The leaders were all set to take the Plebiscite Front to the altar for their vested interests. A deal had been finalized. People, by and large, were scared of indulging in political talk. It was at this crucial juncture in Kashmir’s history that students of the Government College for Women did the “impossible.” Braving cane-charge and tear gas shells, they made a strong political statement on November 14, 1973.
The stage had been set for changing the name of the college on the birth anniversary of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The students resisted the move. Out they came on the posh Maulana Azad Road and pelted stones on government vehicles and the police. Unaware of the mood of the girls, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah arrived on the scene in his car to preside over the function. He had to retreat as a few stones hurled by delicate hands smashed his wind screen. But for this incident, the political wilderness of the Plebiscite Front leaders would have ended in 1973 itself. It deferred the transfer of power to the Sher-e-Kashmir by two years, believes noted historian Shabnam Qayoom.
The students first smashed the signboard put on the main college building. (Its twisted remains, lying at the site till 2009, were a reminder of the college girls’ defiant mood). Within no time, students from the nearby SP College and the SP School had joined the fray.
“As soon as we came out of the college, we saw a young man throwing stones at the police,” Bilquees, then studying at the Women’s College, would recall later. “He guided us, and saved many girls from the cane-wielding policemen. The boy was later identified as Jaleel Andrabi.”
Andrabi won international acclaim for his work on human rights. He was killed in 1996 after being arrested by Major Avtar Singh, who thereafter lived a lavish life in the US for several years even as a Srinagar court approached the Interpol to get him taken into custody. The killing has been protested against repeatedly by the Amnesty International and other human rights groups. Major Avtar Singh killed himself and his family members in the US in early 2012. The court had urged lawyers to produce his death certificate by December 2012.
Bilquees and her friends were the last to leave the battle field:
“We insisted on removing the board. The authorities promised us immediate action. But when we looked around, the protesters had left. We were the only ones remaining. Then we too decided to leave.”
The agitation spread to other districts. People, particularly students, came out in large numbers to protest, raising slogans against New Delhi and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah whose effigies were burnt at a number of places. The government was forced to close all educational institutions indefinitely. When colleges opened after a fortnight, the students of the Regional Engineering College staged a demonstration at Lal Chowk. Brutal police action left several students injured. Scores were taken into custody. The agitation evoked reactions in Jammu where students attacked the MA College and chanted anti-Pakistan slogans.
According to Shabnam Qayoom, the incident signboard incident took place on November 5, 1973. In his Kashmir Ka Siyasi Inqilaab, he says Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was supposed to preside over the function and faced the wrath of angry students when he was on his way to the college.
But, according to Bilquees, it was November 14 and not November 5:
“We came to know of the authorities’ plans when all preparations had been finalized. Students had been asked to stay back, and that was it.”
Other students too have differed with Shabnam Qayoom.
The college remains nameless to this day. It is still called the Government College for Women. Very few people are aware of the historic role it played in Kashmir politics at a critical time. The daring students gave resistance forces an opportunity to regroup. The process infused new life into the movement, though only for a brief period. After two years, the leaders fell from grace. They joined hands with those whom the Sher-e-Kashmir had called the “worms of the gutter.” A movement spread over 22 years was brutally killed. Surprisingly, rather shockingly, Kashmiris celebrated the demise.