Of Memory and Commemoration

Of Memory and Commemoration

By F Faheem

In Kashmir, graves and graveyards mean less as resting places for the dead and more as repositories of remembrance and collective memory for the living. Also, graves and graveyards as burial sites have achieved strong political meanings over a period. Some graves are marked, some un-marked, some have been imprisoned, some decorated and turned into cenotaphs and some encroach on public spaces and are guarded by the police. When graves have become symbols of an ideology worth dying for, some have become symbols of collaboration worth indignation even in death.
In this backdrop, two open graves with epitaphs in the Martyrs’ graveyard in the capital city of Srinagar symbolise the community’s commemoration of the dead that gives the dead a ‘new life’. The year 2016 marks the thirty-second year of execution of Maqbool Bhat and third year of execution of Afzal Guru and post-execution imprisonment of their mortal remains inside the Indian prison of Tihar in Delhi.

Maqbool Bhat’s Journey
Born on 18th February 1938 Bhat had a turbulent political career of thirty years. He was a product of Sheikh Abdullah’s earlier movement against the Dogra Maharaja and the former’s post-1950s politics of Plebiscite. In his short political career, both Indian and Pakistani authorities tried and imprisoned him. Talking about his political journey to a Pakistani journalist, Bhat spoke of the events that further shaped his politics:
“In December 1957, the release of the lion of Kashmir (Sheikh Abdullah) initiated a chain of agitation activities. My BA exams were scheduled in the month of March 1958. The examination centre was at Srinagar. The arrests of freedom fighters had started. My last exam was on April 2, 1958. Sheikh was rearrested on April 27. There was a crackdown on student activists and many were arrested. I was an obvious target. Therefore, I went underground. After three months when my exam results were announced, I asked my father to go and bring my ‘provisional marks certificate’. Securing my certificate, I came to Pakistan in August 1958. First we came to Lahore but then in September 1958 settled in Peshawar.”
After crossing over to the other side of Kashmir, he completed his masters in Urdu and joined a newspaper in Peshawar. In 1965, Bhat became the political secretary of the newly launched Plebiscite Front. This organisation was the first pro-freedom organisation on the other side of the Line of Control. This organisation was named after the Plebiscite Front movement of Sheikh Abdullah, however, its affiliation to Abdullah’s Plebiscite Front remains unknown. This group became a precursor to the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. On the Indian side of the Line of Control, by 1975, Sheikh Abdullah had given up on his ideology of plebiscite movement and the popular slogan of Azadi ya Maut (Freedom or Death). He had disbanded the Plebiscite Front soon after taking over as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1976, Maqbool Bhat once again crossed over to the Valley. He was soon arrested. In 1982, while Maqbool Bhat was serving his sixth year in Tihar jail, Abdullah died. Abdullah was buried according to his wishes in a grave on the banks of the beautiful Dal Lake.
Bhat’s political training began during his college days at St Joseph College in Baramulla district of the Valley. Speaking to a Pakistan based Urdu magazine, ‘Zindagi’, Bhat talks about his initiation into politics: “I used to be involved in strikes. Like most Kashmiris, I also had a great interest in Abdullah’s Plebiscite Front. From the beginning we had a clear aim….” Bhat’s attachment to his homeland and his indefatigable spirit for Azadi is reflected in the letters that he sent to his friends and relatives from prisons in India and Pakistan. In response to a letter written by a friend, Miyan Ghulam Sarwar, Bhat replies: “You may not be able to estimate the agony of a person who is being forcibly denied any contact and conference with his compatriots. This pain and agony becomes all the more unbearable for those who dreamt of freedom and independence for our homeland and who have dedicated themselves for the fulfilment of this dream”. Quoting Jean Paul Sartre, he further observes: “The end of communication is the beginning of all violence; where communication stops, beating, burning and hanging takes place.” Bhat’s indomitable spirit comes alive in the lines he penned down for his friend Sarwar: “For the fulfilment of my desire for my land and my people, I have gone through the beating and the burning at the hands of those that deny truth. Having failed to break my spirit, only hanging is left for them to try”. A week before his 46th birthday, Bhat was hanged on February 11, 1984 and buried by the Indian state inside the premises of Tihar jail.

Shaheed and Shahadat: Martyrology in Kashmir
In the early 1990s, inspired by Bhat’s ideology, JKLF spearheaded the uprising against the Indian State. Thousands of young Kashmiris picked up arms and revolted. It was also a time when Sheikh Abdullah’s grave came to be guarded by the Indian police at all hours of the day and night against his own community. In the years to come, Maqbool Bhat became a household name in Kashmir. His death anniversary is commemorated on both the sides of the Line of Control. Kashmiri diasporas in UK and in other countries commemorate 11th February as Maqbool Bhat Day.
In the last two decades of rebellion in Kashmir, thousands have been involuntarily disappeared; around seventy five thousand people, according to some estimates, have lost their lives. Hundreds of Martyrs’ graveyards now dot the landscape of Kashmir. A new national martyrology developed and contributed words like Shaheed (Martyr) and Shahadats (Martyrdom) to the Kashmiri vocabulary. In the year 2009, one rights group based in Kashmir reported that there are around 2,700 unknown, unmarked mass graves, containing at least 2,900 bodies, in 55 villages in three districts — Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara — of North Kashmir. Majority of the dead in these graves remain unnamed.

Imprisoned Burials
In the wee hours of 9th February 2013, one more Kashmiri name was added to the martyrlogy. Forty-six year old Mohammad Afzal Guru, a ‘convict’ in the Indian parliament attack case was hanged in Tihar jail. Although the Supreme Court of India had acknowledged that Afzal was not directly involved in any ‘subversive’ activity, it upheld his death sentence. The Court observed that the attack on the Indian Parliament, “Which resulted in heavy causalities, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender”. Twenty nine years after Maqbool Bhat’s hanging and burial inside the prison, one more Kashmiri was buried right next to his grave. While they lie buried next to each other, faraway from Tihar in their homeland two empty graves located next to each other await their mortal remains. The memory of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat and his ideology found a new life in Afzal’s death. Through a collective calendar of memories, marked by turbulent events and incidents, Kashmiris continue to place a certain part of their past in understanding the predicaments of their present. In this ongoing retrieval of the past, martyrs’ graves and graveyards emerge as spaces for recollection. Martyrs’ graveyards across Kashmir are not the resting places for the dead; they are grounds of enactments for commemoration. They are witness to the struggle and resistance of the community.

—The writer researches socio-political movements in South Asia