It was one of those chilly evenings of winter of 1984 and I, as usual, was trying to gather news reports for next day’s issue of AINA which I was associated with, then. The budget session of the state assembly was on in winter capital Jammu and I would call Kashmir Times offices in Jammu to have the latest news about the day’s developments in the assembly. We, at AINA and Kashmir Times, had an understanding for exchanging the news. Kashmir Times had no one in Srinagar to look after the news and so was the case with AINA, without any correspondent in Jammu. Ved Bhasin happened to be as part of our family, being one of the closet friends of late Shamim Ahmad Shamim and so the two papers decided to share the information on a daily basis.
On that evening, if I remember correctly, it was February, 6, that I called Kashmir Times office, and my uncle, and a senior journalist, Mohammad Syed Malik, who was working then for Delhi based English daily Patriot and used to move to Jammu with annual durbar, picked up the phone. After briefing him about Srinagar items, I inquired from him the day’s developments in the assembly. “Zafar Ji, there is a big news, but you have to keep it as a secret till morning, when the paper comes out…….Maqbool Butt is being hanged on February, 11….. and this is our exclusive story. No one else (from amongst journalists) has any clue of this”, he told me in a hushed tone, as if none else could hear him.
And the details of that ‘great exclusive’ story were like this: Earlier in the day, while he assembly was in session, a special envoy from New Delhi landed in Jammu and drove straight to the legislature complex that is situated in civil secretariat complex. The envoy carrying a small black bag, was whisked inside the chief minister’s chambers, where the two remained closeted for about half an hour. In the meantime, chief minister summoned his law minister, chief secretary and the police chief and the closed door meeting lasted for another half an hour. No one could make any guess as to what was going on inside the chief minister’s chamber, had it not been the dramatic entry of a senior judicial officer of the state in the official chamber of the chief minister. It was when Thakur Pavitar Singh, then holding the office of the Sessions Judge of the special court was escorted by one of the close aides of the CM that one of the close friends of Ved Bhasin called him up and told about the high drama that was going on in the legislature complex. And it was from here, that Ved Bhasin and Mohammad Syed Malik picked up the threads to get that ‘exclusive story’.
On February, 3, Ravindra Hareshwa Mhatre, a senior Indian diplomat was kidnapped while he was on way back to his home in Birmangham. A little known groups, named Kashmir Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded release of Maqbool Butt in exchange besides 1 million pounds as ransom money. The demand was outrightly rejected by Indian government and two days after his abduction, on February, 5, his body was found by the police in a farm. The killing of the diplomat shocked New Delhi and at a very high level meeting that was held late that evening, with Indira Gandhi in the chair,it was decided to send Maqbool Butt, then lodged in solitary confinement in a high security zone of Tihar jai.
Butt had crossed over to Kashmir, and was arrested near Langate, when he was on his way back to Muzafarabad. He along two of his young associates, Hamid and Riyaz, were handed over to the police by local people after he allegedly shot a bank manager dead. Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah, who happened to be the chief minister that time, decided to shift Butt to Tihar on the advice of his security advisors, who reminded him about Butt’s dramatic escape from Srinagar Jail, in 1969, after he was awarded death sentence for the alleged killing of a state intelligence official. Hamid and Riyaz were lodged in Srinagar central jal and I had a chance meeting with him when I was briefly detained for over a week along late Abdul Ghani Lone. Both Hamid and Riyaz told me some interesting stories regarding the Langate incident as also some aspects of Maqbool Butt’s life and personality, which I will be sharing with the readers sometime next.
The abduction and subsequent killing of Mhatre ‘s killing by so called supporters of Maqbool Butt sent shock waves in Delhi, the events started moving fast and Indira Gandhi decided that enough was enough and Butt should be sent to gallows.
A senior Home ministry official was flown with a pre drafted “Black Warrant” to Jammu and the chief minister was asked to get the document signed without any delay.
As Thakut Pvitar Singh entered the CM’s chambers, the union Home ministry official took out file from his black brief case and asked him to put his signatures on the “Black Warrant” that had fixed the date of Maqbool Butt’s hanging on Saturday, February, 11. There was complete silence in the small room. Pavitar Singh had a cursory glance at the file, took out the pen and put his signatures, without uttering a word. The silence was broken after the official collected the file from Pavitar Singh and asked the chief minister:“ I beg your leave now. I have to fly back to Delhi t make necessary arrangements”. With this he rose from his seat, shook hands with the chief minister and others in the room and drove to the airport were a special plane was waiting for him.
As I started looking at the paper on which I had noted the details of the ‘big story’, I was at loss as to how to write it down for the AINA. I had never met Maqbool Butt but I had heard a lot about him. Old memories started haunting my mind. The great escape of 1969, with what Butt became a household name in Kashmir. Some people hailing him as a true “Mujahid” and some labelling him and as a double agent, a person of doubtful integrity. In 1969, when Butt broke the prison walls to make that great escape, I was a college student. The incident had sent shock waves across the valley. I remember my late father telling me that jail break was not a child’s play. Someone from within must have helped Butt in breaking prison walls. After all there are many in the government itself who sympathise with the cause of Kashmir. However, soon Butt was forgotten. And it was in 1976, with his re-arrest near Langate that Maqbool Butt again became the topic of hot news. Shiekh Abdullah was at the helm of affairs, courtesy the 1975 Accord, ‘Rai Shumari (Plebiscite) was buried and so was the Plebiscite Front. Shiekh had now fallen in love with the Congress and ‘great democratic India’. And there was no scope now for reviving that ‘obsolete’ “Rai Shumari”. The tired, aged Lion of Kashmir had accepted the ‘reality’ of Kashmir being an integral part of India there was no question of challenging the finality of accession. In this situation Maqbool Butt crossed over the LoC again, knowing well that he carried a death sentence and if apprehended would be sent to gallows. But, his commitment to his ideology, one may differ with it, made him to take the big risk and he came to Kashmir to revive his old contacts.
Maqbool Butt visited different places and met with different people. They included late Ghulam Nabi Hagroo, who had headed Plebiscite Front for some time when Mirza Afzal Baigh was in prison, Prof. Mohammad Amin Andrabi, Dr. Shoukat Khan and one Porf. Shamim, from Baramulla. According to an unconfirmed report, Butt also called on Shiekh Abdullah who advised him not to pursue with his mission and instead go back and spend his days in Pakistan as the “situation was completely changed following the creation of Bangladesh”. Was it on the advice of Shiekh that Maqbool decided to return?
Although the Kashmir struggle led earlier by Shiekh Abdullah was almost forgotten, there were some feeble voices reminding the people about it. One of such voice was a small pamphlet that used to be circulated at regular intervals by Amanullah Khan of JKLF. It would have small pieces on Kashmir struggle, the follies of great Kashmir heroes and urging people to struggle for their rights. We used to get a copy of this pamphlet at AINA almost regularly and I still remember the regular column written by Amanullah titled ‘Aur main dekhta chalagaya” (And I went on to see), which used to be very interesting and worth reading. Amanullah’s writings would be very powerful, interesting and informative. For a long time I was under the impression that this man was very much in Srinagar and would wonder how is he being tolerated? He would write about efficacy of an Independent Kashmir, he would talk about Shiekh Abdullah’s great role in freedom struggle and his subsequent ‘sell out’, he would write a lot about Maqbool Butt, portraying his as a hero and also write about the basic philosophy of independent Kashmir. I once asked my great teacher and patron, late Shamim Ahmad Shamim about it and he replied smilingly; “you fool, the man is sitting in London. His writings are all based on imagination. But definitely he writes well and listen, it is good that you read this pamphlet, if there is something very interesting, you should use this in AINA, but not without showing me first”.
I also remember that when Maqbool Butt was re-arrested in Langate, Shamim sahib wrote an editorial in the AINA and I still remember the title “Khwaboon ka Sodagar” (Dream merchant) in which though complimenting him for his stand, Shamim sahib called Butt’s slogan of Independent Kashmir as a dream which was hard to be realised.
It was late that evening that I was able to complete the ‘big’ story. I told my calligrapher that a ‘big’ story was coming that would go as main lead and he will have to wait for some time. My friend Capt. Tickoo, who used to give me company in the office, was thrilled that AINA would be the only paper tomorrow carrying this big story. We discussed the possible reaction it would evoke and our regular Coffee House tablemates will take it. After an hour or so, handed over the text to my calligrapher, but not before making him to swear that he will keep it secret till next morning and not share it with anyone.
As I kept waiting for the proof reading, two of us started discussing Maqbool Butt, who this man was, why was he sentenced to death, was he a criminal or a political activist, who like many others believed in armed struggle. It was during our conversation that an idea struck to me. Can’t Maqbool Butt be saved from being sent to gallows? I shared this thought with Captain and he nodded in agreement. No doubt it is a revenge killing, but how can we do it… one has to go to Supreme Court, collect all details about the case….. we don’t know anything about the man but for what has appeared in some papers and magazines and that too is very sketchy. We need someone who knows Butt very well, could organise things on war footing as only three days are left…. and the man should be having guts to do it…… where to find such a person. Suddenly, I almost shouted “mil gaya”, (I have got it). Who is that, asked Captain. Mian Sawrar, I replied adding that he will definitely do it.
After reading the final proof of the paper, I rang up Mian Sarwar. It was around 10 in the night and I told him that wanted to see him and see immediately. “Sab khariyat hai, itni raat gaye” (Is everything alright, it is late evening now), Mian Sarwar asked. However, I told him that I am just coming and he better wait for me. I asked Captain to stay in office and almost ran to Mian Sarwar’s office cum residence at Budshah bridge. The noble soul, I found, was standing at the main door, dressed in night suit and must have come out of the bed.
I had first seen Mian Sarwar in 1977. Moulvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari, then a Congress legislator, rebelled and announced to fight Lok Sabha election against Begum Akber Jehan of National Conference. The Moulvi launched his poll campaign with a public meeting at Gandhi Park, now the High Court complex. I went there along few of my senior colleagues to report the event. Besides Moulvi and some of is senior colleagues, I saw a young, tall, healthy person sitting on the dais. I asked late J N Sathu, my senior colleague who this man was and he replied: You don’t know him? He is Mian Sarwar. He was with Alfateh, was in jail for long time.
I first came in contact with Mian Sarwar when he launched first ever Photocopier machine, I think in entire Jammu Kashmir. The huge machine, that it used to be the, was installed in his drawing room and needed a heavy duty air conditioner for maintaining temperature. A huge signboard “Mian’s Photostat Centre” was put on the outer wall of his house, facing Budshah bridge. We wanted copies of some documents that late Shamim needed for a court case. He asked me from where could it be got and I told him about Mian’s Photostat Centre. Oh that Alfateh walla Mian, OK, go and these documents copied immediately and tell him about me, he will definitely give some concession, Shamim sahib told me. I went there, handed over the documents to him and told him that I have been sent by Shamim sahib. Oh, you are Zafar Meraj, Shamim’s nephew, who now runs AINA. I read AINA regularly. Nice paper, but I miss Shamim’s writings. ‘Ab utna maza nahin aata hai, zalim kya likhta hai, jab say siyasat main chalagaya, AINA ko bhula hi dala, us kambakht ko bhi Sshiekh Abdullah nay kharab kardiya’ Mian told me while asking his technician to get the documents copied. He asked me to make myself comfortable as photocopying that time would take some time and ordered for tea. It was over that cup of tea that I came to know real Mian Sarwar. As if I was his old friend, he talked about his life, his Alfateh days, his struggle, his association with Maqbool Butt and what not. I found Mian Sarwar an interesting, honest person and used to be in regular contact with him, mostly in his office chambers, discussing mostly the political issues.
“Kya baat hai, sab khairiyat hay na… aapki to saans phooli hay”, Mian asked me. I told him it was something very important and he alone can do something. We entered his office cum drawing room, he bolted the door from inside and I started narrating the whole story to him.
“Yeh din bhi dekhna tha”(Had I to see this day also), Mian uttered after taking a deep breath and asked, what next? I told him if he could take the task of making a last effort to save Maqbool Butt. He thought for a while and then said “unfortunately Maqbool sahib has been maligned by the government’s propaganda machinery to an extent that very few people know the real Maqbool, Azadi ka matwala. We have to think about some good lawyer, other things I can manage. But who will be ready to defend him before Supreme Court? And it will cost a lot of money which we do not have, you know my financial strength and I am aware of you. What to do….. and with this Mian Sarwar went into deep thought. I also started recollecting my memory and suddenly Muzafar Baigh’s name came to my mind. Baigh was known to be a very capable lawyer, though expensive. He was then closely associated with Peoples Conference led by late Abdul Ghani Lone and also happened to be party general secretary. I almost shouted: Muzafar Baigh, we will engage him. But will he agree and what about his fee, Mian Sarwar asked. Why don’t we take a chance, let us talk to Baigh, I suggested to which Mian Sarwar agreed? Communication those days was not that easy a task and then we had to maintain complete secrecy as any leak would lead us in prison. Mian called one of his friends to enquire about Baigh who informed him that he was Delhi in connection of some court case. It was with great difficulty that we got Baigh’s Delhi contact number and asked me to talk to Baigh because I was supposed to know him rather well because of Lone connection. I called up Baigh and narrated the entire story. Will you take this case, but time is short and we have no money to offer. It is just on humanitarian grounds we are working on, I told him. And to my utter surprise and Mian Sarwar’s too, Baigh accepted our request and told me that he would be with us tomorrow afternoon. After all, he said, Delhi walla case itna important nahin hai. Meanwhile, he asked me to get Mian Sarwar on line wherein he told him to get the necessary documents ready and also get Maqbool Butt’s elder brother, Ghulam Nabi Butt, who was living in remote Trehgam village, Butt’s native place. This because the petition had to be filed in the name of immediate blood relation of Maqbool as we all had no locus. Without Ghulam Nabi we can’t do anything, Baigh said and dropped the phone after saying “Inshaullah kal milaingay”
It was around 12 in the night, we had several cups of hot coffee which Sarwar himself prepared, trying to find ways and means to complete the task that we had undertaken voluntarily. Sarwar assured me that he would by tomorrow afternoon collect all the relevant papers that Muzafar Baigh wanted. Some were lying with him and few others he will have to collect from other sources including Ghulam Nabi, who he thought must be still having some papers about the earlier case against Butt. I returned to my office that also happened to be my residence and there I found m mother, my wife and my sister anxiously waiting for me. They wanted to know where the hell I had gone but Captain very skilfully had made them to believe that I was in a meeting with some NC dissidents who had promised support to G M Shah for toppling Farooq Abdullah government.
Next day, around 7 in the evening, I got a call from Mian Sarwar. He had managed not only the required documents and papers for filing the petition before Supreme Court but also brought Ghulam Nabi from Trehgam, who had told villagers that he was feeling very sick and wanted to go to Srinagar for medical check up immediately. Sarwar had put Ghulam Nabi in one of his rooms with the door closed from outside so that nobody could find a trace of him. Baigh had sent a message that he would be visiting Sarwar’s office after dark as otherwise security people would get alerted and foil the attempt to save Butt even before it was made formally.
Baigh arrived around 9 PM and as a professional lawyer would do, he without wasting time asked for papers he had sought and also for Ghulam Nabi. After going through the papers, he asked Ghulam Nabi: Do you have any idea of state High Court confirming Butt sahib’s death sentence after it was awarded by the Session Judge Neel Kanth Ganjoo. Ghulam Nabi thought for a moment and then replied in negative. But yes, he added, when Maqbool sahib escaped from Jail, after sometime, I don’t exactly remember when, government moved high court once and case came up before Justice Murtaza Fazal Ali who was then a high court judge. As there was none to defend Bhat sahib, government hired a lawyer, I think his name was Ghulam Mohammad Mian, as adefence counsel. But what the court decided I really don’t know. We (Butt’s family) were never informed.
OK, let me take the papers along. I will draft the petition at my residence and try to find out details from the High Court tomorrow about what Fazal Ali had done with the confirmation.
Baigh returned to Sarwar’s office next early noon. He seemed jubilant and without waiting for our query he said: We have won half the game. High Court has not confirmed the death sentence passed by the Sessions that is mandatory and without which no one can be hanged. I have managed to obtain a certified copy, attested by Malik Sharifudin, who then happened to be the Registrar of the High Court, saying that Maqbool Butt’s death sentence has not been confirmed till date. How will they (government) execute the Black Warrant, under what law, he said waiving the certificate of Registrar. Baigh was confident that Supreme Court will stay the execution of the death warrant once the certificate was produced before it. No arguments are required it is just production of this certificate that will stay the death sentence. In a hurry, Home ministry seems to have forgotten this most important and vital aspect of the case, he continued to tell us in a very confident voice.
However, here was another problem. Maqbool Butt was labelled as a dreaded terrorist, who had gunned two innocent persons, a CID official and a bank manager. For ordinary Indians he was a killer, a murderer, a criminal and then killing of Indian diplomat in UK was also being attributed to him, though indirectly. Tempers in India were very high after Mhatre episode, there was an outcry and Indira Gandhi wanted something to assuage the feelings of the ordinary India. What best could be but hanging of a person because of whom Mhatre got killed. How will Supreme Court treat Butt’s fresh petition, seeking stay on his execution, in such a surcharged atmosphere. Muzafar Baigh was not an unknown figure. He was known for his close association with Ghan Lone’s Peoples Conference, which was then labelled as “anti India’ for advocating restoration of greater autonomy to Kashmir. Baigh had fought two elections on as PC candidate, one for Lok Sabha and other for state assembly. Would it be prudent for us to put Baigh in forefront? Can’t we have someone else, a “true Indian but a true professional” to appear before the court and plead the case? All these questions came to our minds and at one time we thought we have no way out and all our efforts are bound to fail. Then suddenly, Baigh stood from his chair: I have a solution to this problem in my mind, let me go to Delhi tomorrow morning, in the first available flight. I have a good friend, Kapil SIbal, a distinguished Supreme Court lawyer, a true professional we were trying to look for and I am confident he won’t let us down. With this he beg our leave saying that he will book his ticket but cautioning us against leaking it to anyone what we have been planning. Sarwar in the meantime arranged money for booking Ghulam Nabi’s ticket who wanted to be in Delhi and in case Butt was hanged he would like to take his body for last rites to Trehgam.
Although Muzafar Baigh managed to fly without anyone suspecting what he was upto, Ghulam Nabi was stopped by the security people at the airport and disallowed to board the flight, even after he had checked in.
Next day the formal application for staying Butt’s execution was moved before a special bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Chandrachud, who if I correctly remember, was hen the Chief Justice of India. Kapil Sibal appeared on behalf of the petitioner and pleaded that the execution of Butt was in gross violation of all prescribed laws and norms as the basic requirement of confirmation of his death sentence, awarded by Sessions court, had not been fulfilled. He produced before the court the certificate of the Registrar of the state High Court, which normally should have been sufficient for the court to pass an appropriate order and stay the execution. But that was not to be. The Attorney General of India, who represented union of India, took out a piece of paper, claiming that to be the confirmation of death sentence by the state High Court. He tried to demolish the arguments advanced by Kapil Sibal on the basis of that piece of paper and which the Hon’ble court took cognizance of and dismissed the petition without any further argument.
And Muzafar Baigh still remembers: The document produced by the Attorney General was just a piece of paper. Though neatly typed, it bore no signature, no seal, nothing. I was amazed how could this paper, unsigned, unauthenticated, override the otherwise properly certified document issued by none else than the Registrar of the High Court, who is supposed to have complete knowledge of the court records. But the court was satisfied with this and accepted Attorbey General’s plea.
However, court was gracious enough to grant a meeting to Maqbool Butt’s lawyers before he was sent to gallows. Muzafar Baigh accompanied by Raja Tufail, a Delhi based Kashmiri lawyer, who assisted Baigh in drafting the petition and one R S Pathak, another Supreme Court lawyer and a sympathiser of Kashmir cause, immediately left for Tihar to have the las glimpse of Butt. However, the Jail superintendent made them to stay in his room for ours together. When the sun was about to set, after which no such meeting can take place, jail superintendent allowed Pathak only to see Butt, that too for ‘five minutes only’ and told Baigh and Tufal that he had orders from above not to allow their meeting.
Inside, there was anything for Pathak to tell Maqbool Butt. The game was over and Butt was to be hanged early next morning. And when the three came out of prison complex, Pathak narrated the story: Maqbool Butt knew that the last attempt to save him had failed and there was no other chance left now. However, he was very cool, very calm. He thanked me and asked to convey his gratitude to Muzafar Baigh and Raja Tufail for having made an attempt against heavy odds and in a very difficult situation. I will be hanged tomorrow and I have no remorse. I am confident that tomorrow my children (people of Kashmir) will realise the truth and legitimacy of what I stood for all these years and for what I am today sacrificing my life.
Next morning, on February, 11, giving a slip to a posse of plain clothed intelligence people, posted around the place he was staying, Muzafar Baigh managed to jump into the vehicle of BBC’s Satish Jacob, who was to report the hanging story for his organistion. Within minutes of their reaching there, an official came out from inside saying it was all over and Butt has been hanged. Baigh jumped out of the vehicle, he was so far hiding in, and approached the official with the authority of Butt’s family (wakalatnama) and claimed his body for performing last rites at his native place. Sorry, can’t help you. It can not be done. The body has already been buried. There were orders from above to this effect. Anything else, you want, the official tried to be very polite. Yes, Baigh said and asked for Butt’s belongings and writings, because Butt was known to be writing a diary sort of think while in solitary confinement. However, the jail official again expressed his inability. There are no such papers you are talking about. He was in jail uniform and where his earlier clothes are, I really do not know. And with this the official took a u turn and went inside and the prison gate was locked, forever, at least as far Maqbool Butt’s mortal remains or his personal belongings are concerned.
Next morning, most of ‘national’ newspapers carried a small new item about Butt’s hanging. However, there was one newspaper that extensively covered the event and that was The Telegraph, published from Kolkata by M J Akbar. Tavleen Singh headed he Delhi bureau of The Telegraph and Louis Fernandes, wife of senior Congress leader and presently a union minister, Salman Khurshid, was associated with it. Tavleen called Muzafar Baigh saying she was sending Louis to him for a detailed account of Maqbool Butt’s case. Baigh gave a long interview and The Telegraph carried it prominently.