On the heels of Operation Gibraltar and subsequent Tashkent Agreement, one “Col. Batra” arrived from Pakistan to raise pockets of armed resistance against Indian rule in Kashmir. At the same time, a Sopore trader received a clandestine word from his “old friend”.
In August 1958, as 20-year-old “Wanted” Maqbool Butt finally managed to cross over to ‘Azad Kashmir’ in his fifth bid, he soon ran into his college friend in Lahore.
That friend was Sopore’s Ghulam Hassan Sofi, who would later rise to become a fashionable trader and a learned figure in the Apple Town.
Before Maqbool, Sofi had earlier crossed over the Ceasefire Line—now called, Line of Control—to meet his idol Syed Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
He remained in his idol’s company, for about two months. “I was in a guest house when I saw Maqbool,” Sofi recalls the bygone time in his Sopore house. “Accompanied by his uncle, Maqbool had recently moved to Pakistan.”
Back in the day, as a college student, Sofi, studying in the Degree College Sopore, had first met Trehgam’s fiery speaker during an inter-college debate competition.
“The young Maqbool, that I know was a brilliant debater and a fan of Sheikh Abdullah [of pre-1953 epoch],” Sofi recalls the tumultuous time of early fifties. “Maqbool’s oratory skills and Islamist bent of mind made us close friends.”
The two college friends momentarily lost touch with each other in the post-1953 agitation, following Sheikh Abdullah’s dramatic ouster, arrest and rearrest in a coup d’état. In the ensued protests sweeping the valley, like a wild fire, over the “lion of Kashmir’s” arrest, Maqbool had demonstrated ferociously, and fared on the wanted list of law-enforcing agencies.
At Lahore, the two friends exchanged pleasantries, before Maqbool asked Sofi: ‘Why didn’t you inform me about your Pakistan visit?’
Sofi cited his ‘compelling love’ for his idol as the reason behind his unannounced cross over. He played Maqbool’s host for three days in Lahore, before his friend along with his uncle left for Peshawar.
Maqbool had to move to Pashtun land after trying hard to secure an admission in the prestigious Punjab University. In Peshawar, Maqbool was soon pursuing his Masters in Urdu.
“He loved the language and was fond of literature and poetry,” Sofi says, recalling his college time interactions with his ‘fiery’ friend. “He used to read Allama Iqbal, Naeem Sidiqui, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, among others.”
After bidding his Trehgam buddy goodbye, the Soporian returned to remodel his ready made garment business on style of trendy Pakistani clothing stores in his hometown. With a billboard reading “Sofi Store”, his became one of the well-known garment outlets in town.
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Sofi went about his business, till shortly after the Tashkent Agreement he received a secret letter, delivered to him by his salesman, Abdul Gani: “Somebody dropped this for you.”
Oblivious of its contents, Sofi tore the envelope of the letter and read in sheer wonder:
“I’m waiting in Room No. 9 of New Light Hotel.
An Old friend.”
It took Sofi a while to realize who the sender could be. As he took a brisk walk towards the hotel, he was surprised to see a man sporting a twirled moustache, akin to a tough military man, waiting for him.
That man was Sofi’s erstwhile co-debater: Maqbool Butt.
“His sudden arrival surprised me,” Sofi recalls his memorable interaction with Maqbool. “I had no idea of his Kashmir return. It was totally unexpected.”
What was also unexpected was the plan with which his Trehgam friend had returned to his homeland.
After a light refreshment and greetings in the hotel, Sofi talked business with Butt.
“So what brought you back?” he remembers asking the unanticipated visitor.
But the old friend with the new identity was initially reluctant to share his plan.
“And therefore,” Sofi says, “I escorted him to my garden, which is presently occupied by the Indian army’s 22 Rashtriya Rifles as part of Gunju House camp.”
During that leisurely walk in Sofi’s onetime colourful backyard, Maqbool finally revealed his plans by introducing Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (NLF) to his friend.
Endorsing “all forms of struggle to enable people of Jammu and Kashmir to determine their future”, NLF was secretly floated on August 13, 1965 at the residence of one Major Amanullah in Peshawar.
Apart from Butt, its architects were Amanullah Khan, Mir Abdul Qayyum, a Kashmiri migrant settled in Pakistan, and World War-II veteran Major (R) Amanullah from Highhama town of Kashmir.
As part of National Liberation Front’s first group, Maqbool Butt along with his colleagues—Tahir Aurangzeb, a student from Gilgit, Amir Ahmed and Kala Khan, a retired non-commissioned officer from AJK force—decided to secretly cross back over to Kashmir on June 10, 1966.
“But are you even aware of the consequences of your action plan,” Sofi recalls telling Maqbool during their garden saunter. “And suppose, you’ll succeed in your mission, what would be the nature of State?”
“The nature of the State can be discussed later after we get liberated,” Sofi recalls Butt’s curt reply, during that discussion, lasting till 2:00 in the night. “NLF is the platform of people of different ideologies having the same objective to end the Indian rule in Kashmir. Also, we should understand that as a state Pakistan is bound by international treaties and relations. We being a Muslim majority region do not get any support from the world community for our genuine cause.”
Shortly, to raise pockets of resistance in Kashmir, Butt’s supporters assumed aliases. Sofi became “Tufail”, while Butt had assumed the identity of “Col. Batra” of BB Cant.
“Maqbool even met Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, who threw his weight behind him,” Sofi recalls the bygone adventurism, which would soon end with his friend’s blown cover, subsequent incarceration and a dramatic jailbreak.
In the fall of 1966, as NLF planned an attack on Sopore Police Station, an employee in DC Office Baramulla—an undercover member of NLF—would land in a police net, in a sweeping crackdown on the growing sleeper cells across the valley. Later, on his inputs, Sofi along with his colleague Ghulam Muhammad Dar would be put behind the bars.
Eventually, on September 14, 1966, Butt would be arrested from Handwara’s Kanila Village, not before a CID officer Amar Chand, and Butt’s colleague from Gilgit Auranzeb, would be killed in an encounter.
After his arrest, Maqbool was charged for killing a secret cop, the charge he would turn down.
“Among the witnesses presented against him in court by police was his former landlord from Sopore,” Sofi says.
On his turn, Sofi says, he tried everything to save his friend—even terming Maqbool’s landlord a habitual offender, harbouring an unstable mindset—in the court.
But all defence for Maqbool ended, after judge Neelkanth Ganjoo awarded him a death sentence along with his colleague Amir Ahmad, and a lifer to Kala Khan in Amar Chand case, in August 1968.
Four months later, Sofi woke up with an alarming siren in Srinagar’s Central Jail. It was pre-dawn time, and Maqbool Butt had just escaped in a thespian jailbreak.
“Till he reached Pakistan, we were on tenterhooks — imagining all possible fates to the man who had arrived in Kashmir to challenge its political status quo,” says Sofi, who walked as a free man, two years later, when his friend was about to face another jail term, this time in Pakistan, for his role in Ganga-hijacking case.
After his jail term, Sofi distanced himself from NLF and resumed his garment business.
“I had joined the outfit for my friend,” Sofi says. “With his arrest and subsequent return to Pakistan, NLF activities faded in Kashmir.”
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