Outside the army cantonment close to Baramulla town hangs the poster of a solemn, whiskered young man. “Shahid Maqbool Sherwani,” it reads. He died on November 7, 1947, aged about 19, killed by tribal invaders from the North West Frontier Province in a skirmish that would become the first border war between India and Pakistan.
“They put 14 bullets in him,” said 82-year-old Khaliq Parvaiz, a writer based in Baramulla town, in a matter of fact voice. “They tied him to two pillars of Khan Hotel, near Regina Cinema, and shot him.”
According to one version of the story, Sherwani, a National Conference worker, had told the invaders that he would show them the way to Srinagar, the capital of what was then the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, he led them astray, slowing them down by days and giving the Indian Army time to land at the Srinagar airport on October 27.
In another version, Sherwani rode around on a bike after the invaders stormed Baramulla on October 22, telling them not to press forward towards Srinagar since the army had already landed. It stalled the advance of the tribal forces and bought the Indian Army precious time. The invaders were intercepted and routed at Shalteng, a few kilometres outside Srinagar, on November 7. If the invaders had reached Srinagar before the Indian army, it is said, the war may have ended very differently.
The raiders found out about Sherwani’s ruse when he was in Sumbal, some 35 kilometres from Baramulla town, local residents now say. They brought him back to the town to kill him. The body stayed up for a few days, a grim warning to other residents.
Martyrs and traitors
Now the “crucifixion” of Maqbool Sherwani has passed into popular lore in the Valley. Every war must have its martyrs and 1947 was no different.
In St Joseph’s Hospital, the Valley found what author Andrew Whitehead calls its “first Catholic martyr”. Sister Mary Teresalina had died trying to protect the Mother Superior at the Franciscan mission in Baramulla. Her portrait still hangs in the hallway of the hospital and flowers still adorn a memorial in the quiet octagonal courtyard. In the chapel next to the hospital a pamphlet titled “I Will Be the First” is still distributed, telling the story of the young nun from Spain who apparently died saying, “I offer myself as a victim for the People of Kashmir.”
Sherwani, however, left behind a contested legacy. A plaque outside the black marble Sherwani Community Hall, constructed in his memory in 2004, hails the “courage and supreme sacrifice” made by the young man in “defending the historic town of Baramulla and its citizens against the Tribal Invasion of October-November 1947”. The martyrdom of the National Conference worker has been absorbed into official memory. Every year, the Indian Army pays tribute to him on October 27, now celebrated as Infantry Day, and the community hall is part of a municipal complex. On a sunny day in September, residents had queued outside for Aadhaar cards.
But outside official circles, opinion is divided. “Those who are pro-Pakistan think he’s a traitor,” said Farooq Ahmed Shaal, a businessman in Baramulla. When Kashmiri separatism saw a resurgence in the 1980s, these resentments also intensified.
An earlier memorial, located where the granite structure now stands, was burnt down by an angry crowd in 1988, residents say, shortly after the Pakistani president, Zia-ul-Haq, was killed in a suspicious plane crash. People marching in pro-freedom rallies at that time would shout, “Maqbool Sherwaniam beol, khudayan gol.” Mabool Sherwani’s seed, may god destroy.
In Baramulla, Sherwani, an active National Conference worker, seemed to have been in the thick of a political feud with the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference. The two parties had started life as one in 1932. Then Sheikh Abdullah renamed it National Conference in 1939, prompting a section of the leadership to break away and re-establish the Muslim Conference, with links to the Muslim League. Sherwani, it is said, was an ardent fan of the “Sher-i-Kashmir” – the Lion of Kashmir.
Khaliq Parvaiz, the writer, recalls sitting on a ghat by the Jhelum river in Baramulla, a few years before Partition, and hearing a commotion on the other side. It was Sherwani, being chased by Muslim Conference workers. He jumped into the river and swam across to safety. Even those who did not agree with his politics seem to remember him as something of a hellraiser, a swashbuckling character who could impress the crowds. “He did not know how to ride a bike, he learnt in three days to lead the raiders astray,” claimed Parvaiz. “Kashmiris knew he was a khatarnak [deadly] person.”
Amid the furious political feud, however, Sherwani seems to have struck up some unusual friendships. Farooq Shaal says his father, Haji Noor-ud-Din Shaal, a staunch Muslim Conference man, was fast friends with Sherwani. Before 1947, Noor-ud-Din Shaal had run a news stand at the Baramulla market. It became a hub for political workers, including Sherwani. That is how the two men met and became friends. Though they believed in opposing ideologies, the two men never fought, Farooq Shaal said.
Maybe because they shared some vital common ground. “My father used to say Sherwani was a true nationalist, a Kashmiri nationalist,” recounted Farooq Shaal. Besides, he demanded, who fights about politics anyway?
Tales of their friendship still abide. When Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah came to address a rally in Baramulla’s old town, Farooq Shaal’s uncle, a Muslim Conference leader, had read out a memorandum first and his father had shared the stage. “Sherwani’s men tried to disrupt the gathering and chaos broke out,” he said. “My father grabbed my uncle and tried to save him. Sherwani then ordered his men – don’t do anything to him, he is my friend.”
A few years later, Noor-ud-Din Shaal would also try to save his friend. When news of the impending raid reached Baramulla, he had met Sherwani, on his now-legendary bike, near one of the bridges across the Jhelum. The Muslim Conference supporter, it seems, was not worried.
“My father said they are coming, but stay, there won’t be any problem,” Farooq Shaal said. “But Sherwani said, no, I’m with Sher-i-Kashmir, I will fight them.”
A few days later, Noor-ud-Din Shaal received news that Sherwani had been caught at Sumbal and was being brought back to the town. He started running. By the time he reached the place that is now known as Cariappa Park, on the main road, he heard that Sherwani had been shot, somewhere down the road. That is where Sherwani Hall now stands.
“He used to say, if I had reached in time, they would not have killed him,” recalled Farooq Shaal.
In Baramulla and Srinagar, the story of Sherwani telescopes into the story of Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference. Both men are usually described as “Hindustani” or pro-India. Like Sherwani, Abdullah is often cast as a traitor in popular histories. That the Sheikh was close to Nehru and opposed to a merger with Pakistan was no secret. But what exactly his calculations were in the years surrounding Partition has been the subject of much debate.
Abdullah’s National Conference, influenced by Soviet style communism and armed with the doctrine of “New Kashmir”, had agitated for greater rights within the princely state. With the Quit Kashmir movement in the 1940s, this hardened into a demand for sovereignty and the overthrow of Maharaja Hari Singh. In 1946, Abdullah would be tried for sedition and exciting disaffection against the Maharaja, with Nehru rushing to defend him.
Then on October 30, 1947, after Hari Singh had formally agreed to accede to India, Abdullah was appointed the head of the emergency administration under an order issued by the prince, on Nehru’s insistence. Yet Abdullah had not abandoned the idea of self-determination for Kashmir. In 1953, he was jailed for conspiracy against the state – this time, the Indian state.
According to the late Sheikh Mohammad Maqbool, a leader of the National Conference from Baramulla and former law minister of Jammu and Kashmir, back in 1947, the party had hoped to leverage the Standstill Agreement that Hari Singh had signed with Pakistan, maintaining status quo until fresh administrative arrangements were made. “We believed that the Maharaja’s Standstill Agreement favoured us, we would have been a third state,” said Maqbool.
In those chaotic months after the invasion, as the maharaja fled, the National Conference became the most visible political force in the Valley. Sherwani was not the only party worker who had vowed to defend the Valley against the invaders. As the clouds of war gathered, the National Conference organised militias composed of local volunteers to defend the Valley, including the Women’s Self-Defence Corps. In Srinagar and Baramulla, these militias are remembered as the the Salamati Fauj.
Maqbool recalled they would march around Srinagar chanting “Hamla awan, khabardar,/ Salamati Fauj hai tayyar.” (Approaching invaders, be warned,/ the Peace Force is ready.) Harbans Singh, a Sikh resident of Baramulla who joined the Jammu and Kashmir Militia in the 1950s, rattles off another slogan: “Kadam, kadam badenge hum, Mahaz par ladenge hum.” Step by step we will advance,/ We will fight at the border.
Not everyone took a charitable view of the Salamati Fauj, especially not the Sheikh’s political detractors. “They were a brigade of lumpens whom we called the peace brigade,” snorted Anwar Ashai, a prominent student leader in the 1960s, whose father had been part of the original group that formed the Muslim Conference in 1932. “They would eavesdrop on people’s houses and see what we were talking.” The National Conference “ran Srinagar by force”, said Ashai. As for Abdullah, he was a “collaborator who led us into this mess”.
Others, like Parvaiz, claim Kashmir was divided to protect the Sheikh’s interests. The Indian Army, pushing back the invaders in 1947, had stopped at Uri in Baramulla district. “If they had chased them away from Azad Kashmir [Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir], there would have been no Kashmir issue. But Sheikh Abdullah told Nehru, nobody calls me leader beyond that – and I want to be Sher-i-Kashmir,” Parvaiz said, indignantly.
The contentions of that time, entombed in the Sherwani memorial, never quite left Baramulla. For Noor-ud-Din Shaal, 1947 was filled with bitter memories. It scuppered the Muslim Conference’s political agenda, it killed his friend, it led to a long estrangement from relatives across the Line of Control. After the war, he wound up the news agency to become a teacher. “Sab bichhad gaye the,” said Farooq Shaal. Everyone got scattered.
In the decades that followed, an angry, wounded town drew closer to the Kashmiri separatist movement. Regina Cinema, which stood next to the site of Sherwani’s execution, had survived the war. “I used to skip class and watch films here,” chuckled Farooq Shaal. But there was no trace of the cinema behind him, only an empty glass-panelled mall. When Baramulla became a militant stronghold in the 1990s, a group called the Allah Tigers burnt the cinema down.