‘Soft-Spoken, Humble’: Friends Remember Prof Who Joined Hizbul

The escalated use of force by security forces in recent months has cast a shadow of hopelessness on the Valley.

Updated
India
6 min read
Mohammed Rafi Bhat was a humble, soft-spoken scholar who turned militant after witnessing the unrest in Kashmir, say his friends and colleagues. 
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In the turmoil-laden lexicon of Kashmir, Dr Mohammad Rafi Bhat, 32, came of age in the early 1990s when insurgency broke out and a wave of violence swept the Valley. The events that unfolded during the Amarnath Land agitation of 2008 and the 2010 uprising “sorely troubled him,” according to one of his friends. But it was the mayhem unraveling in Kashmir since the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016 that convinced him, perhaps, to take a leap of faith and join the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Security forces during the Shopian encounter.
Security forces during the Shopian encounter.
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint)

An assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kashmir, Rafi was reported missing from the campus on Friday, 4 May, where he put up in a hostel. His first and last communication with his family after the ‘mysterious disappearance' took place in the morning of 6 May, Sunday, when security forces had laid siege to a residential house in Badigam village, Shopian district. A phone call by militants holed up inside the house was intercepted by security forces.

“Please forgive me if I may have let you down. I am trapped in an encounter,” the studious scholar told his father, Abdul Rahim Bhat. It was the first call his father received after waking up, sending the women of the house into bouts of wailing, also confirming that Rafi, a senior research fellow with the UGC who submitted his PhD thesis in November 2017, was among the five Hizbul militants trapped in the Shopian encounter.
Security forces gunned down five militants in the gun battle in Shopian.
Security forces gunned down five militants in the gun battle in Shopian.
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint)

When the news of his imminent death spread on Facebook where Rafi was active, posting his last status update on 4 May, a group of scholars and his students at the university planned to reach the encounter site. Already, a police party, tipped by the intercepted call, had arrived at their Ganderbal residence in central Kashmir and convinced the scholar’s family to travel to southern Shopian and encourage Rafi to give up arms.

Instead, the family returned home midway to make preparations for their son’s last rites. The security forces had gunned down all the five militants before the family could reach Badigam village.

Prisoner of Conscience, Not a Religious Fanatic

“I didn’t find a religious hardliner in him,” said Umesh Unni, a research scholar from Kerala who had bonded well with Rafi during his visit to the University of Kashmir last December. “He always talked about human rights violations by Indian forces. He was worried by the ongoing bloodshed and its impact on Kashmir’s younger generation. He often spoke about how India has been targeting Kashmiri identity by creating divisions in the society.”

A student of IISER Pune, Unni was shocked to learn about the killing of Rafi on Facebook, as was his family and friends who knew him closely and those who worked with him. “He came across as a soft spoken and humble person who didn’t subscribe to the idea of violence in a political struggle. He advocated peace always while talking with me about Kashmir,” Dibyesh Anand, who teaches at London’s University of Westminster and had met the young scholar some years ago while visiting Kashmir, recalled.

‘Soft-Spoken, Humble’: Friends Remember  Prof Who  Joined Hizbul
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint)
A survivor for less than two days in the not-so-short-lived life of a militant, Rafi personifies the huge cost of an indefensible war being waged with increasing intensity and hostility on the people of Kashmir and the price that is being paid by enlightened minds like the “soft-spoken” scholar.

On Friday afternoon, before he was sucked into the vortex of ugly violence, Rafi, who opted to pursue PhD at the University of Kashmir instead of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi where he was selected too, delivered a lecture for his students like he normally did and also called his wife of five years promising to return home soon.

But he didn’t keep his promise.

In his death, the shocking transformation of a shining star in the world of academia – a “rarest of rare intellectual,” as one friend described him – to a fallen rebel, has already made Rafi an inspirational story. “All of his students are shocked. It is hard to believe that our learned teacher is no more with us. We gifted him a watch on Friday but no one had thought it would be our last meeting with him,” a student at the Kashmir University’s Sociology Department said, wishing to remain anonymous.

Thousands attend funeral of slain civilian Asif Mir (22) at Eidgah Rahmoo Pulwama.
Thousands attend funeral of slain civilian Asif Mir (22) at Eidgah Rahmoo Pulwama.
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint)
I will hold the Indian state responsible for unleashing the machinery of dehumanisation that was in the end responsible for all the systemic violence in Kashmir, for it has trampled upon the voices of Kashmiris and destroyed all hope for a peaceful and just solution to the Kashmir conflict.
Dibyesh Anand of the University of Westminster

“He might have gone through extreme sufferings which led him to take (up) arms. I feel extremely bad because I too have his blood on my hand. We, the Indians, have the blood of thousands of Kashmiris on our hands that no apology or financial package can wash away,” Unni said.

Bloodbath in South Busting Many Myths

A hub of 'new age' militancy in the Valley, the volatile South Kashmir’s four districts of Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag are being subjected to intensified assault this year by security forces. While militant groups have borne the brunt of counter-insurgency operations, the civilian population has not been spared either.

With a little over four months into this year, more than 150 killings have taken place, including more than three dozen civilians – the blame for which has been placed directly at the doorsteps of security forces.

In a recent case, Nisar Bakshi, a Deputy Superintendent of Police-ranked officer of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, accused the security forces of resorting to “vandalism.” He posted pictures of broken windows and badly damaged vehicles parked in the premises of his house in Anantnag, upon which forces vented their anger after their cavalcade was pelted with stones. This makes people wonder – if such is the state of a police officer in Kashmir today, what would be the fate of an ordinary person?

A fire and emergency vehicle burnt by protesters near the encounter site.
A fire and emergency vehicle burnt by protesters near the encounter site.
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint) 
People attend the funeral of one of the slain militants, top Hizbul commander Saddam Padder.
People attend the funeral of one of the slain militants, top Hizbul commander Saddam Padder.
(Photo Courtesy: Muneeb-Ul-Islam/The Quint)

In the Valley’s ‘silent war,’ the daily count of deaths used to be one or two. Now, the additions to the ‘kill list’ are in tens and twenties. If 11 persons were killed in Badigam encounter on Sunday, more than 20 perished in another bloodbath in Shopian last month. This is reminiscent of Kashmir’s bloodiest years during the early 1990s.

The escalated use of force by security forces in recent months has cast a shadow of hopelessness on the Valley. In fact, the ‘rewarding’ of army officers who ‘talk tough’ – such as Major Gogoi, the officer who tied Farooq Dar to the front of a jeep as a human shield against stone-pelting – have further worsened the relationship between the civilian population and the security forces.

From aspiring doctors to young boys studying engineering and scholars like Rafi, the tragic tale of Kashmir is now irrigated by the blood of its “enlightened” generation, demolishing the narrative that only the “poor man’s illiterate son” has perished in this unending tragedy that has brutalised three generations of Kashmiris.

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