Why ‘Lion of Baramulla’ Maqbool Sherwani’s Fight For Cause Of Secularism And India’s Unity Must Not Go In Vain

The Editor Of A Leading National Daily Speaks To Faizal Aziz About Discovering The Martyrdom Of Maqbool Sherwani And His Significance For The Nation

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Hindu-Muslim-Sikh Itihad, Azad Hindustan Zindabad. To save my Hindu, Sikh and Muslim sisters from the brutal hands of the raiders, I sacrifice myself

Maqbool Sherwani

These words, spoken 75 years ago by a youth from Baramulla are reverberating today. Poet, political activist, and more importantly a staunch nationalist, Maqbool Sherwani is regarded as the man who saved Kashmir from the Pakistani raiders in 1947. Brutally tortured, crucified and then shot, Sherwani is celebrated as the ‘Lion of Baramulla’.

Mahatma Gandhi Hailed Sherwani’s Martyrdom At Prayer Meet In Delhi

Anand brings out exactly this paradox through Sherwani, as he writes: “These are not Muslim brethren, who have come attacking us! If they were brothers, they would have talked to us—not begun to murder us! Do you realise what they have done in Baramulla? These “Muslim brothers”! In their holy war? They have looted both Hindus and Muslims… And they took the shame of women… And they now say we are with them!!!”

Sherwani, a Kashmiri Muslim, was one of the earliest martyrs of free India who died for the cause of secularism and Indian unity. Two weeks after his death, at a prayer meeting in Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi said: “This was a martyrdom of which anyone, be he Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or any other, would be proud.” But it has taken India several years to disinter the story of Sherwani and his valour—who fought for keeping Kashmir an integral part of the country—to make it mainstream.

But for years, Sherwani, who was the first to fight a war with Pakistani raiders to save Kashmir for free India, was a neglected and forgotten man. He was just a footnote in the annals of history that was buried in the cobweb of politics. His lore has been well documented by none other than Mulk Raj Anand.

Mulk Raj Anand was one of the first India-based writers in English to gain an international readership. Anand’s novella Death of a Hero: Epitaph for Maqbool Sherwani was published in 1963. Those who read it marveled at this hero who is now part of folklore. It is unfortunate that Sherwani was never mainstreamed. He never made it into the pages of the history books. Maqbool Sherwani remained an unsung hero of India’s freedom struggle.

So I was a bit surprised when I got a call from a dear friend as I was travelling south of the Vindhyas, jolting me out of the reverie as I passed through the verdant landscape that dots the countryside. My friend asked me to study Maqbool Sherwani at length and write on him.

From thousands of miles away, it was a gentle request from my friend – that it is high time Sherwani’s supreme sacrifice was acknowledged and immortalised by mainstream India. I couldn’t turn down the request. For, after all, Sherwani fought and died for the country. He fought and died for us.

Sherwani Stood For Religious Tolerance

As I racked my brain to remember Sherwani and his exploits, the first thing that struck me was how Mulk Raj Anand had brought Sherwani back to life through his novella. It is through Sherwani that Anand gave us a glimpse of Kashmir of those times and what was in store for the future. “The situation has arisen all in three days, in which every Kashmiri would be tested. Those who believed in God would accept their fate as though it was the trial on judgement day. But those who hoped for a new morning for Kashmir would have to fight, because only through survival would there be a chance to metamorphose the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of the young from the past servility,” wrote Anand in his book on Sherwani.

Sherwani stood for the young, for those who fought to free themselves from the past servility. He stood for religious tolerance and the idea of secularism.

Margeret Bourke-White, a reporter for Life magazine, visited Baramulla in December 1947. She described Sherwani as “a sort of Robin Hood character, from the stories the townspeople told me. His martyrdom had taken place almost under the shadow of the convent walls”.

Margeret Bourke-White portrayed Sherwani as a champion of religious tolerance who had sought to frustrate the Pakistani raiders’ advance. He was captured and crucified, with nails dug through his hands. The words, ‘The punishment of a traitor is death’ were scratched crudely on his forehead. “Once more Sherwani cried out, ‘Victory to Hindu-Muslim unity’, and 14 tribesmen shot bullets into his body,” she recounted.

Sherwani stood for the young, for those who fought to free themselves from the past servility. He stood for religious tolerance and the idea of secularism

Bourke-White’s recollections from her trip to Baramulla belie the myth about Kashmir and Kashmiris. Her report, written in 1947, again establishes that Kashmiris stood staunchly for the idea of India.

Need To Mainstream Sherwani’s Martyrdom

For long, Kashmir has been seen from the lens of the single-story syndrome of separatist agenda. Only the dark and negative aspects of the state have been portrayed nationally and internationally. A pattern has been established that Kashmiris are spoken about through the prism of alienation, separatism, and militancy and that has been mainstreamed.

It is high time that martyrs like Sherwani are given the rightful place and introduced in the pages of history. The intensity of his loyalty and commitment to the motherland need to be taken to mainland India and made an example before the “secular brigade”, which is high on rhetoric and low on actions.

Mulk Raj Anand’s Epitaph for Maqbool Sherwani

This is the harrowing true story of a poet who was crucified by wild Pathan terrorists sent to capture Kashmir, a few days after the Maharaja’s accession to free India in 1947. Rising above the dangers of his return to his hometown, Baramulla, on the behest of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah and his patriotic council, who had preferred liberty in secular Indian rather than join Pak theocracy, Maqbool Sherwani goes through terror unleashed by mercenary guerillas to face the nightmare of loot and killing of the invaders.

Betrayed by greedy men who succumbed to the lure of money and power, he was caught after a chase to face his tormentors. Maqbool Sherwani was brutally tortured and finally shot after a mock trial. In Mulk Raj Anand’s Epitaph for Maqbool Sherwani, the martyr leaves behind a tender letter to his sister about his belief in future of the struggle for hope against despair. This short novel has been called by an eminent critic as one of Mulk Raj Anand’s “highest achievements.”

As I did a deep dive into Sherwani and his philosophy and ideology of ‘One India’, I was almost embarrassed to accept how mainstream India has neglected and forgotten people like the ‘Hero of Baramulla’. If only we had given Sherwani and his ilk their rightful place, Baramulla would not have been marked by deep radicalisation and indoctrination by Pakistan. But we forgot Sherwani and his ilk. Indoctrination by Pakistan brought us to a point where a Pakistani victory over India in a cricket match is celebrated across the town.

It is high time that martyrs like Sherwani are given the rightful place and introduced in the pages of history. The intensity of his loyalty and commitment to the motherland need to be taken to mainland India and made an example before the “secular brigade”, which is high on rhetoric and low on actions

India has finally started to venerate Maqbool Sherwani. His story of heroism and valour has been recounted. It is fitting that Maqbool Sherwani remains an inspiration not only for the Kashmiris but also Indians across the country—young and old. Today, when we speak of secularism and unity, it is Sherwani who stands as the true testimony of these values, and it is this spirit of his that should be spread across the country.

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