Sheikh Abdul Aziz and the memoir of ‘Muzafarabad Chalo’
Omer Farooq and Ahsan Akram
Today marks the tenth death anniversary of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a founding member of Jammu and Kashmir Peoples League (JKPL). Aziz was 55 when he was killed by government forces in Uri (Baramulla) while he was leading the historic “Muzaffarabad Chalo” march on August 11, 2008. The march towards the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) was called by the resistance leadership against the “economic blockade” of Kashmir valley enforced by Hindu extremists of Jammu during the 2008 uprising.
More than 60 civilians were killed at the hands of government forces in the suppression of the 2008 uprising. It also led to the breaking up of the PDP-Congress coalition government in the state.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz was born in 1952 at Pampore town of district Pulwama in Indian Administered Kashmir. Soon after passing his 10th grade from a local school, Aziz joined his father’s business which included growing high yield saffron for which his hometown is famous.
I came to know about Sheikh Aziz and Masarat Alam Bhat, as a boy when I used to hear his speeches, broadcasted on Pakistan Television in the early 2000s. But that was not all, I had known him in person, in fact I saw him on the very day of his martyrdom. In fact, his memory runs alongside the memories of other cherished leaders of the struggle.
I vividly remember the day I saw Syed Ali Shah Geelani for the first time in Jamia Masjid Sopore on the occasion of Eid Ul Adha 2001. After offering his speech in Jamia Masjid in which Geelani shed light on the philosophy of sacrificing animals on the occasion of Eid, he led a rally towards the Main Chowk of Sopore. The chowk was later named by Geelani as Shaheed Advocate Husam ud Din Chowk. Advocate Husam Ud Din was a colleague of Geelani who had been shot dead by unidentified gunmen in 2004. The protest rally was broadcasted on PTV. Those days half an hour program used to be telecasted on Kashmir on PTV which no one would miss and I was specially glued to the TV set because of the excitement of getting a chance to see Syed Ali Geelani for the first time, a day before. Few days later, a protest gathering was addressed by Sheikh Abdul Aziz and Masarat Alam Bhat in a village. Though I don’t remember what the leaders actually talked about but I very well remember their faces. Masarat had a trimmed beard then, unlike the long one which he has grown now. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference was not split then, so the duo was addressing from the platform of APHC. It was perhaps 2001. That day they left a mark in my mind which is still fresh in my memory. Both the leaders left the image of committed, determined and staunch pro-freedom personalities in my mind.
The Sheikh had joined the caravan of freedom during his teenage days. As a teenager he had watched the Holy Relic Movement, when millions of Kashmiris came out on the streets against the mysterious theft of the highly revered holy relic of Prophet Muhammad(saw) from the Hazrat Bal Shrine, the night between 26-27 December 1963, in the tenure of Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad as Prime Minister. The agitation soon transformed into pro-freedom public outpour, with millions of Kashmiris demanding freedom from India.
However, whether the actual relic was later placed back or not, is still a mystery though many people in Kashmir believe that the relic, which is shown only on some auspicious occasions, is real. As Khawaja Sanaullah Bhat writes in his book, Kashmir under Flames, “… facts regarding the theft and the restoration of holy relic made the entire affair dubious and suspicious. But when I contacted the Chief Custodian of the Hazrat Bal Shrine, Khawaja Abdul Rahim Bandey, who was on bail, more than once, and asked him to comment on the theft of the holy relic and its recovery, he declined every time. He said that the government had involved him too in the case and he had been released on bail only when he assured the authorities that he will say nothing in public or privately regarding the whole episode ‘I have been involved in the case, though I have not committed the any crime’, he said.
Almost everyone among the elders remembers the event. It was yet another milestone in the history of Kashmir and towards the commitment and resolve for seeking freedom from Indian rule. Many activists were born in the cradle of this Holy Relic Movement and Sheikh was one among them. Time transformed these foot soldiers into leaders.
In 1972, Sheikh Abdul Aziz joined the pro-freedom political group called the Young Men’s League that stood for the right to self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir according to UN resolutions. He was soon targeted by the police and his first arrest came at the age of 20 when he was booked under National Security Act. At that time, he was the block secretary of the organization. In 1973, YML merged into other pro-freedom groups forming the Jammu and Kashmir People’s League to which Aziz remained associated till 11 August 2008, when he was shot dead near Chahal, Uri, while leading a historic rally towards Muzaffarabad, Pakistan Administered Kashmir.
Aziz had become the General Secretary of the People’s League in 1986. He kept this position till 1990 when he left politics and went to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Administered Kashmir to receive training for guerilla warfare.
Seeing no hope after rigging of elections in 1987, many youths went to Pakistan to start armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir. Aziz also went and returned as Chief Commander of Al Jihad named militant outfit which was then considered to be armed wing of the People’s League. He was arrested on 21st May 1993 and remained in jail till 27th September 2000. On being freed he re-joined the political struggle. However, he was again arrested on 1st August 2001 for nearly three years and released in 2004.
He then went to Pakistan. It is said that when he landed in Lahore he kissed the soil. However, a year later in 2005 he was again arrested for few months.
After his release he joined the Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. When I read the news, I was surprised because I had imagined him to be very hardcore given the speeches he made which I used to watch on PTV in the early 2000s along with speeches by Masarat Alam. However, at that time Hurriyat (M) despite being seen as bunch of people who had compromised by batting for Musharraf’s four-point formula, Aziz continued having honor and reverence in my heart.
However, another crisis triggered in 2008, Aziz along with other leaders took a strong stand when the decision to transfer of 800 kanal land to Sri Amarnath Shrine Board took place. He played a part in bringing the two factions of Hurriyat Conference together, forging a common Kashmiri response to the SASB land transfer controversy and therefore was seen unfavorably by the state. Kashmiris launched a strong pro freedom movement and a conglomerate of different pro freedom parties, trade unions, transport unions etc under the name of the Coordination Committee was formed. By way of political backlash and whiplash the fanatic Hindus of Jammu felt instigated and fulminated in such a way that they literally imposed trade embargo on Kashmir to strangulate it economically. Kashmiri trucks were looted and burnt. Truck drivers were assaulted. This lasted for a couple of months.
In such a situation the Coordination Committee gave a call for a Muzaffarabad Chalo procession that would pass the Line of Control. Since Sopore had been the hub of resistance for many years, it was expected that it would be the epicenter of the call and that the rally would be taken out from Sopore only. Since there had been a complete shutdown from many days, people in the neighborhood would usually be discussing the situation and I came to know that trucks laden with fruits had assembled at Sopore Fruit Mandi and were ready for Muzaffarabad. Many of us did not expect that a procession depending upon fruit-sellers would go success, as they might not be able to stand firm against police action and being businessmen would not have much care for the movement. However, there was a possibility that they might go for do or die as their fruit would expire and bring them heavy loss if they would not reach the Muzaffarabad market in time.
I remember, the morning of the procession, I had left for the Sopore Main Chowk at early 9 am. I had left without giving a thought if anyone from my neighbourhood would be joining the protest, as this was a newly developed colony, and these people would not care to participate in such events. When I reached the place, around a hundred people had already gathered there, chanting pro freedom slogans. Suddenly, to my utter surprise I saw a cousin. That was a happy moment that I was together with a friend now.
At around 09:30 am, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, Shabir Ahmad Shah and Peer Saifullah of Tehreek e Hurriyat appeared in the main chowk. All the three got a rousing welcome among heavy slogans. Some youth who were pelting stones towards a nearby CRPF bunker stopped and gathered in the Chowk. After reciting Tilawat and Na’at, Peer Saifullah told people that they would soon march towards Muzaffarabad. He advised people to follow the leaders with utmost discipline. Shabir Ahmad Shah also spoke on the occasion and recited some Urdu couplets, charging the emotions of the people. The Leaders planned to move towards the Sopore fruit mandi.
Since that time, the personality of Shiekh Aziz has imprinted on my mind, in my fervor. I hugged him when the procession had left Main Chowk. It was my first hug with pro-freedom leader. Little did I know that it would be a first and last hug I would ever get of him. When the procession turned towards the Super Market near Iqbal Market, Indian troops fired teargas cannisters. The aerial firing left some of the protesters injured. However, the people still moved on and the troops had to leave the place for the people.
Upon reaching near Court Complex another procession was coming from an opposite side from the fruit mandi. The police was forced to move away and give safe passage to them. The police had punctured the tires of vehicle that were supposed to move towards Muzaffarabad with the fruits.
A sea of people could be seen. People from all walks of life were joining. I could see even the people of the Tablighi Jamat at forefront, while we were chasing away the troops near the Super Market. Even the children of National Conference families were part of this march. I saw a relative holding a big stick. It was a pleasant surprise as he had never been part of anything of this sort. Later on, when the procession reached near Sangrama it was again meted out by heavy force which left so many people injured and caused the death of a youth from Lalad village. A classmate of mine was shot by a soldier leaving him severely injured. This infuriated the people resulting in heavy clashes. Two police vehicles were also burnt on the spot. The vehemence of the movement, the passion for freedom and the eventfulness of the day still overwhelm when one remembers the day.
After reaching Delina one of my relatives complained of severe abdomen pain, so, we entered a nearby dispensary. The pain did not stop so we had to drop the plan of going with the procession. It was such a difficult moment, to make the choice of either joining with caravan or to remain back with the relative in need. We decided to stay! Many heavy vehicles now arrived carrying lawyers and other protesters. It was a caravan of freedom where everyone from a child to old was participating. I saw friends of my grandfather who were of his age, yet full of energy that day.
When I reached back to Sopore, we came to know that the procession had been stopped near Chahal, Uri. Almost every youth known to me had participated in the procession from our locality which usually remains calm during such unrests. It was alleged that Khursheed Khan, SHO of Sheeri Police Station had opened fire, resulting in the death of five people including Sheikh Abdul Aziz. Many protesters broke away from the procession, even though the leaders were asking them to move on no matter what. Many, along with Shabir Ahmad Shah and Peer Saifullah stayed there for many nights. Some people while returning back to Baramulla burnt the house of Khursheed Khan who was alleged to have fired upon the procession.
The seriously injured including Sheikh Abdul Aziz, were taken to SMHS where he breathed his last.
On 16th August 2008, about three lac people marched towards Pampore to express solidarity with the bereaved family.
The bravery shown by Sheikh Abdul Aziz by leading the historic rally earned him the title of “Shaheed e Azeemat.” Earlier the resistance leadership used to call for shutdown in Pampore to mark his death anniversary but now only a statement of paying glowing tributes are being presented.
(With thanks to Muhammad Azam Inquilabi and Murtaza Shibli for the details of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, published on some news websites.)
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