On the morning of May 6, a bearded and bespectacled lecturer who taught at Kashmir University called his father in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. Mohammad Rafi Bhat was calling from Badigam village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. His family said he had precise instructions: they were to prepare for his funeral, and a senior member of the Jamaat-e-Islami who was close to him should lead the service.

Bhat, who had gone missing from Srinagar on the evening of May 4, had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. Barely 40 hours later, he was trapped in Badigam village along with four other militants, in a house surrounded by security forces.

The gunfight that finally broke out early morning on May 6 claimed the lives of all five militants. That included Saddam Padder, the Hizbul Mujideen commander who was among the 11 young militants, including Burhan Wani, who featured in a photograph that went viral in 2015 and which signalled the arrival of what has been called “the new militancy” in Kashmir. Six civilians were also killed close to the site of the gunfight on May 6.

But it was the death of Bhat, who had a doctorate and a promising career before him, that shocked many, leading to prayers and protests in Kashmir University.

Bhat is among three postgraduates to join the ranks of militants this year. He was preceded by Manan Wani, the first person from the nondescript Tekipora village in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district to pursue a doctorate. Wani disappeared from Aligarh Muslim University on January 3. Days later, photographs of him holding an assault rifle went viral.

In March, Junaid Khan, the youngest son of the newly appointed Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chairperson, Ashraf Sehrai, joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. Khan had a masters in business administration. Sehrai reportedly refused to persuade him to return.

Bhat’s death has given rise to a renewed conversation on the motivations for militancy in Kashmir. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, for instance, tweeted, “Sadly this is also an answer to those who claim jobs & development are the solution to the violence & alienation in Kashmir”.

The scholar

Bhat’s decision to take up arms appears sudden. He had a PhD from Kashmir University’s sociology department – a comparative study of consumerism in rural and urban Kashmir. He had passed the National Eligibility Test twice and got the junior research fellowship offered by the University Grants Commission, which regulates higher education in India. While he taught as a contractual lecturer at Kashmir University, Bhat was supposed to attend an interview at the University of Hyderabad for a job, according to his family.

He was efficient in academics, said his uncle, Mohammad Yusuf. “He completed his doctorate in a mere two to three years compared to the five to seven [years] others take,” he said.

Bhat’s friends, family and students remember him as a kind, helpful person who “would get distressed at every news of death that occurred in Kashmir”. For many of his students, he was someone who excelled in “both worlds”, the material and the spiritual.

A friend in Chunduna, the village that Bhat belonged to, said he was “always trying to understand the Quran”. “He would ask us why did his eyes well up with tears reading the Quran when ours did not?” the friend recalled. According to his family, Bhat used to teach the Quran at a seminary in the village.

Bhat’s family cannot think of a particular turning point that marked his transition to militancy. According to police officials, Bhat had tried to cross over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for arms training when he was 18 years old. His father, however, prevented him from doing so.

In the early 1990s, two of his cousins, who had joined militancy, were killed. Police officials said that in recent years Bhat had been a regular visitor at funerals of slain militants in South Kashmir. According to his colleagues at the university, he was affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Tulaba, the students’ wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which his family is also associated with.

Only last month, Bhat had told his colleagues and research scholars that “educated youth needed to join the militancy”. A colleague, who did not wish to be identified, said that “his argument was that we needed to give the militancy a leadership. He wanted to reform the militancy”.

On May 6, a militant for barely a day, Bhat was buried in Chunduna village. It was the biggest funeral the village had ever seen. The last militant from the village was killed in April 1999.

The next day, a Pakistani flag covered the fresh grave in Chunduna. In a tent pitched outside Bhat’s family’s house, representatives of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat and Jamaat-e-Islami delivered speeches, turning the condolence meeting into a platform for extolling the movement for which the lecturer had sacrificed his life.

A man who was identified as the district president of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat said at the meeting that he was disappointed with the commotion that occurred during Bhat’s funeral. “We could have showed the world what [an educated Bhat’s] message was, why he laid his life down,” he said. He said that videos of a disciplined funeral, devoid of “uncultured slogans” could have gone viral. The commotion the man referred to was, according to reports, an altercation between two people at Bhat’s funeral. But the family said there was a commotion because of the large number of people who attended the burial.

A university mourns

In the last few years, several commentators have described the militancy in the Valley as one populated by well-educated Kashmiris, distinguishing it from the earlier phase of militancy.

According to police officials, this perception may be misplaced.

A study conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police that examined the educational backgrounds of 152 local militants active or killed during 2017 found that there were four postgraduates, 15 graduates and 38 high school graduates among them. Thirty-five of them had passed Class 10, 50 had dropped out of middle school and 10 were illiterate.

Among the popular names of those referred to as “new-age militants”, few had finished high school. Burhan Wani had dropped out of high school as he joined the Hizbul Mujahideen at the age of 15. Padder dropped out of middle school. Another popular militant killed recently, Sameer Bhat, also known as Sameer Tiger, was also a school dropout. Zakir Musa, who broke away from the Hizbul Mujahideen to head Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Ghazwatul Hind, dropped out of college.

This year, so far, according to preliminary data on the background of the youth known to have joined militant ranks, three are postgraduates, six have bachelors degrees, and five dropped out of college. The remaining are either high school graduates or dropped out before they finished school, a police official said.

Banners in Kashmir University

Still, the perception of an educated militancy had drawn youth towards it, say college teachers. “We cannot ignore that the militancy is attracting educated ones too which is why educational institutions are on the boil,” said a lecturer in the Government Degree College in North Kashmir’s Sopore. Over the last few months, school and college campuses across the Valley have been simmering with protests.

Students of Kashmir University’s sociology department concur. “When the AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] scholar picked up the gun, he was glorified,” said a postgraduate student of the department. “It makes students think it is the right thing.”

She added: “Barely anyone focuses on the impact of suspension of academics but the papers are full of provocative stories”.

Students of the Sociology Department said that news of Bhat’s death has depressed and frustrated students and teachers at Kashmir University. “The student community is mentally disturbed,” said another student. On Wednesday, they held a protest against Bhat’s killing, shouting pro-freedom slogans and waving the flag of Pakistan.

Bhat’s popularity as a teacher and his friendly nature has compelled many to have second thoughts about their choices in life. “Students have started to think that there is nothing to achieve from academics and Rafi sir [Bhat] cannot be wrong,” the student said. “He was right in what he did. His hard work of years was gone in just 40 hours.”

Two days before his death, Bhat had posted on Facebook pictures of a poem and a wristwatch he had received from his students as a farewell gift ahead of his imminent interview for a job outside the state. “You took care of us at every step, you removed darkness and brought light. There is none like you and there won’t be another,” the letter from his students read. “We will all miss you, please don’t go, it will make us cry. Our world will be incomplete”.

Today, banners in Bhat’s memory crowd the university.