Thursday, February 10, 2011

The symbol

The year is 1984. On a crisp February morning the space shuttle Challenger made its first landing at the Kennedy Space Center. It was a heady time in Kashmir too and Farooq was at his flamboyant best, ruling his fief, riding to Gulmarg on a thap-thap motor with the poor DIG trailing in a police jeep, pure Bollywood style. Little Gujjar girls hiking the alpine forests, wet firewood on their delicate heads, would stop in their tracks to see the prodigal scorch rubber. That kind of peaceful times.

In Delhi a mild-mannered man was being walked to the gallows. Convicted of killing a CID inspector in Kashmir, a claim as contested as Darwinism, Maqbool Bhat was to soon turn into folklore. His life was no less than a Bollywood potboiler. Unprivileged, idealistic, strong-headed, philosophical, bank-looting, freedom seeking, jail breaking, controversial but avowedly secular. February 11 was to change him into a resistance icon forever. Somebody like Che Guevara. Briskly, with the gait of a soldier of fortune, Maqbool climbed the last steps to his gallows-tree. Trehgam was a distant cry. Tihar loomed.

Five miles further uphill from Kupwara, the northern most township of Kashmir lies Maqbool Bhat’s picturesque little village. Everyone is poor in the hamlet, including the family of Bhat. Children often aim at walnut trees in the neighborhood, sending thick clubs flying on bunches of green walnuts. The boys then collect raw walnuts -- that lie scattered everywhere -- in the loose ends of their Pherans. They rest on some mound, away from prying eyes, to remove green husks, hurriedly extracting the kernels [gooj]. Hands often get stained in the process. Very pastoral.

Exactly twenty seven years after their favorite son was hanged by India -- a journalist friend told me -- they still sweep a little, low-ceilinged room that they still call ‘thotha’s room’. Thotha is dearest in Kashmiri. Many young men who crossed over to Pakistan in the late 80’s were quite appealed by the folksiness and lore around Bhat. Though coming from a peasant stock, Maqbool Bhat was educated. He went to St Josephs School in Baramulla and continued his studies in Pakistan when he first crossed the border clandestinely in 1966. Quixotic in life, death helped bolster the romance about him.

He is the first Kashmiri hanged by India and hence evokes very strong pro-Kashmir sentiments in the vale. There aren’t too many pictures of Bhat available. India did everything to efface him. None of his belongings were ever returned to his folks. Universal statutory law would demand the body to be returned to the family. That never happened. They have two graves in Srinagar and Trehgam dug for him.

From among the top leadership of Kashmir, separatists as well as unionists, Maqbool Bhat’s legacy is the simplest and perhaps the poorest.

© Sameer