In this constituency along the LoC, a search for the elusive Sherwanis

Even in Baramulla, which goes to the polls on Thursday, the man who stood for the accession of Kashmir with India is fast disappearing from public imagination

Published - April 09, 2019 10:37 pm IST

Drawing attention: Kashmiri folk artists performing at an election rally at Kunzar in Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir.

Drawing attention: Kashmiri folk artists performing at an election rally at Kunzar in Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir.

The myth, the legend, the story of Maqbool Sherwani is fast disappearing from the imagination of even the cognoscenti of Baramulla. Once, in 1947, this fearless son of Varmul (as the town is known in Kashmiri), the martyred Sherwani, stood for Kashmir’s unequivocal faith in New Delhi and a commitment unto death to the accession with India. To his grandchildren, my grandfather, who was Deputy Commissioner ( Wazir-i-Wazarat , as the position was known then) of the district from 1948 to 1954, described Sherwani as the one man who saved Kashmir for India.

Today, New Delhi searches for the elusive Sherwanis in Kashmir’s angry lands, including in Baramulla, which goes to the polls on April 11. The Lok Sabha seat covers the entire Line of Control in the valley and has about 13 lakh voters. Traditionally, the turnout has been higher than in many other parts of the valley. The influence of the Army and its Sadbhavna schemes is much more visible in the border towns of Uri, Gurez, and Karna, dependent as the residents often are on the armed forces for livelihood and even basic services.

From Srinagar, travel to Baramulla town is easy; you can take the comfortable (and increasingly popular) train service for ₹15 and reach the town in less than an hour; there are five services every day. Or drive, sometimes for nearly three hours, crossing the influential Shia town of Pattan, a stronghold of the People’s Conference leader Imran Ansari.

Apart from Pattan, the constituency includes major towns such as Sopore (once described as Chota London), Handwara, Kupwara and Bandipore. The rallying cry for “cleaners” of buses at Srinagar’s KMD stop, near Budshah Chowk, at the peak of the militancy in early 1990s was, “Sopore, Kupwor, Upore” (from Sopore, travel to Kupwara and then cross over); so permeable was the LoC considered then.

Maqbool Sherwani, meanwhile, lies publicly forgotten, except for the billboard covered by the concertina on the edges of the Baramulla Army cantonment, and in the nondescript community halls bearing his name.

Robust and colourful

In ordinary times, the election to the Baramulla seat would have been considered one of the most robust and colourful in the State’s history. In extraordinary times, the campaign seems surreal. The election campaign has been overtaken by the massive protests, across the mainstream, against the short-sighted decision to close the National Highway to civilian commuters on two days a week — a knee-jerk reaction to the horrendous terrorist attacks on CRPF jawans near Pulwama. On the agenda of the four main contestants are the future of Article 370; repeal of Article 35 A; the collective disenchantment with New Delhi; the “sacrifices” made by the Kashmiri youth over the past three decades; the alleged killings and abuse of innocents; and the assertion of a competitive Kashmiri sub-nationalism.

Muzaffar Hussain Baig of the Peoples Democratic Party is the current MP. A brilliant lawyer with an LL.M. from Harvard, Mr. Baig, a Pahari speaker, is unarguably one of the sharpest minds in the State’s public life. Once a close associate of the People’s Conference founder, Abdul Ghani Lone (Sajjad Lone’s father), Mr. Baig, it seemed, was about to do a Ghar Wapsi to that party; but he has stayed on in the PDP while declining to contest. But ironically, the PDP’s candidate, Abdul Qayoom Wani, is not seen, as yet, among the front-runners.

The Baramulla constituency itself runs across 15 Assembly segments and three districts (Bandipore, Baramulla and Kupwara) and comprises three main social groups (Paharis, Gujars and Kashmiris) with a significant minority presence of Sikhs and migrant Kashmiri Pandits (over 13,000 registered Pandit voters, mostly in camps in Jammu).

New party

The leading Pahari-speaking candidate is Raja Aijaz Ali (a former IGP) who contested the Assembly election in 2014 from Uri on PDP ticket and lost by a relatively small margin to Mohammad Shafi Uri of the National Conference. Mr. Ali is now contesting as a candidate of the People’s Conference, and north Kashmir is seen as a bastion of the party. If he wins, this will indeed be Mr. Lone’s finest hour — securing a Lok Sabha seat will pave the way for the possibility of a Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir from northern Kashmir for the first time in its history when the Assembly election is held subsequently.

Even by Kashmir’s unpredictable politics (and the all-pervasive whiff of a conspiracy), the unexpected challenger is the maverick Engineer Abdul Rashid of the Awami Itihaad Party, who has been elected twice as an MLA from Langate. Rashid is a political disrupter and his politics is contrarian and bordering on political nihilism. But such is the angst among the first generation of Kashmir voters (in this demographic youthful state) that Mr. Rashid has emerged as the anti-establishment candidate, in the absence of anyone outside the mainstream.

He is backed by the former IAS officer Shah Faesal (who had emerged as a youth icon after topping the Civil Services Examination) and has now resigned to set up (with Shehla Rashid, JNU student, and others) the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement. Despite proclaiming himself to be a part of the mainstream, troubled by Kashmir’s unabated killings, Mr. Faesal remains an important moral voice, particularly after the decision not to contest the election.

Mr. Engineer is also backed by the stalwart from Tangmarg, and often seen as one of the shrewdest, almost Machiavellian, Ghulam Hassan Mir of the J&K Democratic Party (Nationalist).

The National Conference’s Akbar Lone has a strong base in Sonawari and he has been a three-time MLA, and is aggressive in the style of a Hindi-belt politician. Though the Speaker of the previous Assembly, moderation in speech is not one of his virtues. At an election rally in Kupwara, he recently declared that if anyone shouted Pakistan Murdabad (Down with Pakistan), he would respond by a Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Pakistan), bringing him instantly to the attention of prime-time news anchors and even the Prime Minister.

The choice of the PDP, being the incumbent seat holder, is intriguing and inscrutable. Abdul Qayoom Wani was the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Teachers’ Forum and held many a government ransom to his undisputed hold on one of the largest group of employees in the state. The PDP is clearly hoping that the existing and former employees will remember his contribution to their cause. In addition, the PDP has in Abdul Haq Khan, Lolab MLA, a formidable campaigner with tremendous grassroots support, who will be a great source of strength for Mr. Wani. Nonetheless, Mr. Wani’s choice instead of, say, Mr. Khan himself is surprising.

Not in the reckoning

The Congress seems to have shied away from giving a fight; its candidate Farooq Ahmed Mir is hardly a game changer. While the erstwhile World Bank economist Salman Soz was in the reckoning (son of former MP from Baramulla and Union Minister Saifuddin Soz and part of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle), he decided to focus on critiquing the NDA government’s economic policies.

But within the contestants of 2019, there is no Sherwani of 1947. The mystique of Maqbool Sherwani is part folklore, part reality. Henry Luce’s great gift to Life magazine, the photo-journalist Margaret Bourke White (who was in Kashmir contemporaneously, in 1947), described Sherwani as a 19-year-old Robin Hood, a champion of the oppressed and the peasants as he travelled across the valley on his Royal Enfield motorbike.

But his greatest contribution for India lay elsewhere. Almost single-handedly, he managed to delay (through guile, false rumours, and plain Kashmiri charm) the Pakistan-backed tribal invaders, the Qabailis’ march to Srinagar from Baramulla before the arrival of the Indian armed forces, who repelled them subsequently at the famous battle of Shalteng, just a few kilometres from Srinagar.

Swashbuckling, audacious, a National Conference worker, he had disrupted Jinnah’s speech on the two-nation theory — when the Quaid was on a visit to the valley — and was lionised by Mulk Raj Anand in his novella Death of a Hero (the brilliant Kashmir watcher Andrew Whitehead has admittedly a more nuanced and less generous view of Sherwani).

The Qabailis eventually found him out, tortured him, shot him and crucified him, but not before he cried out, one last time, “Hindu, Muslim Sikh Etihad , Zindabad (Victory for the unity of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims). This, said Mahatma Gandhi at his prayer meeting, later, “was a martyrdom of which anyone, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or any other, would be proud.” But where have all the Sherwanis gone? As Pete Segar would respond: “Gone to the flowers everyone! When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

(The author is a Professor of International Relations at Jawaharal Nehru University and at the University of Melbourne)

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