The long arm of History

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

In a move that has profound political importance, the J&K government is working on a proposal to reclaim the mortal remains of a 16th-century Kashmiri king Yusuf Shah Chak who is buried in Bihar. The state’s Ministry of Culture headed by senior PDP leader Haseeb Drabu will approach the Bihar government for the purpose.

In popular memory, Chak is known as the “last independent king” of Kashmir. It is his confrontation with Mughal emperor Akbar, who later imprisoned and exiled him to Bihar, which relates him to the current political situation in the state. In the words of the writer Basharat Peer, Chak has become “the metaphor for the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar”.

Chak ruled from 1579 to 1586. His story has royal intrigue and a dash of romance and war. Chak was married to the famous Kashmiri peasant poetess Zoon (Kashmiri word for moon). In local folklore, he is said to have met her during one of his solitary horse rides through the hills around village Chandhor in the outskirts of Srinagar. In Bollywood style, Zoon was singing her poetry at the time.

Though Zoon was married to a local peasant, she eloped with Chak and became queen Habba Khatoon.

Dark clouds gathered over Kashmir soon after. Akbar, who nursed a grudge against the ruler of the small kingdom for not appearing in his court and paying respects, invaded Kashmir. According to historical accounts, in 1585, Raja Bhagwan Das led a 5,000 strong Mughal Army but had to open negotiations after he suffered reverses in the war.

The terms of agreement echo the 1952 Delhi Agreement between Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. It allowed Kashmir the autonomy for conducting its internal affairs and Chak was to remain the ruler but under Mughal suzerainty. It also envisaged complete withdrawal of Mughal forces from the valley “but the coins were to be minted and Khutba (Friday sermons) recited in the name of Emperor Akbar”.

However, when Chak presented himself before the emperor for ratification of the treaty a year later, he was not allowed to return to Kashmir. Akbar first imprisoned and then exiled him to Bihar. He was granted a mansab of 500 horses. And it is here that he died in 1592 and was buried at Biswak in Nalanda district. Before partition, the village was locally known as Kashmiri Chak. In the 1970s, the then J&K chief minister Sheikh Abdullah also visited the grave and built a tomb there. He is said to have funded the construction of a road to the grave which is called the Sheikh Abdullah road.

Though Kashmir was ruled for some time by Chak’s son Yaqub Shah, Mughals invaded again and annexed the kingdom to their empire.

In 1989, film maker Muzaffar Ali began shooting a movie on this period with Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna playing the lead roles of Khatoon and Chak respectively. Eponymously titled Zooni, the film supported by the then J&K chief minister Farooq Abdullah was shelved after militancy broke out in the state.

Why does the state government want Chak’s remains back? “We want to bury them in Kashmir as a mark of respect to him,” said an official.

In the past, the PDP has occasionally invoked his name in light of its self-rule proposal for J&K. In 2006, the PDP patron Mufti Sayeed cited the Chak era as his party’s Kashmir political ideal.

“We want four hundred-year-old era of Yusuf Shah Chak to return and want our own government,” Mufti said in a speech. “Formulation of the self-rule is within the ambit of the Indian Constitution but we want abolition of Article 356, which empowers the President of India to dismiss the state government. Once self-rule is implemented, J&K would have an elected governor,” Mufti said.

Incidentally, Chak is the third Kashmiri whose mortal remains are sought by Kashmiri political groups after the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Bhat who was hanged in 1984 and the parliament attack convict Afzal Guru who was hanged in 2013. Both of them are buried in Tihar.

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