On September 8, 1982 Abdul Majid Wani was one of the million people who gathered for the funeral of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. An avid supporter of the National Conference, Wani along with many family members had gathered at the polo ground at Srinagar to have a last glimpse of the mortal remains of Abdullah. Instead of the occasion, however, his thoughts lingered on his 14-year-old son, Ashfaq Majid Wani, who had refused to accompany the family members for the burial. Wani took the refusal as obstinacy of a teenager. Little did he know that it was a paroxysm of pain and disillusionment that had congealed in his heart into hatred against the government.
More than two decades later, Wani, in his seventies, vividly recalls the occasion: “Ashfaq refused to accompany the family members for the burial of late Sheikh Mohd Abdullah. At first, we took it as something normal. But later I analyzed that it was just the beginning of things that would change the course of our lives and that of Kashmir too.”
Ashfaq, a lad of fourteen had developed an ideology of his own by then. “The Iranian revolution had left an indelible mark on him, after studying the literature about it. It had become a motif of resistance to him. Besides, he had become very disillusioned with the political scenario prevailing at the time, which favored the Indian suzerainty. He viewed the Indian occupation as a yoke of slavery,” says Wani.
Ironically, it was Wani himself who had provided the literature to Ashfaq, oblivious of the effect it would have on his son. The symptoms began to manifest in other ways. Ashfaq’s mother, recalls, “The Principal of the Biscoe School summoned us one day and informed that even though Ashfaq was a brilliant student and an athlete of repute, he possessed leanings quite uncommon in teenagers. Ashfaq on previous day had vociferously debated with the principal over a mural of Jesus(as). Ashfaq had objected to it and had suggested a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini instead.” It was just a prelude, as few days later Wani found himself at the principal’s office again for another reason.
“Ashfaq was very keen to start prayers at the school and had revolted for it against the school authorities. He would go for afternoon prayers instead of attending his class. His example was followed by other students and the principal had to comply with the insistence for a break in the afternoon, exclusively for prayers,” Wani says.
The trend would continue at higher secondary and college. In fact, at the higher secondary Ashfaq had made a reputation of sorts among teenage circles. Elias, younger brother of Ashfaq recalls an incident: “Initially at the higher secondary when ragging of newcomers was on Ashfaq was confronted by some seniors. Before they could proceed, he made it clear that he was not going to answer questions pertaining to films, actors and actresses, as was the trend. Instead he requested them to question him in context of Islamic history and politics.”
By then Ashfaq had committed to heart all the poetry of Allama Iqbal and was profoundly devouring literature on Islam. He continued his revolting ways at the higher secondary and it came as no surprise when he had to switch colleges three times later on. After gaining admission at Shri Pratap College he strongly argued with a professor who ‘harassed students and verbally abused them’.
Exasperated, the college committee convened a meeting in this regard. Consequently a disciplinary action was taken against Ashfaq and he sought admission at the Islamia College. At Islamia College his seditious fervor again led to his omission. Finally he got admission at the Amar Singh College.
Outside the college, he used to pick fights with drunkards, bullies and eve teasers. “Raj karate was son of a desk officer at Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and his paternal uncle was a colleague of mine. A bully, he used to pick fights unprovocatively with passersby. He happened to pick a fight with Ashfaq who thrashed him thoroughly. Likewise Asif, son of a former senior civil officer was caught by Ashfaq while teasing some girls. Ashfaq not only beat him but also tonsured his head and eyebrows, at the Kailash hotel. I had to intervene to pacify matters later, as a FIR was fired against Ashfaq,” recalls Wani.
Wani adds further, “Mukhtiar kachur, an infamous thug constantly harassed a beautiful Hindu girl of our locality. Ashfaq came to know of it and warned him to mend his ways. Some days later an exasperated Mukhtiar along with some goons pounced on Ashfaq while he was returning from school injuring him severely. Ashfaq didn’t speak a word about it to us. After his wounds healed, he sent word to Mukhtiar to prepare himself.”
Mukhtiar’s luck ran out one day when he answered a knock at his hideout at Chanpora and was responded with “punches and kicks”. After beating him to pulp, Ashfaq dragged him to the main market at Lal Chowk and only intervention from some elders saved Mukhtiar. “Incidentally both Asif and Mukhtiar became supporters of Ashfaq later on. The latter died in an encounter,” says Wani.
The year 1984 bears big importance in the life of Ashfaq, then a sixteen-year-old. The hanging of Maqbool Bhat ‘disturbed’ him very much. The next day he wanted to gather a procession agitating against it. For the said reason he tried to procure support of his relatives and friends. However, his ardor didn’t rub on them, though.
Ashfaq likewise tried to garner support for commemorating Maqbool Bhat’s day the next year but was not successful. His passion, however, did not let him get dispirited. In 1986, he instead of asking support from the people, marched alone through Hari Singh High street with a green flag shouting ‘anti India slogans and extolling Bhat as the national hero’.
Within a short time more than two hundred boys gathered at the Hari Singh High street and the city square resonated with slogans for freedom. The police had a tough time controlling the agitators. ‘Ashfaq later predicted to his father that one day Maqbool’s day will garner more reverence among people than Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’.
Ashfaq voluntarily hawked Islamic literature at Hazratbal a couple of days later and the money was utilized to buy flags and banners for the celebration of Eid Milad un Nabi held some days later.
Sports formed an important aspect of Ashfaq’s life. He maintained a strict regimen. Getting early in the morning he would go for training and exercises. He was a dedicated soccer player, a marathon runner and a table tennis player.
“He stood first in the interstate marathon tournament in 1985 and was selected to represent the state. The state team was harassed and treated inferiorly by some people at Jammu. Eventually fights ensued. Ashfaq along with a local, Kaka Husain, muscled the situation to normal. This anti Kashmir treatment smouldered again the embers of hatred in Ashfaq. Consequently, on 14 august he unfurled a Pakistani flag at the Islamia college and like an army general received a guard of honor from students,” says Wani.
The global politics prevailing at the time also left an imprint on the socio political fabric of Kashmir. Ashfaq’s father emphasizes, “The Afghan- Russian war garnered support from the Muslim countries. The Muslim preachers stressed on resistance against the imperialistic Soviet union. Kashmir under occupation itself, related to Afghanistan in that sense. The preaching therefore tended to acquire political flavors.”
Consequently, Kashmir received considerable mention in sermons and preaching at the mosques. One person adept at highlighting this was a Moulvi officiating then at the Gowkadal Mosque, a stone throw from SP college. An exceptional orator, his efficacious rhetoric fanned the passions of the throngs of people that gathered there on Fridays. Ashfaq a regular at the mosque, was not an exception. The sermons made considerable impression on him.
In those prevailing circumstances the screening of Omar Mukhtiar stoked the already raging fire in Ashfaq. The protagonist in the movie, an old man, revolts against the foreign rule without making deals for power and lucre, and sacrifices himself for his country. A far cry from obsequious Kashmir leaders. It was a cathartic experience for Ashfaq who watched the movie with a heavy breath and at the climax, with his incandescent rage mingling with disillusionment, buried his eyes in the handkerchief and wept . In the coming days he took his friends to the theatre and himself paid for the tickets. “Once out of theatre, contempt for India spilled and Ashfaq along with some likeminded students tore posters of Sheikh Abdullah and demonstrations at cinema became an everyday occurrence. The government sensing the gravity of situation acted swiftly and the movie was pulled out after a week of houseful shows. But the movie had worked its magic. It had evoked the demons of India’s failed legacy in Kashmir,” says one of his school friend who wished anonymity.
Mehmood Sagar a dissenter, ran a tea stall adjacent to Ashfaq’s home, at the bustling corner of Hari Singh High street. It became a hangout for teenagers who used to congregate there after school for tea and gossip. Ashfaq with his green striped Tyandle Biscoe School tie was regular at the tea stall. Sagar and Azam Inqilabi, a member of Kashmir Freedom Front, took on the roles of preachers. The boys listened with rapt attention to their rhetoric infused with nationalistic zeal and Ashfaq’s eyes blazed like coals every time the need for a revolution was emphasized. The kernel of patience inside him had broken long ago, though. It was the tea stall boys that formed a student’s association, which came to be called as Islamic Students League.
The economic repression of the Muslims continued in the 80’s and corruption was palpable in the functioning of the state. The poor lot of Kashmir people was also a concern for Ashfaq. Kashmir was in ferment. Ashfaq’s mother recalls” my husband was an engineer, working in the Middle East. Whenever he came back he used to bring gifts for Ashfaq like jazzy clothes and expensive watches. But Ashfaq used to give them to beggars at the nearby Sufi shrine and less privileged people. He even gifted some branded watches to youngsters participating in anti India agitations.”
“Since his school days he believed that armed struggle in Kashmir was the solution towards attaining independence. If he met any beggar or person from Kupwara, he used to inquire about Azad Kashmir, its location, its people and their concept of Kashmir’s plight,” adds Ashfaq’s mother.
His strong political outlook in his teenage years surprised even his friends and colleagues. Wani remembers “he was close to some of his friends who included Ijaz Kaiser, Suhail Geelani, Indumeet Singh. The group had framed some norms for themselves like no smoking, no cinemas, paid heavy emphasis on literature and sports.”
To his colleagues he was intriguing. Khurshid Ali recalls “Ashfaq was different. Even though the sartorial sensibilities of teenagers were shaped by the Bollywood, with jeans and T-shirts the in thing those days. He frequently used to don Shalwar Kamiz and took pride in it. Besides, other teenage pursuits didn’t interest him. Possessing extreme good looks, he received a fair share of attention from the fairer sex, but this never seemed to impress him. Instead of rambling around Lal Chowk and going to cinemas he indulged in sports, sometimes practicing alone at the college. For him Kashmir was everything and therefore his main interest remained agitations against the government. He possessed an incisive mind and a cultured mien.
Besides his courageous personality and oratory skills won him many admirers.”
His escapades hadn’t gone unnoticed by government agencies. By 1987, Ashfaq was already on the radar of Indian intelligence, a prime target. But the disillusionment of the people was not nascent and everybody felt a need for change in governance and overthrow of Indian occupation. Therefore democratic channels were emphasized for the said objective. This led to the creation of MUF, Muslim United Front, which contested in the assembly election of 1987.
It came as no surprise therefore when he was arrested on March 24 1987 for his involvement with the Muslim United Front, which took part in elections, incidentally rigged by the government. Ironically, his father and other family members campaigned for National Conference and played a role in this rigging.s Like others he was placed under arrest. He was shifted from one interrogation centre to other by the government before being lodged at the Central jail.
It was at the Central jail that he secured the attention of Abdul Ahad Waza from Kupwara. A supporter of the Kashmir cause, he was impressed by the report of police officials and jail inmates about Ashfaq’s resolute anti India stand. He was himself impressed by Ashfaq’s discipline and dedication at morning exercises, which he took religiously for preparation of the armed struggle. He offered Ashfaq support for the cause of Kashmir. After his release on parole to attend his uncle’s wedding, Ashfaq diligently worked on the plans towards the procurement of arms from Azad Kashmir. A day before he left for Azad Kashmir, while serving meals at the wedding reception, he overheard Mohiuddin Shah, a veteran National Conference politician talking about the futility of agitations against the government. Ashfaq reprimanded him in these famous words “the government made two grave mistakes as far as Kashmir is concerned. First they acceded to India and secondly, they let me on parole.” These proved to be messianic words.
The destiny of Kashmir changed. Ashfaq dogged the posse of police in the subsequent morning, which had gathered to arrest him again. He crossed into Pakistan Administered Kashmir to lay a foundation for the armed struggle in Kashmir, becoming the pioneer of armed struggle. The rest is history.
(Ishfaq died during a gun battle with the Indian paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force in Kashmir’s Old City on this day in 1990)