In one of the narrow lanes of Batamaloo in Srinagar, a concrete building adjacent to medieval households, is hosting a barrage of people at the moment. On the top floor of the building, a recently bailed out man is addressing visitors in a jam-packed room. Sporting short beard, clad in khan dress and wearing spectacles in front of his sunken eyes, the skinny man is seated in a corner of the room. He is Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat aka Mushtaq Ul Islam, chairman Jammu and Kashmir Muslim League. People are pouring into his office to congratulate him on his release.
Otherwise known as jailbird, Mushtaq has seen most days of his life in jail than as a free man. In last three years, he has been slapped with Public Safety Act (PSA) 11 times and has been bailed out more than 17 times.
But his incarceration isn’t a recent affair, it goes back to the period when Kashmir hosted first international event on its soil. It was 1983 when India was playing a cricket match against West Indies in Srinagar. Mushtaq dug out the pitch with an aim to showcase the Kashmir dispute at international level. And soon, his arrest spree began.
In the room, all eyes have been set at the corner occupied by Mushtaq, who is speaking without a pause, but with a passion. He is exhorting men inside the room to rejuvenate the struggle for Kashmir movement. “We need to identify the rot elements in our resistance movement,” he tells his captive audience. “Besides, we need to identify our strengths and weaknesses.”
As the time dawns for noon prayers, the room starts thinning in crowd. It is the fourth day of Eid-ul-Azha and Mushtaq is preparing his men to visit Central Jail in Srinagar with Wazwan (Kashmiri feast) for inmates there. “Eid is the day of celebration for all of us,” he says. “We should also remember those who are languishing in jails for keeping the flame of Kashmir cause ignited.”
With only handful of people left in the room, Mushtaq’s aged mother [veiled] enters. As he talks, she regularly peeps outside the window, sighs and walks back inside the room muttering to herself. After a while, she comes back and informs her son that some patient admitted in SKIMS needs blood. Without giving any second thought, Mushtaq volunteers for blood donation and asks his men to keep the vehicle ready. But before his departure for the hospital, Mushtaq Ul Islam in a long conversation with Bilal Handoo reveals his love, struggle and dedication for the resistance movement in Kashmir.
It is been three decades now since Mushtaq Ul Islam shot to prominence after digging out pitch in Srinagar. And since then he is a jailbird.
[Smiles] Well, when I was growing up, resistance movement was foraying in the valley and after 1975 Indira-Abdullah accord, it gathered more momentum. Later, I also became part of movement in early eighties. People were not happy what Sheikh Abdullah did. So, we started awareness about resistance movement in schools, colleges and university. During the same time in Oct 1983, when India and West Indies were playing a match in Srinagar, I along with my three friends dug out pitch to turn the global attention towards Kashmir dispute. We were arrested and later released. And after that we resumed our struggle for resistance movement. Be it Islamic Students League, Peoples League or any resistance front, I remain propagating resistance movement. But after 1983, I was often put under detention and slapped with PSA, but I never call it quits.
So are you trying to say it was accord of 1975, which galvanized youth of that time, including you, to jump into resistance movement?
Well yes, 1975 accord did play its role in popularizing resistance movement in the valley. But in my case, it is my birthplace [Batamaloo] which shaped my views for the struggle of Kashmir. The place was torched in 1965 by Indian army to terminate militants, who were putting up there. This fuelled and bred a sense of resistance and freedom among people in Batamaloo. Besides, teachings of my mentor Abdul Rashid Tahiri Sahab helped me to realize the situation in Kashmir. To tell you frankly, I and my friends used to hate Indian presence in Kashmir right from our childhood. Later, the spurt of that hate took form of mass movement in early nineties.
So, shall one assume that hate against Indian presence in Kashmir triggered mass movement in nineties?
Absolutely yes. You see, events that unfolded in valley from 1947 to 1989 prepared the ground for larger dissidence in early nineties. Mass resistance movement didn’t start overnight. In early eighties and before that, there were small resistance fronts like Al Jehad, Al Maqbool or the Holy War Fighters and other groups were very much active in the valley. Peoples League also made its presence felt in Kashmir in 1984. Likewise, in my childhood there was a resistance group called Al Fateh operating on the ground and resistance was alive before that as well.
Resistance was never dead in Kashmir. I remember how in early eighties, then DIG Kashmir, Ali Mohammad Watali was attacked in Batamaloo. It tells us that resistance wasn’t a momentarily spurt, rather than a process of continuation.
Are you trying to say that [reportedly] rigged elections of 1987 had nothing to do to set stage for larger dissidence two years later?
Yes, it is true. I have said it many times. Resistance movement was never stagnant in the valley since 1947. It is wrong to say that eighty seven started it all. Those who participated in 87 elections were those who earlier boycotted the election. Now they impress upon a point that 1987 election was a watershed event in the history of armed struggle in Kashmir. Let me tell you, people like Syed Salahudin Sahab and others, who were aiming for slots in State Legislative Assembly didn’t start the armed movement. The movement was started by those, who were driven by the sense of extreme love for freedom. They were left with no other option. They choose to fight for the cause with bullets than with ballots.
And then, in nineties many armed groups forayed in the valley. You were seen heading Hizbullah, besides a prominent pro-freedom HAJY group and others were leading from the front. People say that armed groups ended up training guns at each other rather than fighting for the cause they were supposed to do. Did the apparent division in armed groups derail the mass movement?
Well, it was unfortunate. Yes, there was an intrusion of divisive forces which gulfed this split in resistance camp. But even then, I as a supreme commander of Hizbullah tried to maintain cordial relations with every other armed group. Some miscreants started the rift which later snowballed into a major crisis within resistance camp. It proved weak spot in our struggle and the situation was aptly exploited by Indian forces. Later these miscreants sprouted and then mushroomed in the form of Ikhwanis [renegades]. Whatever happened was condemnable. It was a collective mistake and each one of us must share the blame for it.
Your stint as a resistance leader was cut short when you were arrested in early nineties. Apart from divided house, what were the other reasons that stopped mass movement to reach at its logical conclusion?
Look, I may be able to tell you about the events that happened before June 18, 1991, when I was arrested in a crackdown. I won’t deny that certain elements in the garb of resistance fighters ended up being collaborators for the Indian Army. But I guess till my arrest, as I remember, the movement was indigenous and goal-oriented.
But in 1994, certain armed people decided to shun gun and fight the Kashmir cause through non-violent means. It was clear from their stand that they had hatched a conspiracy by surrendering on the dictations from Indian intelligence agencies. The irony is such elements now articulate how much sacrifice they rendered for the movement…
But even you adhered to the same non-violent means after your release from jail.
Yes, I did. After spending 14 years in jail, when I was released in 2005, I was suffering from number of health issues, which didn’t permit me to restart armed struggle. My right eye has lost ninety percent of its sight. Interrogations in different jails across India had rendered my health weak. All these issues forced me to switch over to non-violent means.
People say special unit of Indian Army stationed in BB Cant Srinagar was called to catch hold of Mushtaq Ul Islam in early nineties from Batamaloo locality, where Indian troops wouldn’t set foot when you were around.
Yes, you are right. The area was totally under our control. There were scores of pickets in place where militants used to stand alert with their guns. Indian army would only step inside once we wouldn’t be around. In June 1991, I had removed all pickets from the area keeping grievances of locals in mind, who had to face harassment at the hands of Indian troops. Somehow Brigadier Katoch of Badami Bagh Cantonment had sniffed an opportunity and laid the operation during the day time in the area. The operation lasted for three days. In spite of possessing very less arms, we fought back. One of my boys, Saleem Altaf of Eidgah was martyred in my house. But we kept fighting. Then Army made an announcement from public address system of local mosque that they would kill all young men in the area if I don’t surrender. Even then, I didn’t give in. With no arms left, I was caught on third day. Katoch slammed his pistol on my forehead and I started bleeding from both my eyes. Later, when I was taken to New Delhi’s AIIMS, doctors told me that my right eye has lost sight permanently.
And what followed in prison?
After spending one year in torture centers, I was shifted to Jammu and then to Jodhpur jail. I was blindfolded, stripped and then beaten up to pulp in Jodhpur jail. Other Kashmir inmates in jail weren’t spared either. Even, our private parts were worse hit. The cycle of harsh treatment continued in Tihar jail as well. And then in Agra jail, things were even harsher as we were put in small cells there. But Jodhpur jail was the harshest which I came across.
When you stepped out of prison in 2005, we heard you saying that “all separatist offices should be shifted from Rajbagh to Batamaloo.” Some people thought you were trying to dictate terms?
No, that wasn’t my motive at all. You see, the present location of these offices make one feel, as if, they are embassies of some liberated nation. Since Rajbagh is considered plush area which is not accessible to many people, therefore I named Batamaloo as it is spacious, interactive and is accessible to people owing to its location and its connection with major parts of the valley. But then, I can’t stop people to have their own interpretation and perception about certain statements.
In 2012, police prevented you from addressing press and arrested you from a local hotel in Srinagar by covering your mouth. So, what was it that you wanted to say then?
I don’t think, it is right time to talk about it. Whenever an occasion calls for it, everybody will know.
Alright, recently we heard you vowing to unite the real resistance leaders after undertaking segregation cum purification drive in the separatist camp.
Look, there are people who pose themselves as resistance leaders, but in reality, they are proponents of Indian designs in Kashmir. Since some of them have exposed themselves in public, let us hope some more real faces will get exposed in due course of time. I will work for the purification of the resistance movement.
And if we can talk about the health condition of Kashmiri prisoners languished in different jails in and outside the state. Is it really that serious, as you express after your release?
Yes it is. No proper food is being served to them. And then, there is no facility available for them in prison. All these things are affecting their health. But still, as compared to Jammu jails, those in Kashmir are far better.
Some say Masarat Alam’s growing popularity came in between your relation with him?
No, it is nothing like that. He is my pupil. We were together part of Hizbullah, Muslim Students Federation and Muslim League. There is no love lost between us. There was a minor issue, which is otherwise a normal. We still have strong family and social relations.
Some even named you Osama of Kashmir…
Well, I don’t think there is any comparison between Osama and me. He was indigenous in his own ways and I am in my own ways.
On parting note, what would be your future course of action?
Like I said earlier, I would work for the purification of resistance movement and will take it to next generation. Besides, I would try to expose bogus elements in resistance camp. Inshallah, the attempt would be to rejuvenate the resistance movement.
Thank you for your time.