Last 40 Hours

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Nobody knows exactly, the details of Dr Rafi’s last forty hours, till he was located besieged in a Shopian village, alongside top Hizb rebels. His plunge into militancy has baffled Kashmir. Everyone wants to know why a scholar choose blood over ink, reports Shams Irfan

On cloudy May 6, 2018 morning, at around 7:55 am, when Abdul Rahim Bhat’s phone finally rang, flashing an unknown number, he looked at its small screen with questioning eyes, as if seeking answers without picking the call.

For last 40 hours, Bhat, a retired government official, and his relatives had desperately searched for his youngest son, Dr Mohammad Rafi Bhat, 30, who went missing from Kashmir University campus, where he worked as Assistant Professor in the Sociology department.

After a brief pause, as Bhat answered the call, Dr Rafi’s familiar voice greeted him from the other end. Trying to sound calm, Dr Rafi told his father that he was in Shopian.

This instantly lit Bhat’s face with hope, as he thought, ‘at least my son is safe’.

However, before Bhat could ask his son why he switched his phone off, or why he left like this, or what is he doing in Shopian, Dr Rafi, shocked him by saying, “I am caught in a cordon. We are surrounded.”

Then after a short pause he added, “My end is near. Please make arrangements for my funeral.”

In last two days, Bhat almost thought of every possible reason behind his son’s sudden disappearance, but militancy.

Sensing the urgency in his son’s voice, Bhat wanted to utilise every single second of the call, he now knew is probably his last. Before Dr Rafi asked for his mother, he told his father to call Bashir Ahmad Lone, Jamaat-e-Islami’s Amir-e-Zila Srinagar, and tell him to lead his funeral prayers.

“Then he asked for his mother,” said a close relative who was at Dr Rafi’s house since Saturday evening. “He asked his mother for forgiveness, and told her to be strong.”

As gunshots intensified in the background, Dr Rafi, trying to sound strong, told his mother, it is time to hang up. The three-minute call finally ended with Dr Rafi’s mother letting out a loud cry, which immediately alerted people in the neighbourhood. “I saw people running towards Rafi’s house,” said Mohammad Altaf Dar, 34, a contractor, who lives nearby. Altaf and Rafi were friends and knew each other since childhood.

As Altaf reached Dr Rafi’s house, he saw around a hundred neighbours already assembled in the courtyard. Within no time Dr Rafi’s father, mother, sister, brother and brother-in-law rushed out of the house, with tears in their eyes, and went straight towards a waiting car.

In no time, they were on their way to Shopian, where the encounter between militants and a mixed contingent of army, CRPF and police was underway. “As we reached near Ganderbal, which is 7 kms from our village, I got a call from our local police station,” said Bhat. “They said we will give you police escort so that you can reach Shopian safely.”

However, Bhat refused as he had to first pick Dr Rafi’s wife from Bota Kadal in Srinagar’s interiors. “I thought if I will go into downtown with a police escort, it will invite trouble,” recalls Bhat. “So we went on our own.”

By 8:30 am, as Bhat and his family, along with Dr Rafi’s wife, raced through narrow roads towards Badigam village in Shopian, he recalled his son’s last words over the phone: asi neeran sirf dah minute (We can survive for ten more minutes).

Instantly, Bhat knew it was a race against time, which he cannot win.

SHOPIAN

Almost 70 kilometres away in Badigam, Shopian, thousands of people started marching towards the encounter site after it was confirmed that top Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Saddam Padder, his associates Tauseef Sheikh, Aadil Malik and Bilal alias Molvi, are holed up in a house.

Also, the news of Dr Rafi’s presence was confirmed by the police, after they claimed to have called his family so that he could be convinced to surrender.

Students protesting outside sociology department where Dr Rafi taught.

“We never went there to convince him for surrender. It is a lie fabricated by the media,” claims Bhat, as he sits surrounded by mourners inside a tent, pitched outside his modest house. “We never reached encounter site. We were kept at Zainpura police station till 2:30 pm,” said Bhat. “My son was dead within ten minutes of calling me. They should have handed us our son’s body without keeping us waiting.”

At 5:50 pm, when Dr Rafi’s body finally reached his home in Chundina village, Ganderbal, it was a déjà vu moment for its inhabitants. “Everyone was missing Chundina’s brilliant boy,” said his friend Altaf.

After the news of his killing was confirmed, everyone had just one question: why would he leave a promising career and join militants?

CHUNDINA MOURNS

A small village located seven kilometres from Ganderbal town shaded with poplar and Chinars, lived quietly even during troubled 1990s. A small graveyard, dedicated to martyrs, which is located in the lawns of local shrine, has just three marked graves. “In last three decades, only seven boys from this village joined militant ranks,” recalls Altaf.

The last one to get buried here was Shabir Ahmad Magray, who died fighting in a forest land outside his village in 1999, along with three foreign militant. Magray, a Pakistan trained militant, who was affiliated with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, was active in the Ganderbal belt for seven years. He lived barely 100 meters from Dr Rafi’s house. After his killing Chundina village remained a godforsaken place, as the nearest police post or an army garrison was seven kilometres away in Ganderbal.

In July 2016, when spontaneous protests erupted across Kashmir against Hizb Commander Burhan Wani’s killing, Chundina remained calm and confused. As the number of civilian causalities across Kashmir mounted, residents of Chundina decided to take a protest rally too. “But taking a rally in our village was like shooting in the dark. So we decided to march all the way to Ganderbal and register our protest,” said a local boy who refused to give his name.

Within no time, around seventy boys, all in their teens, assembled in the village square and started marching towards Ganderbal. “But it is a long trek to Ganderbal,” said Altaf. “After an hour’s walk most of the boys turned back, and none reached Ganderbal.”

The same evening when Dr Rafi and his friends met in the village square, they laughed about the incident. “Every killing, on any side of the divide, used to pain him,” recalls Altaf.

EARLY LIFE

A topper throughout, Rafi was enrolled at local Dastageeri Public School (DPS), at the age of four, and studied there till he finished his Class 8 exams. In Class 9, like other boys in the neighbourhood, he went to New Dreamland School, located in Ganderbal, some 9 kilometres from his home. “There he became everyone’s favourite,” said one of his childhood friends, who wished to remain anonymous.

After finishing college Rafi took admission in Ganderbal Degree College, for a three-year bachelors’ course in science. But within a year Rafi changed his mind and opted for arts, as he wanted to qualify Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS). He chose sociology, his favourite subject. “He was keen to know the social aspect of the conflict,” said his childhood friend Altaf.

Once he finished his bachelor’s degree, he took admission in Kashmir University (KU), for post graduation programme in sociology. Two years later, when Rafi cracked JRF exam in the first attempt, he had his eyes already set on a much higher goal, KAS. “I am not sure, but he cleared written test for KAS at least twice,” said Altaf.

A year later, Rafi was selected for an MPhil programme at KU. “He wanted to help his people in whatever way possible,” said Dr Ayaz Mehmood, 30, a senior research fellow at NIT, Srinagar. Dr Mehmood lives in the same neighbourhood as Rafi’s, and has been friends with him since childhood.

After almost 18 months of Mphil work, Dr Rafi, as he was called now by his friends and colleagues, got a job in the animal husbandry department. There he worked for one and a half year. “He could communicate with animals with ease,” said Dr Mehmood. “Even after he left animal husbandry, people still used to come to him with their cattle.”

In the meantime, Dr Rafi got admission in Central University Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu. He went to Pondicherry, stayed there for a week but came back. “He wanted to do research that will help Kashmir,” said Dr Mehmood. “That is why he came back.”

Once back home, he got selected for PhD in sociology from KU. He carefully chose his topic: Globalisation and emerging trends in consumerism, a comparative study of rural and urban Kashmir. “He completed his PhD in 2017,” said Dr Mehmood.

BELOVED TEACHER

Unlike his colleagues, Dr Rafi’s style of teaching was different, as he would engage students and treat them like friends.

A few days before he went missing students gifted him a watch worth Rs 3500, while another wrote a poem dedicated to him.

Dr Mohammad Rafi Bhat

Five days before his disappearance, Dr Rafi told students that he has been offered a job as Assistant Professor at Central University, Hyderabad. “I might be going in a day or two,” he told them. “We started crying as he was our favourite teacher,” recalls one student. “Everyone in the university mocks and looks down at evening shift students. But he used to treat us at par with regular students.”

But to everyone’s surprise, the next day Dr Rafi came and announced in the class that he has changed his mind. “Now I am not going to Hyderabad,” he told them.

FINAL STEP

On Friday, after Dr Rafi offered prayers at the University mosque, he met a few students from sociology department. As they walked back towards their department Dr Rafi told them that he will go to Hyderabad for a job interview tomorrow. “I will not come for two days,” he told Azam (name changed), one of the students from evening classes. “He didn’t talk much as he was lost in his thoughts. We thought it is because of the job interview in Hyderabad.”

At 3:15 pm, Dr Rafi switched his phone off and vanished in the maze of a parallel world. A world where every step is subservient to a piece of paper called the matrix.

Back home, once Bhat learned about his son’s disappearance, he rushed straight towards KU with a few relatives. “There Proctor assured us that they will try to find him soon,” said Altaf, who accompanied Bhat to KU. “Proctor called the local police station and told them about Dr Rafi’s disappearance.”

But both Altaf and Bhat knew they had to make efforts on their own to trace Dr Rafi. So Altaf and other friends, along with a few cousins of Dr Rafi, started scanning hospitals in Srinagar and its adjoining areas for a clue. But there was none. “Then his father filed a missing report in the local police station,” said Altaf.

Students offering funeral prayers in absentia for Dr Rafi at Kashmir University.

In the meantime, Bhat called his friends, relatives, acquaintances, and everyone he could recall in this hour of grief, to ask them about his son. “Nobody has even had the slightest clue,” said Bhat. “He had vanished literally.”

While Bhat was desperately looking for his son, the thought of Dr Rafi joining militant ranks never crossed his mind. “I had not even a faint idea about it,” recalls Bhat. “I was afraid he might have been picked up by Task Force or Special Operation Group (SOG) personnel.”

With each passing hour, the fear of losing track of his son completely started to take shape in Bhat’s mind. “But he didn’t give up,” said Altaf. “He remained on his toes for next forty hours, trying to find his son.”

But the early Sunday morning phone call dashed all hopes Bhat and his family had of getting Dr Rafi back.

After Dr Rafi’s killing, as Bhat sits silently in his house, surrounded by mourners, he tries to recall his son’s actions that could have given him a clue. But there were not enough. Given Dr Rafi’s philanthropic nature Bhat didn’t read much when his son sold his car, a second-hand alto, a month before his disappearance and donated the money to needy. “He was a sensible boy with a PhD. He must have known what he was doing,” said Bhat, as mourners shook hands with him on their way out. Like 110 odd households in Chundina, people across Kashmir struggle to understand what prompted a university lecturer to trade his promising career for a militant life.

“The answer to this mystery is buried with him,” said one of his close friends. But did it actually!

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