On February 2, 2012, I received a telephone call from Pakistan saying that Ashraf Qureshi had breathed his last at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was preparing myself for last one year to receive this bad news yet the news when broken to me caused me deep anguish. I telephoned his wife and children in Pakistan. We talked in cries. However the redeeming factor was that his dead body was being buried in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. I had talked about this matter with late Ashraf Sahib and many more friends in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir. I was convinced that Ashraf had himself expressed this desire in his will.
He was my childhood companion and friend. We lived in the same locality viz Saydpora in Nowhatta (Srinagar) distanced by just two buildings. They were seven brothers including Ashraf and two sisters. He was also my blood relation and he was elder to me by just a year and nine months.
He was what his name depicted; noble, silent, harmless, and extraordinarily courageous and with artistic bent of mind. After passing our days of childhood, we came to the stage of youthfulness and were gripped by the fever of Plebiscite Front. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was our icon. I was still a child when I developed fascination for Sheikh Abdullah. He once visited our house and took me in his lap. Ashraf was a fan of him. As a small boy he twice took me to Soura to come to the presence of Sheikh Abdullah at his residence. I think Ashraf was in communication with the Sheikh during latter’s internment in Kodikanal in Tamilnadu and also while he was in some other jail. It was Ashraf’s intense obsession for freedom that had brought him close to the tallest leader of the history of Kashmir freedom.
Nature had gifted him a calligraphic handwriting. His writing appeared like pearls spread out on a sheet of paper. He was an artist of great excellence. He strictly observed prayers and fasting. He and I would often give the call for prayer in the mosque in our locality. Should I decide to put the entire story about Ashraf Qureshi in black and white, it will make a thick volume.
In 1968, Maqbool Bhat escaped from Srinagar jail. When this news spread, we also began talking about it. A year later, I went to Pakistan along with my family for a visit. Ashraf had implored upon me that I should meet with valiant Maqbool Bhat without fail. After my return, his first question to me was whether I had met with Maqbool Bhat. I passed on my karakul cap to him saying, Maqbool Bhat was hidden in the cap. On asking me to elaborate what I meant, I told him that Bhat Sahib had scripted all instructions and the roadmap of National Liberation Front on paper that was hidden in the cap. Having discovered the instructions from Bhat Sahib, we began our mission by enlisting small groups of three to four persons. Ashraf, I and another friend of Rainawari named Advocate Ghulam Jeelani formed three groups. We wrote posters in hand and pasted them on walls in which we called for armed struggle. Ashraf was good at drawing and painted a Kashmiri with a gun in hand and inviting people for armed struggle for freedom under the banner of National Liberation Front. These posters were pasted at various places in the city like Lal Chowk, Jamia Masjid and the walls of colleges and schools. My connection with Maqb00l Bhat at that point of time was only through postcards with writing in code words.
It was decided that somebody or some people among us should join Bhat Sahib for receiving training in armed struggle. I was asked to undertake this job and I had to cross the border for entering into Pakistan territory. (Border crossing, the story of BSF, receiving training and my companion and guide Maqbool Bhat will be recounted in the second installment). After receiving commando and hijacking of airplane training, five persons were selected for various assignments in carrying on the mission.
Only Ashraf Sahib was ready to undertake the training. We made our preparations from July 1970 to January 1971. I began visiting the airport to note the departure time of the airplane, location and related things. Then I would share this information with Ashraf and discuss the matters. Generally we made exit from our homes separately and we would make a detour via Hari Parbat fort and then passing through Kathi Darwaza, would return home.
As I had received training in hijacking in Pakistan, we would make diagrams on all relevant details of the process of hijacking which I would make Ashraf learn from me. At that time Bhat Sahib sent us a message about hijacking through a certain person and we, in return, conveyed all that was happening here.
Ashraf Qureshi was a silent but serious type of man. But he was very intelligent, and courageous. In connection with the hijacking episode, Ashraf Sahib, Maqbool Bhat, Mir brothers Abdul Mannan Mir and Abdul Qayum Mir. G.M. Lone and I had to suffer most inhuman torture in the Shahi Fort.
I must make it clear that we were subjected to extreme torture in the Shahi Fort not for extracting any truth from us but for giving statements under clause 164 of police code. In this connection, details have appeared through different media at different times about late Dr. Farooq Haider, late Mir Brothers, G.M. Lone, Maqbool Bhat, late Ashraf Qureshi and I. However, here I would refer to record something about the torture to which Maqbool Bhat was subjected in Shahi Fort, Lahore. In one of his statements, Maqbool Bhat said “ I do not want to disclose the details of torture I and my friends met with in Shahi Fort because that might put the head of many sincere Pakistani friends to shame.”
Like his other companions, Ashraf Qureshi, too, became a victim of torture in Shahi Fort. From April 1971 to April 1972, we were imprisoned separately in different jails. Then we were tried in a special court. During that year we were occasionally put together either in Court Lakhpat jail or in Camp Jail Lahore. The court dismissed the case of alleged enemy agent against all of us. But we were given punishment for the charge of arms smuggling. Additionally, Ashraf and I were charged also for illegal confinement of passengers and for setting the airplane on fire. Excepting me, all of my companions were counted for the period spent in jails and till the rising of the court. We had spent two years in police custody.
Ashraf Qureshi decided to continue his education. He stayed in the house of a friend Ghulam Ahmad Bhat in Lahore who ran small carpet business and helped him in his business. He sought admission in the Punjab University in the field of Geology and Mining. In the year 1981-82, he had passed M.A. in first division with Geology and Mining as a subject. But he continued his studies in the face of many hardships which, if recounted in full detail, would make a thick volume. He had to cool the heels at the doorsteps of the lawyers in my case and he would waste hours is going around the prison walls to find an opportunity of meeting with me. From 1982 to 1986, he did not succeed to find any job in any organization. The Special Court had declared him a patriotic citizen. He had established liaison with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Ahmad Reza Qasuri, Hafeez Pirzadah and Doctor Mubashir Hasan. But despite all these connections with high ups, he could not find employment. In the meanwhile he got married with a Kashmiri origin girl of Kawsa family in 1984-5. It is 27 years since the day and I have not seen a woman nobler than Samina Bhabi. She never let Ashraf Qureshi become dejected in days of hardships, misfortune, unemployment and illness. She served him with utmost devotion.
In 1986 the case of Ashraf Qureshi came to the notice of Mian Nawaz Sharief, and he, the son of Kashmir, did not disappoint Ashraf. Though he was a geologist, but was appointed as junior lecturer in the Department of Kashmiri language in the University of Punjab. The one supposed by profession to dig the earth, was deployed to exhume the buried Kashmiri language from the soil of Pakistan. In the course of time, he obtained the degree of Ph. D in Kashmiri. He gave new life to Kashmiri language in Azad Kashmir. He became head of the Kashmiri department and had a long list of boys and girls of Kashmiri migrants in Pakistan who learnt and became proficient in Kashmiri language.
Ashraf was afflicted with Parkinson disease in 1993. The reason was the martyrdom of his two brothers in Srinagar. Altaf Qureshi was first SLF and later on became the chief of Ikhwanu’l-Muslimeen. He was killed on October 04, 1992 in the course of “catch and kill” programme. Of course he had been betrayed by a friend who was also an informer. Barely forty days after his death, Ashraf’s fourth brother Tabasum Qureshi met with custodial death. The event of martyrdom of his brothers broke him down emotionally as well as physically. We even didn’t inform him about his father’s death that died last year in December as that time he was very ill. He was afflicted with Parkinson disease which ultimately consumed him. His illness had increased a year ago and remained in ICU for three months in Lahore.
Though he had practically withdrawn from political life yet he remained closely connected with Kashmir cause. He served Kashmiri language with full dedication. Kashmiri migrants were on the brink of forgetting their mother tongue. In Azad Kashmir only a few Kashmiri families spoke it. He created a large group of boys ad girls who acquired their mother tongue and won degrees in it.
In regard to politics he used to say that: “Unless Kashmiris forget small bickering and differences and unite the people to retrieve entire Kashmir on either side of the dividing line nothing can be achieved. Unless Kashmiris do not get rid of slavery of receiving salaries from agencies, the people on both sides of the live will continue to face hardships. Not only that, till then we make our future generations victims of ideological confusion.”
I shall recount two incidents related to Ashraf Qureshi’s bravery. During interrogation and torture in Shahi Fort, the SP used abusive words against him. Despite being in shackles, he managed to hit the SP a hard blow of his head on his nose. In another incident we had come together in the meeting room. One prisoner tried to drive a knife into the body of another prisoner. But before he would have stabbed his adversary Ashraf snatched the knife from his hands and saved the victim’s life. In the process he received severe wound on his hand.
A thousand tales are hidden in every minute of Ashraf’s life. To me he was not only a consoling friend but also a sincere and affectionate elder brother. I will say that in my life of violent speed and motion he proved to be something like a speed breaker. He did not know how to express in words sentiment of love and emotion; he would give a proof of it through deeds which spoke eloquently how close and how sincere he was to others. He had deep and indestructible love for Maqbool Bhat’s thoughts and ideas. He eased my difficulties and problems by giving me valuable advice from time to time.
God Almighty grant patience to his wife Samina Bhabhi, and his daughters Asha and Hira. May God Almighty infuse all that pain and sensibility, all that love and emotions that filled the heart of Ashraf and the love he had for his motherland and his compatriots let all that be bestowed upon us. I have no hesitation in saying that people like Ashraf Qurshi are a source of pride not only for their family, or for their compatriots but for the entire humanity.
“You have left us but
In fact the spring has left us”
This article was published in Daily 'Greater Kashmir' on 28th March 2012.