In Tihar graveyard, a grim reminder of history

Afzal Guru buried next to Maqbool Bhat, icon of secessionist movement in Kashmir

February 10, 2013 01:41 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:17 pm IST - SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI

Mohammad Afzal Guru, executed on Saturday for his role in the 2001 jihadist plot to storm Parliament, has been buried in a prison graveyard which houses the body of Maqbool Bhat - revered by two generations of Kashmiri secessionists as the most authentic voice of the State's secessionist movement.

Bhat was hanged at Tihar jail on February 11, 1984 — 29 years, almost to the date of Guru’s execution. For two decades and more, the anniversary of Bhat's execution has been among the biggest events on Kashmir's secessionist political calendar, commemorative protest marches and strikes. Some believe Guru, like Bhat, will become a rallying point for the secessionist movement, drawing a new generation of young people to join the cause.

Yet, Bhat was little known at the time of his hanging — an event mostly ignored in the State. Mohammad Abdullah Raja, owner of a news agency in Srinagar, recalled placing a special order for the India Today issue before Bhat’s death which dealt with the hanging. “It didn’t sell like hot cakes,” Mr. Raja’s son Farooq said. There was no strike or violence in Kashmir when Bhat was hanged. A call for protest by the People’s Conference leader Abdul Gani Lone — himself later killed by jihadists — was largely ignored.

Bhat’s journey to becoming the best-known martyr of the Kashmiri secessionist movement began in June, 1966. That month, the newly-formed National Liberation Front (NLF), headquartered in Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s Muzaffarabad, launched Bhat across what is now called the Line of Control (LoC). His comrades, former Pakistan army soldier Major Amanullah, Subedar Kala Khan and Subedar Habibullah Bhat, were to conduct military operations; Bhat was tasked with recruiting cadre.

Less than eight weeks later, though, the group was detected by the police. Amar Chand, a police officer, was killed in the shootout that followed. In August, 1968, a Srinagar court sentenced Bhat to death; Kala Khan was given life imprisonment.

In December, 1968, though, Bhat and two fellow prisoners tunnelled their way out of Srinagar Central Jail, and made their way back to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

To the astonishment of the would-be heroes, though, Pakistan’s military greeted their arrival with deep suspicion. The men were interrogated on suspicion of being ‘Indian agents’. Scholar Ajit Bhattacharjea has asserted that Bhat was in fact a “colourful double agent”. From the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) again, Guru, interestingly, had briefly been an informer for the Jammu and Kashmir Police's counter-terrorism division, the Special Operations Group.

Eventually, however, Bhat managed to get himself out of jail. In May, 1976, he again crossed the LoC. His first operation, a bank robbery in Langet, Kupwara, intended to raise funds, went badly wrong. A bank manager was killed and Bhat was arrested. He was to receive a second death term for this killing. This time, he was held in New Delhi’s Tihar jail.

In the years that followed, most of Bhat’s Muzaffarabad-based comrades moved to the United Kingdom. There, in February 1983, the group kidnapped India’s assistant High Commissioner, Ravindra Mhatre, in Birmingham, seeking their incarcerated comrade’s freedom. Mr. Mhatre’s body was discovered on February 5, on a farm in Leicestershire — shot, according to one of the participant’s account, in a moment of panic.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responded by promptly executing Bhat. Two of the NLF kidnappers were found guilty by a British court of having carried out Mr. Mhatre’s execution, and received life sentences in February, 1985. The third, Mohammad Aslam, succeeded in evading the authorities until July, 2003, when he was detained in the U.S.A.

From 1987, as the secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir gathered momentum — partly due to the rigging of elections by the Congress-National Conference alliance — Bhat’s political heirs finally began getting a hearing. The anniversary of his execution began to draw some public support.

Neelkanth Ganjoo, the judge who first convicted Bhat, was shot dead by JKLF terrorists in 1990 - among the first victims of violence that would claim tens of thousands of lives over the next two decades.

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