Known as Shaheed-e-Azam and Shaheed-e-Kashmir, Maqbool Bhat is the first Kashmiri to be judicially murdered on Indian soil. Born in Trehgam village of district Kupwara in 1938, Bhat was hanged by India exactly a week before his 46th birthday, while awaiting a trial for the case registered against him.
During 1958, when state oppression against Sheikh Abdullah’s supporters in Kashmir began gaining momentum Bhat crossed over to Azad Kashmir. Later, he decided to settle in Peshawar where he started to work with a daily newspaper during the day and in the evenings he would attend post-graduate classes in Urdu literature. Bhat formed a movement called Kashmir Independence Committee (KIC) in 1962. This group later merged into the Jammu Kashmir Mahaz-Rayee-Shumari — Plebiscite Front in Azad Kashmir — which was a crusade for complete independence of Kashmir from India. The political beliefs of Bhat underwent a drastic change after the 1965 war and the Tashkent Agreement between India and Pakistan. He now advocated that the leadership of the struggle must be in the hands of Kashmiris, and simultaneously disapproved of the role of Pakistan in Kashmir’s struggle for independence.
Thus, he put all his energy into organising Kashmiris under a common banner called the National Liberation Front (NLF). Along with his enthusiastic group of NLF activists, Bhat entered Indian Occupied Kashmir and established underground cells in 1966. After some time, Bhat and his three comrades were arrested and taken to Srinagar’s Bagh-e-Mehtab interrogation camp. On the charges of the murder of Amar Chand, the Inspector of Local Crime Branch CID, Bhat was sentenced to death by a special court. This hearing remains unique as it was held within the walls of a prison.
However, two years later, in December 1968, Maqbool Bhat, along with Mir Ahmed and Ghulam Yasin, dug a 38-foot underground tunnel and succeeded in escaping to Muzaffarabad.
But they were soon arrested, sent to the notorious Black Fort of Muzaffarabad and interrogated. The situation in Azad Kashmir intensified. The agitation and protests for freedom forced the authorities to release Bhat — after three months of incarceration. As per the experience of Bhat, shared with his friends, the torture inflicted at Black Fort was no different from that of Bagh-e-Mehtab and Red-16 (Sonawar) in Srinagar. Narrating these episodes to his dearest friend in a letter, he wrote: “I was happy to be safe in my home but this happiness was short-lived…. What happened in the Black Fort had shaken me and forced me to rethink on who was a friend and who was a foe.”
While being chosen as the President of Plebiscite Front in Azad Kashmir, in 1969, he launched an awareness campaign throughout Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This campaign brought its own repercussions. He faced the wrath of state authorities who thought the campaign was anti-Pakistan. However, he continued to build his underground movement and recruit and train young activists. —which included Muhammad Hashim Qurashi and Muhammad Ashraf Qurashi. The two later, in 1970, hijacked an Indian aeroplane “Ganga” from Srinagar airport to Lahore. The aftermath of this event had repercussions for both Kashmir as well as Pakistan.
NLF and Plebiscite Front were shattered and party workers were imprisoned by Pakistan’s military. They were later released with the title “Kashmir’s true patriots.” Bhat, after all these events, decided to return to Indian Occupied Kashmir. It was 1976 when he crossed over to Kashmir without consulting his seniors and trustworthy people. As soon as he sneaked in he was captured and charged with the murder of a police officer — which he never accepted.
During the trial, he was transferred to the top security Tihar jail in 1980. Meanwhile, the political scene in Kashmir had entered a new realm with the signing of an accord between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi. Demanding Bhat’s immediate release, the NLF and Plebiscite Front activists on February 1984, kidnapped and later killed Ravindra Mhatre, a member of India’s consulate staff in Birmingham, England.
In response, India decided to hang Bhat and in the wee hours of 11th Feb 1984, he was executed.
None of his family members or friends were allowed to meet him for a last time and they were all arrested at Srinagar airport. The mortal remains of Maqbool Bhat, till this date, remain confined in the premises of Tihar jail, but still command his people in the streets of Srinagar to Sopore, from Muzaffarabad to Mirpur.
The unique situation about the burial of Maqbool Bhat was depicted in some lines by Mohammed Yamin, a Kashmiri poet from Azad Kashmir in his poem ‘Roshni Ka Shaeed e Awal’ (The first Martyr for the Light) that now adorns many portraits of Bhat:
Kahaan Tu Soya Khabar Nahee
Khabar Nahee Qabar Nahee
Magar yeh bandey nisar terey
Karor dil hein mazar terey