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Bhat belonged to a well-to-do family in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal. His father is a high-profile businessman in Srinagar city.

Srinagar/New Delhi: It’s something Dr Mohammad Rafi Bhat’s colleagues and students at the University of Kashmir will wonder about for years.

He came to the campus Thursday, took a class. Two days later, the assistant professor of sociology was dead, one of five militants killed in an encounter in Shopian Sunday.

A day after his death, Bhat’s shocked colleagues were struggling to understand it all, at pains to explain that there was nothing in his behaviour that suggested an extremist bent.

“It is beyond shocking to believe that one of our brightest teachers has been killed like this,” Dr Peerzada Mohammad Amin, the head of the university’s sociology department, told ThePrint.

“I knew him for 12 months and, honestly, he was doing his job very nicely. He was dedicated. The students loved him. His ways of teaching were creative and insightful,” he said.

“I never even saw a streak of extremist behaviour in him. When someone is up to something, the behaviour could change…but in his case, he was the most composed and focused person around,” he added.

Bhat, 29, held his last class Thursday. “He came with a set of question papers. It was for an examination we were conducting. He appeared so…engaged with work that it is shocking to think he left this institution the next day to die,” Amin said.

‘Dear professor’

Bhat, who had cleared the University Grants Commission Junior Research Fellowship, had done his research on globalisation and emerging trends in consumerism, a comparative study of rural and urban Kashmir. He received his PhD last year, and was employed with the University of Kashmir on a contractual basis. He was reportedly never heard publicly discussed the conflict in Kashmir.

Originally from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal, Bhat came from a well-to-do family. His father is a high-profile businessman in Srinagar city.

He reportedly went missing from the university’s Naseem Bagh campus in Srinagar after Friday prayers, taking up arms for the Hizbul Mujahedeen.

His family contacted the university the next day and an FIR was subsequently filed. A protest was held on the campus by his students demanding that he be found.

“Some of us were of the impression that he has gone for an interview to Hyderabad, but when we checked the last flight (that took off) after he went missing, his name was not in the list of flyers,” said Amin.

As more accounts emerged from the site of the encounter Monday, it was reported that the security personnel had given the five suspected militants, including Burhan Wani’s aide Saddam Paddar, a chance to surrender. A chance they reportedly refused.

Remembering a friend

“He was a very humble person and no one who interacted with him could have even guessed that such a person would join militancy,” said a friend of Bhat’s from the botany department.

“It is shocking, but also tells us where the youth has been pushed. He is the first faculty member in decades to have joined the militancy. Anyone could be next,” the friend added.

“We spent our lives in conflict and the new generation faces the same life. There has been no reconciliation. Everything depends on peace, whether that is tourism or development,” he said, “The perception of alienation among Muslims throughout India is also a factor for the disillusionment in the Valley.”

Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah struck a similar note as he weighed in on the encounter on Twitter, citing the “disillusionment” among Kashmir’s young.

“Sadly this is also an answer to those who claim jobs & development are the solution to the violence & alienation in Kashmir. This is another tragic development in a steady stream of tragedies in Kashmir,” he tweeted.

No way out?

Bhat’s death has triggered afresh concerns about the Valley’s educated youngsters taking up arms. There is a general consensus that the issue extends far beyond scant employment opportunities, and that counselling cannot help keep local youths from joining the militancy.

“The situation is such that no counselling can be done. This is a sentimental issue, no one can stop the other person,” said Professor G.M. Bhat, a former faculty member at the University of Kashmir.

“This situation has been created… and people feel alienated. People should think, why would an intellectual like him (Bhat) join militancy? There is a larger message behind this,” he added.

In a statement issued Monday, the Kashmir University Teachers Association (KUTA) expressed concern, but said a “diminishing faith in the state and its political establishments” was driving the educated youths to the path of violence.

“It is a political issue that needs political intervention… not an issue of unemployment or economic packages,” it added.

Kashmir University students and alumni point to the reduced space for political dissent in the Valley, saying the muzzling begins on the college campus itself.

The absence of student activism, they said, was driving the young to extreme forms of expression.

“There is a complete ban on student politics in Kashmir’s universities, which means there is no scope for debate, dissent or discussion,” said a student, adding, “When we are only being fed what the system wants us to absorb, and there is no way to dissent, incidents like these are bound to happen.”

The Kashmir University Student Union, first banned during the turbulent days of the militancy in the 1990s, was briefly allowed to function between 2007 and 2009. After 2009, it was termed “anti-India” by the university on account of the debates and protests organised by the union, and permission to hold events was withheld.

There has been almost no student activism on the campus since 2011.

A former student told ThePrint, “The student union was termed anti-establishment by the university authorities and hence not allowed to function. Not just this, the members of the union were also punished in various ways.”

“That was the end of debate and dissent on the campus, and this has a lot to do with people taking such extreme steps like joining the militancy.”

A current Kashmir University student said the curbs extended to the point that they were barred from using the word “conflict” in research papers on Kashmir, reportedly an attempt to bolster the perception of normalcy. “They want us to feel and behave as if everything is normal, but that is not the situation,” the student said.

The university administration has taken a few steps to curb disenchantment among students. This includes setting up a ‘Centre for Kashmir Studies’, which exclusively focuses on the Valley’s culture, around five years ago. The purpose of the centre was to connect the youth to Kashmiri culture and values, but the administration said it had evoked minimal interest among students.

 

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