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Safe haven to state of fear: Chhattisgarh sedition arrest rattles Kashmiris

Neighbours say Taufeeq popular, taught local kids; associate says 'he was not running away, had applied for leave

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Bhilai |
Updated: August 8, 2016 9:28:31 am
bhat-kashmir-759 For the past year, Bhat had led a small team that set up stalls selling Vivo products across the city, including Durg’s station road.

Ghulam Nabi Bhat had been told many stories about his son’s life in Bhilai. His son Taufeeq Ahmad Bhat had told him of a world where he was happy and safe, where he never faced discrimination for his religion or because he was a Kashmiri. Where Bhat lived in Sopore, there were discussions among youth that Chhattisgarh was where they would prosper.

And yet, when Bhat made his first 2,180-km trip from the Valley to the city his son Taufeeq had made his home, it was because he had received a call that his son had been jailed for sedition.

On Thursday, Taufeeq was arrested by Chhattisgarh police from a railway station in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, as he made his way home, and charged under section 124A of the IPC. His crime, said Durg SP Amresh Mishra, was “sharing, liking and forwarding” anti-India posts on Facebook, which included several calls for Kashmir’s freedom. The complaint, based on which Bhat was arrested, was filed by a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who alleged that Taufeeq’s profile on Facebook was “playing with people’s emotions” and “demeaning the sacrifice of soldiers in Kashmir”.

Speaking to the Indian Express from the house in Durg’s Takiapara where Taufeeq lived for several years, Bhat said that he first received information that such a complaint had been registered only after his 25-year-old son was arrested.

“There were three others, Umar, Haseeb and Hussain, all of whom lived in Bhilai with him, travelling in the train. Where I live in Sopore, there has been no mobile connectivity because of the violence there. So there was no way for him to contact me to inform there was something wrong. But Umar, who was traveling with him, called his family, and they got in touch with me,” said Bhat, a government middle school teacher in Gundbrath, Sopore.

Taufeeq first came to Bhilai in 2009 to enrol for a BBA course at the Rungta College of Engineering and Technology, one of several Kashmiri students to arrive in Chhattisgarh. “The first students from our area came to Chhattisgarh when the state was being formed in 2000. And those that came back to Kashmir returned with glowing reviews. They said that since it was a new state, it was growing fast, and there were many opportunities. No one said they were made to feel inferior, so more students came. Now there are at least a hundred Kashmiri students across the state, mainly in Raipur, Bhilai and Bilaspur,” said a Kashmiri student and friend of Taufeeq, who did not wish to be identified.

After graduating in 2012, Bhat returned to Kashmir where he completed an MBA from IGNOU. “But he always told us that there were better opportunities in Chhattisgarh. He said there were many private companies where he could work and grow. So since he had lived in Bhilai for three years in college, he came back and got a job as an events promoter with Vivo mobiles. Not once did he ever say that he was unhappy. His record has always been spotless, and he was studious. He is young and may have shared or liked something on social media. But how can that mean a case as serious as sedition?” said Bhat, his father.

Taufeeq lived with five other room-mates, three of whom were Kashmiris and were on the train with him. Neighbours in Takiapara told the Indian Express that they had never seen Taufeeq get into any trouble, and that he was fond of cricket and teaching children. “He was popular in the colony, and had many friends. Every weekend, he and several others would play cricket at the Ravishankar stadium. We had heard Taufeeq and Umar speak in English, and the children would ask for lessons. So it was not unusual for children of the area to be at their house learning English and other subjects,” said Mudassir Ahmad, a local resident.

For the past year, Bhat had led a small team that set up stalls selling Vivo products across the city, including Durg’s station road. Another promoter for the company, who works at Raja Telecom on the same road, said Taufeeq was an enthusiastic worker, who was always ahead of his targets. “All he did was want to succeed, and was full of life. But over the last month, he had been troubled because he had been cut off from his family due to the violence there and had no contact. So he had taken leave from the company to go to Kashmir for 25 days. I have read in newspapers that police claimed that he was running away. But he had applied for leave, and booked his ticket in advance. I want to go see him in jail, but if the charge is so serious, won’t they start questioning me, too?” said the other promoter, who also requested anonymity.

On Saturday, Ghulam Nabi Bhat met his son in Durg jail for eight minutes. “He could not stop crying, and said repeatedly that he had not posted anything himself, but just shared, and liked other posts on Kashmir. He asked me to help him get released,” he said.

But no one among the many Kashmiri students who had gathered around where Bhat lived in Takiapara was willing to be named for fear of being identified and targeted, and several said the “issue was deeper than just one arrest”.

“Chhattisgarh was one of the few places where we felt there was no danger for us. But if you can book someone for sedition for sharing or liking posts, anything can happen. People from the Valley will now be hesitant to send their children here. The space is shrinking, and for the first time, there is fear here,” a student said.

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