Maqbool Butt's fascinating mystique It outshines his fragmented legacy

His debatable methodology aside, Butt remained consistently committed to achieving an ‘independent, secular, democratic, reunited (1947) Jammu and Kashmir’. The entrenched political class on both sides of the Line of Control detested and feared him for his romantic belief in the correctness of his course. Governments in India and Pakistan saw him as each other’s ‘agent’ or tolerated him as a ‘convenient’ entity in the game of one-upmanship, even as his political dream caught the imagination of an upcoming generation.
Maqbool Butt, whose 24th death anniversary falls today, chose to struggle – and die-for his conviction rather than seeking to reconcile sharply contradictory perceptions which his cult-ringed persona evoked within and between the two halves of his divided motherland. 
His debatable methodology aside, Butt remained consistently committed to achieving an ‘independent, secular, democratic, reunited (1947) Jammu and Kashmir’. The entrenched political class on both sides of the Line of Control detested and feared him for his romantic belief in the correctness of his course. Governments in India and Pakistan saw him as each other’s ‘agent’ or tolerated him as a ‘convenient’ entity in the game of one-upmanship, even as his political dream caught the imagination of an upcoming generation. 
A string of unconnected but instantly electrifying incidents and coincidences, between 1967 when he was arrested for allegedly shooting dead an India Intelligence man in North Kashmir and his execution in Delhi’s Tihar jail on February 11, 1984 just a week before his 46th birthday, seemed to have charted the fateful course of his life. Butt’s sensational, mystery-shrouded escape (to Pakistan) from the Srinagar central jail in December 1968 after being sentenced to death; the first ever plane hijacking in the subcontinent in January 1971 by his supporters; his return to and recapture in the Valley in 1976 and finally the kidnapping and murder of Birmingham-based Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in February 1984 literally plotted the trajectory of his meteoric rise and a tragic end.
The extent and nature of his actual involvement in causing some of these crucial incidents of his life are yet to be determined beyond doubt.
Maqbool Butt’s fiercely pro-independence profile fired the imagination of his (1960s-70s) generation in Kashmir, mainly as a vision. However, his political following was never quantifiable, largely because that was the time when Sheikh Abdullah’s immense popularity left no space for any other person in the hearts and minds of the people in the Valley. Not known for tolerating ‘encroachment’ upon his home ground, the Sheikh in a statement during his externment alleged that Butt’s escape from Srinagar jail (1968) had been ‘arranged’ by the Indian authorities. The Sheikh’s followers in Kashmir digested the allegation despite their concurrent empathy for Butt’s political philosophy. 
Unearthing of the pro-independence underground organization ‘Al-Fatah’ in Kashmir in 1971 revealed the intensity of penetration of Butt’s influence among the Kashmiri youth. Hijacking of an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship plane between Srinagar and Jammu on January 30, 1971 by two Kashmiri youngmen, Hashim Qureshi and his cousin Ashraf, followed by Butt’s high profile show of solidarity with the hijackers, along with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s demonstrative support at Lahore airport, enhanced the romantic appeal of the ‘Butt vision’ in the Valley. India, however, viewed it as acts of ‘terrorism’. Armed insurgency in Kashmir surfaced almost two decades later, with the JKLF in the forefront until Pakistan chose to prop up religious oriented Hizbul Mujahideen. 
This flip flop in Pakistan’s attitude was evident in Butt’s life time also. Pakistan, after extracting initial political advantage of the 1971 plane hijacking, somersaulted to dub Butt as well as the two Kashmiri (hijacker) ‘freedom fighters’ as ‘agents’ of Indian intelligence. They were imprisoned, tortured, convicted and sentenced. Pakistani reinterpretation of the event found its echo in a segment of public opinion in the Valley, including the Plebiscite Front.
India, on the other hand, squarely blamed Pakistan for the hijacking and retaliated by banning Pakistani overflights across India, between West Pakistan and East Pakistan, in the thick of the crisis eventually culminating in Pakistan’s break up later that year. 
In his widely publicized statement in the Pakistani court, Butt categorically refuted his involvement in engineering the hijacking though he justified his subsequent involvement with the hijackers’ cause. Whatever the truth, Butt had to pay the price. Like he had to in an earlier incident. The court that sentenced Butt to death in 1967 for the murder of an Indian intelligence man in Kashmir was not definite about whether the fatal shot had been fired by Butt. There were two other accomplices who later escaped from the jail along with Butt. He appeared to have escaped gallows.
But his fatal attraction pulled him back. He intruded into Kashmir and was rearrested in 1976 after he had shot a bank manager at Langet. He was shifted to Delhi for security reasons where he filed an appeal against his pending death sentence. The Indian establishment appeared to be in no hurry to execute Butt. However, events took a dramatic fast turn during the 8th year of his confinement in Tihar jail and there was yet another twist in the tale, this time a very tragic one for Butt. 
A militant group in the UK, calling itself ‘Kashmir Liberation Army’ kidnapped Birmingham based Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in February 1984 and killed him two days later after their demand for Butt’s release was rejected by India. Hashim Qureshi’s book alleges that the kidnapping and killing of the diplomat had been engineered by Amanullah Khan, co-founder of the Kashmir Liberation Front (along with Butt) to get Butt out of his way. Qureshi’s version is that Khan was aware of New Delhi’s mind and he could foresee rejection of the kidnappers’ demand to free Butt. The trial court in Britain, however, acquitted Khan but he was externed from the UK.
Mhatre’s assassination in the UK led to immediate retaliatory execution of Butt in Tihar jail, 17 years after he was sentenced to death by a court in Kashmir. A dream was cut short.
Till today, there is no credible evidence involving Butt in either planning the hijacking of the plane in 1971 or plotting the kidnapping of the diplomat in 1984. However, his subsequent direct involvement in the aftermath of the first incident and indirect linking of his name with the second one proved decisive enough to result in the tragic end of his tumultuous life. 
Senior police officials who interrogated Maqbool Butt at length during his detention in Kashmir in the 1960s and 70s say that he was unusually ‘co-operative’ and did not disown responsibility for what all he had actually done. He was consistent in his commitment to ‘independent Kashmir’ and never hid his almost equal disliking for both, India and Pakistan. ‘He was a dreamer’. His attachment to his motherland was ‘romantic’ even though he had run away from Kashmir to Pakistan when he was only 19. 
Butt was articulate and disagreed with Sheikh Abdullah’s political line, not overawed by the latter’s unrivalled popular support. Butt virtually broke off from the Muzaffarabad-based Plebiscite Front in early 1970s and floated its armed wing ‘on the Algerian pattern’. Even the original name ‘National Liberation Front’ was borrowed from the then popular Algerian freedom movement. 
My own closest view of the Butt phenomenon in 1976 was quite a new experience. I was the director of information in the then Sheikh Abdullah government and was accompanying (late) Devi Das Thakur, then finance minister, to Langate on the following day of the bank dacoity resulting in Butt’s arrest for the second time. Eyewitness account and the police report of the incident revealed an amazing facet of Butt’s personality. It was he and his accomplice who had committed the bank robbery ‘because we needed money’. The bank manager followed them in pursuit raising a cry and catching hold of Butt. Butt disclosed his identity ‘main Maqbool Butt hoon’ and wanted the manager to let him walk away. Finding the manager too tough to tackle, Butt who was unarmed snatched the pistol from his accomplice and shot the bank manager dead. A small crowd of locals pursued the fleeing duo. Butt could have, if he wanted, shot into the crowd and fled. Instead, he only shot into the air to scare them. The crowd did not believe him, nor recognize him, even as he revealed his identity to them, hoping they would let him go. Butt restrained himself, as he later told the police. He was eventually overpowered. On the following day, we heard the very same (eyewitness) people expressing their ‘regret’ over not having recognized ‘Butt Saheb’. They acknowledged that had he chosen to fire into the crowd he could have easily managed to flee. Retrospectively, the locals even sought to justify shooting of the bank manager, saying ‘he did not heed the warning’. 
This ‘avoidable’ dramatic capture of Butt ultimately took him to the gallows 8 years later. Once again, his behaviour as also its aftermath revealed the fascinating mystique of his persona which outshines his fragmented legacy claimed by the splintered factions of the Kashmir Liberation Front on both sides of the LoC.
News Updated at : Thursday, February 11, 2016