Chapter Four: What fuelled Kashmir’s Maqbool Butt
Eight years in Tihar Jail’s captive chambers had already changed the ‘romantic’. Unlike his yesteryear’s Micawberish conviction, as his detractors would dismiss his defiance, he was now a grey man, looking beyond his 46 years of eventful lifetime. Much of his grey appearance, as the prison accounts make one believe, had to do with his “untreated ailment” — perhaps reminding one how the rebel was left to fend for himself in that condemned cell of his. It was on the cusp of this deteriorating state that Maqbool Butt had visitors from home.
A mere mention of that jail visit now leaves the only surviving Butt brother, Zahoor, a touch nostalgic. Before he talks about it, the villagers at his residence in Trehgam’s Maqboolabad remind one how the family was torn apart for upholding the cause. If the revolutionary Maqbool Butt was secretly executed, then one of his siblings—Habibullah—became one of the earliest reported disappeared persons of Kashmir. The grapevine has it that he went to meet his jailed sibling in Delhi and never returned. Some even trace his last moves in Bombay, now Mumbai.
The disappearance was followed by the demise of the rebel recruiter Ghulam Nabi, in a road accident in mid-90s. Many didn’t rule out conspiracy in the then JKLF acting chief’s death. Later, another insurgent sibling, Manzoor, would die in a gunfight with the Indian armed forces. The string of deaths, raids and arrests have now made the only surviving sibling—Zahoor—as the heir-apparent of his brother’s cause and the family legacy.
With Butt’s rare photographs and letters, hidden and sewed inside cushions, long vanished in military raids of early 90s, the family has now preserved his rundown double-storeyed house as a souvenir.
Maqbool Butt’s poster pasted on the main door greets one at his house. It opens into a small low-ceiling room up two flights of narrow wooden steps inside it.
“This was Totha’s [Totha in Kashmiri means ‘dearest’] room,” Zahoor says. Maqbool—whose image and message are emblazoned on scores of posters and banners inside—shines through the murky ambiance and mud fragrance of this house. His mother and sister are busy making preparation for Totha’s 34th Martyrdom anniversary in an adjacent house, separated from his ancestral house by a wooden fence.
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In a chilly lawn standing in the backdrop of the faded green hills sheltering the Indian military, Zahoor talks about his return from Muzaffarabad in February 2009 to put forward the message of his slain brother. “I’ve returned to deliver the message of Maqbool Butt to you,” he would address the people of Trehgam on February 11, 2009. “Now we don’t need guns. I’ve come back to fight the political struggle for the cause.” Since then, he makes regular jail appearances.
After his fleeting introduction comes the memories of the day when as an 11-year-old he had accompanied his late brother Ghulam Nabi and sister to meet Maqbool Butt inside New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. “It was Dec 1983,” says Zahoor, sporting a jacket and jeans. “The moment I saw him chained behind that perforated fence, I cried. Later, as the guard allowed us in, I asked him about the chains all over his body, ‘What’s it, Touta?’ He smiled and said, ‘They’re the man’s jewels.’ Then out of naivety, I asked, ‘But why aren’t we wearing them?’ He affectionately ran his right hand on my face and said, ‘You’ll wear them at your appropriate time.’ ”
Some four hours later when they left Tihar Jail, Zahoor recalls Butt telling him: ‘One day you’ll know what your brother was wearing.’ His eyes shimmer in recollection.
During that Tihar visit, he recalls, Maqbool Butt had told his brother Ghulam Nabi to smuggle his 1700-odd page book out of Tihar and hand it over to someone from Muzaffarabad. Oblivious of the fate of that book, Zahoor now tells something very significant. “Maqbool Butt knew his hanging was due,” Zahoor says, in a heavy-accented Punjabi Urdu, the lingo he picked up during his long stay in Azad Kashmir.
“Much against what many say, my brother had refused to seek President of India’s clemency. He knew that Kashmir needs a Shaheed more than a survivor to raise their voice against oppression.”
He was facing a double-death penalty — one in sleuth Amar Chand’s murder case and other in banker Magrey’s killing. In both the cases, he had cleared his stand in the court: I’ve no role to play in these killings. In the guise of the twin killings, his supporters argue, Maqbool Butt was sent to gallows for his daring liberation campaign.
Perhaps that’s why his party men operating from different parts of the world made several attempts to secure his release.
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One such attempt was to blow up the Delhi Conference hall of Non-Alignment Movement in 1981. Then in the run-up to his hanging, the Intelligence Bureau would issue a special circular warning against “letter bombs” being sent by his aides and admirers to Indian official addresses. Another attempt was made when two men appeared at Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Rajaji Road house in New Delhi in the early 1984 to kidnap his son and wife for securing Butt’s release.
A major attempt was made in the first week of February 1984 when an unknown group Kashmir Liberation Army (KLA) kidnapped an Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre from India’s consulate Birmingham. The high-profile kidnapping case resurfaced the Kashmir dispute in the global press, again—and first time, since the ‘Ganga’ hijacking case.
The shadowy KLA demanded Butt’s release and a ransom of 1 million pounds (Rs 1.5 crore). In a ‘poor English’ letter, they had set the deadline—7pm on Saturday—16 hours away.
But as the Indira Gandhi government missed the deadline, a rotary-dial telephone rang inside a dilapidated house in an Asian area of Birmingham. “It looks as if you people have not taken it seriously,” said the voice, apparently one of the kidnappers. “Now you’ll have to face the consequences.” 48 hours later, some 40 miles from Birmingham, Mhatre’s bullet-ridden body was found on a roadside.
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As New Delhi blamed the JKLF, its president Amanullah Khan was picked up by Scotland Yard. He was questioned along with the ‘Ganga’ hijacker Hashim Qureshi. “It’s a reality that Kashmir Liberation Army had been formed by Amanullah Khan himself,” Qureshi writes in his book, Kashmir: The Unveiling of Truth. “Khan had all the responsibility of its affairs.” In a way, Qureshi was holding Khan responsible for Mhatre’s killing, which the latter denied.
“During 1982-1983,” Khan writes in his autobiography, “we continued our efforts to get Butt Sahib released, but could not get him out. It was then that some JKLF members formed the Kashmir Liberation Army (KLA) without the JKLF and my knowledge and approval; and carried out an action to kidnap the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre from Birmingham.”
It was possible, Khan writes, that the Indian intelligence RAW might’ve used their agents to get the Indian diplomat killed in order to implicate the JKLF and get Maqbool Butt hanged. “By doing so,” he said, “India wanted to give a bad name to the JKLF in the world by presenting it as a terrorist organisation, and tarnish our image.”
But the ill-timed and the equally impulsive killing had already done the damage by sealing the fate of Maqbool Butt.
At twilight of the day of Mhatre’s killing, a high level meeting in New Delhi chaired by Indira Gandhi cleared the decks for Maqbool Butt’s secret execution to “avenge” the diplomat’s killing. He was shortly taken out from his solitary confinement and lodged in Tihar jail’s high security zone.
Then on February 6, 1984, amid winter session of the JK assembly, PP Nayyar, then special secretary in the Indian Home Ministry, flew down to Jammu and drove straight to meet chief minister Farooq Abdullah in his legislature complex chamber. As the visitor asked Farooq and the Sessions Judge of the Special Court Thakut Pvitar to put their swift signatures on the black warrant that he carried in his black brief case, a deafening silence ensued in the small room.
The signatures fixed the date of Maqbool Butt’s hanging on Saturday, February 11. Once done, Nayyar turned towards the sulking chief minister: “I beg your leave now. Need to fly back and make necessary arrangements.”
Back in Srinagar, veteran journalist Zafar Meraj had learned about the hanging. He met former Al-Fateh insurgent Mian Sarwar in a last-ditch effort to save Maqbool Butt from hanging. Sarwar put Meraj in touch with the Harward-returned Kashmiri lawyer, Muzzafar Baigh. On short notice, the Abdul Gani Lone ideologue accepted to put up the last legal fight for Kashmir’s Maqbool Butt.
“We’ve won half the game,” Baigh broke the happy news after going through the case history. “High Court has not confirmed the death sentence passed by the Sessions that is mandatory and without which no one can be hanged.”
Through a renowned Supreme Court lawyer, Kapil Sibal, Baigh moved the formal application for staying Butt’s execution before a special SC bench. But the Indian Apex Court upheld the hanging after the Attorney General of India took out a piece of paper in SC, claiming it to be the confirmation of death sentence by the state High Court.
“Clearly,” Baigh recalls his legal defence, “New Delhi had blocked all the possible legal routes to defend Butt.” Then on the evening of Feb 10, 1984, Baigh accompanied R.C Pathak, Butt’s counsel, to meet the dying man, one last time in his cell. Only Pathak was allowed to have a brief meeting. Cooling his heels in a waiting room, Baigh could only think about his past two meetings with Butt in Tihar jail.
‘I want a fair trial for my people and myself,’ Butt had told him during one of these meetings. ‘But I don’t expect to get it in this subcontinent.’
Meanwhile Pathak came out. “It seemed he had not shaved for one or two days,” he told Baigh. “But he was very cool and calm.” Butt had lately finished reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, an evocative account of life in pre-partition Kashmir.
And knowing well that he would be hanged tomorrow, Maqbool Butt had told Pathak, “I’m confident that tomorrow my children (people of Kashmir) will realise the truth and legitimacy of what I stood for all these years and for what I’m today sacrificing my life.”
He wanted his body and his belongings—including a whole stack of papers stuffed into a cardboard carton and nearly Rs 8,000 sent to him by cheque from England in 1981 and 1982—be handed over to his younger brother, Ghulam Nabi Butt, who was arrested early that day from the Srinagar airport.
Next morning, he was woken up early, made to bathe and given time to read the Holy Quran. Five jail higher-ups were waiting near the Phansi Kothi—when Butt wearing unwavering body language was taken there. Then the hangman covered his face with a hood, put the noose around his neck and pulled the lever.
Maqbool Butt, as the jail officials would later recall, died instantly, unlike other executioners, whose legs were to be pulled to ensure they were dead. He was buried in a hurriedly-dug out pit, lying towards the left extreme side of the Phansi Kothi. In Srinagar and Trehgam, two graves came up over the period of time. They are still empty and awaiting his denied mortal remains.
“Butt was hanged at 7:30 am as per the execution warrants sent to us from Jammu,” then District Magistrate R S Sethi told crowded journalists outside the Tihar Jail. He didn’t explain much and termed the contents of Butt’s last will as “a secret.”
Except some mild reaction coming from the traditional defiant pockets, his hanging didn’t evoke much response in Kashmir. Even a call for protest by the People’s Conference leader and Maqbool Butt’s senior school mate, Abdul Gani Lone was largely ignored. “Maqbool is the first martyr on the question of Kashmir’s accession,” Lone whose party was seeking greater autonomy for Jammu & Kashmir said after his hanging. “The Centre and the Government headed by Farooq Abdullah have made a martyr out of him.”
Inside the chief minister’s bungalow at Jammu, chief minister Farooq Abdullah was sitting anxious. He had to cancel his Srinagar visit after being told how anti-Indira and anti-Farooq slogans were raised during Butt’s gayebana janaza (funeral in absentia) in Srinagar. After riding high on Sheikh Abdullah’s popular legacy, Farooq for the first time faced stiff opposition back home over the passage of the man whom he once met and was left charmed by.
In Srinagar, a motley group of individuals—identifying themselves with Butt’s cause—was at the heart of the dissent. They torched a vehicle in downtown’s Bohri Kadal Chowk to send a message that Butt’s legacy has found its takers. The group calling themselves Al Maqbool was already involved in pro-freedom activities in Srinagar. They would later sneak inside judge Neelkanth Ganjoo’s residential lane in Karan Nagar in an attempt to assassinate him—well before the JKLF would shoot him dead at Hari Singh High Street on November 4, 1989.
In the run-up to Butt’s hanging, the outfit had taken birth behind the bushes of Kashmir’s largest cemetery, Malkhah. Later some of its members would become Muslim United Front polling agents in the 1987 rigged elections, before venturing out—following Butt’s footsteps—across the LoC to get trained and fetch arms to start a war against the Indian State in Kashmir.
These armed youngsters would ensure to observe the anniversary of Butt whom they termed “the first authentic martyr—judicially murdered on Indian soil—of the Kashmiri independence movement”. This activism was the rebirth of the man who was tried, tortured and incarcerated several times as a ‘Pakistani Agent’ by the Indian, and as an ‘Indian Agent’ by the Pakistani authorities.
“Contemporary activism regarding Kashmiris seeking the right to self-determination is due to the dynamic role of Maqbool Butt,” says Dal Khalsa, a revolutionary political group seeking Khalistan. “They hanged one Maqbool Butt in 1984. Today there are so many in the valleys of Kashmir that the entire might of the Indian state has failed to contain them. You can kill a person, not an idea and certainly not a commitment.”
In the main square of Trehgam, the youngsters speak no different about their home-grown legend who they say “had the swagger of a statesman”. Most of them are well versed with his speeches—especially the one he delivered before the judge Neelkanth Ganjoo:
“If Indian authorities of occupation think that by hanging me, they can crush the Kashmir struggle, they are mistaken. The struggle actually will start after my hanging.”
His hanging did change Kashmir. But many still wonder: what would’ve happened, hadn’t he crossed over to Kashmir for the second time in the middle of May, 1976. Most probably, they say, he would’ve settled in Birmingham like many of his compatriots.
“But then,” says Ghulam Hassan, the headmaster of Trehgam, “that’s not how caretakers of the defiant legacy behave.”
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