Down The Memory LaneThe Mahatmas Kashmir Mission By Ikbal Kaul A glimpse of Mahatma Gandhi in Srinagar on Aug 1, 1947 is a blessing and a lifetime memento chiselled in my mind. I had a double hat trick of Darshans, the first one for a fleeting moment, just a breath away. In all conscience, it was the close encounter of the first kind. It was a reward for a back-breaking, four-hour footslog of over 16 km and the patient waiting of six hours and more, with a growling belly to boot. For me, it was a lucky break because six months later he was no more, a dastardly assassin having snuffed his life.
I had watched other top-notch freedom fighters, though from a distance from the reverfront. They would be streaming up and down through the Jhelum in the ceremonial Pirandah boats. A huge procession of Shikaras would be following their wake. The river procession is the sophisticated style of extending a right royal reception to a high dignitary visiting the Valley.
The tradition of the Pirandah procession goes back to far-past ages. This is borne out by Kalhyana, the first historian of India, in his far-famed Rajatarangini. The all-white Pirandah fleet was always the monopoly of the state. The longest could be rowed by 50 oars, the boatmen all liveried in the white. No boat in the world can match the elegance of the Pirandah. The reason is simple. They are the giant-sized version of the pint-sized Shikara.
From 1944, I had been the celebrated leaders, like Nehru, Abdul Gaffar Khan, Azad, Kripalani, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Nehru, even Indira, Jinnah, et el. To see them, we did not have to bend forwards or backwards, traverse of fret and fume while waiting. All we had to do was to just sit on the step-down Ghat on the riverfront.
The cadres of the National Conference would shout slogans on the national integration and long life of the leader which would rend the air. On the contrary, the rival Kashmir Muslim Conference (MC) cadres would chant their disapproval, beat their breasts, drop their trousers to display their bare members and holler their death-to and down-with slogans against the Congress leaders.
Spring was thrown into a tizzy when the word spread on the impending visit of the Mahatma on August 1. He was arriving in the afternoon and halting at the residence of the contractor, Kishori Lal Sethi, at Khurshid Bagh. It was located in Bagat-i-Barzala, a celebrated fruit belt between the airport and city. All types of fruits were grown here. But alas! modern civilisation has quickened the obliteration process of the orchards. Its greater part is now given to housing.
The news spread like a wild fire in our Gurgari Mohalla, a downtown Muslim majority locality, spread over a vast area from Zaina Kadal to Ali Kadal. All Kashmiris, Muslims and Pandits, were living here check by jowl in peaceful coexistance and total harmony.
There were about 40 Pandit families and 100 over Muslim households. Of the latter, five were devoted to the cause of the NC. The vast majority were the votaries of the MC, owing allegience to Jinnahs Muslim League. It was led by Maulvi Yusuf Shah, the Grand Mufti of the Jama Masjid. Because the Maulvi was sporting a goatee, he was called a Bakra, the Billy Goat. Thus his followers carried thsi totemic name, which is still current.
The NC cadres were called Sher after the Lion of Kashmir, Sher-i-Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah. I am not aware as to how he acquired this honourfic. But the MC activists reviled him as Abdullah Gadah, or Abdulla the Fishmonger. He hailed from Souvra, a little village near the famed shrine of Vicharnag, whose folks were partly eking out their living by fishing from the neary Anchar Lake.
A hurried morning meal and after wangling a few pennies from my mother, Indira Kaul, I was off to a rendezvoux with my palls at Anand Kaul Bamzais Yarabal. Built in 1917, the Ghat was named after its vbuilder and the first Executive President of the Srinagar Municipality (1913-25), and the first Kashmiri to hold such a high position.
We were ten of us, all first/second year intermediate students of the SP College. We were bubbling with raw energy, enthusiasm and initiative. All were streetsmart teenagers always and watchful and wary of gay predators.
The gay affliction was attributed to simple reasons. The closure of the redlight area of Tashawan by Maharaj aPratap Singh and the general poverty. Some poor Muslim scould not afford a wife or would not be given one in marriage. Such people had a roving eye and had developed gay tastes.
Later, it was attributed to psycho-somatic causes. Now it has conclusively been established to be a genetic disorder. The gay gene triggering the malady was located by Prof.
The disease is endemic in, what I would liike to call, the gay crescent and is indeed a Semitic gift to India.
We, therefore, always moved in a group, particularly the three of us-DP Zutshi, JL Kadalbuju and yours truely. We were called the insperable trio. We could take on anythign and anybody anywhere, from sports to card playing, particularly flush, from exursions to expeditions, all footsloging experiences. We gave two hoots to anybody, however, high and mighty he may be. Many a holigan and hoodlum, mobstar and mafiosi, who had carved out an empire on our college route, rued the day when they tangled with us. After many face-offs, we were given unrestricted right of way.
The trek to Barzalla was a loves labour. We took the outer-city route-Nawa Bazaar-Karan Nagar-Hazuri Bagh-Ram Bagh route. It was far from the madding crowds. It freed us from the slow-moving traffic of the congested inner city roads, all muddy, though metalled. Pedestrians, cyclists and tongas, all would wend their way cheek by jowl through them. There was nly a tricle of the traffic on the outer city route. Lories and fruit-loadede trucks were on their way to Rawalpindi, Abbotabad and Lahore.
We reached Barzalla after walking for three hours and more. In all, we covered about 16 km from four turf. The whole area was given to orchards. The trees were heavy with fruit--almonds, apples, grapes, peaches, pears and what you have. There was that rarity in India, the quince, which can be savoured only by a Kashmiri. The thick fruit clusters had forced the branches to bow to the good earth.
There mnust have been a path leading to the Sethi House. But we could not locate it. As a result, we had to wend our way through the bramble thickets and bracken patches. We suffered many a tear on our bodies and clothes because we had to scale barbed wire fencings and stone walls.
At long last, our effort was rewarded. We had reached our destination arround 1.30 PM, dead-beat and dogtired, bruised and famished. Green ivy leaves screned the double storey mansion, all balmy to our sore eyes, and peek-a-boo patches in fresh whitewash. But lo and behold ! The whole village and his wife, it seemed, had turned up in the garden. Every flower bed and bower, every corner and crany, every nook and niche was teeming with people.
A big garden was surrounding the Sethi House, providing it with a riot of colours, enchanting fragrances and nesting places for bees, birds and butterflies. A wide variety of flowers were dancing in the breezse. Their sweet smell and the aroma of the freshly turned flower beds lent the environment an exotic cocktail of fragrances, diffused by the passing wind.
The contractors staff could not tell us when Bapu would be arriving. We wer asked to cool our heels and display patience. Then started our long wait, forcing our devils workshops to remain idle. Hungry like wolves, we could not easily live off the land. There were too many watchful eyes around, keeping tabs on us and the fruit trees.
So every now again we would foray to the tap to fill our tanks or to a far-off bush to relieve our bladder. While walking we would all too suddenly sneak behind a tree, stretch our hands upwards and snatch a juicy, red, robust and round apple. All this was done in the blink of an eye. The dextrisity of our hands was to be seen to be believed. The watchdogs of the contractor never got wise to our sheneganians.
Finally, came the moment around 6 PM when Bapus imminent arrival was heralded. A great to-do ensued. There was a mad scramble ffor vantage points. In the mad melee, I nimbly sneaked into the ground floor corridors of the Sethi House and lined up along with others, and savoured his presence from ten metres.
Gandhiji gingerly stepped out of the car, and climbed up the steps of of the porch and walked through the narrow passage. He was holding his well-known walking staff in his right hand, wearing his lioncloth with a Khadi cotton shawl astride his both shoulders.
He looked tired. He should be. The 78 years of stressful life were not sitting lightly on him. Besides, he had a trying and testing time at Baramulla, whose account was given in the next days morningers. An unruly and violent MC mob had demostrated against Gandhiji and had smashed his cars window panes. He had desired to be with them and listen to their grievances. But the police restrained him.
Begum Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad were flanking him. Other big wig and minor fry of the NC were following them. The Begum had welcomed Gandhiji at Chhatabal, on the northern rim of Srinagar. The Bakshi was acting as the President of the NC in the absence of the Sher-i-Kashmir who was imprisoned for launching the Quit Kashmir campaign on May 15, 1946, a la the Do or Die Movement of the Mahatma. The Bakshi had received him at Ralwapindi and escorted him to Srinagar.
Gandhiji walked in frojnt of me, just a whisker away. I croacked my greeting with my folded hands and raised them up in salutation. He looked at me for a brief moment, a half toothless smile playing on his lips, and a twinkle in his eyes and returned my greetings.
But seeing one too many unfamiliar faces in the small passage, the Bakshi flew off the handle and barked at his minions to clear it. So all of us were shoed away and bundled out uncerimoniously. Outside was all bedlam. The vast hoards were clamouring for his Darshan.
The Mahatama came out, stood on the brightly lit balcony, paused for a moment, probably to get a feel of the scene and guage the pulse of the public. Then he raised his both hands and showered his blessings. The cheering throngs gave him a standing ovation and roar of Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai ripped the air. A few minutes later he withdrew into the room. The mad multitude, however, was not satiated.
The shout went up again : "Bapu come out! Give us your blessings". He had no other go but to come out again. But this was not enough and the clamour went on unabated. So he had to come out again not once, but as many as five times to satisfy the throngs!
I monkeyed up a tree for the Darshan. An hour and more had passed by the time he had given his fifth and final Darshan. The crowds then started to thin out. I climbed down from my perch and tried to locate my peers. I could find them nowhere in my close proximity.
So I contracted my mouth to whistle. We had perfected a special signature tune as a group call sign. It had a distinct tune. There was a return call and we whistled in unison. Then a cacophony of whistles started all over and the Sethi Mansion reverbrated with them. But we coul deasily recognise our own calls. So I made a beeline for the main gate and waited for my pals. Soon all of us assembled and set on our return journey, singing and whistling all the way, forgetting the pain of our hunger. We reached our homes around 11 PM.
The whole exercise, I consoled my famished body and wearied bones, but uplifted soul, was worth it. That Friday, Aug 1, 11947, was six times blessed day for me, just two weeks before my manumission.
The last earthly mission of the Mahatma, "who humbled an empire, and colonialism," it may be recalled in conclusion, was wrecked by the machinations of a dirty troika for sheer self-aggrandisement. The gang of three--the megalomaniac Maharaja Hari Singh, pipedreaming and bonedigger--turned-Premier, RC Kak, and the J&K edition of Rasputin and eminence gris of the Dogra court, Swami Santdev--went ouf otheir way to frustrate the last-ditch effort of the Mahatma. Between them, they hatched a conspiracy of the Himalayan dimensinos, for which the nation has been bleeding for the past call and we whistled in unison. Then a cacophony of whistles started all over and the Sethi Mansion reverberated with them. But we could easily recognise our own calls. So I made a beeline for the main gate and waited for my pals. Soon all of us assembled and set on our return journey, singing and whistling all the way, forgetting the pain of our hunger. We reached our homes around 11 PM.
The whole exercise, I consolded my famished body and wearied bones, but uplifted soul, was worth it. That Friday, August 1, 1947, was six times blessed day for me, just two weeks before my manumission.
The last earthly mission of the Mahatma, "who humbled an empire and colonialism," it may be recalled in conclusion, was to explode the two-nation theory of Jinnah. The last nail in the coffin of the pernicious theory could only be driven by Kashmir, the Muslim majority state, joining the Indian Union. But Maharaja Hari Singh had other ideas. He was dreaming of hacking an independent empire from the wreckages of the British colonalism.
Gandhiji had undertaken the Srinagar mission from Delhi to persuade the wavering Maharaja to turn around from his unrighteous path. He had two meetings with Premier RC Kak and one each with the Maharaja and Maharani Tara Devi. He was allowed only three prayer meetings and his public speeches were banned. "I made no speeches," wrote Gandhiji later in the Harijan. All his three-day effort come a copper, however.
The Mahatmas mission was wrecked by the machinations of a dirty troika for sheer self-aggrandisement. The gang of three--the megalomaniac Maharaja, pipedreaming and bonedigger-turned-primer Kak and thre J&K edition of Rasputin and eminence gris of the Dogra court, Swami Sant Dev--went out of their way to frustrate the last ditch effort of the Mahatma. Between them, they hatched a conspiracy of the Himalayan dimensions, for which the nation has been bleeding for the past 50 years. In all conscience, history will never forgive them.
There was a dramatic denoument to the Maharajas independence exercise. In the process he also met with poetic justice. He was stampeded to seek shelter with Mother India just 87 days after he so unkindly had rebuffed the Mahatma. The prodigal returned home when he was forced to run for his life to Jammu by the Pak marauders.
The Afridis of NWFP attacked Kashmir on October 22, and days later they wer knocking at the Srinagar gates. The invaders had been inspired, aided and abetted by Jinnah and Co. This was later reluctantly acknowledged by Pakistan in the UN. Gandhijis stand was thus vicariously vindicated. His famous one-liner speakers volumes : "I see a ray of hope in Kashmir"
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