Unsung Heroes | History Corner | Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Ministry of Culture, Government of India

Unsung Heroes Detail

Paying tribute to India’s freedom fighters

Maqbool Sherwani

Baramulla, Jammu & Kashmir

July 13, 2022

Maqbool Sherwani was born in a Muslim family of Mohammad Abdullah Sherwani, at Baramulla, about 34 miles away from Srinagar. The family-owned a small soap factory. Since his adolescence, Sherwani was actively associated with the political activities of the region. He joined National Conference in 1939 and in due course of time, began to be recognized as a staunch National Conference activist in Baramulla. Reading poems of Faiz, Mazrooh, Jafri, Sahir, Nadim, etc by borrowed books heightened his emotion to a pitch making him a champion of religious tolerance. Secular to the core of his heart, Sherwani made the idea of secularism his political and personal ideology and imparted profound importance to its practice.

Young and enthusiastic Sherwani came into much prominence when Mohammad Ali Jinnah came to Kashmir in May 1944. While addressing the mammoth gathering at Baramulla, where Jinnah tried to propagate his two-nation theory and made appeals in the name of religion, Sherwani dismantled the communal politics of the Muslim League and tried to put a garland of shoes around his neck. He forced him to come down the platform and stopped his speech. As Sherwani was against the principles of communal politics of the Muslim League, he raised the slogan,

Sher-i- Kasmir ka kya Irshad? (What does the lion of Kashmir want?)
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Ithaad”. (The unity of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh).

This bold and humiliating action of Maqbool Sherwani made Jinnanh unnerved and he left Kashmir after this momentous event. Thereafter, he never looked back and always cherished ill will against National Conference and its leaders. This episode symbolized sherwani’s brave persona as well as ideological opposition to Jinnah. No one else among Kashmir’s political leaders could dare to stand up against Jinnah. The news of this meeting splashed all over India, and pro-leaguers press and followers felt bitter and expressed violent feelings against Sherwani.

On 26 October 1947, the Pakistani tribals sacked Baramulla, the largest commercial center and the most prosperous town of a valley at that time with a population of nearly 16 thousand people. These tribals rampaged at this strategic entry point and advanced further to capture Srinagar which was only one hour drive from Baramula. The vivacious atrocities perpetrated in the town of Baramulla have been recounted by the survivors of the carnage and western correspondents’ account. For three days, they were engaged in raping and pillaging, the members of Sikh and Hindu communities being the special targets. Their properties were looted, houses were burnt and their women folk were raped.

Meanwhile, in a response to Sheikh Abdullah’s call to the local populace to rise up in the defence of their country, a National militia was formed and Sherwani, who was described by his colleagues as of a happy-go-lucky nature, played a vibrant role in the National militia. Among the 22 National Conference volunteers who joined the resistance forces of the national militia which was framed to go behind the enemy lines, Sherwani was the most vibrant who led a number of detachments of militiamen who toured different areas instilling confidence and unity among the terror-stricken people of Kashmir. He voluntarily offered to go undercover into areas controlled by the tribesmen.  Being an adventurer, he would ride village to village on his motorbike and hold public meetings and campaigns to unify them and collectively take on the raiders, thus, known by the name ‘motorcycling militia man’.

Cutting across political and religious barriers, Sherwani had a close friendship with many Swayam Sewaks working actively in the town of Baramulla. He considered himself part of the Kashmiri Hindu fraternity and even came to the rescue of the Kashmiri Pandit families of the neighboring area of Sopore.  Denouncing their merciless killings and subsequent migration out of fear, Sherwani lashed out at local leaders for stopping the pundits from leaving the town and protecting them. He personally met the suffering Kashmiri Pandit families and even stayed in the town till the morning of 29 October 1947 to save their honour and dignity. His role in saving the Kashmiri Pandits of Sopore during the Pakistani tribal invasion in October 1947 will be written in the golden letters.

Vigilant enough to defend Kashmir’s security and integrity, Sherwani along with other volunteers worked as guides at vital installations to keep track of the mercenaries. While going back to Srinagar, he cautioned the Sikh jatha of the Hamal region that was migrating to Srinagar, not to take the Sangrama-Srinagar national highway because of the potential threat of Pakistani raiders on that road. They disregarded his advice and consequently, over 300 Sikhs were abducted and killed in a massacre at Choora Bulgam. 

Sherwani was so mad with the love of the land that he had become unmindful of his own safety. To frustrate the raiders’ advance towards Srinagar, he convincingly misinformed the infiltrators, diverted them, and made them wander aimlessly in the Sumbal area on the wrong routes. His display of presence of mind exhausted their precious time till the troops of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian army could reach Srinagar for its defense, thus, dismantling the plan by Pakistani strategists to capture and control the Srinagar airport and cutting it off from the rest of India.

However, after realizing that they were being misguided, the dreaded raiders chased Sherwani, who was in sumbal, 35 km away from Baramulla.  To punish him for making an intentional delay, raiders dragged him back to Baramulla. To teach him a lesson for misguiding them and to create horrors in the minds of the people, he was crucified in the central square of Baramula. Even when the blood was oozing out of the wounds on his body, the tribals wrote kafir on his shirt with his own blood. Sherwani preferred death to the betrayal of his country. The raiders offered to set him free if he would shout the slogans “Down with Sheikh Abdullah”. Instead, Maqbool Sherwani spat at the face of the raiders and shouted the popular slogan “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh Itihad, Azad Hindustan Zindabad”. This provoked the raiders, who in a fit of anger, shot bullets that pierced through his heart.  Later, even after his death, the inhuman raiders shot fourteen bullets into his dead body. The circumstances around his death and his steadfastness in not bowing strongly and clearly before the Pakistani invaders even when subjected to worse torture make him a superhero of 1947 tribal raids. The courage with which he sought to impede Lashkar's advance and approach his own death is really commendable but at the same time, an incident, to heart-piercing. The intensity of his loyalty and commitment towards his motherland made him so familiar in the popular circles that he attained the title, “Mujahid Sherwani” and Lion of Baramulla.

With time, his crucifixion passed into popular lore, and gradually became a legend in the valley for his unflinching loyalty to his nation. In the later years, his act of heroism provided inspiration to a number of Kashmiris- young and old. He is dead but his spirit lives in the hearts of millions of nationalists. His martyrdom was glorious for anybody- Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian!