A day after his 29th birthday, Awantipora’s school teacher came out dead from police custody

The cloudy-chilly Tuesday turned dismal in the Kashmir Valley when a teacher from south Kashmir’s Awantipora was reported dead in police custody inside Cargo, an SOG camp in Srinagar, where he was taken for some questioning. The ensued shock and outrage only resurfaced vulnerability and belittling of life in Kashmir.

The shocking, outrageous death at once brought the poetic Rizwan in Kashmir’s celebrated English poet, Agha Shahid Ali’s poem—I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight—in mind:

I won’t tell your father you have died, Rizwan,
But where has your shadow fallen, like cloth,
On the tomb of which saint, or the body,
Of which unburied boy in the mountains,
Bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies,
On Himalayan snow?

It took Rizwan Asad Pandith’s family time to know the fate of their son, despite the word—somewhere someone has been killed—already being out, even before the clock ticked 9:00 AM on Tuesday.

With each passing minute the rumour went rampant, until, before the stroke of mid-day, it shaped into reality – “custodial killing” of an Awantipora teacher. His family is said to be affiliated with Jama’at-e-Islami, the religo-social outfit whose cadres have been facing a sweeping crackdown besides a blanket ban, after Pulwama attack.

It was yet another untimely passage in the form of 29-year-old Rizwan – “killed cold-bloodedly inside the police custody,” as his sibling says.

The victim’s elder brother, Zulkarnain, narrates: “Rizwan was picked up by the police from our house a day-before-yesterday at around 2:30 in the night.”

The arrest wasn’t reasoned.

Rizwan’s family mourn his death at their residence in Awantipora. (FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi).

Strangely, about 24 hours later, as per Zulkaranain, the police had phone-called the family ordering not to “communicate” about Rizwan to anyone.

“And the next morning (today) when we went to the police station to inquire about his well-being, we were told, ‘Woh ab CARGO ke hath main hai aur hamm kuch nahi kar sakte. Ab jo bhi hoga wahi karege’ (He has been handed over to the CARGO and we cannot do anything. Now whatsoever ever happens, it’s on them.)”

Only yesterday, Rizwan had turned 29, born 18-03-1990, according to his Facebook profile – where the birthday wishes still wait for a thank you in return. Some of his friends had wished him a long life!

Rizwan Asad Pandith. (Image from victim’s Facebook profile).

According to the deceased’s brother, only six months back, Rizwan was picked up by the police and was under custody for ten day – without an FIR. Later on, he was booked under the Public Safety Act and was jailed in Jammu’s Kathua district.

“Even though the court had issued a bail notice,” Zulkarnain recalls, “the police did not free my brother and was under their illegal custody for 15 days.”

Finally, Rizwan was freed. He resumed taking lectures and continued working with the Jama’at, while “mentally healing” from the haunting memories of prison. 

But only two and a half months later, another summon came, and this time, Rizwan did not return – to his family, his friends, and his students.

“My brother is innocent,” Zulkarnain says, as a statement released by the police about two hours post the incident claim Rizwan’s links with militancy.

As from one end, the angered civilians in Awantipora took to streets to engage in violent stone-pelting clashes with the armed forces, the politicians threw words of condemnation on Twitter.

Civilian protestors throwing stones at Indian Armed Forces in Awantipora. (FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi).

“I had hoped custodial deaths were a thing of our dark past,” NC’s Omar Abdullah wrote. “This is an unacceptable development & must be investigated in a transparent, time-bound manner. Exemplary punishment must be handed out to the killers of this young man.”

PDP leader Naeem Akhtar urged Governor Satya Pal Malik to come clear on the incident.

While terming Rizwan’s killing as an “act of state terrorism”, the JRL has called for a valley-wide shutdown on March 20 and peaceful protests on March 21.

As per the police, a magisterial inquiry is underway and a “separate police investigation has also been initiated”.

“We (Kashmiris) have been witnessing custodial killings from past 30 years,” says Rizwan’s elder sibling, who doesn’t hope of any fair outcome of his younger brother’s death. “And we know, none of the victims have ever got justice.”

In the later afternoon, as the teacher was taken to his native town, he was received with slogans and tears. By then, however, the name—#Rizwan—was already trending on social media.

“People don’t die in police custody. People are killed in police custody,” Mirza Waheed, well-known Kashmiri English novelist tweeted. “Thirty years of custodial murder, thirty years of inquiries.”

“Dear officers of J&K police and NIA,” wrote one Ather Bhat, “was killing of Rizwan in plan or just interrogation went too far. #Rizwan #awantipora.”  

“Rest in peace #Rizwan. #BanCargo #SlaughterHouse And those sermonisers in uniform will lecture us about human rights,” Gowhar Geelani, renowned Kashmiri journalist tweeted. “’Well done boys’ for murdering a Kashmiri Muslim teacher! Shame on J&K Police.”

One Bhat Basit posted on his twitter handle: “MSc physics…. #Rizwan sir. Miss ew sir … Love uh sir….. It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.. #Rizwan sir.”


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