From Gilgit to Kupwara, Srinagar to Jammu and eventually from Muzaffarabad to London, Amanullah Khan Astori lived an eventful life to preach third-option for Kashmir. Pretty controversial for most of his life, Khan once crossed LoC and later visited Kashmir on Delhi’s invitation to help solve the issue. A week after his death, Bilal Handoo pieces together scratches of details to recreate Khan that Kashmir rarely knew
When a boy from ‘godforsaken’ Gilgit began dating Srinagar with his signature anti-India protest, Sheikh Abdullah’s emergency government responded with series of FIRs. Then, they waited for the right moment to send him home. In the fall of 1951, when the boy led his last protest in Srinagar near Subhana Tailors against assassination of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, in Rawalpindi, the government issued the boy, Amanullah Khan, his deportation order.
Years before his banishment, the 1934-born Khan from Astor’s Pari Shang hamlet took the historic treacherous Begaar route to Kashmir along with his brother-in-law Hashim Ali Khan, a Kupwara school teacher. He schooled at Haihama and appeared in matriculation from Handwara. Veteran leader Molvi Muhammad Syed Masood helped him join Srinagar’s SP College.
Masoodi even arranged his stay at Mujahid Manzil—then, “the signpost of resistance”—for nearly six months. “I got into political activism right in school,” Khan said in an interview. “I was a staunch supporter of Pakistan and was chosen general secretary of the Students Union in high school.” His political activities continued in both SP as well as Amar Singh Colleges.
With deportation order in hand, Khan drove to Jammu, where he joined the family of Moulvi Muhammad Hussain, father of later PaK president KH Khursheed and crossed over to Pakistan via Sialkote on January 4, 1952.
In Pakistan, Khan met other deportees. Among them was Ghulam Yaseen Ashai, who had crossed over to Pakistan in a police van in 1947.
“In Lahore, my brother met Amanullah Khan, then staying with Nawaz Sharief’s close aide, Dr Asadullah Lone,” said retired chief engineer Anwar Ashai, Yaseen’s brother. “They became best friends and worked for strengthening Pakistan’s cause there.”
Till 1957, Khan remained a self-confessed “staunch supporter” of Pakistan. But he shortly transformed after meeting an UN official in Karachi. The officer candidly explained to him how both India and Pakistan were making mandate of Kashmiris less on Kashmir issue.
The meeting proved turning point, making Khan a fierce proponent of independent Kashmir. He felt UN resolution of January 5, 1949 that snatched the right of Kashmiris to opt independence as a “betrayal of a living nation”. By 1961, Khan with like-minded G M Lone rallied behind his third-option idea. In 1963, they established the first “pro-independence” Kashmir Independence Committee with 25 members on either side of ceasefire line. It challenged Ayub Khan’s “give and take” policy.
Later, in April 1965, Khan with Maqbool Butt founded J&K Plebiscite Front for “Azad Kashmir” and Pakistan. Khan became its secretary general as late Abdul Khaliq Ansari from Mirpur was chosen its president. They unleashed a massive awareness blitzkrieg.
Soon, Maqbool Butt was spotted in Kashmir. He was being introduced as Col Batra of BB Cant by his coterie. “Not many know this,” said then Butt’s chaperone, “Butt had come with Amanullah Khan and Major Amanullah to raise resistance pockets across Kashmir.” The ‘men on mission’ shortly met inside a residence of a known daredevil, Kalley Khan, Butt’s former aide continued.
Those in attendance included Prof Sheikh Ghulam Mohammad, Dr Farooq Ashai and various members of Youth League, then youth union of Regional Engineering College and Nazir Wani, deputy of al Fateh. “It was Amanullah who had coined the word al Fateh years in his article before the name was adopted by Kashmir’s first armed group,” said a top JKLF leader. But somehow, the emissaries couldn’t materialize their plan and returned across the fence in a huff sans letting anyone to sniff about their ‘secret visit’.
Back in Pakistan, Khan established two private schools and a coaching centre in Karachi. Many who’s who in Pakistan began guest lecturing there. Even Butt would be seen there. That was perhaps the beginning of the Khan-Butt bonhomie. “Soon the duo had gone to Suchetgarh border, where they took a fistful of soil from Kashmir side in their hands to pledge: ‘We will do everything for the liberation of our homeland’,” said Khan’s former aide. The other like-minded people present were Ansari, Lone and Mir Abdul Qayoom.
Khan’s schools would fund his monthly magazine, Voice of Kashmir, the mouthpiece of Independent Kashmir. Pakistan banned it eventually for its hard-hitting editorials. In 1976, Khan resumed its publication in England.
By the beginning of seventies, mood in Pakistan had apparently soured. The 1971 Ganga Hijacking had badly dented the image of Muzaffarbad-based JK Plebiscite Front. It was tagged as “pro-Indian” with “Indian agents”. This labelling came in the backdrop of the fall of Dhaka in December ’71. Much of the blame for East Bengal’s liberation was put on Ganga hijacking and Kashmiris involved in it. Even Khan was arrested and let free after Gilgit protested.
In 1973, he rejected the offer of becoming Gilgit Baltistan’s first Chief Minister on grounds, “It is against my political ideology”. In the same year, Khan and Butt were approached by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with an invitation to join his PPP. But the duo didn’t accept the offer. “Instead,” said Khan’s close confidante, “Butt sent Amanullah to China for raising military help for launching armed movement in Kashmir. But the China declined the help.”
Then, said a JKLF man, even whispering about independent Kashmir was considered as treason in Pakistan. But as trials of Ganga hijacking case and Maqbool Butt’s statements started making rounds, four Kashmiris from PaK—Sultan Zumard, Ch Abdul Rehman, Malik Latif and Dr Shabir Choudhry—launched Kashmir Youth Movement through an impressive underground networking.
By 1974, the group met Butt and other leaders in Mirpur to chalk out strategies. In the same year, Amanullah Khan was in Srinagar, where he addressed two gatherings—one at the gates of Jamia Masjid and another at Neelam Hotel in Lal Chowk.
A Srinagar businessman, then Class 9 student, attended Amanullah Khan’s Lal Chowk gathering. He even remembers the slogan raised by Khan: “Chyon Desh, Myon Desh… Koshur Desh, Koshur Desh. (Your country, my country … Kashmir, Kashmir)
“He addressed the gathering in Chaste Kashmiri,” recalls the businessman. “Since he was running the Plebiscite movement from other side, he was flanked by Dr Farooq Abdullah.” Later, the boy along with likeminded would paint the same slogan on city walls with stencils.
Amanullah Khan, writes India Today, was then permitted by Delhi to go round Kashmir and suggest a solution to the Kashmir dispute. Later as Farooq Abdullah denied hosting Khan, the late Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq, then Farooq’s controversial ally, admitted: “Both Dr Farooq Abdullah and Amanullah Khan had visited my house in 1974. This was with the permission of the Government of India. What’s wrong with that?”
The visit however became controversial the moment Delhi faced diplomatic crisis in UK. Then, Farooq was preaching plebiscite. In fact, towards 1974 ending, Farooq was invited to Pakistan by the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who organised a lavish reception for him in PaK. At a public rally in Mirpur, Farooq shared podium with none other than Ashraf Qureshi, the hijacker belonging to JKNLF. Later, Farooq summed up his 1974 Pakistan visit, thus: “It was basically a convention of the Plebiscite Front… I even met Maqbool Butt there… I found him to be a romantic – like Che Guevara.”
It was Amanullah Khan, who had “arranged” Farooq’s meet with Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan. And with Beig-Parthasarthy talks on, Farooq had told the Muzaffarabad weekly “Qaid”: “Even if my abba compromises with India, I shall go and fight against him with a sword.”
Three years later, UK was hosting a ‘big boys’ party. Among the attendants was the foursome of Kashmir Youth Movement. They met Amanullah Khan, then busy organising Kashmiris in Europe. “Unlike Sheikh Abdullah,” said Yasin Malik, “Amanullah Khan mobilised Kashmir diaspora and brought Kashmir issue to global notice after Shimla agreement and Indira-Abdullah accord.”
With Plebiscite Front undone in Srinagar, Khan mobilised Kashmiris for the “nationalist cause”. In the face of swarming support, JKLF was formed in Birmingham by 1977, with Jabbar Butt its first president and Nazir Nazish its general secretary.
“While Amanullah became JKLF’s driving force, Maqbool Butt wasn’t its formal member,” said Shabir Chaudhary, a former JKLF man. “Butt was founder of plebiscite front’s armed wing, Nationalist Liberation Front, formed in 1967.” Butt had crossed to Kashmir in 1976, whereas JKLF was formed a year later, in ’77.
“But It doesn’t matter whether Maqbool was part of formal JKLF or not,” said Anwar Ashai. “He was the brain behind JKLF besides its reckoning force.”
Once JKLF was founded, Khan opened its branches in Europe. “He opened branches by devoting most of his earnings from his schools to JKLF trust,” continued Ashai. “Khan was committed to his cause. He had a concept of statehood of Kashmir that existed before 1846.”
By 1982, Khan briefly returned to Muzaffarabad to set up JKLF. The move was seen as brazen and breach of agreement by Plebiscite Front leaders, who at behest of their relatives in JKLF’s main body in Britain revolted. It led to split, diminishing Khan’s support. The other faction was led by Zabar Butt, known as the “Bani” group in Indian intelligence files.
Then, JKLF openly aligned itself with Pakistan. Shortly, it had some 1,000 members in Pakistan excluding 600 “active membership” in UK.
It was Khan’s faction that had changed the nature of protest in UK. Until 1982, Kashmiri Britons used to hold peaceful political demonstrations. In June 1983, PM Indira Gandhi during her Denmark visit faced vociferous protest by Kashmiris at Copenhagen Airport. It made to front pages and prime time television. Next protest broke when Gandhi was addressing UN General Assembly.
Then came JKLF’s D-day. In the first week of February 1984, an unknown group Kashmir Liberation Army (KLA) kidnapped an Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre from India’s consulate Birmingham. They demanded the release of Maqbool Butt and seven others besides a ransom of 1 million pound (Rs 1.5 crore). The deadline was 7 p.m. on Saturday – 16 hours away.
Mhatre’s kidnapping sent shock waves through India. It also resurrected Kashmir issue once again. But Delhi lacked information about the kidnapping. A crank letter written in bad English was the only thing that shadowy KLA had sent.
After the deadline was missed, the kidnappers made their last known contact. Telephone rang in a dilapidated house in an Asian area of Birmingham. “It looks as if you people have not taken it seriously,” said the voice, “now you will have to face the consequences.” 48 hours later, some 40 miles from Birmingham, in Leicestershire, Mhatre’s bullet-ridden body was found.
Delhi had not ruled JKLF out. Its president Khan was picked up by Scotland Yard and held for questioning along with Hashim Qureshi. Though Khan and Qureshi were subsequently released, the latter’s involvement was significant. He was one of the two JKLF men who had hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft to Lahore in 1971. Later the aircraft was blown up and the two hijackers were jailed.
Qureshi blamed Khan for Mhatre’s kidnapping and subsequent killing. “By Amanullah’s movements, I suspected that something abnormal was happening or was going to happen,” Qureshi writes in his book, Kashmir: The Unveiling of Truth. “…it is reality that Kashmir Liberation Army had been formed by Amanullah Khan himself and he had all the responsibility of its affairs.”
Khan however defended himself. “Mhatre was killed because of the follies of the Indian High Commission,” he said in a 1990 interview. “They poked their noses into it. I offered to save him. But they pressurised the British Police to arrest me, and Mhatre got killed.”
In Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah was desperately trying to delink himself from Amanullah—even though Mufti Sayeed had already released his photos with Khan in London besides linking him with JKLF. Despite Farooq’s repeated protestation that “I’m an Indian and I’ll die an Indian”, he was blamed for hosting Khan. For many, it was merely the pot calling the kettle black – as Delhi is known to have sponsored Amanullah Khan’s 1974 visit to Srinagar for “finding a solution”. Finally as Delhi decided to send Butt to gallows, Farooq was willing to cooperate.
But for the “half-cooked plan”—the Mhatre kidnapping case—Khan faced hostility within and outside JKLF. When many JKLF men were detained in UK, Khan was accused for treason. They alleged Khan of tipping-off British police.
By 1985, JKLF had Afzal Jatalvi as its new president. With the shift, demands were made to investigate accusations against Khan. Some party members were unhappy with Khan’s JKLF handling. “Khan manoeuvred everything to make it appear as a communist plot against him,” a JKLF man, in knowhow of the events, said. The split that followed cost JKLF some best brains.
In December 1986, Khan was deported to Muzaffarabad from UK. With his arrival, JKLF restructuring began. Shortly it became the biggest and most organised party in PaK, with strong diplomatic and political base. Later, Khan formed the Kashmir Liberation Alliance and with that, the preparations for the ‘big bash’ began.
When a messenger from Muzaffarabad knocked at Ahad Waza’s Trehgam door in early 1987, he realised it was no ordinary call. What he didn’t realise though was his already set meeting with Khan. Then, Waza was ‘poster boy’ of pro-Maqbool, pro-Amanullah protests in Kupwara belt. Baber, the messenger, invited him to the ‘other’ Kashmir.
The “message” changed Kashmir. Soon after meeting a top Pakistani sleuth in PaK, Waza along with Maqbool Butt’s brother Ghulam Nabi Bhat, met the man, whose books on Kashmir were a pre-Jehad syllabus for Kashmiris. The author was Khan, who graced them a meeting in company of Colonel Asad of Pak intelligence in Muzaffarabad, that later became a sprawling training school of militancy.
It was JKLF’s Raja Muzaffar and ISI’s Col Assad, who eventually arranged the duo’s meeting with Gen Zia-ul-Haq at the President’s House in Islamabad. “We signed a Memorandum of Understanding there,” said Waza. “Gen Zia wanted the Kashmiris to get up in arms against Delhi.” Khan was silently coordinating everything, Waza said. Once back home, the duo started sending the boys for training.
Among the fresh recruits was Javaid Mir who met Khan along with his comrades at his Muzaffarbad residence. “Besides making impressions with thumbs dipped in blood,” Mir recalled, “Khan administered oath to us in his office by placing Quran on our heads.”
In his autobiography, Jahud-e-Musalsal, Amanullah Khan writes how he established contact with Zia Ul Haq through his close aides: Agha Shahi and Niyaz Naik. “In 1987, ISI chief Akhtar Abdul Rehman offered me support for starting freedom movement in Kashmir,” Khan writes in his autobiography. “He also promised me that he would support the independent Kashmir.” With the beginning of JKLF activities in 1988, both Zia and Akhtar died in a plane crash. “Once Benazir Bhutto came to power, it changed the whole game. She ordered closure of camps after sensing that the freedom movement was aided by Nawaz Sharief and Sheikh Rasheed.”
For Delhi, then, Amanullah Khan was “Don Quixote”, who had predicted Kashmir’s freedom in twenty years. “Seventy per cent of the youth are with me,” Khan told his interviewer during nineties. “Yesterday I was alone. When I talked of independent Kashmir, Pakistanis dubbed me an Indian agent. Today the JKLF is the most important party in the valley.”
But there was another thing about Khan, which Waza had learned during his Muzaffarabad sojourn.
Waza along with GN Bhat were having a casual conversation in Raja Muzaffar’s house. During the talk, Muzaffar told them that instead of Maqbool Butt, it was Khan who was expected to go to Kashmir in 1976 to “strengthen the resistance movement”.
“But despite repeated pleas,” Waza quoting Muzaffar said, “Butt insisted that his active involvement was necessary for Kashmir’s resistance movement.” Shortly upon his return, Butt was detained and ended up facing secret execution in Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984.
Butt’s execution was a huge motivation for a full-scale Jihad. Khan, however, could not take the role that Butt had. Instead, he ended up a facilitator.
Gradually, however, Khan was back to his old platform, talking about Kashmir in terms of Switzerland. “Everyone uses Kashmir. Only 10 per cent of Nawaz Sharief’s support is genuine sympathy, 90 per cent is to be used against the PPP. Benazir Bhutto observes a week of solidarity to repulse Sharief’s influence. In India, Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP and the communists use Kashmir against VP Singh,” he said in a presser, insisting he was Pakistan’s embarrassment. “If Benazir Bhutto sends me behind bars for even a day, there will be a hue and cry in Azad Kashmir.”
Then, Khan was a fiery speaker. He had already addressed three pressers at UN headquarter in New York besides taking his ‘independent Kashmir’ campaign to Europe. He is known for chaperoning a group of JKLF men inside UN General Assembly Hall New York on October 10, 1980 where they threw thousands of leaflets containing Kashmiris’ demands, into the Hall, at a time when India’s foreign minister was speaking. The move made 155 foreign ministers, over thousand senior diplomats, politicians and international media aware of Kashmiris’ demands. Then in November 1989, Khan was lobbying for Kashmir at UN.
But the moment his politics appeared ‘threatening’, he faced travel restrictions.
Delhi had his US Visa “cancelled” in 1990 besides issuing Interpol Warrants of Arrest against him. Perhaps his bizarre arrest came in Belgium in October 1993 where he had been invited by the European Parliament to attend a seminar on Kashmir, evoking condemnation from Farooq Abdullah and George Fernandes, both seminar participants. Indian diplomats considered it a coup. Pakistan Foreign Ministry lodged a strong protest with the Belgian Government against the arrest. But Delhi demanded for Khan’s extradition to India, which was rejected by the Belgian court.
Soon after his arrest, The Telegraph in London described him as “one of the world’s most wanted terrorists”. His arrest assumed significance as it coincided with the Hazratbal shrine siege. The arrest was on an international warrant of Delhi charging him with conspiracy to murder the vice-chancellor of Kashmir University, Mushir-ul-Haq, in Srinagar.
“India had falsely told Russia and America that it was I who had ordered the killing of Vice Chancellor Prof Mushir-ul-Haq, who had been kidnapped and later killed by members of the Students Liberation Front in Kashmir,” Khan said in an interview. Three months later, Khan was released.
By then, Khan was already known as the only Kashmiri imprisoned abroad. His jail terms included 16 months in England, 72 days in Belgium and one day in UN lockup. Closer to home, he was incarcerated in Handwara, Gilgit, Muzaffarabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and in Lahore’s dreaded torture centre, Shahi Qilla.
Even then, he maintained his own style. In June 1990, he announced ‘provisional government of Kashmir’ that became international news. Termed a suo moto decision taken solely by him without taking others in loop, it added to JKLF factionalism.
On February 11, 1992, Khan led a JKLF march to cross the LoC. Marchers were stopped short of the LoC – 12 of them were killed and many arrested. On March 31 that year, on Ashfaq Majeed’s anniversary, Khan made another abortive bid to cross the LoC.
That year, Khan, flanked by then JKLF top man in Srinagar, Javaid Mir, were having meeting with Pakistan army General Mirza Aslam Beg in Rawalpindi’s army headquarters. “The General wanted Khan to give up Independent Kashmir slogan,” said Mir. “But Khan told him that it should be left to the people to decide.”
By 1994, when Yasin Malik stepped out of prison, JKLF in Kashmir declared unilateral ceasefire by suspending its military wing. It committed itself to a political struggle, instead.
In 1995, JKLF suffered another split. “My one arm was seriously affected with cancer and there was no cure for it, so I cut it off to save the JKLF,” Khan was quoted saying. In retaliation, Malik dethroned Khan and took charge. It shifted JKLF’s headquarters from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar.
Virtually all JKLF leaders in Kashmir rallied around Malik. Even senior leader Javaid Mir, who had fallen out with Malik over a leadership dispute, backed him. Hurriyat also lent him unequivocal support.
A year later, while addressing his first election rally from Delhi’s Red Fort in 1996, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, told the crowd that he intended to do a “Punjab” in Kashmir. Soon, by March that year, SOG gunned down all 32 activists of the Amanullah’s JKLF inside the Hazatbal shrine, including its chief, Shabir Sidiqui. The group had replaced Malik who had pitched his tents near the shrine. But why the entire Sidiqui squad was assassinated is a different story.
The period that ensued pushed Khan into obscurity, until he hogged headlines again in 2000 for a different reason. That year, he married his only child, daughter Asma, to his friend late Abdul Gani Lone’s son, Sajjad Gani Lone. “It’ll be a symbolic reunification of the Kashmiri people,” Khan, referring to his daughter’s marriage, said. Years later, Amanullah was reportedly aggrieved after his son-in-law became unionist and eventually embraced BJP.
But after the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, Khan’s name figured in the list of 20 wanted “terrorists” India provided to Pakistan to be extradited for various offences. He offered to surrender to Indian authorities provided an “international court issued a verdict against him”.
By 2002, Khan was training guns on Pakistani backed non-Kashmiri militants for having “harmed the cause”. “I have been saying for the last two to three years,” he told Reuters, “that non-Kashmiri militants are changing the Kashmir freedom struggle into terrorism.” The same campaign took the life of Abdul Gani Lone.
In 2005, as Yasin Malik boarded the Karavan-e-Aman bus at Salamabad, he managed to mend fences with Khan. Three years later, in 2008, Khan again tried to unite Kashmiri parties on one point agenda of right of self determination by floating the All Parties Kashmir Committee for Right of Self-Determination.
Lately, Khan was working hard about Kashmir by chalking out regular strategies, but apparently he couldn’t recreate his aura he once enjoyed. But he was never off the scene either. By summer 2011, Khan signed a merger agreement with Malik, thus bridging JKLF’s gulf.
At ripe age of 82, Khan was suffering from Parkinsonism. “Even then,” said his aide, “he never parted with his beloved typewriter. At times, he would continue typing till 2:00 in the night.”
Khan was looking after his party’s daily affairs working 18 hours in his office-cum-residence in Chandni Chowk, Rawalpindi.
With Rawalpindi, he apparently enjoyed a special connection. When Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated there, he protested in Srinagar and was banished from Kashmir. 64 years later, as fate would have it, his funeral prayers were offered at the same spot where Liaquat was assassinated.