Even after the two teen Qureshis—Hashim and Ashraf—would hijack an Indian Fokker plane ‘Ganga’ at 1305 hours on 30 January, 1971, with a ‘toy gun’ and a ‘wooden grenade’, Maqbool Butt, the architect of the hijacking, had no presentable clothes to wear to address the press conference. It was only after his associate Abdul Khaliq took a shirt and a pant from two different persons that Butt could appear before the rolling cameras to demand the release of around 25 NLF prisoners in Indian prisons.
The Qureshi duo had brought ‘Ganga’—on its routine flight from Srinagar to Jammu—to Lahore airport with a total of 30 people, including four crew members. Later Khaliq would break down upon recalling how the man—Maqbool Butt—had managed to bring the Kashmir dispute back to international forum with almost empty pockets.
Eventually, as passengers and crew were sent back to India, the empty aircraft was blown up on February 1, 1971, prompting New Delhi to deny air-space rights to Pakistan. Maqbool Butt, as his associates say, wasn’t in favour of torching the plane. By then, however, he and the hijackers were treated like heroes in Pakistan. Three months later, as Islamabad’s mood changed, the Butt-led JK Plebiscite Front was dismissed as a ‘pro-Indian’ outfit with ‘Indian agents’.
This labelling became harsher after the fall of Dhaka in December ’71. Much of the blame for East Bengal’s liberation was put on the ‘Ganga’ hijacking and the Kashmiris involved in it. Along with hundreds of NLF members, Butt and the hijackers were arrested, interrogated in the Shahee Qila Lahore and ‘Dulahee Camp’ Muzaffarabad.
Six of them—Maqbool Butt, G.M. Lone, Mir Abdul Qayyum, Mir Abdul Manan and the two hijackers—were tried in a Special Court of Pakistan under the charges of collaboration with the Indian intelligence services. Butt was again charged under the ‘Enemy Act 1943’—this time, by a Pakistan Court, and sentenced to jail for 14 years.
“I can say without any hesitation that I have not designed any conspiracy nor have I been a part of any group of conspirers,” Butt thundered in a Pakistani court. “My character has always been transparent and unambiguous. However, I’ve done one thing and that is the rebellion against ignorance, greed of wealth, exploitation oppression, slavery and hypocrisy. If the ruling class of Pakistan that is a product of imperialism and represented by the bureaucracy and military dictatorship of this country views this as conspiracy then I have no hesitation in accepting the charge.”
Inside their cell, Hashim Qureshi saw Butt often reminding the jailers, ‘Don’t think that by putting us in jail you’ve made us prisoners. Remember! Wherever we’re standing, that place and that land, will get liberated.’ Often in those murky hours inside the jail, Butt would uplift the mood by singing patriotic songs in his melodious voice.
“He would tell us about major freedom movements around the world,” Qureshi recalls his jailtime interaction with Butt. “He would vividly describe the 1870 and 1880 struggle of the Silk Factory workers in Srinagar, the democratic struggle of 1931 against the rule of the Maharaja, the attack of the tribesmen in 1947, and innumerable peoples’ movements in untied India etc.” As a “walking encyclopaedia”, Butt would speak about leftist movements in Russia, China, Korea and the Vietnam War.
“He was closer to the ideology of Ahrar and Deobandi people, but was also thinking along the line of Maulana Maudoodi,” Hashim recalls. “At times, he would talk about Aristotle, Plato, and Musa ibn Nasir and delve deep about the Umayyad, the Abbasids and Fatemi Caliphs.” Despite having a scholarly temperament, Hashim found Butt equally helpful towards his jail inmates.
Meanwhile as hearing of the hijacking case continued, Peshawar’s top police chief was also called for his views on the “Indian agent”. “If he is an Indian agent,” the top cop quoted by NLF associates told the court, “then why would he live in a house which collapsed the moment we raided it? We had a narrow escape when we fell down from the third to the second floor. Do Indian agents live in such houses? Amazing!”
Eventually the 1971 case carried out under special presidential orders of the then president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, concluded after a long trial in May 1973. All but Hashim Qureshi were cleared of all charges other than dealing with arms and explosives.
After the trial, NLF’s membership fell, due to the torture faced by its rank and file, and Islamabad’s blanket ban on Independent Kashmir activism—then considered as treason in Pakistan. But Maqbool Butt was not to relent. He continued his efforts to reorganise the struggle in both the armed and political fields.
“Like Kashmiris then,” says Azam Inqilabi, the former Operation Balakot commander and now, patron of Mahaz-e-Aazadi, “Maqbool Butt felt dejected, traumatized and crestfallen due to the Simla Agreement of 1972. However the highly motivated freedom zealot vowed not to waive his right to self-determination.”
Perhaps he was mulling another militant comeback to revive the Kashmir struggle. But before that, Maqbool Butt bumped into the son of Sheikh Abdullah, whose politics initially inspired him as a college student.
Then, as a British citizen and member of the UK unit of the Plebiscite Front, Farooq Abdullah went to Muzaffarabad in 1974 where he met Butt and found ‘Che Guevara’ shades in the ‘romantic’. Such was Butt’s influence on the mercurial National Conference patron that he wouldn’t badmouth — or, even allow badmouthing about him by his party ranks. He would either term the violators as “bastards” for insulting a “patriot”, or openly endorse Butt’s method by threatening the militant struggle.
But as the 1975 Indira-Abdullah Accord changed the whole dynamics of the Kashmir movement, even Butt tried his luck in electoral politics. He was defeated by the ZA Bhutto’s Peoples Party Government in 1975 elections.
Soon, he decided to again cross over to Kashmir against the advice of his friends in May 1976. He took the decision despite the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in Pakistan offering him rehabilitation in the UK.
He shortly said goodbye to his family and with Rs 800 in his pocket, began his homecoming along with his two associates, Abdul Hamid and Mohammed Riaz.
On the way he ran out of money and had to walk for two days to reach Muzaffarabad. At the end of the tiring foot journey, he was seen smoking Pakistan’s cheapest cigarette K2 instead of his favourite brand Cavender’s. The incident is often quoted in JKLF circles to honour their fountainhead, ‘who had returned home with empty-pockets and iron-will to create revolution’.
He had even skipped eating at his favourite eatery located some 5km from Muzaffarabad on his way home. The owner would later keep one of his tables reserved and decorate it with flowers in Maqbool Butt’s remembrance.
When Butt finally reached Kashmir, he straightaway gauged the Valley’s post-Accord political mood, says a teacher who met him on his arrival. “Sheikh Abdullah’s coming to power as a weak chief minister had somehow diminished the spirit of the armed struggle in Kashmiris then,” the teacher says. “This hurt Maqbool Butt.” Somehow he wanted to activate the sleeper cells and raise the resistance pockets again.
When Butt’s lawyer friend refused his idea of reviving the armed resistance in Kashmir, the tall and wiry man—otherwise full of humour—skipped the meal with him, and quietly walked to the forest with a long face.
For one month, he stayed in Sopore’s Brath where he met old friends including late Ghulam Nabi Hagroo, Prof. Mohammad Amin Andrabi, Dr. Shoukat Khan and others. “Throughout his stay, he wanted to start NLF activities where he had left in 1966,” the teacher says. He had reportedly called on Sheikh Abdullah who advised him to go back and spend his days in Pakistan as the “situation had completely changed” after the fall of Dakha.
It’s said that on their way back to PaK, they ran out of money and raided the Langate branch of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank. They tried to decamp with about Rs 2,000 — the money, he would later tell his interrogators, he was planning to use as a ‘bribe on the border’ to secure their exit.
But just then, the bank manager Magray raised an alarm, drawing a kneejerk firepower response from his armed associates. The manager died on the spot. Before Butt could even run, he was nabbed by his own Kashmiri people, who handed him over to the police in a near lynched state.
In Srinagar, his re-arrest didn’t become big news — because by then, he was almost forgotten, and lost in labels. Only veteran journalist Shamim Ahmad Shamim would come up with an editorial in his publication Aina, terming him “Khwaboon ka Sodagar”.
Once back to prison, the Sheikh Abdullah-led government shifted him to Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Apparently he was briefed about his jailbreak past. By then, the Indian Supreme Court had restored his death sentence.
“In the testing time we’re going through,” he writes in a letter to his son Javaid Maqbool Butt from his prison cell on October 9, 1980, “there’s nothing that can be done but to have patience and be thankful. Have belief that after passing through every dark night of oppression one finds the dawn of bliss appearing fully, showing its splendid luminescence.” That letter came from his ‘condemned cell’—reeked with nauseating smell from the open lavatory, where flies and mosquitoes would breed.
To set him free from such a dungeon, his legal team was waiting for his case to be reopened on the grounds of ‘flawed trial’. But just then, came the news: Maqbool Butt is to be hanged on February 11, 1984.
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