A Gatekeeper’s Tale

Serving at Government College for Women for four decades Mohammad Rafiq Shiekh has ushered in several generations of students into the college, reports Saifullah Bashir

On his retirement day, all the staff members acknowledged the dedication and spirit of Rafiq.

In 1979, Mohammad Rafiq Shiekh was appointed as a daily-wager at the department of sports in the Government College for women at Moulana Azad Road Srinagar.

Sheikh was a teenager then. He wanted to help his family financially so he agreed to work at the college.  He was unaware that this college will be his first and last place to serve. With a meagre salary of Rs 150 per month, he remained as a daily wager till 1982.

For his dedication and good performance, Sheikh got a permanent post at the college and his salary was increased by Rs 250. From the sports department he was a posted gatekeeper, a duty he discharged for the following four decades.

“Then Rs 150 was sufficient to run the kitchen. Everything was cheap and without side effects. In just Rs 50-80 I used to buy a quality shirt,” he said adding these days fashion changes daily.  “When I was young loose clothes were in vogue and once in five months, one used to buy new clothes. Usually we used to wear second-hand clothes of our elders and neighbours”.

His father, Abdul Aziz Shiekh too has served there in the college’s Department of Geography as a peon.

Over the years, Sheikh’s conduct made him a most liked person at the college as well as outside.

Describing the roads and environment of Srinagar city in the eighties, he said that the mountains of garbage which we see today were nowhere.

“Air was fresh. The city was pollution-free. We used to directly drink Jhelum’s water, so clean it was,” Sheikh added.

Rafiq with employees of the college

Appointment at Women College Srinagar changed Sheikh’s life.  Established in the 1950s, the college has produced hundreds of luminaries, who are serving in different fields.

“When I joined the college, I saw female students as my sisters, now I treat them like my daughters,” said Sheikh.

Recalling an incident from the initial days of his service, Sheikh said that once a girl left her home but did not reach college. Her parents came to see her in college but found her absent. The local police station intervened and they called Sheikh for questioning.  Sheikh helped the police in identifying the boy with whom the girl was seen early in the morning.

“I had seen a girl walking with a boy. I described the colour of their clothes to the police,” said Sheikh.

Accordingly, police acted and the duo was traced and case was solved immediately.

“For solving the case, I received an appreciation certificate and Rs 500 as cash price by VK Singh, then senior police official of Kotibagh police station,” he said.

In the 90s Kashmir witnessed the “darkest period” of history. Violence was visible on every street. The atmosphere was filled with uncertainty.  Amidst the roaring of guns safety of students was a top priority.

Sheikh remembers that once a student lost her life in his arms after she was hit by a grenade that exploded outside the college.

“A student of our college was hit by a splinter. As we heard the bang we went out and she was in a pool of blood,” Sheikh narrated while praying for her forgiveness.

Along with his wife and three children, Sheikh lives in the Kralkhud area of Srinagar.

In 2010 government forces stopped him at Barbar Shah Bridge.

“Fortunately I was wearing a uniform. I told them that they should allow me for the sake of Khaki uniform,” he said.

After completing different courses, tens of thousands of students have passed out from this college. Many were appointed as professors in the same college. They still have respect for him as they used to have during their student phase.

“Recently I visited a bank. Due to COVID-19, people were in a long queue. Suddenly an employee of the bank recognized me and brought me in. She offered me a tea and it was a very delightful moment,” Sheikh said.

During the student unrest of 2017, he acted as a crisis manager for the college. “In order to maintain the peace, I chased students away from college,” he said.

He had developed an emotional attachment with the college. Every morning he would come to college at 8 am and leave at 5 pm.

Rafiq during his heydays as the de facto controller of the gate.

“Official timing is 10 am to 4 pm but I used to come early in the morning. I cleaned entrance point and sprayed disinfectant and remove advertisement posters from the walls of the gate,” Sheikh said.

Sheikh is called Cha-Cha by students. He has built a family relationship with some of the parents of the students.

One family of the student is still in touch with him.

“Their daughters used to study here and I used to drop them at their home. On few occasions, I and my family visited their native village in Kupwara,” Sheikh added.

“There were instances when boys of different colleges used to assemble outside this college and created ruckus,” Sheikh said. “I persuaded them to leave. I could at times be strict with them”.

Even, the then governor Jagmohan Malhotra once visited the college but was stopped by him.

“He was in white ambassador car, followed by security vehicles. I for a moment refused to open the gate and all the guards came down and pointed their guns towards me,” Sheikh said.

Jagmohan, Sheikh said, asked him from the window of his car who was he?

“I am a gatekeeper and I do not have permission to let you in!” Sheikh replied.

Krishna Misri was the principal and she recommended that Sheikh should get a permanent post.

In Women’s College, boys too have made a dramatic entry since 2016. In three departments, Journalism, Computer applications and Nursing, boys have been enrolled.

“In my opinion, boys should not have been allowed in this college. This decision should be revised,” Sheikh added.

“This college is sacred for me. I spent more time there than at home. Faculty is my family.”

The college has a hostel as well, where students from far-flung areas stay.

“Whenever any parents came to see their children at the hostel, we properly verified them at the entrance point,” he said.

On his retirement, teachers, principal as well as students acknowledged the contribution of Sheikh. A farewell was given to him by the teaching and non-teaching staff.

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