Housed in history

By Safwat Zargar

Reflections on the life of Maqbool Bhat through the anatomy of a house.

Kashmir India
Kupwara, North Kashmir.

During a trip to North Kashmir’s Kupwara district in late March last year, I, along with some friends, decided to pay a visit to Shahmala Begum, who lives in the sombre village of Trehgam, some 93 kilometres away from the summer capital city of Srinagar in India-administered-Kashmir. The incessant rainfall since morning, the potholes, and puddles of water on the road compelled us to brake regularly in order to prevent drenching people walking on the road with muddy water. Excited but severely restricted by our speed, we set out to meet the aged stepmother of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat.

Relying on directions given to us by passersby, we took a snaky road flanked by vast open fields on either side from the main town of Kupwara. At one point, the blaring speaker of the car’s stereo system was put to a sudden pause, and silence filled the car. “We are passing through Kunan-Poshpora,” my friend remarked. She works with a human-rights support group that seeks justice for the victims of the mass rape of more than 40 women in two villages, during the night of 23 February 1991, by soldiers of the battalion of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles (RR) of Indian Army stationed at Kunan-Poshpora.

We passed the twin villages in silence.

As if in unsaid mutual agreement, all of us knew that we were driving through one of the most haunted corridors of India’s military occupation of Jammu and Kashmir – a region disputed since the Partition of the Indian subcontinent.

After crossing the villages, a short old lady huddled under a big black umbrella pointed us towards the road that meets the Kupwara-Chowkibal highway at the Trehgam taxi stand.

To avoid getting wet in the rain, most people were lined up in front of shops, some waited it out in cars and passenger sheds, while others braved the rain openly. On reaching the taxi stand, I asked a driver, “Where is Mohammad Maqbool Bhat’s home?”

“He was hanged!” I blurted out awkwardly, to provide him context.

“You mean shaheed Maqbool Bhat?”


“Take a left turn near the Jamia Masjid and drive straight through the lane near the graveyard.”

A narrow lane next to the graveyard, punctuated with epitaphs and covered by a canopy of willow trees, leads us to the house of Maqbool Bhat. The tin sheets, erected as makeshift walls surrounding the compound, seem to conceal the history of this place. But only till one enters the gate.

“Mouj (mother, Shahmala Begum) is not here. She is in Srinagar,” says Haneefa, Shahmala’s daughter-in-law, when we ask for her. Haneefa leads us inside a dim-lit, well-furnished room of a newly built one-storied house of cement and bricks and spreads out some blankets for us. In the meantime, a young boy with stubble enters the room and greets us. His eyes lowered, he shakes hands with us, avoids my female friends and sits down beside me. His name is Adil Ahmad Bhat, the younger of Haneefa’s two sons.

“We wanted to have a look of the old house,” I say, in an attempt both to break the silence and to see if we can actually get permission to do so. She agrees.

Outside the room, we are routed by Haneefa and Adil towards the old house in which Maqbool Bhat was born, grew up and spent his time in solitude reading books on politics, history and revolutions. The house belonged to his father Ghulam Qadir Bhat, a peasant who remarried after his first wife, from whom Maqbool and his two brothers were born, died. His second wife, Shahmala Begum, bore two sons and three daughters.

A large synthetic, coloured, close-up portrait of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat with a clean-shaven face, jet-black moustache and shiny backcombed hair, hangs from a window facing outwards, attracting our gaze towards the huge structure – otherwise a nondescript decaying building made of wood and mud. Just above the wooden door, which leads into the low-ceiling dusty corridor, is another banner depicting an older looking Maqbool in a black waistcoat. Maqbool occupies one-third of the space in the wide, rectangular imprint; two-thirds of the banner accommodates a list of the names of ‘martyrs’ with white on the red background. The bottom line of the banner in red reads ‘Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF)’.

The room
On opening the battered wooden door, darkness and the smell of cow dung greets us. I hunch a bit to accommodate my six-feet tall self into the hardly five-feet falling corridor made of dried-out beams and mud. We are inside a more than 80-year-old derelict building supported by wooden planks; its broken down walls and founding stones sticking out from the plinth. I realise that the ramshackle structure has a slight backward tilt.

The two big rooms on the ground floor serve as a cowshed and storeroom for the family, who shifted to the new house in 2009. Among the four rooms on the second floor, just where the dusty wooden stairs end, a door opens on the right into a well furnished but small room – Maqbool’s room. Unlike the other rooms in the house, a shiny single-person red-chequered blanket acts as carpeting in the centre of the room. The blanket is too short to cover up the remaining floor, which is enveloped by worn out rags and old sheets. In the corner, uncovered piles of bedding are stacked up against the wall.

“Who lives here?” I ask Haneefa.

“Adil prefers to sit and sleep here,” she replies. “He only comes to eat in the new house. This is Adil’s world.”

Thirty years after Maqbool was hanged and buried in Delhi’s Tihar jail by the Indian government on the charge of killing an inspector of the Crime Branch on 11 February 1984 – Maqbool’s rectangular, narrow, quiet room, is a ‘place of solace’ for his nephew. Adil is the only member of Maqbool’s family who prefers his uncle’s decrepit room over the austerely adorned rooms in the new house.

A carrom board in the left corner hides a crack in the dusty, distempered wall. Despite A carrom board in the left corner hides a crack in the dusty, distempered wall. Despite some renovations done on windows and ceiling – to make it feasible for living – the fading green walls, pasted with synthetic stickers showing pictures of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, add a certain charisma to the space. A small mirror encased in a blue plastic frame is fixed among the sceneries of Dal Lake and Gulmarg on the wall facing the door.

The two glass windows, thrown wide open, welcomes cool air into the room and allows in enough light for us to be able to read “No Division, No Accession, Complete Independence, Only Solution, Freedom” written in blue ink on the wall. Opposite the wall is an unusually small window, from which a glimpse of clouds passing over the mountains that constitute the de facto border, the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, is visible.

Adil prefers to read in the very same room where his uncle, decades ago, used to read books on revolutions and political movements across the world. “If there is heaven anywhere on the Earth, it is in this room for me.” Adil knows that an empty grave at martyrs’ graveyard in Srinagar still awaits the mortal remains of Maqbool Bhat from the Indian government, but Maqbool’s room is the only thing through which he feels connected to him.

Adil himself realised his strange attachment with the room a few years back, when, on Arfa (a day before Eid), his mother told him to sleep in the new house. “I couldn’t sleep for whole night. I felt as if I was being strangled. It was suffocating,” Adil explained to me. “Since then I have never slept in the new house.”

Next to Maqbool’s room is a bigger room with broken windows and flaking walls, mostly hidden under JKLF banners representing its ideologues. One side of the room is filled with piles of banners and synthetic posters used every year for protests and celebrations to honour Maqbool Bhat.

“I don’t know what keeps him (Adil) attached to this room,” says Zahid Ahmad Bhat, Adil’s older brother, while unfurling a huge banner depicting a series of photos of Maqbool in different jails. Zahid works in a bank to support the family. “We always tell him to take a room in the new house but he never agrees,” he adds.

The life of Maqbool Bhat
On the third floor is a large hall, like every old house in Kashmir, which is readied each year on 11 February for the people and leaders who throng Trehgam to commemorate Maqbool Bhat’s martyrdom. Half of the roof above the hall is damaged.

Born on 18 February 1938, Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, is remembered as a young introvert who belonged to a peasant family from Trehgam, Kupwara, and graduated in History and Political Science from Saint Joseph’s College in Baramulla. He went to Pakistan for further studies in Urdu literature and simultaneously started working as a sub-editor for Injam (conclusion or performance), a weekly Urdu magazine. Before joining full-time politics in 1966, Maqbool had already completed his Masters in Urdu literature from Peshawar University.

He travelled back and forth between India and Pakistan and it was during these years that he developed his political stance vis-a-vis the Kashmir dispute. Maqbool was regularly imprisoned in different jails by both Indian and Pakistani governments for his vision of an independent Kashmir. In Pakistan, he went on to become a very vocal voice for the liberation of the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh, Pakistan-administered-Kashmir (PAK), Poonch and Gilgit-Baltistan from the control of both India and Pakistan. On 29 May 1977 Maqbool Bhat and Amanullah Khan established Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), conceived as a pro-freedom nationalist organisation to fight for the cause of independent Kashmir.

It was Maqbool’s hanging in 1984 which gave the fillip to an armed struggle five years after his execution, turning him into a ‘hero of resistance’ for many. In 1989, an armed rebellion was started by Kashmiri youths with support from Pakistan which ensued in a brutal bloodbath on the streets of Kashmir valley. The Indian military in turn, cracked down heavily on Kashmiris resulting in a huge number of casualties, killings, disappearances, rapes and custodial killings. Human rights groups have put the number of deaths to 70,000 in the past 25 years, with almost 8000 disappearances, and countless cases of torture and rapes by Indian forces.

“This house stands only because Manzoor (Janatgaar) took a loan and bought tin sheets to replace its thatch roof,” Shahmala Begum told me on a rainy afternoon, three weeks later, at her home. Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, Adil’s father and Shahmala’s son, was killed in an encounter with the Army in his native village of Trehgam in 1994. Adil was one-year-old then. After Maqbool Bhat’s hanging, his brother Habibullah Bhat disappeared when he went to New Delhi to meet his brother in Tihar jail. In the mid-1990s, Ghulam Nabi Bhat, Maqbool’s other brother, was killed in a ‘mysterious traffic accident’ in Chanapora, Srinagar.

“I am proud of Maqbool. I am proud of Ghulam Nabi. I am proud of Habibullah. I am proud of Manzoor,” she said while recalling the chronology of the loss of her four sons during the last four decades.

Shahmala’s only surviving son, Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, 40, who returned with his wife and four childeren to Kashmir in February 2009 from Muzaffarbad, Pakistan after 20 years, has been free for only two months at a stretch, according to the family. Currently, Zahoor is in judicial remand in the Hyderpora attack case in which eight Indian Army men were killed in Srinagar city’s outskirts on 24 June 2013.

However, the family says that at the time of the Hyderpora attack, Zahoor was in police custody under the Public Safety Act (PSA).

“I was staying with Zahoor Ahmad’s family. They are alone,” Shahmala said explaining that she was looking after the children and wife of Zahoor who live in Srinagar.

While Zahoor languishes in jail, one particular room of the old house for his nephew, Adil, continues to be priceless and is no less than a relic. He plans to make some renovations to the house, particularly his uncle’s room. “As I don’t earn now, I can’t do the necessary renovations, but once I start earning I will ensure that this room stands,” Adil told me. “As long as I am alive this room should survive.”

On my return to Srinagar, I deliberately avoided the twin villages of Kunan-Poshopora and took an alternate road. I was trying to avoid the brutal memory. But perhaps I was forgetting that I was returning from a village where another brutal memory had already transformed the history of Kashmir forever.

~ Safwat Zargar is a Kashmir-based journalist.

(  Originally published by Himal Southasian, 1 September 2014)


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