One can be a martyr as well as a terrorist at the same time. The distinction between these two statuses is made on the basis of opinion and interest of the parties involved. This concept has been prevalent since times immemorial. People who died fighting for a cause were deemed as martyrs by the host country and rebels by the opposition. There are numerous instances, of revolutionaries who stood up against oppression and tyranny in different eras and different parts of the world, they ended up achieving a heroic stature among natives while the oppressors labelled them as traitors.
Che Guevara is inarguably the greatest militant socialist the world has ever known. Having fought numerous battles in Cuba and Bolivia, he was executed on the pretext of being a terrorist. History has granted him an iconic status and he is still being looked upon as a symbol of resistance against oppression. The likes of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, who were on the most wanted lists of world police and carried huge bounties on their heads, are still being reverred by sections of people across the world. Thus, based on which among either of the parties involved in a tussle looks at such people, terrorist and martyr are two identities of a single person.
Kashmir conflict is the longest running in South Asia. Killings, torture, rapes, custodial disappearances, encounters form an integral part to a conflict zone like Kashmir. As they say, occupation breeds resistance, so has the Indian occupation of Kashmir. That this resistance movement suffered ups and downs is a non-contextual and inevitable fact. The movement remained dormant not until an ordinary Kashmiri took the initiative to trudge a forbidden yet necessary path of violent resistance. The man was none other than Maqbool Bhatt, whom we today know as Baba e Qoum, and who was hanged by India after branding him a “traitorous agent”. His legacy too fell victim to the ambiguity over nomenclature surrounding a martyr and a terrorist. For India, he was a thorn in the shoe, harmful to it’s colonial interests in Kashmir and for Kashmir, he is a pious martyr who put forth his life for the nation.
Maqbool Bhatt was born in Trehgam village of district Kupwara. He was deeply moved by the plights of Kashmiri people from a young age and remembered when he, along with other naked children, were put in front of Jagirdar’s car to die unless the latter remitted that year’s agricultural revenue because a famine had devastated their earnings. The principal of St. Joseph’s College, Baramulla was right when he remarked about him going to become a great person in the future who would sacrifice himself for his nation. He crossed Pakistan twice and was arrested as many times and labelled an Indian agent. He was rejected by Pakistan Army for inclusion in the Operation Gibraltar for liberation of Kashmir from India. He remained active with Plebiscite Front and later took the radical path of resistance by forming J&K National Liberation Front in 1965 which laid the foundation of armed struggle in Kashmir.
He campaigned vigrously against the division proposals of J&K on religious lines and also the Azad Kashmir Act 1970, which would render Azad Kashmir a part of Pakistan. He protested the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan province with Pakistan and as a punishment, was expelled out of state boundaries. He denied the charges of killing a policeman during his first visit to Indian occupied Kashmir in 1968 for which he was awarded death sentence. Years later, Muzaffar Hussain Beg and Kapil Sibal would produce an “unconfirmed” (by High Court) death sentence of Sessions Court, Srinagar, which should have sufficed to avoid his hanging, only to be refuted by an unattested Black Warrant produced by the Attorney General of India. The special POTA court cognitively upheld his death sentence and finally Maqbool Bhatt was sent to gallows on February 11, 1984 with the execution deemed as a revenge for killing of Ravindra Mahatre, an Indian diplomat in England.
That this notion, of Maqbool Bhatt being a traitor, comes from a state that has fought British imperial rule and sacrificed the blood of numerous nationalists is bizarre yet expected. A nation that boasts of a heritage of die-hard patriots who laid down their lives to liberate their nation. A nation whose revolutionaries didn’t shy away from wielding the gun to drive foreign occupants out of their land. The same nation now forcibly occupies the land of Kashmir, and more vividly and brutally, the entire population. The same nation hanged this land’s first revolutionary and pioneer of freedom struggle. The same nation eradicated a visionary who flirted, for the first time, with the idea of an independent and unified Kashmir.
The predicament of India and Indian community over “martyr-terrorist” classification is contemptible. Maqbool Bhatt and JKNLF, his brainchild, had an analogous ideology to that of Bhagat Singh and his militant nationalist group. Both believed in violence as a justifiable means for overthrowing an alien rule. Both considered constitutional methods as vague given that no political spaces are provided to the oppressed people to voice their concerns. Both had the vision for an equality-based post-independence society. Both were hanged by the occupiers to subdue the popular armed movements they started but subsequent to their hanging, their respective nations found a new lease of resistance mentality. Both adopted a methodology which, in the words of the Indian spiritual nationalist Aurobindo Ghosh, was a rank and noxious reaction to a rank and noxious policy.
“It takes a loud bang to make the deaf hear”, Bhagat Singh had famously said. After using violence, Bhagat Singh did not evade the site, rather handed himself to the British authorities and then would use courts to propagate his ideas. Maqbool Bhatt held a similar view. After he was imprisoned in Pakistan in the famous Ganga hijacking case, he wrote letters to his acquaintances and family wherein he professed that the act was aimed at falsifying claims of occupiers and superimposing truth upon them. He himself confessed that hijacking a plane would not yield them freedom. However what it does is that it grabs attention and gains an audible audience. Whereas the militant nationalist group of Bhagat Singh virtually died down after he was hanged, Maqbool Bhatt heralded an armed uprising against a wolf-in-a-lamb’s-cloth democracy after his death.
The Indian state refused to provide the mortal remains and belongings of Maqbool Bhatt to his relatives apprehending that large scale demonstrations might erupt in Kashmir. Again it reminded of the destruction of bodies of Bhagat Singh and his comrades by the British government after their hanging. Comparably, India implemented this British policy vis-a-vis Kashmir. Somewhere India knows and accepts the cult status Maqbool Bhatt has achieved in Kashmir where everything associated with him is a valuable treasure. There is an empty epitaphed grave in Mazar e Shuhadaa, the martyrs graveyard in Srinagar, waiting anxiously for it’s sacred guest, another grave at his ancestral home in Trehgam, between his two brothers, and there is his own family, in addition to the national family, fighting to get his remains back, a struggle in which even the profreedom leadership has failed them.
Maqbool Bhatt represents and symbolises a typical Kashmiri who is disillusioned by Pakistan’s helping hand for the freedom of Kashmir and simultaneously fights an authoritarian Indian state. Kashmir is a contentious bone between India and Pakistan and a Kashmiri grows up with the back-in-the-mind thought of being victimised by the bullet of a gunman, whether Indian or Pakistani. The path chosen by Maqbool Bhatt was a la Bhagat Singh but for the hypocritical refusal of India to accept him as a freedom fighter. Put Indian narrative into the bin and he shines as a stellar in the illustrious cadre of martyrs of Kashmir.
There are innumerable martyrs in Kashmir who have sacrificed their lives for their nation but Maqbool Bhatt stands out for the simple reason that he demonstrated to the world that a Kashmiri can walk on his own feet towards the path of freedom sans any help. He willingly, and proudly, proclaimed to be an enemy of the occupation. “I have no problem in accepting the charges brought against me except one correction. I am not an enemy agent but the enemy, enemy of the Indian state occupation in Kashmir. Have a good look at me and recognize me well, I am the enemy of your illegal rule in Kashmir”, he famously said.
One brother died fighting in an encounter, other disappeared, yet another died in an accident and the only surviving one makes frequent trips in and out of prison. A weak and wrinkled mother still inhabits the same muddy house where Maqbool Bhatt taught Kashmir to his friends. That’s the sketch of a pure revolutionary for you. The man emulated Prophets and revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Marx and Engels, quoted Machiavelli and Sartre when most of the Kashmiris would not know who these persons were.
Every year on February 11, we are reminded of the basic cause of Kashmir conflict — the cause, the idea that was hanged by India and remains buried inside the Tihar Jail premises. By putting him to death, India sought to crush the resistance movement in Kashmir which, by and large, it has failed to realise. Maqbool Bhatt has, in fact, inspired millions of Kashmiris to stand up and face the occupation rather than bow down and bear the oppression.
Maqbool Bhatt’s execution is a blot on the forehead of Indian democracy. But prior to that, Maqbool Bhatt is an idea of free, independent and unified Kashmir. The idea still lives on.