The myth of Maqbool Bhat


Political historian Ashiq Hussain claims nothing stirred in Kashmir when Maqbool Bhat was executed in 1984 as Maqbool was not considered a hero. In this piece, the author recollects memories of the day of the hanging and how the cultish figure of Maqbool Bhat was renewed post his hanging.

Since JKLF pioneered armed revolt in Kashmir in 1988-89 it was natural that they would deploy Maqbool Bhat as a cult figure symbolizing the aspirations of the people of the former princely Kashmir State. And since their slogan of Azadi – freedom – immediately took hold of Kashmiris’ imagination a myth developed that his execution in 1984 “lifted the lid on the simmering political turmoil in Kashmir and paved way for a mass political and armed uprising for Kashmir’s self-determination which continues till today.” 

Let us sift through myth and reality. Maqbool was hanged to death on 11 February 1984, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail where he was lodged for many years. He had been convicted of murder. However, the execution order had not been carried out. That winter militants claiming to belong to JKLF kidnapped Indian diplomat Ravindra Mahatre in the United Kingdom. They demanded the release of Maqbool Bhat in return for the diplomat’s release. However, they killed him in the first week of February 1984. In reaction to this, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi-led Government of India decided to carry out the sentence against Maqbool.

On the day of Maqbool’s hanging scarcely did feathers ruffled in Kashmir. I remember being one of the teenagers who loitered around in front of the Shrine of Syed Tajuddin Wali (we called it an Astan) at Natipora hoping that there would be protests. No such thing happened. In the evening I asked my father as to why did not Kashmiris register protest against the hanging of a person who had laid down his life fighting for the freedom of Kashmir. He answered that he never expected anyone to come out in his support. Reason being that Maqbool Bhat talked of Independent Kashmir, an idea which seemed unattractive to Kashmiris who wanted to be part of Pakistan. Also, Maqbool had been involved in the killing of a J&K Bank officer which Kashmiris resented. And he had been accused of having contributed to Pakistan’s dismemberment by setting fire to the hijacked Indian aeroplane in Lahore. And above all, there had been a lot of right-wing propaganda that he was a double agent which had poisoned the minds of Kashmiris to such extent that no one would like to identify with him.

One day, after hearing Azam Inqilabi praising Maqbool Bhat, I asked him why did he kill Gulam Nabi Magray of J&K Bank? Inqilabi replied: “Bhat Sahib had been arrested in Pakistan in 1971 on the charge of being an Indian agent after Ganga hijacking episode. Since Pakistanis could not prove their charge they released him afterwards. And when Sheikh Abdullah signed in 1975 the Kashmir Accord with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he infiltrated into Kashmir Valley. One day [June 20, 1976], accompanied by two comrades Abdul Hamid Butt and Riyaz Ahmad Dar, he entered the Langate Branch of Jammu and Kashmir Bank and demanded money from its Manager. Manager Magray caught hold of Bhat and raised alarm. Upon seeing his leader overpowered, Riyaz Ahmad, who was then just 17, and, therefore, a hot blood, lost temper; he shot at the Manager and killed him. Meanwhile, villagers rushed to the spot, caught hold of all the three and handed them over to police. Bhat was tried in 1981 and sentenced to death.”

I then asked Azam Inqilabi as to what was this confusion about JKLF and JKNLF and two Amanullah Khan’s. He replied: “There were two persons of the same name. One was the commonly known Amanullah Khan who founded JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) in May 1977 in London. The other Amanullah Khan was a retired Major of Pakistan Army who, along with Maqbool Bhat, launched JKNLF (Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front) in 1966 in Pakistan administered (Azad) Kashmir. The first Amanullah Khan became its (JKNLF’s) Publicity Secretary. After launching JKNLF, Major Amanullah Khan and Maqbool Bhat infiltrated into Kashmir Valley. They were accompanied by some youth one of whom was Aurangzeb alias Tariq who was a native of Gilgit. Tariq stabbed to death a CID official named Amar Chand. Tariq was killed in an encounter with police at Baramulla. The encounter ended in the arrest of Maqbool Bhat and his other colleagues. Bhat was implicated as the prime accused in the murder of Amar Chand and was sentenced to death by a court presided over by Justice Neel Kanth Ganjoo. Major Amanullah was lucky to avoid arrest. He exfiltrated into Pakistan administered Kashmir where he died a couple of years later.”

Back to Maqbool Bhat. He was born on 18 February 1938 at Trehgam in Kupwara district of Kashmir valley. In 1950s he emigrated to Peshawar, Pakistan, to put up with his uncle. There he completed his education. He then joined Plebiscite Front, Azad Kashmir Chapter. He soon became its Secretary.

After launching JKNLF with Major Amanullah he crossed the Ceasefire Line into Kashmir Valley. Since his arrest at Baramulla, he was lodged in the Srinagar Central Jail wherefrom he escaped in December 1968 by digging a tunnel and crossed back the Ceasefire Line, whereupon the Government of Pakistan arrested him on a charge of double-dealing. He was released after a month-long interrogation.

Then in 1971, he committed an act which had far-reaching consequences. It so happened that on 30 January 1971, a very old rickety and barely serviceable Fokker Friendship (F27) transport plane travelling from Srinagar to Jammu, carrying a crew of four members and twenty-six passengers, was hijacked to Lahore by two Kashmiris namely Hashim Qureshi and Ashraf Qureshi. They were carrying a pistol and a hand grenade – the grenade, it is said, was made of wood and the pistol was a toy one; while as the passengers were armed forces personnel and their family members. The plane belonged to Indian Airlines Company. They called it Ganga.

The hijacking episode furnished a spectacle to tamasha (spectacle) loving people of Pakistan. Thousands of them gathered at Lahore Airport to greet the “heroes of Kashmir freedom struggle”. Dr Farooq Haider, who had travelled that day from Rawalpindi to Lahore, met the hijackers.

Next day, January 31, Z. A. Bhutto landed on the same Airport. He had gone to Dacca, East Pakistan to meet Mujeebur-Rehman. Without first consulting anyone, he rushed to the hijackers and embraced them. Maqbool Bhat also joined the hijackers and assumed the role of their spokesperson. He demanded that the hijackers be granted political asylum in Pakistan; that Government of India release thirty-six prisoners belonging to JKNLF; and also furnish guarantees that they would not harass the families of the released persons and of the hijackers.

The government of Pakistan sent the passengers of Ganga back by bus on February 1, 1971. Next day, February 2, Hashim Qureshi and Maqbool Bhat set Ganga on fire with petrol which, it is said, had been kept ready for the purpose in the plane itself. It was a childish act which they could commit only in an immature county – Pakistan was just 23 years old. On February 4, Bhutto issued a statement that “the hijackers were brave men from Kashmir who had demonstrated by their deed that no power on earth can stifle the struggle of Kashmiris for the liberation of their land from Indian occupation.” The same day the Government of India banned Pakistani civil and military flights over Indian Territory.  This increased the distance between the two wings of Pakistan from 1000 to 3000 miles because Pakistani aircraft were now constrained to fly over Indian ocean via Sri Lankan airspace after rounding Cape Comorin. The ban on Pakistani overflights was a cue to Mujeeb-ur-Rehman to intensify East Bengali secession movement which finally led, with active intervention of Indian Army, to the dismemberment of Pakistan ending 1971.

Maqbool Bhat and others of JKNLF had to face arrest and interrogation at the hands of Government of Pakistan. It was a second time that he was accused of being a double agent and one of the causes of Pakistan’s dismemberment. However, the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s dismemberment were that West Pakistanis had never treated Bengalis as equal citizens. Under Bhutto’s leadership, they did not allow Mujeeb-ur-Rehman to become Prime Minister despite popular mandate.  Bhutto was a political adventurer who wanted to become Prime Minister even if that meant breaking Pakistan into two halves so that he could become Prime Minister of one half, just like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru who wanted to rule India without sharing power with Muslim League even if that meant breaking India to get rid of the latter. If East and West Pakistan had remained one country, Bhutto would never succeed to become Prime Minister with 81 seats in the National Assembly as against 160 seats of Mujeeb-ur-Rehman.

When Maqbool Bhat was executed in 1984 the event did not create a stir in Kashmir because he was not considered a hero. On the other hand, Kashmiris looked upon President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq as a hero. Zia-ul-Haq had taken Soviet Union head on – the Soviet Union in those days was projected as an enemy of Islam. However just half a decade earlier the same Kashmiris hurled all kinds of abuse on him for hanging Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. They protested vehemently against him for a full week. As a schoolboy, I used to be part of daily anti-Zia processions from Natipora Astan to Pologround. One of the main slogans raised used to be: Ziaul-Haqnipatro – Bakwachifatchyo (Oh son of Ziaul-Haq, may your kidneys burst). When Zia-ul-Haq died in a plane crash, the self-same Kashmiris raised this slogan: Mardi-Moomin Mardi Haq – Ziaul-Haq, Ziaul-Haq (Ziaul-Haq was a true Muslim). Actually all people like tamasha. We Kashmiris are no exception.

Now, compare Maqbool Bhat’s execution with other events. When Sheikh Abdullah died on September 8, 1982, I saw an endless mass of mourners, young and old, beating their chests at M. A. Raod where my school was located and wherein the nearby Pologround his dead body was placed on a platform. One day we were asked to fall in line at Sri Pratap (S.P.) Higher Secondary School and ordered to march to the residence of Sheikh dynasty. One student was made to recite verses of the Qur’an.

Also, consider this: In the first week of June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Operation Blue Star against Sikh separatists who had entrenched themselves in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar, East Punjab. In this operation, the Indian Army killed hundreds of Sikh militants along with their leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale besides damaging the Temple. In reaction, Sikhs of Kashmir, openly supported by Muslims, indulged in massive rioting at GogjiBagh, Srinagar just outside Amar Singh College where I was a student then. The rioters set Nirankari Bhawan and Arya Samaj Girls School afire. There was rioting in Jammu also.

Those days Congress Party manufactured a “hero” for Kashmiris.  Congress leaders particularly Mufti Sayeed accused Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah of encouraging pro-Khalistan and pro-Pakistan elements in the State. Mufti laid particular stress on Dr Farooq’s past relations with JKNLF. These accusations only increased the latter’s popularity.

On 2 July 1984 the Governor of Kashmir, Jagmohan Malhotra, dismissed Dr Farooq’s Government and appointed his brother-in-law, G. M. Shah, in his place. Kashmiris resented Dr Farooq’s dismissal so much so that Kashmir had to be placed under curfew for a full month. When the curfew was finally relaxed Dr Farooq’s supporters organized massive protests especially in Srinagar and Sopore.That August a Pakistani flag was unfurled in Amar Singh College.

Dr Farooq’s dismissal earned him sympathies of Kashmiris because it was a general propensity in Kashmir that people identified readily with the victim of New Delhi’s highhandedness. And it was this tendency that politicians exploited to gain popularity. If you hurled some abuses against India, you would be sure to become Kashmiris’ darling. Once you captured political space, you could browbeat India. New Delhi administration on its part would move heaven and earth to co-opt such political adventurers rather than care about common Kashmiris.

Maqbool Bhat’s execution did not ruffle Kashmiris as already stated. Dr Farooq’s dismissal did. Bhindranwale’s death did. Kashmiris openly talked in support of Sikh militants. They would say that if East Punjab succeeded in seceding, Kashmir would automatically achieve freedom to become part of Pakistan. The older generation would say that there was no need to fight India. Pakistan army would liberate Kashmir some day. The actual phrase I heard people often repeat was: “Fauj kadeh faujas” meaning Pakistan Army would throw out the Indian Army. This they said even after witnessing how the Indian Army had forced Pakistan Army to a despicable surrender in East Pakistan. And when in October that year Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguard, shot her dead in revenge against Operation Blue Star, Kashmir was the only place in entire north India where Sikhs felt safe.

New Delhi’s undue interference in State politics and Congress leaders’ anti-Farooq rhetoric only increased anti-India resentment in Kashmir. It was in this backdrop that Kashmiris observed a general strike on 11 February 1985, Maqbool’s first death anniversary. However, self-determination discourse in Kashmir, although very feeble, was kept alive not by JKLF which existed in name only, but by People’s League and Mahazi Azadi. Azam Inqilabi of Mahaz and Shabir Shah of League had to face severe repression at the hands of G. M. Shah regime.

The dismissal of G. M. Shah regime in March 1986 raised new hopes for Farooq Abdullah to get back on the seat of power. So he left Kashmiris high and dry on the path of confrontation and himself staged an about-face. Rajiv Gandhi had by now come to realize that his Congress Party could not capture power in Kashmir by democratic means. So he proceeded to co-opt Dr Farooq whom he until then described as anti-national and a security risk. By August 1986 it was an open secret that a new power-sharing deal was going to be signed between Dr Farooq and Rajiv Gandhi. Kashmiris resented their proximity describing it as a sell out by Dr Farooq.

Dr Farooq and his sire, Sheikh Abdullah, had led Kashmiris on the path of confrontation. Post-1975 Accord, Sheikh Abdullah nourished a resentment against Indira Gandhi for not being reinstated by her to the position of Prime Minister from which he had been forcibly deposed in 1953. On her part, Indira Gandhi was averse to the re-establishment of National Conference. She wished Sheikh Abdullah to show some gratitude for being appointed Chief Minister without people’s mandate and join Congress Party. Sheikh wanted State Congress to dissolve itself and merge in National Conference – State Congress had been set up by Chief Minister Sadiq in 1965 after dissolving ruling National Conference. An uneasy relationship between the two subsisted right up to March 1977 till Janata Party defeated Congress in Indian general elections and Morarji Desai replaced Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. In March 1977 provincial Congress Chief Mufti Sayeed withdrew support from Sheikh Abdullah regime hoping now to take over as Chief Minister. Governor L.K. Jha, instead of inviting him to take over as Chief Minister and to prove majority support in the house, dissolved the Assembly on March 27. During the provincial Assembly elections, Sheikh Abdullah remained bedridden. Mirza Afzal Beg, assuming the role of chief campaigner of NC, exhibited, during election campaigns, rock salt and green handkerchief, symbolizing Pakistani salt and flag respectively. Also, he would point his finger towards Rawalpindi Road. Also, NC sent workers door to door in Muslim majority areas of the State with copies of the Holy Qur’an in their hands, getting Muslims to swear on divine scripture that they would vote for NC for the sake of Islam and freedom of Kashmir. It was a very violent election. NC workers captured polling booths and voted by impersonation. Burqa-clad daughters and sisters of NC workers cast multiple votes.

In India, in 1980 Indira Gandhi came back to power. Those days Hindus of Jammu division vigorously demanded that the non-Muslims refugees from West Pakistan should be granted citizenship (Permanent Residentship) rights in the State. Indira Gandhi supported them. Sheikh Abdullah opposed them. In order to frighten Indira Gandhi and Hindus of Jammu and at the same time to earn sympathies of Muslims he adopted Resettlement Bill in March 1982 which provided for the permanent return of former Muslim State Subjects who had been forced to emigrate to West Pakistan and “Azad” Kashmir in 1947. After his death in September that year his son, Dr Farooq Abdullah, now Chief Minister, passed the Bill into an Act in October. Next year he entered into an alliance with MirwaizMoulviFarooq, Chief of Awami Action Committee. This did not go well with Indira Gandhi because in 1977 the Moulvi had aligned with Janata Party. Also, Dr Farooq attended a meeting of non-Congress Chief Ministers at Vijayawada in Andra Pradesh. Elections in the State were held in June 1983. NC employed the same old tactics this time also. Congress talked secularism and nationalism in Kashmir Valley; and communalism and regionalism in Jammu. In October that year, Dr Farooq hosted a 3-day opposition (to Congress) meet in Srinagar. That month India played a one-dayer against West Indies in Srinagar. The spectators not only supported the West Indies, but they also raised pro-Pakistan slogans and exhibited an unfriendly attitude towards Indian players.  Then in February 1984, Maqbool Bhat was hanged to death. The incident did not cause any ripples in Kashmir. On the other hand, the killing of Bhindranwale did. Dr Farooq’s dismissal did. But Indira Gandhi’s assassination did not. So when Dr Farooq developed proximity with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 Kashmiris were infuriated. They described it as a third betrayal, the first two being 1947 and 1975. Simultaneously with these events, Afghan jihad had made an imprint on the minds of Kashmiris especially right-wingers.

In this backdrop Muslim United Front (MUF), a political confederation of mostly Islamist parties came to be established in September 1986 with a view to challenging the opportunistic politics of National Conference and Congress. In November Dr Farooq was back on the seat leading an NC-Congress coalition. Elections were due in 1989. Dr Farooq advanced them to March 1987. With New Delhi’s blessing, he rigged the elections against MUF, unleashed police against MUF supporters which finally led to the radical decision by the youth to take up weapons to fight to the finish. Pakistan had been waiting for this to happen. But the organization these youths claimed to work for i.e., JKLF, was professedly secular and nationalist rather than Islamist. Islamists were said to have been the people who had described Maqbool Bhat as a double agent. But now, at JKLF’s behest people observed a general strike on February 11, 1989, Maqbool Bhat’s fifth death anniversary. Since Pakistan’s policy was to convert Kashmir into a very hot place for Indian armed forces, they did not mind if Maqbool became a hero. ♦

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