Last Days of Maqbool Bhat

When the holy Qur’an was placed before Mohammed Maqbool Bhat on the morning of February 11, 1984, he knew that death awaited him in the phansi kothi a few yards away. A high voltage bulb burning outside the grated doors of his solitary cell in the death row was indicative of the outside darkness. If he had had any hopes of living awhile yet, they were dashed by the presence of the prison doctors. Jail superintendent, A B Shukla had paid Bhat a visit in the middle of the previous night. Shukla chatted with him for a long time but cautiously avoided any talk about the execution.

“I will see you on Monday”, Bhat’s counsel on record, the sallow-complexioned R.C. Pathak, had told him during a brief interview they were allowed on the evening of February 10. In response, the condemned Kashmir Liberation Front leader, who was awarded the death sentence on charges of the murder of a CID officer in 1966, had meaningfully remarked: “Do you think they will permit us a second meeting?” He was right! Bhat was not allowed to meet anybody else before his execution, not even his brother Ghulam Nabi whom the police had arrested the same day at Srinagar airport while boarding a flight to Delhi for a last meeting with Bhat.

Maqbool Bhat must have been aware that he was going to be hanged when he was shifted from ward number one, where he was lodged till the Supreme Court rejected the petition filed by his lawyers to save him from the gallows, to the death row adjacent to the open courtyard known as phansi kothi, where the hangings take place. He already knew that his mercy petition, pending since 1977, had been rejected and that nemesis was round the corner.

What Bhat was probably not aware of was that the jail in which he was to be hanged would also become his burial ground. As there was no close relative or friend of his to take possession of the body after the execution, it was buried in the premises of the Tihar Jail complex about an hour after B N Kundu, the , medical officer” declared him dead at 8 a.m.-when the body was lowered into the 15 feet deep pit after the stipulated 30-minute hanging.

As Fakira, Tihar Jail’s stock executioner who was summoned from Patiala, pulled the lever to make the wooden floor covering the pit collapse, Bhat became the 12th prisoner to be hanged in Tihar over the past decade. He was, however, the first to have been buried inside his prison. The body was wrapped in a 22-yard shroud before being lowered into the grave following the last rites, performed by an imam, identified as one Mohammed Khan, and 10 Muslim inmates of the prison. “Rose water was sprinkled and the mortal remains were placed on a wooden plank before being put in the grave,” said a jail official.

Bhat’s attorney, Muzaffar Beg and his two lawyers, R M Tufail and R C Pathak, kept waiting outside the jail complex quite oblivious of the government decision, taken at the highest level, to bury the body in Tihar itself. It was only after the executed prisoner had been laid to rest that they realised what had happened. While talking to reporters at the time of the hanging, Beg claimed he was authorised to receive Bhat’s body. He was, however, not hopeful of any such “magnanimity” on the part of the jail staff.

Bhat’s Will

The jail officials, who had willingly parted with information after the previous hangings of Billa and Ranga on January 30, 1982 and of the two Vidya Jain murder case accused on October 9 last year, adopted an unusually tight-lipped posture this time. The only comment District Magistrate R S Sethi made to newsmen while coming out of the prison gate shortly after 8 a.m. was: “The execution went off all right. Bhat was hanged at 7.30 a.m. as per the execution warrants sent to us from Jammu.” To all other questions by a battery of newsmen representing the national and the international press, Sethi’s answer was a trite “no comment”. When some-body wanted to know the contents of Bhat’s will recorded by Sub-Divisional Magistrate S K Gatwal, he said: “It’s a secret …“

Tight security prevailed in and around the Tihar premises with hundreds of gun-totting Delhi police and BSF jawans on duty at the main entrance and around the periphery of the prison. Traffic was disallowed on the main road for some time. Though newsmen were allowed to enter the jail premises, for all, others including Bhat’s lawyers, the area was out of bounds. The security agencies had become extra cautious after an unsuccessful bid by two Kashmiri youths to kidnap the son and wife of Ghulam Nabi Azad, deputy minister for information and broadcasting on the afternoon of February 10 from his Rajaji Road house. A top police officer said that all government buildings and important installations, especially in Delhi, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, had been placed under strict vigil.

Top-gear security measures were also in force at and around the houses of various ministers, especially those who had anything to do with Kashmir. This even included the house of Arun Nehru, a trusted aide of Rajiv Gandhi, who has been actively involved in Kashmir politics. ‘

The Intelligence Bureau, keeping m mind the dual threat posed by the Punjab extremists and the Kashmir Liberation Front, had issued a special circular warning against “letter bombs”.’ Teams of anti-sabotage experts were also pressed into action to train the staff handling the daily mail, at various ministries and government offices.

In view of the strict instructions from the top, jail officials fought shy of the press. However, information gleaned by The Week from different sources indicates that Bhat was woken up by the head warder at around 5.30 a.m., after which he was made to bathe and given time to read the Quran Sharif. Shukla read out the death warrant to Bhat when he finished with his morning tea shortly, before the hanging. “Bhat was very good at hiding emotions. But I think at that moment he appeared a little crest-fallen,” remarked a jail employee. Bhat however, managed to regain his composure soon after and began dictating the will to Gathwal.


Five officers were present in the phansi kothi when Bhat, wearing, a black kurta and pyjama, was escorted in by D’Souza, the deputy superintendent, a head warder and six warders, one of whom held his pinioned arms. Fakira wrapped his legs and covered his face with a hood before putting the noose around his neck.

Death came instantly to Bhat, unlike in several other cases when executioners have had to get into the pit and pull the legs of the condemned prisoner to ensure that they were dead. This happened in the case of Ranga, as his legs curved upwards the moment the hangman pulled the lever to remove the support from under his feet.

Pathak, the only outsider who could meet Bhat before the hanging, told this correspondent that Bhat appeared confident and unruffled. “It seems that he had not shaved for one or two days. He was wearing a kurta payjama and a jacket …” The lawyer claimed that during the ten-minute long interview Bhat said that his body be handed over to his younger brother and his belongings, which have been arranged in a coffee container, be delivered to his family.

It was not immediately known whether Bhat has repeated these desires in the will or not. The lawyer had met him in cell number two in the death row in the presence of jail officials, including Shukla. Beig, the prisoner’s attorney who also wanted to meet Bhat but was refused the interview, said: “If it is a political will it will never be given to us … We also don’t hope to get the papers he had left behind if they are of sensitive nature.”

Beig claimed that foreign currency worth nearly Rs 20,000 was sent to him sometime back by some Harvard graduates to help him meet the court expenses. “A part of this money has been spent on Pathak’s travel in connection with the case, but the rest is with the jail authorities,” he added. Himself a graduate from Harward, Beig said that he had two meetings with Bhat in Tihar jail Where he was shifted on July 23, 1976. During one of these meetings Bhat reportedly said: “I want a fair trial for my people and myself. But I don’t expect to get it in this subcontinent. .. “

A knowledgeable government official reacted sharply when confronted with Bhat’s statements as quoted by Beig. “It is a brazen attempt at eulogising a man who joined hands with enemies to indulge in subversive activities. Go and talk to the family of the bank manager he killed and then only will you get his true, picture …” the official reacted.

In the jail, Bhat spent most of his time reading books. A Tihar employee who carme across the extremist leader on many occasions said that each time anybody inquired about Bhat’s welfare, he would say: “Allah ka shukr hai. Time pass kar rahen hain. Muqadar main jo likha hai woh to jhelna he padta hai”(I am thankful to God. I am just passing my time. One has to face all that is written in fate). Many other junior employees to whom THE WEEK talked said that Bhat always exuded confidence. 

One employee said that his long stay in the jail had made Bhat look old “unlike his pictures one saw in the newspapers. He had plenty of grey hair and it seems he suffered either from constipation or piles … Many a time he asked the visiting doctors to treat him for piles.’’’ Beig said that though officially Bhat was said to be 45 years ‘old, his real age was 48.

Clarity of thought

An Intelligence Bureau officer who had interrogated Bhat after his arrest in 1966 for the murder of the police head constable, said almost the entire interrogation team was impressed by “his clarity of thought, manner of speech and knowledge of various political ideologies, including Maoism.” This officer said among those who questioned Bhat then was the’ then deputy inspector general (CID) of J&K police, who is now holding a top post in a central security organisation.

The 1966 arrest of Bhat was a sequel to a fierce encounter with the BSF and the police, in which an accomplice of his was killed, two were arrested and one, Amanullah Khan, who is now the president of the London-based Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, escaped to Pakistan. The other two arrested besides Bhat were ex-subedars of Pakistan army. Bhat was in possession of a revolver, a pair of binoculars, a thermos flask and some books at the time of his arrest.

During his interrogation, Bhat reportedly told the police that “our principle is to surrender, when overpowered. And once we are caught we have nothing to hide.” This statement, however, runs contrary to the general image of this maverick, who had once boasted before a judge that “nobody has the rope which can hang me.” One wonders whether he remembered these words while walking to his execution.

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