,000-word long essay, Wande Magazine brings together the life and times of Maqbool Bhat, the father of Kashmir’s Independence movement. The essay is a part of a special Wande issue on Maqbool Bhat.
Tokhsur yelli gase shethrwen panjran
Adeh hai neran saen arman
Baaleh yar yelli sheen gali
Adeh hai neran saen arman
When the cages will be decimated
Our dreams will come to life
When snow will melt from mountains
Our dreams will come to life
– Maqbool Bhatt (prison song)
The early years of Maqbool Bhatt’s life, like thousands of other Kashmiris was shaped by the harsh living conditions under the Dogra regime. It was the feudal system under Dogra regime in Kashmir that forced Maqbool Bhatt to participate in the first political action against suppression, occupation and the fight for equality, freedom and social justice. An insight into his childhood was provided by him on 12th April, 1972 from Camp Prison Lahore in a letter written in reply to Azra Mir, the daughter of veteran Kashmiri political activist and intellectual, G.M. Mir who was in prison with Maqbool Bhatt in relation to the Ganga hijacking case.
The incident is of 1945 or 1946 when he was eight or nine years old and Kashmir was ruled by the Dogra family. The Jagirdars (feudal lords) neither ploughed the land nor put any labour but only collected annual revenue. Plowing, sowing and harvesting the crops was done by peasants. In the year this incident happened, most of the crops had perished due to bad weather. The minute supply didn't match the Jagirdar's annual demand. In retaliation, he ordered his men to loot and last the population for whatever grains they had left.
The peasants of Trehgam got together and pleaded before the Jagirdar to spare them. They explained the reason for the failed season but the Jagirdar wasn't ready to listen. When the Jagirdar was about to leave after issuing coercive orders, all the village children were told to lie down in front of the motorcar. He was pleaded either to stop the further collection of grains or crush the starved and naked children under his car. Maqbool was also among those children that day. This along with the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948 left a deep impact on Maqbool Bhat.
Maqbool got his religious education at home. In the village primary school, on award ceremonies, parents of the affluent children and that of poor children were seated separately. One year, when Maqbool was also one of the awardees (passed matriculate in 1945), he refused to receive the award until that “class segregation” was not scrapped. The tradition was thence changed. He along with many other youngsters also protested for the school to be elevated to the secondary level and even helped in building it after the order was released. It was during this time when, teenager Maqbool, along with his friend tried to cross-over the border for the first time. They were arrested on the way and beaten, he would try and fail three more times.
Fearing further escalation, Maqbool Bhatt was sent away from home to Baramulla and admitted to St. Joseph’s College, Baramulla from where he got his BA degree in History and Political Science. He used to stay at the house of Ghulam Ahmed Bara. He also continued his reading on religion, a practice he had been following since childhood but now under the guidance of Maulana Shah Abdul Wali. It was during these days that he was involved in politics of agitation including rallies and delivering fiery speeches. Listening to the passionate and enthusiastic speeches of Maqbool Bhatt, the college principal Father George Shanks said, "This young man, if managed to pass through the hardships, will become a great person. But these types of people usually face extreme difficulties in society. The kind of freedom this type of youngsters demand is very hard to achieve. Subsequently, they get sacrificed on their way to freedom."
Maqbool would gather people from his village in his room or near a spring close to his home and teach them about Kashmir, his audience would most comprise his acquaintances, students and those who weren’t well-read. In a Rediff interview with Abdul Ahmed Shah, a local from Trehgam, Shah is quoted as saying "Maqbool used to make them all sit in a line there. He had a small blackboard on which he used to draw Kashmir and explain how we were all slaves. Mansoor and I, we were small children then, but we used to watch him."
He was heading the student activists of Plebiscite Front (PF) during the days when Sheikh Abdullah was released (December 1957) which led to a chain of huge protests against the Government. Sheikh was arrested again on 29 April 1958. The student activists of the Plebiscite Front were also targeted. It was the same year in which Maqbool Bhatt was supposed to complete his BA and in order to escape arrest he went underground till the results were declared, some reports suggest that he worked as a teacher in South-Kashmir during this time. Maqbool stayed out of the public eye until the result was declared and then left for Pakistan with his uncle, Aziz Bhat.
Maqbool, Aziz and a few more men left on foot towards Pakistan through Teetwal but were arrested after their cross-over and sent to the Police Station, Muzaffarabad. At this moment, Maqbool was very emotional as he had been forced into an exile. When asked why he had crossed-over, he said that it was impossible for him to stay in a slave nation so he had no other choice. His uncle, explained the situation that Kashmiris were facing on the other side of the border but the police didn't budge, they had to spend a few days in custody, this again left a mark on Maqbool. A few friends of his uncle, Ghulam Nabi Zargar and Ghulam Nabi Mir, who had crossed over to Pakistan-administered-Kashmir during the partition somehow heard about them and secured their release.
Maqbool and his uncle spent a few days at Mir's house and left to meet Master Maqbool, a friend of Ghulam Ahmed Bara, they spent a few more days there and then left for Lahore as Maqbool wanted to get his admission done at Punjab University. He was unsuccessful, most probably due to the lack of required documents. They then left for Peshawar (September 1958) where they met Sohbat Khan, an old friend of Aziz Bhat. Sohbat Khan worked at the Peshawar University and helped Maqbool in getting his admission done in Peshawar University for Urdu Literature.
Maqbool was still feeling restless, thoughts of what was happening back home wouldn't leave him alone. He joined a local newspaper ‘Anjam’ to earn his living and write his thoughts. His uncle had started working as a daily-wager but after seeing the conditions peaceful and favorable, soon left-back for Indian-held-Kashmir to get his wife too. On his way back, relatives of Master Maqbool, Atta Mohammad, and Mohammad Subhan requested him to also bring their sister, Raja Begum along. Aziz returned with both of them and stayed at the Master's house for a few days. Here, Master suggested that Maqbool be married to Raja Begum and Aziz agreed. They got married in 1961 and had two sons, Javed Maqbool born in 1962 and Showkat Maqbool born in 1964. But Raja felt severely ill soon after and was unable to move around, fearing what would happen to his children Maqbool married again in 1966, to a school teacher, Zakira Begum and had a daughter Lubna Maqbool from her.
Still troubled by his thoughts, Maqbool started his own magazine, Khyber Weekly but had to shut it down soon after due to shortage of funds.
Maqbool Bhatt then successfully contested the Kashmiri diaspora seat from Peshawar, Pakistan in the ‘Basic Democracy’ elections (1961) introduced by the then president of PaK, K.H. Khurshid. He also campaigned for K.H. Khurshid in Presidential elections and for G. M. Lone in the Kashmir State council elections, both the candidates won and became good friends with Maqbool.
It was during this time that the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks (1962-1963) were going on, both the states were debating for a partition of Kashmir, every Kashmiri, including Maqbool was listening carefully. It was during this time that he realized that the elites and bureaucrats of Pakistan didn't care about Kashmiris but only their land and that they didn't love Kashmiris but their own interests. He also noticed that lack of knowledge about Kashmir in them and felt that Kashmiris should be fighting for their rights on the basis of their own strength rather than depending on somebody else. He strongly believed that Kashmiris would not achieve their freedom until and unless they do not lead the struggle themselves. In an interview he had said, "If you cannot feed yourself two times a day, how can you free this country?" in another interview he was heard saying, "After the repeated arrests of Sheikh, my mind began to run, I noticed that the nation Kashmiris are fighting for, they have no power over it. I realized that from the very start, this was our biggest fault. Study any revolution and you'll learn that it's the oppressed themselves who should be at the forefront and unless they don't stand up and fight nothing would happen".
In 12th May 1962, few political activists from Azad Kashmir including G. M. Lone, Maqbool Bhat, Ghulam Nabi Gilkar, Qazi Khursheed Alam, Malik Abdul Majeed, Dr. Ghulam Ahmed Jarah, Mir Abdul Qayoom, Mir Abdul Aziz, Mir Abdul Rashid, Abdul Khaliq Afsari, M. A. Farooq, Amanullah Khan, Syed Shah Nazki, Ali Mohammad Malik and Majeed Amjad Bhat formed The Kashmir Independence Committee to counter any action leading to the division of Kashmir but as the talks failed, the group also stopped their work.
On 25 April 1965, Maqbool and his friends crossed into Suchetgarh, a Kashmiri village inside the Indian occupied Kashmir near the Pakistani city of Sialkot, and formed the Jammu Kashmir Plebiscite Front (JKPF), they took the soil of their motherland in their hands and took an oath by it, promising to even sacrifice their lives if need arises, two decades later, Maqbool would fulfil this promise to his motherland. He was elected as the Publicity Secretary for this first pro-independence political organization of some significance in PaK that later gave birth to most of the pro-independence groups on the Pakistani side of LoC. Abdul Khaliq Ansari, the veteran pro-independence voice in Azad Kashmir and Amanullah Khan were elected president and general secretary of JKPF respectively. Students, traders, lawyers, and journalists also joined the group.
JKNLF AND ARMED STRUGGLE
Maqbool Bhatt, along with many Kashmiris in JKPF, was also very much inspired by the national liberation struggles happening simultaneously in the world particularly those in Algeria, Palestine, and Vietnam. He, during his days at Peshawar University had read excessively on them with famous poets, Ahmed Faraz and Ta’aha Khan as his classmates. According to Amanullah Khan, a proposal to adopt armed struggle as an objective of Plebiscite Front was presented before the working party meeting of JKPF on 12th July 1965 in Mirpur but the proposal was defeated. However, Maqbool Bhatt, Amanullah Khan, Mir Abdul Qayyum, and Major (R) Amanullah from Hyhama, Kupwara who fought in the world war and served in the Indian National Army of Subash Chandra Bose and also participated in the Azad Kashmir war of 1947, secretly formed the Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front (NLF) on 13th August 1965 at the residence of Major Amanullah in Peshawar. The aim of this organization was written down in just one sentence, “All forms of struggle including armed struggle to enable the people of Jammu Kashmir State to determine the future of the State as the sole owners of their motherland” (Khan, 1992, p.112).
For the next ten months, this group of four men recruited more people into the ranks of NLF including GM Lone (the vice president of JKPF), and on 10th June 1966, the first group of NLF members secretly crossed over to Indian-held-Kashmir. Maqbool Bhatt, Tahir Aurangzeb, a student from Gilgit, Mir Ahmed and Kala Khan, a 1947 veteran, dropped deep in the valley while Major Amanullah and subedar Habibullah remained near the division line. The former were to recruit Kashmiris in Indian-controlled Kashmir for NLF while the latter were responsible for training and weapon supply. Maqbool Bhatt, along with three of his group members, worked underground for three months and established several guerrilla cells in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The Indian intelligence services figured out what was going on and started a massive operation to capture them. On 14th September 1966, Maqbool and his three associates were spotted in Kanila village of Handwara and an encounter started. In this encounter, Tahir Aurangzeb from Gilgit was killed and Kala Khan received injuries but not before they shot dead Amar Chand, a CID official was they had held already.
Eventually, Maqbool Bhatt and two of his comrades, Kala Khan, and Mir Ahmed were arrested, following this, hundreds of their followers were arrested too (including students, engineers, teachers, contractors, shopkeepers, and government employees). Commenting on this incident later, Maqbool Bhatt said that this was not a staged operation. "We were still in organizational phase and were not fully prepared for taking the risk of clashing with authorities. The risk of clash should only be taken when you are able to invite the enemy for that. We were arrested and tried. The government of the occupied Kashmir wanted the case to be dealt with in a military court and finish us off. But the case was heard in a civil court for two years." (Khawaja pg. 248)
ESCAPE HERE – REARREST THERE
One Kashmiri, Abdullah Dar succumbed to perks of the state and turned into a Government witness, he was later used to persecute Maqbool and his friends. Maqbool, along with his two associates, were tried in a Srinagar court headed by Neelkanth Ganjoo for killing Amarchand, crossing the LOC illegally, and being an enemy agent under Enemy Act 1943, the case went on for almost two years and the verdict was given in August 1968. Maqbool Bhatt and Mir Ahmed were given a death sentence and Kala Khan was sentenced to life imprisonment.
When Maqbool was asked if he had anything to say in his defense, he said, "I have no problem in accepting the charges leveled against me, except one. I am not an enemy agent (agent of Pakistan) but I am the enemy itself. Have a good look at me and recognize me well, I am enemy of your illegal rule in Kashmir... There is no rope that can hang Maqbool.”
An IB officer who had interrogated Maqbool after his arrest said almost the entire interrogation team was impressed by “his clarity of thought, manner of speech and knowledge of various political ideologies, including Maoism.”
In August 1968 they were sent to the Bagh-e-Mehtab interrogation center but the fire was yet to die down. To buy some time, Maqbool Bhat appealed against the court decision while he and his friends started planning an escape and within a month and a half, managed to do the same. In the bone-chilling winter of December 1968, he walked hundreds of miles on foot and crossed the LOC 'illegally' once again back to his base camp.
Maqbool Bhatt later wrote in great detail about the escape and submitted the file before the Special Trial Court in Pakistan where he was tried along with other NLF members for ‘Ganga’ hijacking. A brief account of the escape is included here from one of his interviews in 1972:
Freedom lovers have always tried to break the walls that cage them, it’s even more important in a guerrilla fight. Our escape was no coincidence, we didn’t just see an opportunity and took it. Right from the time they put the shackles on me, I was thinking of ways to escape. I knew, if I had to finish what I had started, I would have to escape no matter what. I decided not to take help from anybody outside as it would put their lives in danger too. Their allegiance had to remain a secret for now. We were kept separate from other prisoners, our area was called Zanaan Khana/Zanana Jail and during the autumn of 1967, we were joined by Zul Zamaan, Jamus Khan and Ghulam Yasin. All of them were from Azaad Kashmir and had crossed over to IOK during the 1965 war. Yasin had been arrested for spying for Pakistan. After getting to know them, our team grew, we were six now (Kala Khan, it seems, was being held in the other wing), Jamus and Zamaan lived in the second cell. Our cell had Room A and Room B, Room B was divided into 3 sections, kitchen, toilet and washroom. Four guards would still always stay outside to keep a watch. One had a machine gun and the other three were armed with rifles, all of them were from the BSF. We divided our escape plan into three steps. First, we had to improve our relationship with the prison administration by acting naive and making them believe that we meant no harm.
We would even smile whenever they tried to instigate a reaction. Second, we had to get friendly with the prison administration, most of them were Muslims who identified with us. Slowly and one by one, we explained to them how we were not arrested for petty crimes as the state and its propaganda said but for demanding freedom for Kashmir. We told them we wanted Kashmiris to rise and that they could only rise after Azaadi.
We soon found a support base who identified and would work for us among them, they would do minute tasks and carry our messages. We also used to get Indian Express, Aftab and a few cigarettes during the evening. The prison administration would censor much of the stuff in the newspapers though. In winters, we were supplied with a Kashmiri bukhāri, which also helped us in our escape later on. The prison building was pretty old, it had soil plastered on stones, stones not wider than a brick. On 21 August 1968, I filed an appeal against my death penalty in from of the Chief Justice of Indian occupied Kashmir. It was 300 lines long (The appeal is missing from the High-Court records). After my appeal, our wooden doors were replaced by iron doors, our walls were fixed and coloured with white, we demanded a bulb but it was rejected as “people under death sentence aren’t allowed such privileges” but they would leave a lantern near the prison bars. We also asked for a 6-inch nail to hang our clothes and a place to put our Quran on. We were being chained even while roaming around the prison grounds and even when we went to the bathroom.
In October 1968, we started putting our plan into action. The appeal was going on while I was gathering information from my sources inside the prison. I came to know that our wall was just 8 feet away from the prison walls, outside which was a field where vegetables used to grow. Many prisoners used to be taken there for work during the summers. There were no guards in the field during winter so it seemed to be the best time for escape. The second cell was at the end of the jail (where Pakistani citizens were held) was the end of the jail, it’s an eastern wall made up of bricks and at least 3 feet wide but the one opposite to the bars were weaker and made up of stones. We used one of its rooms as our storeroom where we would keep our things (mattresses/blankets etc). My sources told me that it would be comparatively easier to break through a stonewall than through the brick one. We decided to open a hole between the two cells first so that we can move easily.
As the winters came, we noticed our walls were turning wet, so we covered them with blankets up to 2.5 feet in height. When questioned about our actions we simply said that our clothes were getting dirty and wet walls were making the cells colder. As we had already won their trust, they believed it. I complained to the jail administration that our jails were too open for such a brutal winter. I asked for permission to cover them from the floor to a few feet height with blankets, to which they again agreed. At evenings, I used to stay near the blankets, as if trying to find some light to read my newspapers but in reality, I was keeping an eye while my friends were doing their work. We used the 6-inch nail to dig the wall and hid the mud and stones under our mattresses. This was done so slowly that even the guard roaming outside our cell wouldn’t hear anything. No newspaper meant no digging. We soon managed to create a hole big enough to pass by through, it took us eight days.
The wall was covered with blankets so the guards wouldn’t smell anything fishy whenever they peaked in during the day. As we couldn’t crossover to the second cell until everybody slept, we changed the timing of our digging. To dig the wall for our escape, we found 12 am-2 am a preferable time to work. I would still go the prison bars to read my newspaper order to minimize any chance of suspicion and we all would fake sleep till 12. Around 12:00 am every day, Ghulam Yasin would cross over to the other cell and start his work. I would use blankets from the store to make a dummy in order to make sure he would seem to be sleeping from the outside if anybody came to check. It took us almost two weeks to finish working on this wall. Now, we had to create a hole in the main wall which surrounded the whole compound. We used the iron and wood from our Bukhari to do this job but suddenly one day our guard changed.
These new guards were from the CRPF. They didn’t even speak Urdu or Hindu but only English and Tamil. We found it easier to impress them and I even learned a bit of Tamil from them. These poor souls were from the plains and the winters of Kashmir were too harsh for them. They would light a big Bukhari during the night, surround it, make tea and talk, thinking that we all were deep asleep. They would have not even in their wildest dreams thought what we were up to. On 17 November 1968, the Indian government decided to convert all death sentences into life sentences in respect of the 20th death anniversary of the Mahatma Gandhi that was soon about to be celebrated. Next day, the Jail staff visited to congratulate and informed us that we shall be soon shifted to the normal cells. We had already finished 3/4th of our work, so changing our cells would have exposed our secret. We told them that every cell was the same for us and we were still on the death sentence till the official order came. Even our guards weren’t happy with the general actions of the Indian state. I used to discuss and share news from Madras with them and that would make them extremely happy. During the third week of November, Ramadan started and we were given some relaxation.
Our Pakistani friends would come into our cell during the day (legally) and we would pray together. After the prayers, I would recite the Quran to them and talk about Jihad against falsehood so that they wouldn’t lose hope. One day, while digging, Mir Ahmed returned with red eyes and deep breaths, he said, “Maybe Allah doesn’t want our Azaadi, there is a huge stone blocking our way out. We can’t close the holes neither can we getaway. What should we do now, Maqbool?”. I told him to have faith and start digging around the edges of the stone. When the edges became weak, the big stone took just around fifteen minutes to be dispose of. I cannot explain the smile on his face when he came back! He hugged me and kissed my forehead, it was around 2:00am. The guards came as they always would around this time during Ramadhan to order Yasin to make Sehri for us. We explained the plan of escaping on the same night to Yasin after the guards went away to warm themselves. Mir Ahmed was the first to cross, then Yasin and then me. We thought about our brothers, who refused to come with us. They didn’t believe that we would be able to escape, forget cross over to Azaad Kashmir during such a harsh winter. They said it was impossible, that it was suicide, but we had made our minds. We again requested them to join us but they declined. I think they were scared, very scared. We took some food, a small blanket, a packet of cigarettes and my legal documents with us and left.
It was the 9th of December 1968 and around 2:30 am when we escaped. We reached the mountains of Badamwari and crossed a river. The winter was bone-chilling, only the thirst of Azaadi and the strength of our Emaan kept us going. We would deliberately cross rivers rather than going around them as we knew police (with their trained dogs) would soon be looking for us. It took us 16 days to reach to the first border check post of Azad Kashmir. We did not contact our sympathizers in Indian occupied Kashmir because we knew they would be facing the brunt of the state after our escape. We also knew crackdowns would be happening all over Kashmir. We would walk through apple orchards to escape sight while eating our eggs and rotis. Every day at around 4 am, guards usually interchanged their positions in the prison. After the change, they would check on the prisoners from outside to see if everything was going alright, but we weren’t there anymore. The countermeasures would have started by now. The sun was coming up, so we took up to the mountains and hid there till it was dark again.
At around 2:00 am on the 10th of December, it started to snow but we couldn’t stop. Our feet were freezing and we lost the way, but we still kept going as stopping was not an option. It had snowed only on the mountains till now, so we found a cave and warmed ourselves there, then we came down and continued our journey through the plains. We soon found a lonely village, right in the middle of nowhere. On the outskirts of it, we found a small hut. The inhabitants were poor, so we asked only for a place to rest. Treating us as his own, the owner told us to sit near the Dambur and served tea. He told us about a dream he had had yesternight, in which a divine figure had appeared to him and informed him about the coming of a few guests who should be taken great care of. Even though he was a shepherd, he made sure we got everything we needed. Our feet were washed with warm water. My companions slept but I kept talking to my host till we had Sehri. This place was somewhere in Alasteng, the same place Srinagar gets its electricity from. We soon left for Ghanderbal, it was a highly militarised area but to our good-luck, it was also raining profusely and due to heavy fog, nobody could see beyond about 50 feet.
We again took refuge in a lonely house to dry our clothes and to warm ourselves by acting as businessmen from Residency Road, Srinagar who had come to the area for hunting. Our host asked me if I could help him with a land-grabbing case going on at the Srinagar High Court, I replied affirmatively.
During our stay, Ahmed Rather (our host) instructed us to be careful as the army and the CRPF had started strict checking of all roads leading to and from Srinagar and were harassing people, even the women weren’t spared. I acted surprised and asked him why all this was happening.
“Don’t you know? Mujahideen have escaped from Srinagar. They were being kept there since long, some were even on the death sentence… Not only army, even CID is looking for them, but they are nowhere to be found”, he said.
We then started to talk about the Mujahideen of 1965. I told him how I had helped the Mujahideen during those years (which is a fact) and he was highly impressed. I asked him, “I have heard that a lot of Mujahideen were working in this area. Is it true?”, He sighed and said, “Yes, it’s true. They were working here, some even saw them but I never did, how I wish I would have seen one.” I changed the subject and asked about his personal life. He was a farmer, who during his youth also used to deliver supplies to Srinagar, Gurez, Asur, Poji, and Gilgit. “But these are the stories of old times, now the LOC has divided our country. I can’t go there nor can they come here,” he added. I then told him that I wanted to discuss something of grave importance with him, alone. He took me to the third floor of his house and we sat on a Patij. I asked him if he was in the state of Wuduh and he replied with a yes.
I then took out the Panch-Surah which I always used to carry with me out from my pocket, and asked him to keep his hand on it and promise me that he would not share the secrets I was about to reveal with any other living soul. After his promise, I told him we were the same Mujahideen who had escaped from Srinagar. His face brightened up, and his eyes turned bloodshot. I don’t think I can really explain his emotions at that time. He began crying, kissing my hands and hugging me. He ran down to the first floor and spread a new carpet, opened his Almirah and also took out his new blankets and mattresses. From now on, we were told to stay in this room. He then went to the kitchen and asked his wife to cook chicken. Rather than Tyoth, preparations for Kehwa began too.
The old man ordered his daughter to go to the main village and get her brother (Habib) home too. At the time of dinner, food was brought to the first floor. I could see on the face of his wife how proud she was for getting a chance to cook for us (Mujahideen), but only men ate at our table while the women ate separately. Within a few hours, we turned from strangers to their most beloved guests. They made sure we had no complaints about our stay. We told them we had to leave in the middle of the night and Habib offered to guide us as far as he could.
On 12 December 1968, at around 1:00 am, I and my friends woke up and found the old man still awake and waiting. He then woke up his family and asked them to prepare a meal, while he went to get some fruits and a few kilograms of rice for us from his orchids which we would need during our journey. We, at first, refused to take anything but were forced to accept. With a heavy heart and a lot of blessing, Baba bade us farewell. In the dim moonlight, we left for our destination with Habib.
Habib was well-informed about the area and helped us skip checkpoints with ease but after an hour of walk, Habib told us that he didn't know what lay beyond, so we bade him farewell. Before leaving, I had written a letter attributed to Sheikh Nazir of the Plebiscite Front for our hosts, I wrote to him about our escape and asked him to help Habib and his family in their case going on in the High Court. I had met Sheikh Nazir during our imprisonment at the Srinagar Jail.
We took to the mountains and crossed a few rivers and reached another village. The river divided the village into two parts. On the banks of it was a Masjid, we prayed Nafl there and resumed our journey. After reaching the Sumbal-Ganderbal road intersection we started walking towards Sumbal and reached yet another village where people were leaving for Fajr prayers. A man saw us and greeted us with the Islamic greeting, he asked us who we were and I answered saying that I was the forester from a nearby village on my way to Sumbal with my colleagues. Foresters are not seen as a direct part of occupying apparatus in Kashmir so people go easy on them.
Coincidentally, Mohammad Akhoon (our host) had just built a new house and needed wood for it. He requested us to stay with him for a few hours so that we could rest. The sun was coming up, we also were in need of a place to stay, so we agreed. He took us to his newly built house, they hadn’t moved in yet but preparations were in place. We decided to sit there rather than going to his old house because it was easier to keep an eye on the village from this location. Akhoon went home and came back with tea. While he was gone, I had ordered my friends not to unpack anything and be ready to move while staying at the window. One cannot be sure of anything.
After coming back and noticing our uneasiness, Akhoon asked me why we wouldn’t even take our shoes off. I, acting as a forester, ordered him to not talk about useless matters with us but he kept insisting. We removed our shoes and sat comfortably.
I asked him about his family. Akhoon had a wife, and a daughter who had been married recently. By morning, the news of our escape had reached here too. Akhoon told me how the forces were looking everywhere to find the escaped Mujahids. My eyes fell on a sewing machine and I learnt that Akhoon was a part-time tailor. I used his scissors and the sewing machine to make a pair of gloves from a piece of my blanket that I had taken along from the jail.
I found Akhoon to be very supportive and so did the same as I had done with Baba, I made him place his hand on the Quran and promise to protect our secrets. Akhoon wanted to run back to his home and get more food for us after he heard the truth but I refused. When his son-in-law came to check on us, Akhoon sneaked out to get the dawat he had been planning all along. He ordered his son-in-law to look after us and not to leave us alone in case we needed anything. Akhoon requested me if he could bring his daughter in to meet us too. He wanted her to see the Mujahideen. I ignored his requests multiple times, but he wouldn’t give up so we agreed to see his daughter. She and her husband later left for their home after meeting us.
Akhoon provided us with a guide who was extremely happy for getting a chance to guide the Mujahideen. He also got some sugar, tea, cigarettes, and kulchas from for us which were needed on the way. We left at around 7:00 pm.
We walked on the road to Sumbal for some time but later went into the cornfields. Electric polls were directing us towards other villages. After two hours of walking, I asked my guide to return, he insisted on coming with us until we reached Sumbal but I refused stating that his family would be waiting for his return.
After waiting for a few minutes, we changed our path. It was not a sudden change; it was our plan all along (this was done to confuse the authorities in case somebody snitched). After walking for a few more hours, we reached the Mansbal lake and to our left was a big village with bright lights. We found two houses on the outskirts, but both were empty. While we were discussing our plan ahead, the electricity went out in the village. We decided it was safer to go into the village now but we couldn’t just knock at any house and be mistaken for thieves. I told my companions to keep their eyes and ears open and look for a house where people were still awake. While walking, we heard a man coughing on the second floor of his wooden godown. These godowns always have a room where the owner could stay and are usually built near one’s own house.
I ordered my companions to stop and knocked at the window with a long stick. There was no answer for the first time, but when I knocked again, he asked us who we were and what did we want at this time of the night. In a hushed-up voice, I told him that we were no strangers and asked him to open the window so we could talk. He opened the window and again asked us about our business there. “We are Musafirs from Sumbal and want to go to a village a little far from here, we are very tired and want to take some rest”, I said politely. He pointed at a Masjid nearby and asked us to go there and rest as much as we wanted to. I told him that it wasn’t possible for us to go there, had it been possible we wouldn’t have come to him in the first place. He allowed us to come in. He then lit his lantern and looked at us carefully.
“Oh, so it is you people! I am so happy to meet you. Now I understand why you don’t want to go to the Masjid. You are the Mujahideen everybody is looking for!”, exclaimed the 25-years-old young man.
We told him that we wouldn’t have disturbed him in the middle of the night like this, but it was extremely necessary for us to cross the lake somehow.
“Consider it done, if you want, I can be of more help. We are always ready to make sacrifices for our Mujahideen, but first you should take some rest,” he replied
He then extinguished the lights and talked to us about the Mujahideen. He told us about his younger brother who was studying in a college nearby and how he would love to see us. I asked him to make the arrangements for our crossing, but he wanted us to have Sehri with him first. We went to his house, where we also met his brother who was really happy to meet us. All of us together had our Sehri with rice and fish. We also listened to the radio to catch some news. After we were done, both the brothers helped us cross the river and joined us until we reached the Sumbal-Bandipora road. I asked them to return from there. I don’t remember their names, but they belonged to the Wagay caste.
On 13 December 1968, we again walked non-stop till we reached Sadarkot. We could hear the sound of Duroods being hummed from the Masjids. It was almost morning. We crossed Sadarkot and again started looking for a place to stay. A mile away from Sadarkot, we found a few isolated houses. We decided to either stay in the jungles nearby or stay in one of the houses. When we reached the last house, we knocked on its door and a young boy came out. He told me that his father was still at the Masjid.
I told him that we were his father’s guests and wanted to meet him. He guided us inside and introduced himself as Ghulam Rasool. After around 15 minutes, his father returned and sat near me and asked us who we were and where we were from. I told him that we had come here for hunting and wanted to cross the mountains ahead. While we were talking, I also told him that I was a schoolmaster by profession. So, to test his sons' progress, he requested me to ask him a few questions. The father was uneducated himself but had left no stone unturned to educate his son. I asked Ghulam Rasool, a 9th class student, to come closer and then asked him a few questions. After some time, much to the relief of his father, I told him that his child was good at studies and would pass his exams with ease. Now, he wanted me to examine his 10-year-old daughter too. She was a student of the Qu’ran but was a bit weak in her studies, so I had to correct her from time to time. Hearing my Tilawat (recitation), the father asked me where I had learnt it from, in return, I asked him why was he interested in knowing where I had learnt to recite the Qu’ran in such a manner.
“Your recitation reminds me of the old times, the time when our country wasn’t divided. I was a young man then, working in Punjab. The Mullahs there have a tone much similar to yours.”, he said. I told him that I had got my religious knowledge from Punjab itself. He then began to share his experiences of living in Punjab and while discussing different topics, we also took up Kashmir’s politics. After getting positive answers from him, we revealed our real identity to him too. He too was extremely happy to host us and did whatever he could to make our stay comfortable. One of us would stay at the door and keep an eye on the surroundings while others would rest. Our host told us that the whole of Bandipora had been turned into a garrison after our escape. Various check-points had been set up and raids were taking places everywhere. Sensing danger, we decided to change our course. In the evening, I asked our host if he could find us a guide who could help us reach the Sonawari Tehsil through Jehlum. He sent his son to the surrounding houses who came back with 3 more men. Out of them, Ghulam Ahmed Khan volunteered to go with us. After our dinner, we left at around 9:00pm and reached Chandaregare. Here, our guide took us to his son-in-law’s house.
There, we met two more people, Salam and Sana-ullah Sheikh. They informed us that crossing through the river into Sonawari was not safe anymore as CID officials in civilian clothes had been installed near the banks of the river, but at the same time, they also promised us that they would find another way before sunrise. We stayed at their house for the night. Just in case, I warned them not to snitch on us, else we would burn the whole house down with everybody in it. One of us would always stay awake while the others slept to keep an eye. After our Sehri, Ahmed Khan bade us farewell and informed us that he would return by noon with some details.
In the morning, Sana-ullah gave us a transistor to listen to the radio. At around 7:00 am in the morning, Sana-ullah too bade us farewell as he had to mark himself present at his office. He promised to come back as soon as possible. I told him to also get details about the presence of the enemy forces around the area. Meanwhile, Salam had volunteered to take us to Sopore undetected.
At around 2:00, Sunaah-ullah returned with the newspaper Aftab. It carried a news of our escape and the repercussions faced by the officials on duty there (Extra detail – At least 24 employees including the Superintendent and his Deputy were dismissed. Two among them identified as Ghulam Qadir Khan and Muhammad Amin Zarger were taken into custody and severely tortured in Kothibagh Police Station for 17 days. They were shifted to Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), Hari Niwas, and after a month shifted to Coimbatore Jail in Tamil Nadu. After a year, Ghulam Qadir Khan and Muhammad Amin Zarger were released on parole. However, they were required to present themselves before the investigating authorities once a week. Later the court ordered their release and reinstatement. However, severe torture had adversely affected Ghulam Qadir’s nerves. He turned mentally ill and died without hearing the good news of his reinstatement). A little while later, Ghulam Mohammad Khan and Salam joined us too. Everybody shared the information they had been able to gather. Salam had already arranged a boat for us which would lead us into the jungle, crossing which would land us in Sopore. We decided to leave in the evening.
After our journey through the boat, We, Sana-ullah, Salam and our boatman reached Mugdambagh, a village of fishermen/women. We knocked at a one-story hut, but the owner refused to open the door fearing we might be thieves. Only after a few minutes of persuasion did he agree to open the door. We asked for his help and offered to pay, but he refused to go out before the sunrise. His wife was suffering a mental disorder and thought she was possessed by a Jinn/Ghost. I read from the Quran and blew on her. She considered our coming as a sign of good luck. At about 6 in the morning, we said goodbye to our friends and got into the old man’s boat to continue our journey.
It took us about 3 hours to reach our destination, Sangar. Sangar is the same hill where the tomb of Baba Shukuruddin is located. From this hill, all of Zaingeer and Sonawari is visible. After walking for about 4 hours, we reached an apple orchid and decided to take some rest there till the sun dusked upon us. I sent Mir Ahmed to the village where one of our friends, Abdul Rehman Mir lived. After finding him at home, we decided to meet. Here, we also met Maqbool Mir, a farmer from Kupwara. He invited us to stay at his place for the night and we agreed.
In the morning, we sent Maqbool Mir to check out the security footprint in the area while Abdul Rehman got supplies and equipment for our journey ahead. He also provided us with bandages and sheep-hides to walk through the snow. Here, people would cover their legs up to their shins with the hides and tie grass-ropes around them to keep them in place. Strips of cloth were also tied from their ankles to their knees to make it air-tight. This was the only way to survive the snow coming ahead. We left after some rest.
On 17 December, after walking for a few hours, we reached Baramulla through Rafiabad and took shelter in the woods. We decided to go to Qazinag, it was a difficult route but we had no other option. Ghulam Yasin remembered these woods, it was through these woods he was able to return to Azaad Kashmir during Operation Gibraltar. We had also heard that not only Police and CID, but also Chowkidars and Numberdars were warned against helping any unknown individuals. Huge banners with our pictures had also been set up at many places warning people of at least 7 years of imprisonment if they dared to help us and a reward of ₹10,000 if they passed any information leading to our capture. We were on our way towards Nowgam through the dense jungle and soon reached areas covered with snow. When it was almost dark, we found a place to rest and started a fire to keep us warm.
On 18 December 1968, we started out for Qazinag Galli, our pace slowed down as the weather kept getting colder and the snow denser. After reaching Qazinag at around 2:00 pm, we found an abandoned hut and took some rest there. These huts belonged to the Bakarwal community who brought their animals to these areas during the summers.
Now, we had to climb the snow mountains ahead. At places, we would be inside the snow up to our waists, but we continued climbing until it was almost dark. Dabritop was our next destination. My companions were tired and wanted to rest, but I didn’t want anybody to stop as we hadn’t covered much distance due to our slow pace. Ration was also running out. We kept walking to the top under the dim moonlight. At around 2:00am, we found a small plateau near the top with another abandoned hut on it. We went inside, ate and slept.
On 19 December 1968, as the dawn was upon us, we picked up our bags and resumed our journey to the top. After reaching to the top at around 10 am, we knew this was the spot after which we could no longer see the valley, so we decided to stay there for a moment. I looked back at my motherland but couldn’t see anything. As far as my eyes went, everything was covered with clouds. It was due to these clouds that I couldn’t see this heart-alluring, beautiful nation of mine whom I had chose to live and die for. We started our descent. The snow had frozen during the night, making it easier for us to walk on it. Our plan now was to reach a jungle before dusk. After walking for some time, I saw a forest to my left but while coming down, Mir Ahmed slipped, I still remember how I dig my hiking pole into the snow and grabbed him. When we reached the forest, we found an abandoned bunker. Inside it were only a few letters in Hindi and some utensils. This meant that we were somewhere near the LOC. We stayed for the night.
On 20 December 1968, we resumed our journey. The mountain we were about to cross was so hard to trek that even after a day of climbing, we couldn’t reach the top. We found a small forest midway, got some Birch bark to keep us warm and took rest but it wasn’t comfortable enough to get any sleep. We again resumed our journey in the morning. At around 2:00 pm, we crossed over the mountain, but I had already met with an accident. While climbing, I had slipped and fallen down into a river. My hand was also injured but as the temperature was below zero there wasn’t much blood loss. We soon reached Satsari. Now in front of us was a river, which people of Azaad Kashmir call Chumb-nala. We took rest for the night and walked on the banks of it for the next day as it led to the mainlands of Azaad Kashmir. The snow was decreasing but our feet had had enough of the frostbites, cramps, and injuries (from our handcrafted boots), but we couldn’t take the boots off due to the fear of infection. Whenever we would stop to warm ourselves, the pain would increase due to the increased flow of blood. Mir Ahmed’s condition was the worst. I don’t think he even slept for a moment during that night. But what could we do except console him?
On 23 December 1968, at around 12:00 PM, we had almost reached our destination, but Mir Ahmed refused to go any further. He was trembling with pain and wanted us to leave him behind. As our attempts at motivating him failed, I started to mock and taunt him so as to make him change his mind. I also took his bag and put his arm around my neck to help him walk. When we had to climb, I would carry him on my back. Had all this been not done, I am sure he would have died.
We soon found a man wandering in the jungle and asked him if this was Azaad Kashmir to confirm our belief. He replied with a yes and took us to his home after hearing our story. This was a day after Eid. How our Eid went, you already know. We will celebrate our Eid the day Kashmir is free.
We were hungry since the last three days, Shah Mohammad (our host) cooked some rice and potatoes as fast as he could to feed us. We removed our shoes and they washed our blood-soaked feet. As the house was too small to host us all, Shah Mohammad asked his friend Muhammad Yaqoob to host me and Yasin. We asked Shah to bring Mir Ahmed to us in the morning. Yaqoob’s family took great care of us. People gather around us and congratulated us on our hard-earned freedom.
On December 24, 1968, Shah Muhammad brought Mir Ahmed to us. The news of our arrival had spread far and wide already. People were coming to congratulate us. We now had to go to a checkpost but didn’t have the strength to walk any further. People of Azad Kashmir carried us on their backs and walked for at least 2 hours till we reached the checkpost. Here, a Subedaar welcomed us and offered tea. The news of our coming was then forwarded to his senior officers. I talked to a Force Commander who was stationed at another checkpost. He assured me that he will report our coming to his seniors too, and whenever a decision is taken we would be informed. I talked to the Subedaar for the next two hours while Mir Ahmed and Ghulam Yasin talked to the other soldiers. We were then taken to the Chinari Batallion Headquarters. By the time we reached there, it was snowing there as well. From there, we were directed towards Sawankhuch. The snow was almost 9-inch high by now. I thanked Allah for the weather that had remained almost constant during our crossover, had it been any different, we would have perished.
The next day, we were served food in the military mess and while talking to a few officers, one of the GCOs (General Officer Commanding) of FIU (Federal Intelligence Unit) came inside the camp and started questioning us. The military doctors took great care of us nonetheless. It had been ages since I had shaved or even washed my face with warm water. A day after that, the GCO returned with a jeep and took us to Muzaffarabad. In Muzaffarabad, we were taken to The Black Fort and handed over to the 611 Field Investigation Unit. This is where our running which had started from our prison cell finished. This was our victory and the defeat of our enemy who was much more powerful than us, whose resources were infinite and who was always keeping an eye on the oppressed people. This victory gave birth to new hopes and dreams in my heart. It strengthened my belief and love for my nation. What more could a man who was on a death sentence wish for? I thought I would be going back to my family but my dreams were short-lived. My experiences at the Black Fort shook me to the core and my mind started running. It became difficult to differentiate between my enemy and my ‘friend’.
... to be continued.