Indigenous iterations of azaadi in Kashmir

Tracing the life and legacy of Maqbool Bhat


WHEN PRIME MINISTERImran Khan took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly last year, some 11,000 kilometres away in Kashmir, people were hanging on to his every word. For them, Khan was an ally, a representative, a rare advocate before a global audience. Afterwards, the streets of Srinagar erupted in celebration. Along the 740-km long Line of Control separating the two halves of the contested land, a ragtag group of students, activists and locals from Azad Kashmir began mobilising. 

I spoke to one of their leaders, Toqeer Gilani, on the phone from Muzaffarabad. “We will liberate Indian Occupied Kashmir, or die trying,” he said. In the background, I could hear loud cries of azaadi. Their aim was to march all the way to the border, then to cross it. As they made their way through villages and towns, their numbers swelling, they were showered with rose petals. At the same time, local authorities placed containers, barbed wire and broken electric poles in their path. 

Several marchers carried posters of men most Pakistanis would not recognise: Yasin Malik, a Kashmir separatist currently incarcerated in Tihar Jail, in New Delhi, and Maqbool Bhat, hanged in that same jail more than thirty five years ago. Nearly every Pakistani feels strongly about ‘the Kashmir issue’ and yet, knows curiously little about indigenous resistance figures from within the region. Perhaps this is because such figures tend to be nationalists: Kashmiri, not Pakistani, nationalists. Malik and Bhat, for instance, hailing from two different generations, are both figures who fought and continue to fight for independence from both India and Pakistan.   

ON THE PHONEfrom Srinagar last November, Safwat Zargar told me what he knew about Maqbool Bhat. His voice crackled on the landline phone call; Indian Occupied Kashmir has been cut off from the world since August 5, with restricted internet and data services, and a curfew across the territory. But because Zargar is a journalist, he is allowed a few scraps of internet: he files stories from a room in a government office designated for the press; the only room in the building with a LAN connection accessible to those not in government. 

“People say Bhat was a true visionary,” Zargar said, “and that he knew Kashmir would become subsumed within the larger narrative of the two states… post August 5, Kashmiris have been asking themselves, where is our voice? Going back to his ideas is allowing them to reclaim their agency.”

IN THE NINETIES, Komal Raja was a young schoolgirl in Poonch. At the time, in classrooms across Pakistan, and most parts of Azad Kashmir, the names of Kashmiri nationalists Bhat, Ashraf Qureshi, Amanuallah Khan of Gilgit could only be whispered surreptitiously. But Raja’s teachers, young revolutionaries themselves, took it upon themselves to give their students a nationalist education, outside of the regular school curriculum. 

Over the phone from Germany, where she is now pursuing a doctoral degree, Raja told me what it was like growing up in that environment. “Deep down, somehow, we knew what we were doing had to remain covert, that we had to hide our surkh flyers, because young nationalists were immediately perceived as miscreants, lafangas,” she said. “Our immediate hero, of course, was Maqbool Bhat: we lauded him, looked up to him, drew his pictures, hung them in our homes, to our parents’ chagrin.”

“For Raja, Azad Kashmir was and continues to be an unsettling place. ‘There is azaadi, and yet there isn’t it is difficult to articulate,’ she said.”

For Raja, Azad Kashmir was – and continues to be — an unsettling place. “There is azaadi, and yet there isn’t it is difficult to articulate,” she said, then pausing to reflect. Her loss of words was understandable: across the LOC, the Indian state’s excesses are documented, reported and protested, but relatively little attention is paid to people on this side, to the struggle for self-determination, and the psychic impact of cross-border violence. “There is embedded surveillance, embedded control, in Azad Kashmir, and it shapes subjectivities and ideas,” Raja explained. “Those who are involved in everyday resistance, for instance, they cannot get government jobs. I met people who say they were forced to prove their loyalty to the state of Pakistan, before seeking employment in the bureaucracy.”

In the July 2006 Azad Kashmir elections, close to sixty pro-independence candidates fielded by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) were barred from contesting. “The electoral law undermines Kashmiris’ basic political rights by barring them from seeking office if they oppose Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a press release. “Those who favour independence invite the ire of Pakistan’s abusive intelligence agencies and military, and they risk being beaten and jailed,” he added. 

THE CALL FORan independent Kashmir was first articulated in 1944 by the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, led by Sheikh Abdullah. Various Kashmiri political parties joined the call, but the united front soon fell apart. By June 1947 two months before Partition two separate movements were simmering: the Quit Kashmir movement, which organised party-led protests, and the armed Azad Kashmir movement, which rejected the Maharaja of Kashmir, directly addressing the imminent governments of India and Pakistan instead, demanding a referendum to decide the fate of the region. This group eventually created the Azad Kashmir government in September 1947.

“Neither government acknowledged the authority of the other, contributing, perhaps, towards the split between what is now Azad and Indian Occupied Kashmir.”

When India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir between 1947 and 1949, both the National Conference-backed ‘Emergency Interim Government’ based in Srinagar and the Muslim Conference-backed ‘Azad Kashmir Government’ based in Palundri fought to function in place of the state legislative council. Neither government acknowledged the authority of the other, contributing, perhaps, towards the split between what is now Azad and Indian Occupied Kashmir. The tussle also became a problem for UN mediators attempting to implement Security Council resolutions including Resolution 47, which called for a plebiscite on the status of the territory, for Pakistan to withdraw its troops and India to cut its military presence to a minimum. As per the text of the Resolution, the plebiscite or raye-shumari, as it was known locally was limited to the question of accession to either India or Pakistan. In fact, none of the UN resolutions concerning Kashmir envisioned the option of a third independent state in South Asia. 

On the phone from New Delhi, historian Idrees Kanth told me that throughout the 50s up until the 70s, the notion of raye-shumari in Indian Occupied Kashmir was often conflated with joining Pakistan. Wajahat Ahmed, also a Kashmiri historian, agreed: “Throughout the 50s and 60s, people in Indian Occupied Kashmir would have agreed to go with Pakistan, largely: they were demanding a plebiscite, and the plebiscite meant acceding to Pakistan, through democratic means and processes.”

There was a different sentiment stirring in Azad Kashmir, for several reasons, Ahmed told me over the phone. “A small, but growing, intellectual class of refugees from the valley including lawyers, doctors, journalists had settled in cities across Pakistan, from Abbottabad, to Sialkot, Karachi and Peshawar.” With a growing number of Kashmiri “refugees” from Indian Occupied Kashmir in Pakistan, separated from their loved ones on the Indian side, came a niggling nationalist awakening: the Line of Control represented an agreement between the states of India and Pakistan, forever dividing the people of Kashmir. And so the sails of Kashmiri nationalism caught wind.    

IN AUGUST 1958, accompanied by his uncle, 19-year-old Maqbool Bhat emigrated to Pakistan. They crossed the border on foot; as soon as they reached Muzaffarabad, they were arrested. They had no choice, they protested to the police, invoking the plight of Kashmiris in India, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Only when family friends Pakistani citizens intervened were uncle and nephew released.   

A year later, in September, Bhat enrolled in the Urdu Literature MA programme at the University of Peshawar. While at the University, he drifted towards a career in journalism, and began working as a sub-editor at the weekly Injam. A month after Bhat began university, Ayub Khan became Chief Martial Law Administrator, banning political activity across the country, including Azad Kashmir. In November 1959, there was a change in government: Khurshid Hasan Khurshid, the erstwhile private secretary to Jinnah, was appointed president of Azad Kashmir. In 1961, he was elected president; it was the first time the people of Azad Kashmir had been given the right to vote. Bhat also contested elections, held under the Basic Democracies Act, running for one of the 1200 seats allotted to Kashmiri refugees in Pakistan. He won. 

Maqbool Bhat Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few years, Bhat’s politics began to evolve. When high-level negotiations took place between India and Pakistan in 1962 the infamously fruitless Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks Bhat noticed, for the first time, the lack of Kashmiri representation on the global stage. This perplexed him. Later, in an interview, he recalled how after the repeated arrests of Sheikh Abdullah in Indian Occupied Kashmir, his mind began to run: “I realised 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 1964, Khurshid whom Bhat ardently supported resigned, and was then imprisoned. Allegedly, he was “asked to resign on health grounds” after he began demanding recognition of Azad Kashmir as a separate and independent entity. The Azad Kashmir council was also dissolved, and the Act of 1964 reduced the government to the status of a local authority, rather than an independent state.

IT WAS 1965and the struggle for self-determination had caught the world by storm: in Algeria, a revolutionary regime overthrew the French-supported government; in Palestine, the armed wing of the PLO carried out its first cross border attack in the occupied West Bank. By April that year, the zeal for autonomy had permeated Kashmir: a group of political activists from Azad Kashmir got together and crossed into Suchetgarh, a village on the Indian side, not far from the Pakistani city of Sialkot. They formed the Jammu and Kashmir Plebiscite Front. Abdul Khaliq Ansari, a vocal pro-independence activist in Azad Kashmir was elected President. Amanullah Khan of Gilgit became General Secretary. Bhat was appointed Public Secretary, given his journalism background.    

But it soon became apparent that there were diverging views on how to achieve liberation. On July 12, 1965, when Bhat presented a proposal for armed struggle, the majority of the group balked. But Bhat was convinced militant struggle was the need of the hour. He was alarmed by the Pakistani army’s strategy in Kashmir: codenamed Operation Gibralter, it aimed, first, to sabotage military targets and disrupt communications and, second, to distribute arms in Indian Kashmir to encourage a guerrilla movement there. In the next phase, regular Pakistani troops would occupy significant military positions in Kashmir, especially in the Valley. For Bhat, Operation Gibralter implied an end to Kashmiri aspirations for independence and so, eschewing mainstream politics the National Liberation Front (NLF) was founded on August 13, 1965 at Amanullah Khan’s residence in Peshawar. The founding members of the NLF sought inspiration from anti-colonialists and revolutionaries: Bhagat Singh, Martin Luther King Jr., Marx and Engels. Bhat wrote its agenda, poetic in its simplicity: “[We will adopt]… 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.”

THE FIRST INFILTRATIONtook place on June 10, 1966: Bhat, along with two others crossed over into occupied Kashmir. Over the next three months, they set up guerrilla cells, recruited more members and established a network of weapons suppliers, laying the foundation for many later insurgencies. On September 14, 1966, Bhat and three other insurgents were spotted by Indian intelligence in the village of Kanila. A subsequent police encounter killed one comrade; the rest were thrown in jail.

Two years later, in the dead of night, Bhat and two others tunnelled their way out of the prison. They walked hundreds of miles on foot; it took them 16 days to reach the first border checkpost in Azad Kashmir. They reached Muzaffarabad on December 25, 1968, where instead of the rapturous welcome they were expecting they were immediately arrested by Pakistani border forces. For the next three months, Bhat and his associates were allegedly interrogated and tortured brutally. 

BY THE TIMEhe was released, in the spring of 1969, Bhat had become a hero in Azad Kashmir. In November, at the annual convention of the Azad Kashmir wing of the Plebiscite Front, he was elected president of the front. Not everyone advocated armed struggle still, Bhat formally announced the National Liberation Front as the armed wing of the Plebiscite Front. Then he addressed the crowd: “I believe the reason for [the Government of Pakistan not trusting Kashmiris] is that the Pakistani government is not sincere about the issue of Kashmir.” But, he went on to add, “Kashmir, from the point of view of a nation, from the point of view of a group, as a party, have not shown their capabilities. They have not shown, yet, that to fight their war of independence, they are ready to die and give sacrifices on the field.”  

In 1970, Azad Kashmir adopted a formal constitution. In the years since 1947, the Indian and Pakistani sides of Jammu and Kashmir had gone down different paths. Indian Occupied Kashmir had been granted a ‘special status’ revoked by the BJP government on August 5, 2019 which conferred a distinct ‘permanent resident’ status upon its residents, and a state constitution was adopted in 1956. On the other hand, Azad Kashmir had no constitution until 1970 the Muslim Conference allegedly resisted a transition to an electoral system because “the institution of democracy would damage the freedom movement and that the area would become a settled territory, and not a base camp for the liberation of the state.”

“Although the 1970 Act established a democratic set-up universal franchise, an elected legislative assembly, rules barring non-Kashmiris from obtaining state citizenship actual sovereignty remained elusive.”

Bhat and his comrades protested the passing of the 1970 Act. Although it established a democratic set-up universal franchise, an elected legislative assembly, rules barring non-Kashmiris from obtaining state citizenship actual sovereignty remained elusive. The assembly had no control over defense, currency or foreign policy, including UN resolutions. On November 26, 1970, during a joint NLF-PF protest rally in Rawalpindi, Bhat was briefly arrested once again. 

Something else occurred in 1970 that had far-reaching consequences: a chance meeting at a wedding. At his sister’s nuptials in Peshawar, 19-year-old Hashim Qureshi met Bhat and was immediately enthralled. As he tells it, it was Bhat who gave him a nationalist orientation. A year later, when  inspired by the Dawson’s Field hijackings carried out by Palestinian militants he and his cousin hijacked an Indian Airlines passenger airline nicknamed, ‘Ganga’ to Lahore, they declared affiliation with the NLF. Bhat was accused of masterminding the entire plot. 

Maqbool Bhat, Hashim Qureshi and Mir Abdul Qayyum Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Airlines hijacking remains a murky affair. Eventually, all hostages were released and the aircraft was blown up on the tarmac. India retaliated by barring Pakistani flights over its territory, hampering Pakistan ability to send troops to East Pakistan to quash the growing movement for independence there. Antagonised, the Pakistani state began claiming the hijacking was an Indian conspiracy. NLF members were arrested and interrogated en masse, and Bhat, Amanullah Khan, the Qureshi cousins were put on trial for espionage. Eventually, everyone except Hashim Qureshi was acquitted but the crackdown severely weakened the NLF, clipping the wings of independent Kashmiri activism. Amanullah Khan later moved to the UK where, with active support from the Mirpuri diaspora, he converted the UK branch of the NLF into the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which eventually spearheaded Kashmiri insurgency in the 1980s. He passed away quietly in 2016.

As far as Maqbool Bhat, after dabbling in electoral politics one last time he lost to a PPP candidate he crossed over into Indian Occupied Kashmir in May 1976. He knew how dangerous this was; after all, that earlier death warrant, which he had dodged by breaking out of prison, still dangled over his head. As soon as he crossed over, he was arrested by Indian authorities. There would be no escape this time.   

SHAMS REHMAN LIVESin Oldham, a sleepy town in England, but he grew up in Mirpur in the 1980s. He didn’t know much about Maqbool Bhat at the time. When Bhat was hanged 7.30am on Feb 11, 1984, in New Delhi Rehman was a student at Karachi University. His life changed that day.   

Just a week earlier, on February 6, 1984 Ravindra Mhatre’s body was found in the village of Hinckley, Leicestershire, some 40 miles from Birmingham. Forty nine-year-old Mhatre was a diplomat posted at the Indian High Consulate in Birmingham, and the Kashmir Liberation Army allegedly, a nascent militant offshoot of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front claimed responsibility for his abduction and murder. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government rejected Bhat’s mercy petition less than 48 hours after Mhatre’s body was discovered, and on February 11, he was hanged. 

Placards demanding return of the mortal remains of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat – Wikimedia Commons

“I was going home, back to Mirpur, that evening,” Rehman told me over the phone. “On my way to the train station, friends asked me to tag along with them to a protest. We went to the Indian consulate and began pelting the building with stones. Then we were tear gassed by the police.”

Dragged into a police van, Rehman was beaten to a pulp and pelted with insults. You Kashmiris never learn, he remembers the policemen saying. “I pretended to be unconscious to save myself,” he told me. “They would’ve killed me otherwise.” That evening, Radio Pakistan’s 8.30pm bulletin began and ended without a whisper about Bhat’s death, and a charismatic revolutionary faded to obscurity.

Later that night, returning from the police station later that night, Rehman ruminated about the life he had lived thus far, and the bits of history that had slipped through the cracks. “It was on that day that I realised an independent Kashmir was the cause I wanted to rally behind.”

AFTER BHAT’S DEATHthe JKLF began gaining momentum within Pakistan, under the patronage of then-military ruler, Ziaul Haq. In an interview with the BBC in 2005, Amanullah Khan described how, after Bhat’s hanging in New Delhi, the group was approached by the Pakistani state to help ferment an insurgency in Indian Occupied Kashmir. And while Khan was absent when the deal was made, he decided to go ahead with it because the group’s leadership was told that Zia’s ideology was similar to the JKLF. “I remember thinking that General Zia had said he wanted Kashmir to be a part of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which clearly meant an independent Kashmir,” Khan told the BBC. 

“According to Qaiser, the integration of the Kashmiri diaspora within the province of Punjab has contributed tremendously to the decline of JKLF.”

But by 1990, Pakistan’s eyes had shifted elsewhere, and the newly established Muttahida (United) Jihad Council comprised solely of pro-Pakistan militant groups, and the JKLF disbanded and split into several factions. 

When I asked him about the future of nationalist groups in Azad Kashmir, Raja Qaiser Ahmed, a professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, did not mince his words. “They’re no longer a potent force,” he said. “These parties could never get to have a separate party line and, subsequently, could never vociferously vocalise their aims and ambitions.” According to him, the integration of the Kashmiri diaspora within the province of Punjab has contributed tremendously to the decline of JKLF. “They are the only identity in Pakistan that doesn’t have an issue with Punjabi dominance. Subsequently, there’s very little reason for Kashmiris to be upset with interference from Islamabad. And besides, in Azad Kashmir, you can’t afford to go against Islamabad. You can’t upset the capital.”

M. is a 25-year-old student in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. We began speaking over an encrypted messaging app, about JKLF, about growing up in Azad Kashmir having never known what Maqbool Bhat looked like, about the resurgence of nationalist sentiment. By the time we finished talking, JKLF’s march towards the Line of Control had ended without a whimper. No crossing into Indian Occupied Kashmir took place, and party members and supporters hastily retreated to their homes. Qaiser called the retreat “suspicious” when I asked him about it.      

“I don’t think the JKLF can have an impact in Azad Kashmir in the long run,” M. wrote, as an afterthought.“There is a resurgence, but the resurgence is leaderless, and besides, how can they stand up against Pakistan, a country whom they considered their brother-in-arms for decades?”

Almost 600 kilometers from M.’s home in Mirpur, Hafeez Nawaz, a young man in his late twenties, didn’t share this cynicism. He is a card-carrying member of JKLF and works at its headquarters in Gilgit, a territory that was once governed by Azad Kashmir but is today controlled by the federal government in Islamabad. From behind a rickety table, beneath the flag of Azad Kashmir, he held forth on Bhat a man who died before he was born. 

“We have been trying to uphold the vision of our leaders Amanullah Khan, Maqbool Bhat and Yasin Malik and to a great extent, we have managed to inspire local people to rally behind our cause,” he says. “While our people may not be educated or politically aware, what they do know is that Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan are not someone’s atoot ang or shahrag, but have an indigenous relationship of their own: one that neither India nor Pakistan are willing to acknowledge.” ■

ZUHA SIDDIQUIis assistant editor at Soch Writing.
The header image is a detail from Half Mother by ROLLIE MUKHERJEE.
She is an artist and art critic based in Baroda, Gujarat.

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