Kashmiri professor-turned militant killed within 48 hours

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A file image of Professor Muhammad Rai Bhat, who was killed in clashes with police on Sunday in Shopian. Details about the circumstances of his death are still unclear. Photo: Majid Hyderi

The death of a young Kashmiri professor, who joined the armed insurgency just 48 hours before becoming a target of Indian security forces, has sparked off fresh tensions in the embattled state.

Muhammad Rafi Bhat, who has a doctorate in sociology, was a young assistant professor from Kashmir University. He was killed in Shopian town, as part of the ongoing ‘Operation All Out’ — an official crackdown to eliminate militants from the conflict-plagued north Indian state.

Four other militants, including wanted Hizbul commander Saddam Padder — with a total estimated bounty of $156,030 (Rs 1.05 crore) on their heads — were also killed in the operation.

Five civilians also died and numerous others were injured in clashes from the operation on Sunday, jointly executed by the Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles, the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force and Jammu and Kashmir Police.

The academic is believed to be the first professor to have taken up arms in the restive region, where more and more youths have joined up to be militants. His family alleges that the 33-year-old was not given “due chance” to surrender and survive.

A “controversial” tweet by the Jammu & Kashmir director-general of police, SP Vaid, congratulating the officers who conducted the operation, has added to public outrage.

“Encounter concluded at Badigam Zainpora Shopian, 5 bodies of terrorists recovered. Well done boys – Army/ CRPF/J&K Police,” DGP Vaid tweeted.

Curious circumstances

Professor Bhat went missing from Kashmir University last Friday, which upset students, who protested over his “mysterious disappearance.”

In the wake of the protests — and a day before Rafi’s killing — DGP Vaid told reporters that the police had no information about him. “As of now, we don’t have any information about the missing professor. But police will start a search for him,” he had said.

According to the family, a senior police superintendent phoned Rafi’s father Abdul Rahim Bhat around sunrise on Sunday, and informed him that his son was “trapped”. The officer asked the family to go to the encounter spot with police and persuade Bhat to surrender. 

Meanwhile, the family also got a call from Bhat, who said, “Please forgive me for my mistakes. I am going to meet Allah.”

Soon after the call, Bhat’s parents, plus his wife and elder brother left for the encounter spot, some 96km from their home in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. They left in their own vehicle, escorted by police in civilian clothes, traveling in a civilian car. The police escort was to ensure that the family got through security checkpoints en route, and “reaches the destination speedily in a hassle-free manner.”

Despite that, the journey took time. Rafi’s elder brother Imtiyaz told Asia Times: “There was no coordination between them [police] for our travel as we were made to take undue halts and diversions, one after another, as a result of which our precious time got wasted. And by the time we finally reached the main Shopian town, at around 10.30-45am, we were not allowed to proceed further but told that the encounter was over. Giving a chance [for people to surrender] is a drama for police that diverts attention and projects a wrong image to people.”

Police, meanwhile, have denied allegations that they did not give Bhat a chance to surrender. According to a police handout, the “operation was halted for some time” when Senior Superintendent of Police Shailendra Mishra appealed to the holed up militants to “surrender for God’s sake.” “Police made repeated attempts to make them surrender, which did not materialize,” they said.

Army PRO Colonel Rajesh Kalra echoed these views. “An opportunity will always be given to local terrorists to surrender [and same was done in this case],” he told Asia Times.

State government rattled

Though silent on the killing of local militants, Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti took serious note of the complaint that “If the family was called by police to persuade Rafi [to surrender], why was he killed before [he had the chance to do] that?”

Sources say Mufti called aides for a meeting at her Srinagar residence to decide how to respond to the situation. The Chief Minister is expected to take the matter up with the Modi government in New Delhi. There is also speculation that some officers could be dismissed in coming days.

The spring of 2018 is proving to be the deadliest of the decade in Kashmir. After 40 killings — mainly militants and civilians — in April, 19 people have been killed in the first week of May under Operation All Out. Last year security forces killed 218 militants.

But the military offensive has failed to stop youths from picking up guns.

In February, the state government revealed there had been a 44% jump in the number of local youths becoming militants in Jammu and Kashmir. This year, 45 Kashmiri youths, including a Master of Business Administration graduate, had joined the insurgents up to mid-April.

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