Landlords of Lalpora

The rise and fall of Bhat family in Lolab valley coincided with major events in Kashmir history. From once powerful landlords to mere numberdaars, the family has seen their fortunes flip. Bilal Handoo narrates how Bhats became irrelevant as power changed hands in Kashmir.    

Ghulam Rasool Bhat

Ghulam Rasool Bhat, 76, from Lalpora on the fringe of Lolab Valley in district Kupwara is walking calmly. It is his daily routine to take the stock of things in Lalpora, where he is an appointed Numberdaar (inspection officer). As he passes by, people warmly greet him. Bhat belongs to the erstwhile landlord family (Zaildhaars) of Lalpora, whose fortunes flipped with the introduction of land reforms in the state.

Some generations back, his ancestors came to Chedgam in Lolab Valley from Jammu. Later they moved to Lalpora when their children disappeared in dense forests of Lolab.

When the children didn’t show up for days together, the aggrieved parents went to seek the help of some mystic who instructed them to live in Lalpora. The village wasn’t inhabited when the ancestor of Bhat family, Usman Bhat firmed family roots there.

Usman Bhat’s son was Amad Bhat, who in turn had two sons, Ali Bhat and Aqel Bhat.

Ali Bhat had seven sons and two daughters. It was during his time, drought hit Lalpora. One by one, six sons of Ali Bhat were devoured by the natural calamity. The only son of Ali Bhat who survived the drought was Qadir Bhat.

“My grandfather Jabbar Bhat was also consumed by drought, but not before my father was born,” says Ghulam Rasool Bhat. His father was Abdul Rehman Bhat.

Landscape view of Lalpora in Lolab valley.

During Ali Bhat’s time in Lalpora a Hindu god-man Shah Ratangeer, also followed by Maharaja Hari Singh, was living there. He was considered as a very cruel man. One day, a swan of Bhat family touched his clothes, which left him irate on spot. What followed was unthinkable.

He caught hold of swan and went to the Dogra police station for filing compliant against Bhat family, who were Zaildhaars of Lalpora under Dogra rule. “He told police that we have raised too many swans which are bothering him a lot,” he recalls as his parents have told him. “He lodged an FIR against us.”

Bhat remembers Ratangeer as a crook fellow who had occupied much of the land in Lalpora illegally, especially near springs. He would be seen meditating under a tree. Later as his grip on village land widened, he eventually grabbed the land of Bhat ancestry as well.

As Bhats objected his move, Ratangeer took the case of land grab to the court of Maharaja Hari Singh. And what followed, surprised all in the village.

During one summer, many years before 1947, Hari Singh himself visited Lalpora to settle the land dispute involving his revered saint. Singh sat at a place in the village where present day police station is located. The place was known as Padhao during those times, where people used to assemble to address the issues concerning to them as well as Lalpora.

Hari Singh’s presence gathered all villagers near Padhao. After some time, people were seen running towards the man coming towards Padhao. Walking with a supportive stick, the man was dressed in a long pheran or winter cloak with turban on his head and phulhoer or wooden footwear in his feet. As Singh saw people running towards the man, he enquired about him. He was told that the man is Ali Bhat, Ghulam Rasool’s great grandfather whose land was matter of dispute with Singh’s saint.

The Dogra monarch was startled by the following of Bhat in his village. “He was impressed with my great-grand father’s popularity and dismissed the case,” says Bhat, a great grandson of Ali Bhat. “My father was born during the same time and it was Ratangeer who had himself predicted his defeat in land grab case before the arrival of Hari Singh in Lalpora.”

Soon after that, Ratangeer’s dog passed away in the village. All women of Lalpora were called at his residence to mourn for the departed soul of the dog. When puzzled women asked Ratangeer as what were they supposed to say over the demise of his dog, they were told to chant: Kisne maara oye Kuttiya, oye Kuttiya oye (Who killed you my bitch, Oh bitch, my bitch). Many generations have passed, but the phrase remains a big laughing stock even today for the villagers of Lalpora.

Earlier, Bhat’s ancestors were known as Sapheed Posh, then Rayees before they came to be known as Zaildhaars. Since they were pioneers in Lalpora, they became default landlords.

Throughout their stay in Lalpora, Bhat’s were known for their simplicity, justice and good-temperament. As per Bhat, his ancestors once awarded 45 kanals of land to the famous religious scholar of Kashmir, Moulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri (RA) for the sake of his prayers for them.

The room where Moulana Kashmiri sat in Bhat’s ancestral house is still in a good condition. They used to run a school from the same room during Hari Singh’s time. Besides Kashmiri, Moulana Jabbar, another revered scholar has taught students for 40 years in the same room.

Once drought prolonged in Lalpora. The grieving villagers beckoned Bhat’s granduncle, Qadir Bhat to arrange a special prayer. No sooner, Bhat says, the prayer ended, it started to rain. It was the time when mere nine mosques were in Lalpora where relatively less people would assemble to pray as compared to swarm of people praying in 33 mosques today.

It is said that once Qadir Bhat fell ill and his wife cooked a chicken for him. Once he came to know about it, he threw the pot containing the dish outside his window. He reprimanded his wife by telling her that there was no need to give special favours to him. Such was his sense of justice. He did not want to eat a chicken while other members of the family were fed on the regular modest diet.

As the sun was about to set over Dogra rule in Kashmir, Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah, once visited the Sogam in Lolab Valley. When Qadir Bhat came to know about Shiekh’s visit, he went to meet him. Bhat gave Shiekh 25 Rupees for the resistance movement against Dogra rule in the Valley, which happened to be a substantial sum of money by the prevailing standards.

Somebody in Lalpora spread the rumour that Zaildhaar Qadir Bhat tried to befriend Shiekh to grab a piece of land in Sogam which belonged to a villager in Lalpora.

Later, the fact-finding team appointed by Dogra monarchs to investigate the matter declared Bhat innocent, but one year had already passed in between.

The time was changing very fast. The political turmoil of 1947 had arrived and its ripples were even felt in Lalpora, 130-km away from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

Lone pandit lady Rita Nath in the lawn of her house in Lalpora.

In between, Afridis of Pakistan entered the valley in the form of rebels. Like in many parts of the valley, they also stepped into Lalpora.

Meanwhile, Qadir Bhat passed away and Abdul Rehman, father of Ghulam Rasool became Zaildhaar of Lalpora.

The day rebels entered Lalpora, a Dogra appointed teacher had came to conduct examination of students studying in Bhat’s ancestral house. His name was Isher Lal. Ghulam Rasool was studying in Class 5 then. “I still remember,” says Bhat, “he asked me to tell the difference between Jang-e-Uhad and Jung-e-Badr.”

As darkness gripped Lalpora later that day, rebels made their presence felt. They didn’t touch any pandits living in the village. But pandits, Bhat says, succumbed to threat perception.

“Many pandits living in our village asked my father that they want to recite the holy verses of Quran to save themselves from the wrath of rebels,” he says. “But my father reprimanded them and assured them every help and safety. Nobody was touched including the Pandit teacher. But later when Indian Army entered the village to combat rebels, they torched Telwanpora village near Lalpora.”

And then came a decisive moment in the lives of Bhat’s, which changed the outlook and course of their lives forever. Land reforms were announced and implemented by Shiekh Abdullah led government in the state.

But the landlords of Lalpora were content, as Shiekh Abdullah had himself promised them that they would remain Zaildhaar of the village if they earn a National Conference ticket.

With the hope to secure a NC ticket, Abdul Rehman Bhat went to Sopore, but was left disappointed. “NC leader Sofi Mohammad Akbar told my father that he would prefer to give ticket to a pig instead of us” he recalls. “Later when my brother went to Shiekh with the plea he expressed concern but the party ticket was handed over to Sogami.”

Bhats were seen as Dogra sympathisers by NC workers, which cost them party ticket. “In case the ticket had been given to us, then we would have been where Sogami and his grandson, Nasir Aslam Wani are today,” he says. “But let me tell you, we were deceived at the big moment in history.”

Subsequently, land reforms were implemented in the village that devoured 900 kanals of land occupied by erstwhile landlords of Lalpora. They were left with only 182 kanals.

But the worst was yet to come. After 1947, they were labelled as the ground workers of Muslim League. “We were termed as Pakistani by none other than the NC patron Sofi Mohammad Akbar,” Bhat says. “We closed the front gate of our house for nearly one year to avoid unwanted arrest by notorious police officer, Qadir Ganderbali. We went into a hiding during that period.”

The life remained testing Bhat family after the fall of Dogra rule in the state. They lost land, authority and status soon after that. And then in 1972, Abdul Rehman Bhat died. His son Ghulam Rasool was appointed Numberdaar in the village where once his ancestors were holding authority.

As 1989 approached, curfews remained in force for days together over the Srinagar city. Like many villagers of the valley, Lalpora also sent bulk stock of eatables to their city brethren. “Pandits of Lalpora also sent their stock to city,” says Bhat, “they [pandits] were also in favour of freedom movement in Kashmir.”

While pandits across the valley were packing their bags and migrating to Jammu, Bhat says, pandits of Lalpora stayed back until a Class 12 militant of the village was arrested in Kupwara. “Then one day they also packed their belongings and decide to migrate,” Bhat says. “Nobody forced pandits to flee from Lalpora. It was their decision.”

Only one pandit lady decided to stay put in Lalpora. Rita Nath pandit along with her son and two daughters lived happily all these years with Muslim villagers. Her daughters learned the holy Quran in local seminary and later, they were married off by villagers only. Ghulam Rasool played an instrumental role in their upbringing and marriage.

“In early nineties, Rita once told me that she wanted to convert to Islam. On another occasion, she told me that she wanted to marry their daughters to Muslims,” says Bhat. “On both occasions, I denied and told her don’t worry about anything.”

Both of her daughters were married off as per Pandit customs. Bhat says, militants were active in the village, but they themselves stood guard to make their marriages possible.

Bhat, a father of two sons and three daughters, figured in the hit list of militants as well after sharing stage with Omar Abdullah while he visited Lalpora as the youngest chief minister of the state. The next day, a militant dropped a letter in Bhat’s home informing him to be ready for death. A day after, he shot back a letter to militant that read: “My ancestors have always worked for the welfare of Lalpora. If I shared the stage with state actors, I did it for the sake of people. And in future, I will keep on doing that if that falls in the interest of villagers.”

Already five years have passed since he shot letter to militants, but he never received any reply till date. Perhaps, it was an acknowledgement of the services which Bhat ancestry has rendered to Lalpora.

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