With the heroic tale of the martyr of ‘New Kashmir’, we enter the modern period of Kashmir, ushered after Independence, when the Valley, like the rest of northern India, went through a blood bath. A dedicated and active worker of the National Conference, Maqbool Sherwani, who had had a rub with Mr. Jinnah at Baramulla, his home town, faced the fury of the tribal invaders from Pakistan in the same town. After performing exploits of military strategy, he fell in the hands of the tribals on the fateful day, 7th November 1947, when they literally crucified him. Sherwani, a martyr to ‘New Kashmir’, is not dead. His blood liberated the soil on which it sealed for all time the silken bonds of unity binding the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Kashmir – and the rest of India.
India came to the rescue of the people of Kashmir when the State was invaded by tribal hordes on the 22nd of October, 1947. Airborne Indian troops landed on the Srinagar aerodrome in the nick of time. The tribal and other Pakistan-inspired invaders were routed from the suburbs of Srinagar by the Indian troops and the National Militia of Kashmir. The raiders were driven out of Baramulla on the 8th of November, and later, pushed out of the Valley.
Speaking to the people of Baramulla on the 12th November, 1947, Prime Minister Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah paid glowing tributes to the deeds of valour and consequent martyrdom of Mir Maqbool Sherwani, the hero of Baramulla. In several of his post-prayer speeches, Mahatma Gandhi movingly referred to Sherwani, who fought and died for his country, defending the great principle of intercommunal unity. The story of Sherwani became a beacon to the upholders of secular tradition of Kashmir and the rest of India.
Ever since the founding of the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference in 1939 by Sheikh Abdullah, Maqbool Sherwani had been a staunch supporter of the national cause of the forty lakhs of Kashmiris who demanded freedom from the Dogra monarchy. Sherwani was then a young man in his early twenties. He actually started taking part in the struggle of freedom when he was eighteen years old. He had seen much of the world about him even as a boy. Several times he had trekked to India whither he had run away from home. His mother died when he was a young child. His wife died in childbirth in the second year of their marriage. Sherwani was twenty-seven years at the time (1939), the year of the founding of the National Conference. He was free to do what he liked. He chose to serve his people. The choice was easy, for his doting father carried a petty trade business in Barmulla and he did not have to work for a living.
As an active member of the National Conference, Sherwani popularised the demand for popular government and the necessity of communal harmony in the district of Baramulla, the goal defined by Sher-i-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. He was guided by the older political worker of Baramulla, Sufi Mohammed Akbar. Both made the masses of the District politically conscious. Whenever the Wazir Wazarat (as the Deputy Commissioner was called) oppressed the rural folk or a corrupt revenue officer extorted bribes, or, a forest official exploited his authority, Maqbool Sherwani would stand up against the bureaucratic bully. He would organise the erstwhile oppressed and awed people and stage non-violent demonstrations; invariably, he and the people won their point.
Earlier, in his stormy boyhood, while Sherwani was the student of a middle school, he led his friends in folk dance and drama and other activities. That training was an asset to him. He became an effective sneaker and he could sway and control large crowds. Defending his countrymen against the excesses of the bureaucracy, he would lead agitations of the aggrieved people. He was arrested several times. His being guided by the principles of the National Conference, as defined and popularised by ‘Sher-i-Kashmir’, provided him the right lead in every crisis-almost every time he scored a victory.
Sherwani had little respect for leaders who did not agree with the programme of the National Conference. When Mr. Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited Kashmir and spoke at Baramulla on his ‘two-nation’ theory Sherwani forced him to come down from the platform, and this stopped his speech. The Muslim Conferencites, who had convened the meeting, were taken by surprise, and pursued Sherwani. To escape the fury of the mob, Sherwani jumped from the Baramulla bridge into the Jhelum and dived into the deep, eddying water, to reappear hundreds of feet away!
Sherwani coordinated the programme of the Baramulla branch of National Conference with its parent body whose headquarters was at Srinagar. By tonga or lorry, on cycle or motor cycle, and, sometimes, on foot, Sherwani shuttled between Srinagar and Baramulla. When the momentous session of the National Conference was held at Sopore in September 1944 and the session ratified ‘New Kashmir’, the people’s charter for freedom and self-government, Sherwani was indubitably the most active worker. He was well acquainted with Sopore; he knew almost every peasant by face. They co-operated with him in his round-the-clock work on the Reception Committee. At the session Sherwani heard and saw his beloved leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as well as Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and many other Congress leaders. He dedicated himself, with renewed zeal, to the service of the land in order to usher ‘New Kashmir’, which received the sanction of the people in the open session. Thanks to his fond father, Sherwani could devote himself whole-heartedly to politics.
The struggle for full responsible government, as envisaged in the national document, entitled ‘New Kashmir’, assumed several forms. In 1945 the National Conference cooperated with the Government when certain reforms towards some popular representation in the Government were conceded. The Government’s climbdown, however, soon turned out to be a tactial manoeuvre as the power was concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister R.C. Kak who was the nominee of the Maharaja. The National Conference, therefore, with drew its representative from the Government. The Kak regime there upon tightened its stranglehold over the people. The National Conference leaders sounded the clarion call of ‘Quit Kashmir’ agitation on the eve of the Cabinet Mission in India during May 1946. The Government retaliated harshly. An era of repression was ushered. The Conference leaders, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and others, including Sherwani, were placed behind the bars. Public opinion in India, as voiced by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other Congress leaders, was against the repressive policy of the Government. Mahatma Gandhi visited Kashmir. The Kashmir Government relented. In September 1946 the detenus were released unconditionally.
Again, there was a stalemate. The Maharaja of Kashmir was sitting on the fence, undecided whether the State should accede to India or Pakistan, adter the partition. A new and realistic policy was not announced at the right time after the exit of Kak as the Prime Minister. The hesitant policy of the Kashmir Government gave an initial advantage to the Pakistan-abetted tribesmen who came via North-Western Frontier Province of Pakistan and invaded Kashmir in October 1947. Situated on the border, Muzaffarabad was the first town to fall. Like leaders of all branches of the National Conference, Sherwani responded to the call of the National Conference whose leaders under the clarion call of Sheikh Abdullah had anticipated the trouble to raise a body of 10,000 National Home Guards fn the Valley.
As is apparent already, the story of Maqbool Sherwani cannot be extricated from that of the National Conference. He had identified himself with the activities of the party to which he owed selfless allegiance. While he was engaged with the organisation of the National Home Guards, he heard the disturbing news of the fall of Muzaffarabad. He witnessed panic spread in the town of Baramulla, as conflicting reports flew about the might and fury of the raiders. He spoke to the people at street corners and calmed their fears. The fifth columnists, were endeavouring to sabotage his efforts. Undeterred, Sherwani went on with his mission, working day and night at a hectic pace.
More disturbing news came about the lightning advance of the well-equipped raiders, who captured Uri and smaller towns The incursion of the hordes into Baramulla appeared imminent. But Sherwani did not lose his nerve in the hour of gloom. He left Baramulla for Srinagar on his motor cycle at the very last hour after he had personally attended to the safe evacuation of a large part of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population who thus escaped the indiscriminate fury of the vandals.
Sherwani conferred with the National Conference High Command. The leaders were alive to the peril to face which the National Home Guards and the National Militia had been raised. When the tottering machinery of the Maharaja’s government failed, the leaders of the National Conference assumed the duties and powers of the Emergency Administration. The Headquarters were set up in the heart of the City. There was a keen element of precariousness in the situation. Nobody was sure of the morrow What happened to Baramulla might befall Srinagar any moment. The Government of India heeded in time the appeal for help of the Kashmiri leaders. Srinagar was saved; the Indian troops, aided and guided by the National Militia, did a heroic job. The raiders were driven away from the doors of the loveliest city of India, which they would faro have depredated.
Relieved at the turn of events, intrepid Sherwani plunged in the fight against the enemy, who revelled in heinous forms of butchery and sadism to women and children. He resolved to fight them on the propaganda front too their slogan of ‘Holy War’ was a camouflage for an orgy of loot and bloodshed. To stop their infiltration in outlying districts of Srinagar, Sherwani made hurricane tours of Ganderbal, Safapore, Sumbal and other smaller towns, and told the people what these monsters really stood for. To the people he reiterated the necessity of intercommunal harmony. He warned them that they must not give shelter or show mercy to the unholy invaders, comprising freebooters and marauders, sent on the imperialist errand of annexing Kashmir and enslaving her people, even as earlier aggressors in history had done.
A glorious chapter of Sherwani’s life commenced with this mission. It was the climax of a career of service to the country that will go down in the annals of Kashmir in letters of gold. Fearlessly, Sherwani ventured into Sopore, the devil’s den, and nearby villages, where the tribal hordes had entrenched themselves. To hoodwink them, he carried aloft a Muslim League flag in his right hand and wore the blue crescent badge. He said to a leader of the tribesmen: “Wait not. March on. There is terrible communal trouble in the city of Srinagar. This is your opportunity to break in and set up your government in the Maharaja’s Palace, on the banks of the famous Dal Lake. And, you’ll have wine and women and gold!” He thus lured them to certain positions-as he had previously planned with the scouts of Indian troops and the National Militia-where they were shelled and bombarded by the Indian troops. This happened on 30th October, 1947, when Srinagar was in grave danger.
There are different estimates of the number of raiders who concentrated in this manner at certain points and whom Sherwani sent to their deserved doom. Someplace it above two hundred. Be the figure what it may, suffice it to say, that bold Sherwani recklessly performed exploits of military strategy that contributed not a lithe towards saving Srinagar, and which vie with those of well-known pies in the two world wars of this century. He saved the lives of not only the inhabitants of Srinagar but hundreds of others of his countrymen and Indian troops.
How long could the lightning carrier of this youthful patriot last? Venturing into the bear’s den once again, Sherwani fell into the hands of the tribesmen at Sumbal, a party of whom had laid waste the entire village. They had been looking for him for days. They had set a high price on his head-the fearless head of M.M. Sherwani.
The uncouth captors manhandled Sherwani. He flinched not, complained not. Acting under the orders of one of their Amirs, they escorted Sherwani to Baramulla. He was produced before an Amir whom the ‘fifth columnists’ had cited for the vendetta. “Tie the Kashmiri fellow to the verandah pillars”, shouted the Amir.
Tied hand and foot, and feeling the ropes pressing him against the posts, and, staring at the street, Sherwani smilingly observed the Amir who sat in a chair by the roadside. Around the Amir, squatted or stood a platoon of the relentless, pitiless tribesmen, armed to the teeth.
“You are Sherwani”, said the Amir, in a mocking tone. The tribesmen guffawed, gaping at the intrepid captive, whose demeanour and expression compelled attention.
“I am Mir Maqbool Sherwani”, was the dauntless reply.
“We know much about you and your foul deeds,” thundered the Amir. “You have betrayed us. You are false to the holy cause of the Jehad, that we wage”. Softening a little, the Amir added, “You are a promising young man. You may live yet. We will forgive you if you forswear yourself and join us. As proof positive of your change of heart, you must tell us the secret position of the Militia and Indian troops in Shalteng and also show us the shortest route to the Srinagar aerodrome”. “What may 1 do first ?” asked Maqbool Sherwani. His voice was calm and confident.
“Say Islam Zindabad and Hindu-Muslim-ittehad Murdabad ! No more fooling us now.” “No, that shall not be”, was the firm, tight-lipped reply of Sherwani, who was a rebel against reactionary authorities ever since his boyhood. “I only desire to say my last prayers”.
“You will not offer prayers. You will say what we want you to say, or, we will make you to”, threatened the ferocious Amir. “No, hundred times No”, replied Sherwani. “I say Naya Kashmir Zindabad! Sher-i-Kashmir Zindabad!”
“What are you waiting for?” the Amir questioned his men.
No sooner was this said than they started belabouring the helpless captive with butt ends of their rifles. He bled but winced not.
The Amir who thought every Kashmiri to be a coward could not comprehend the tenacity of the prisoner. Set at naught, he said to one of his men, “This man is a traitor. Sever his nose and his tongue, if he still refuses.” Sherwani repeated “No” and said the Zindabads over again, before his nose and tongue were cut off. What did Kashmir’s hero look like?
The Amir wrote “Sherwani, the traitor, his punishment is death”, on a piece of paper in Urdu and had it pasted on the forehead of Sherwani. Suddenly and unaccountably, the Amir flew into a rage and commanded twenty-four of his men to stand to the position of a firing squad.
“Fire and mark a crescent on the chest of the traitor,” commanded the Amir. A volley of shots did the fanatic chore. Our martyr, the hero of New Kashmir, breathed his last. He died a martyr’s death on the cross, as it were.
“Tie the ears of the traitor and his drooping head and arms straight to the posts so that every passer-by can see him,” was the last bark of the Amir before he left the spot.
Little did the petty tyrant and his men realise that on the following day, i.e., 8th of November, 1947, they would be driven out like plagued rats from Baramulla. One of the first acts of the freed people was to reclaim the dead body of Mir Maqbool Sherwani and to bury it in the graveyard of Juma Masjid of the town with full military honours.
Sheikh Abdullah, and the leaders of Kashmir and India, paid touching tributes to the memory of the martyr of Baramulla. Sherwani is not dead. He will never be. By his glorious sacrifices, he has sealed the silken bonds of amity that bind the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Kashmir and the rest of India.
The National Cultural front of the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference staged a Kashmiri-cum-Hindustani Play which depicted the heroic story of ‘Martyr of New Kashmir-the Mujahid who waged a ‘holy war’ in the best sense of the word. A lifesize Portrait of Sherwani in the last pose was painted by the artists of the Front.