In Maqbool Bhat’s Trehgam

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For the last 30 years, Kashmir has been freezing life to remember Maqbool Bhat, the man who was born out of his execution in Tihar Jail in 1984. This has given a new identity to Trehgam, his village. But Shams Irfan visited the fast-growing frontier township to discover that Bhat’s village has been rebellious for the last half a millennium, courtesy Chaks

Maqbool Bhat’s ancestral house in Trehgam

As one walks through the narrow lanes of Malik Mohallah in Trehgam town, some 8 kilometres from frontier Kupwara, there is nothing unusual except a small stream flowing by the edge of the road, filled with plastic wrappers, leftover food, and discarded footwear.

Even the hundred odd houses, that line this narrow street on both sides doesn’t offer any sense of symmetry or pattern.

But a keen look at the passerby, at the lady washing utensils by the stream, or at the elderly person who just opened a door and vanished into a single storey house, and you start to see the secret behind the normal.

“We are the descendants of Chaks who came from Gilgil-Baltistan,” said Mohammad Akbar Malik, 62, a retired headmaster. “This Mohalla is what remains of Chaks.”

Like every other native of this locality, Akbar Malik too stands out for his distinct features. His pointed nose, big hands, big feet, over a six-foot-tall frame and fair skin, sets him apart from rest of the inhabitants of Trehgam. “We are a different race. That is why we look different,” said Akbar Malik with a sense of superiority in his voice. “I have learned our ancestors had come from Gilgit-Baltistan.”

Almost every Malik – as the Chak’s of Trehgam are called now – remembers the story of Pandu Chak, a descendant of Lankar Chak, who had come to Trehgam from Gilgit-Baltistan, in bits and pieces. They would tell you, often with a sense of pride, how Pandu Chak defeated Zain-ul-Abiden, the Budshah, one of Kashmir’s long-serving popular Sultan’s. “We have heard his (Pandu Chak) name from our ancestors,” said Akbar Malik. “But nobody knows anything beyond that now.”

Chak Past

As Suhadeva Raja (1300-1 to 1319-20 AD) failed to garner any support in defending his kingdom when Dulchu invaded Kashmir through Jhelum Valley Road (1320), he fled to Kishtwar, leaving his people to the mercy of the invaders. “They set fire to the dwellings, massacred the men and made women and children slaves,” records Mohibbul Hassan.

Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, youngest of Bhat brothers at their ancestral Trehgam home. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The power vacuum left in the Kashmir was filled by four persons of diverse background who had migrated during Suhadeva’s reign. They were Lankar Chak, Shah Mir, Bulbul Shah and Rinchana.

After a long power tussle which saw Kota Rani, Kashmir’s last Hindu ruler breathing her last in captivity of Shah Mir, a new power structure emerged in the region.

In 1339, Shah Mir, the immigrant from Swat ascended to the throne as Sultan Shams-ud-Din. He founded the first Kashmiri sultanate that reigned for two centuries. He employed Lankar Chak as his army chief.

Once Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470), took over the reins of Kashmir from his father, the fate of Chaks’ changed forever.

In the early part of his rule, Budshah planned a visit to Kamraj – the northern parts of his kingdom. As a rule, days before the Sultan’s visit, unskilled labourers would be pressed into service to make arrangements for royal entourage. This kind of service was usually forced, without remuneration and harsh. As the news of Zain-ul-Abidin’s upcoming visit reached Pandu Chak, head of the Chak clan then, he immediately ordered all unskilled labourers to go into hiding. When Zain-ul-Abidin visited the region he was surprised to find no unskilled worker around. But, despite Pandu’s efforts, Zain-ul-Abidin managed to get hold of a few workers and forced them to work for him. This irked Pandu Chak. When Zain-ul-Abidin left, Pandu Chak, along with his men raided Sultan’s palace and other royal building and set them on fire.

Fearing retaliation from Sultan, Pandu Chak sent his family and the families of his followers to Drava – ancient name of Kishanganga valley. Once the families were safe, Pandu Chak and his men retired into the hills of Trehgam. When Zain-ul-Abidin came to know about the burning of his palace, he immediately sent a large contingent of forces to track down and kill Pandu Chak and his followers. But when Zain-ul-Abidin’s men found no trace of Pandu Chak in Trehgam, they burnt down every single Chak house in the village. With most of the Trehgam village burnt to ashes, Pandu Chak and his men, after staying in the nearby forests, joined their families at Drava valley.

But a few years later when Zain-ul-Abidin rebuilt his palace, Pandu Chak came back and set it on fire again. He then went back to the Drava valley.

Frustrated, Zain-ul-Abidin decided to capture Pandu Chak with the help of inhabitants of Drava valley. In order to do so, Zain-ul-Abidin gave Darva residents with gifts and land titles. Then with their help, Zain-ul-Abidin managed to capture Pandu Chak and his men. Zain-ul-Abidin ordered the execution of all men who are capable of bearing arms. Only women and children were spared; who was later sent to Trehgam and settled there.

Shortly after his execution, Pandu Chak’s wife gave birth to a son named Husain Chak. When he grew up, he fathered ten sons, whose progenies then spread in areas around Trehgam. This is how Trehgam once again got inhabited by Chaks.

Pandu lives

After a head surgery in 2013, most of what Mohammad Sikander Malik, 79, a retired headmaster, had done in his life, has erased from his memory. But ask him about Chaks of Trehgam, and his old face shines from behind his long flowing salt-and-pepper beard.

“I remember my father used to talk about Pandu Chak and Madan Chak,” said Sikander Malik. “They were two brothers, one Shia and the other one Sunni. We are the descendants of Madan Chak, the Sunni one.”

As a kid, Sikander Malik was always fascinated whenever he would pass by the Border Security Force’s (BSF) garrison, located at the entry point of Trehgam town, and look at an old guesthouse standing behind the high-wires.

Since 1948, the year Indian army came and set-up a make-shift garrison over 500 kanals of land, the guesthouse, which Sikander Malik believes belonged to Chak’s, became the permanent address of successive garrison commanders. “With time they annexed adjoining fields too. Now this camp is spread over 3000 kanals,” said Sikander Malik.

The power struggle of Chak’s continued for most of the 222 years of the Sultanate era till the tensions within marked fall and the rise of Chaks. The brief Chak era was one of the worst periods in Kashmir’s history. According to historian Mohibbul Hasan, despite being good fighters Chaks lacked administrative skills, that eventually made them fight within and led to their doom. They could rule for just 31 years. Once out of power Chaks became the new outlaws.

Akbar’s takeover on June 5, 1586, started a 166-year long Mughal era. But Chak’s continued resisting foreign rule, as managing them was a challenge for every ruler.

After spending a month in Kashmir when Akber left in June 1589, Chaks started rebelling. The rebellion was managed by Qalich Khan, the first Mughal governor. Khan in his six years started “extirpating the Chaks and suppressing the malcontents”.

His successor Saadat Khan, confiscated properties of Chaks and forced them to do menial jobs. Still, Mughals cannot manage the rebellious Chaks. Finally, Chaks were driven out and their assets were seized. They went to jungles and became Galwans, the horse-thieves who would create insecurities to the regimes and their subjects. People in Afghan era would pay rulers per head for the safety of their herds.

A temple and a mosque on banks of an old pond is the signature picture spot of Trehgam village. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Once the fate of Chaks’ was sealed with the exile and the subsequent death of Yousuf Shah Chak (1579-1586) to Bihar by Emperor Akbar, Trehgam found new masters.

Before the occupation of last standing piece of Chak architecture by the Indian army, the said guesthouse was used by Dogra royalty during their annual visits to Sharda Mata temple in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.

“As a kid I recall Maharani visiting the guesthouse with her entourage,” recallsSikander Malik.

When locals decided to construct a Markazi Jamia Masjid in Trehgam, a vacant piece of land adjacent to ancient Shri Chatur Gupta temple – located on the edge of a green water pond – was chosen. It is said that the head priest of this temple was the personal priest of Dogra royalty. According to a legend, the head priest had kept an “eternal flame” outside the temple, which locals helped keep alive by donating part of their day’s collection of firewood. This acts of generosity by the locals, irrespective of their religion, touched Dogra ruler’s heart and they exempted residents of Trehgam from forced labour or begaari.

For over a century the priests of this temple enjoyed both political and religious powers and a centrality in Kupwara region, helping Trehgam become the hub of religion and culture.

In the latter part of 20th century, when the construction of Jamia was started next to the temple, a few voices objected. The reason was an old foundation of Chak times which later got buried under the new construction. Ironically, the new Jamia was built on the foundation of that old structure.

“There were large stone planks in our childhood. It was some sort of foundation,” said Sikender Malik. “But now it is lost forever.”

Shaded by Chinars on one side and walnut on the other side, the new Jamia now accommodate hundreds of worshippers, who come to Trehgam from nearby villages.

“Since Trehgam was the central town in Kupwara district, this mosque has significance. In old times, there was no other Jamia in entire Kupwara except this,” said Sikander Malik.

Overlooking the both Jamia and the temple, up in the woods, the remains of a palace built by Pandu Chak are still visible. “The place is known as Qila-e-Shergadi,” said Sikendar Malik. “I have heard from my elders that it belonged to Chaks.”

It takes fifteen minutes drive from the Markazi Jamia and then an hour-long trek from thereon to reach the ruins of Qila-e-Shergadi.

It is believed that Qila-e-Shergadi was built when Pandu Chak and his men went into hiding in Trehgam woods after burning down Budshah’s palace in Saidipora. “But it was long ago. There is hardly any record left. All we know is that we belong to the same clan,” said Sikendar Malik.

From Chaks to Maliks

The first wave of migration of Chaks from Gilgit-Baltistan saw small groups of them settle in different parts of modern-day Kupwara districts. The biggest numbers settled in Kupwara and Trehgam towns. Among those who settled in Kupwara Malik Shams Chak, son of Helmat Chak. They were among the nobles of the Chak clan. However, with time their kinship with the Chaks of Trehgam had become distant. There were many instances of hostility between the Chaks of Kupwara and Trehgam. As progenies of Pandu Chaks were rebuilding their lives in Kawarel area, Malik Shams Chak rose through ranks and proved himself a powerful leader. His ascends was quick as he built his career through Mir Sayyid Muhammad to Malik Nowroz Itoo, and then wielded full authority under Malik Saif Dar.

Pandu Chak’s son Husain Chak gave his daughter in marriage to Malik Shams Chak, which helped Chaks of Trehgam get close to power corridors once again. This ended the long animosity between Chaks of Kupwara and Trehgam forever. Later, a few of Husain Chak’s progenies joined Shams Chak as his soldiers. “The modern-day Maliks of Trehgam are descendant from this same alliance,” said Ghulam Mohammad Malik, 65, a retired headmaster, who lives outside Malik Mohallah.

“I am not considered as the original descendant of Chaks. Maybe it’s because of my looks,” said Mohammad Malik, pointing at his round face, small hands, and a buttoned nose. “There are many Malik families in Trehgam but not all are Chak Maliks.”

Power & Centrality 

Little did Pandu Chak know that his daring act of defiance against might Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin will keep his progenies close to power for centuries to come. Two dark periods apart – first immediately after Pandu’s execution and second after Yousuf Shah Chak’s exile and death – Chaks enjoyed power and influence at least in Kupwara and Trehgam, irrespective of the rulers.  “Maliks used to rule this area till recently. They were the educated and influential class in Trehgam,” said Mohammad Shafi Mir, 49, a local poet who is better known under the nom de plume of Saliq Shafi.

During Dogra rule (1846 to 1947) Chaks were responsible for the collection of rice and other produce on Maharaja’s behalf. They would keep it in a granary before sending it to Maharaja’s godown in Srinagar. They were the main tax collectors. It was because of their closeness to Maharaja that they retained the influence long after Chak rulers were gone. “They always had this superiority complex of race, lineage, and influence,” said Saliq Shafi. “We non-Chaks could feel it in their every action.”

But Akbar Malik, whose maternal grandfather Haji Abdul Aziz Malik, a Chak descendant landlord who is still remembered for his generosity, feels all non-Chaks were inhabited in Trehgam as ruling Chaks needs labourers, masons, iron-smiths, cobblers etc. “We (Chaks) are the real natives of Trehgam, everyone else is brought here by our forefathers for service purpose,” said Akbar Malik.

Akbar recalls how Chaks enjoyed wealth and power till the early eighties before a tailor’s son from poor Bhat clan changed Trehgam’s identity forever. “Maqbool Bhat was a genius since childhood. His popularity and sacrifice shadowed Chaks or Maliks forever. Now, Trehgam is famous as Maqbool Bhat’s hometown.”

Rise of Maqbool

At the entrance of a small alley opposite tri-junction housing Mandir, Masjid and a revered pond, small hand painted sing declare: We are Burhan’s. The small alley snakes into an old residential neighbourhood where visitors are few but frequent. An old flag – mélange of white, green and red – waves casually above the front door of an old wood and brick house, tilted leftwards by the weight of its legacy. This house belongs to Maqbool Bhat, co-founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who was hanged and buried inside Delhi’s Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984.

Sitting inside the crumbling walls of the first-floor room, which are covered by life-size banners depicting Maqbool’s journey to the gallows, is his only surviving brother Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, 45.

Zahoor’s first memory of his famous brother dates back to 1983 when he was ten-years-old. “I went to meet him at Tihar jail with my mother and our elder brother Ghulam Nabi Bhat,” recalls Zahoor.

Even after 35-five-year Zahoor recalls details of his meeting with his eldest brother vividly. “We were separated by a small window through which we talked to Maqbool,” said Zahoor. “I started crying as I wanted to get inside the room where Maqbool was held.”

The jailer, who was supervising the meeting, asked Maqbool, “why this kid is crying”.

“He wants to come inside the room and sit with me,” Maqbool told the jailer.

The jailer laughed and said, “There is no need to cry. He can go inside Bhat Sahab.”

Once inside with his eldest brother, Zahoor quickly jumped into Maqbool lap. “I realized he was wearing heavy iron rings around his neck, arms, and feet. These rings were connected with each other by heavy chains,” recalls Zahoor.

Confused, Zahoor asked Maqbool innocently ‘what are these rings and the chains.’

“Yeh mard ke zaiwar hai (these are ornaments of a man),” Maqbool told Zahoor proudly. “When can I wear these?” Zahoor asked innocently. After a brief thought, Maqbool told him, “Your time will come too.”

Years later when Zahoor was first arrested and taken to jail in handcuffs, he smiled and recalled his brother’s words.

“That was our last meeting with him,” recalls Zahoor.

A new legacy

Hailing from a poor family Maqbool Bhat was conscious about the superiority of Chaks or Maliks in Trehgam since childhood.

A hand-cuffed Maqbool Bhat after he was arrested the second time.

A student of government school, in the sixth standard, Maqbool Bhat, secured the first position in his class. The same year, local army unit decided to distribute prizes among those students who have secured positions. But on the day of prize distribution army segregated children into two groups: one of the students of poor families and second of those who belonged to rich and influential families like Maliks. “This irked Maqbool and he refused to take the award,” said Zahoor.

One of the Maqbool’s childhood friend and classmate was Sikander Malik, a descendant of Chak clan, whose forefather’s were entrusted with the collection of grains by Dogra rulers. “Largely Chaks remained immune to change of rulers in Kashmir because of their influence and power,” said Sikander Malik. “But now our collective identity revolves around the legacy of Maqbool Bhat.”

Saliq Shafi, the local poet, who is currently writing a book on Trehgam town and its legacy as a cultural and trade centre of north Kashmir, recalls how Maqbool Bhat and his two friends, Dr Afzal Mir and Ghulam Mohammed Dar, had created a separate language when they were teenagers.

“They used to communicate with each other through this language,” claims Saliq Shafi.  “They had named this language Idayaat.”

Last Days of Maqbool Butt

Among the three friends, Ghulam Mohammed Dar is still remembered for his genius as he is credited for lighting seven electricity bulbs using a dynamo and a watermill. Dar also made a Gramophone using material he could scavenge locally. It earned him the title of Thomas Ghulam Mohammed Dar of Kashmir. But after a failed surgery Dar lost his eyesight and spent rest of his life in darkness.

It was his classmate Abdul Gani Lone, who went on to form People’s Conference in 1978, used to help Dar financially till he was alive. “Lone Sahab was close to Maqbool Bhat, Dar, and Dr Afzal Mir,” said Saliq Shafi.

Mohammad Akbar Malik

Chaks fade, Maqbool rises

Till 1947, Trehgam was the transit town with buzzing bazaars and well-stocked shops. A walk around the modern day Trehgam market and one feels transported to the same era.

As Chaks faded from the scene Trehgam found a new hero in Maqbool Bhat. “His hanging inside Tihar prison and burial there gave this town a new identity,” said Saliq Shafi.

But despite the news identity Maliks of Trehgam still, boost of their ancestry and talk about exploits of Pandu Chak and Malik Shams Chak, with a sense of pride.

“We are different,” sums up Akbar Malik, as he waves his big hands authoritatively.

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