File photograph by Junaid Bhat for The Kashmir Walla.

On 8 March, the students at a local mosque in Sopore’s Noor Bagh neighbourhood didn’t find their teacher, Mudasir Ahmad Bhat, in the Quran class. The 25-year-old Imam had reached his hilly village of Shutloo a day before, on Saturday, for his weekly off. After only spending an hour at home, Mr. Bhat “gave his dirty laundry to get washed, and then left,” says his father, 53-year-old Sanaullah Bhat. “I asked him where was he going, but he only said he would come back soon.”

But his son didn’t return for the night; his phone was switched off too. Sanaullah, who suffers from anaemia, sent people to look for him in Noor Bagh the next morning. Mr. Bhat could not be traced; the family filed a missing person report with the police.

Less than a week later, on Friday, Mr. Bhat’s body returned home in a shroud, along with a caravan of hundreds of young men. He was killed in a gunfight by a joint party of the army, Central Reserve Police Force, and Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) police force, in an orchard two kilometres away from his home.

“He had joined Lashkar-e-Toiba,” a Pakistan-backed militant group, said Sopore’s senior superintendent of police, Javed Iqbal. In a briefing, the police said Mr. Bhat had been alone at the time of the gunfight, and that they recovered an AK-56 rifle, two live grenades, and seventy rounds of ammunition from the site.

A police village

In Shutloo village, Mr. Bhat was the first one to join the anti-India militancy since the turn of the century. Several men from the village have joined law enforcement. Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah, who went on to become J-K’s first director general of police was born here in 1926.

Access to social media was restored only last week in Kashmir after a seven-month long ban. While the encounter was raging on, Mr. Bhat’s brother found out online that his brother was trapped in a gunfight with the government forces, and rushed to the site.

When Mr. Bhat’s body was brought out, he was wearing the same clothes that he had on the week before he disappeared. His wireless earphones were hanging around his neck.

“We couldn’t wait to come here”

Since November 2017, Mr. Bhat had been serving as the prayer leader at a mosque in Noor Bagh, where he also taught Quran classes in the evenings. 

“He was teaching my son the final chapter of the Quran. They had still to cover the last three pages,” said a woman who travelled about nine kilometres from her home in Sopore.

As news of Mr. Bhat’s killing spread online within a few minutes, young men from Noor Bagh began pouring into his village. The family read the funeral prayers in the evening and Mr. Bhat was buried at a local graveyard in the presence of hundreds of people.

By Saturday morning, more women also started taking to the road to visit his home. “We were arranging a bus so that all ladies could come,” said the woman from Noor Bagh, who does not wish to be named. “But a few of us could not wait till then. We haven’t been able to eat or cook since last night.” 

Having memorised the entire text of the Quran, Mr. Bhat had earned the title of Hafiz-e-Quran. He officiated various religious ceremonies in Noor Bagh: latest being on 1 March, when he had presided over the joint wedding ceremony of two sisters in the locality. 

“The best imam in our mosque”

The neighbourhood’s residents say they valued Mr. Bhat “like our own son”, but villagers back home have little to remember him by. “I had forgotten what his face looked like till I saw the photo of the body on social media,” said a neighbour, who works with the J-K police, wishing to stay anonymous. 

Mr. Bhat had left his village soon after quitting formal education in fifth grade when his father could not pay for private school. In the footsteps of his maternal uncle, who today runs a seminary in the village, Mr. Bhat joined the Darul Uloom Sheeri in Baramulla, where he received religious training and free accommodation and food. In 2013, he travelled to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, spending a year there studying Islamic literature. After his return to the Valley, Mr. Bhat led prayers at various mosques before joining the one in Noor Bagh.

But death as a militant has propelled Mr. Bhat to local fame. Residents hauled in tent equipment and plastic chairs for mourners, groups of whom kept turning up the day after his funeral. Children lugged and set up the tentpoles outside his single-storey house, while the adults sat with his father in the front room. 

While Mr. Bhat’s mother had not stopped wailing, but senior Bhat sat calmly in the corner, looking out of the window, observing the preparations, breaking his silence only to greet the visitors back.

The only sound in the room was the crowing of the village roosters outside. He only broke down once, when people around him started discussing his son’s time of death. “Mudasir was shot at 3 pm,” one person said. “No, he was dead by 2:30,” another rebutted. Senior Bhat wiped his tears, and dried his fingers by running them on his beard.

“He would share Burhan Wani’s photos on Facebook even though we kept scolding him,” said Mufti Abdul Rashid, Mr. Bhat’s maternal uncle. “If there was any killing of militants or civilians in Kashmir, Mudasir would take it seriously. He often wept for them.”

Mr. Bhat has left behind a similar fate for the mourners who are still arriving at his home. “He was the best Imam in our mosque’s history,” said the woman, who came from Noor Bagh. “Now I wonder who will make my son learn the rest of the book’s last chapter.”

Bhat Burhan contributed to this story.

Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow and Bhat Burhan is a Multimedia Reporter at The Kashmir Walla.

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