It was the summer break of 2013 when Zakir Rashid Bhat left his college, where he was pursuing an engineering degree, in a suburb of Chandigarh. He took some friends, including local Punjabis, with him for the holiday. They returned. He did not.
Bhat, who is now 22 years old and has hit the headlines for being the successor to slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, is recalled as a talkative and tech-savvy young man by fellow students here. He dropped out in the third year of his BTech in civil engineering at Ram Devi Jindal College, Lalru, in Punjab’s Mohali (SAS Nagar) district. He stayed as a paying guest in Panchkula (Haryana), one of the satellite towns of Chandigarh, with a relative.
Some of his batchmates remember “a keen student, fond of talking and eager to mingle with all his classmates and teachers”. And, like Wani, recall Kashmiri students, he was good with technology and “quite active on social media”. “Now, he has deleted all his accounts on Facebook and other sites, it appears,” recalled a friend who did not want to be named, “except a profile on Google Plus, where two of his pictures remain.”
“He was like any other youngster our age; fun-loving, outgoing, and extrovert and very friendly. Nobody could even guess that he would end up replacing Burhan Wani,” said a relative’s roommate here. He carried expensive gadgets such as an Apple iPhone and a Macbook laptop to college.
The turn appeared in 2012, when “there was some Kashmir issue going on and he became emotional, saying that we, the Kashmiri students, should do something for the Valley,” he added.
“One day during the summer break in 2013, he left Chandigarh with some Punjabi friends, telling us that he is going for a week for a picnic in Kashmir. But he never returned,” said a Kashmiri student pursuing higher studies in Chandigarh at present. “Zakir was a good friend,” said another.
“We are also common people,” says Bhat in the 8-minute video message that is being seen as confirmation of his elevation to the post once held by Wani, whose killing on July 8 sparked violent street protests in the Valley that are on to the day. “We also lived in our homes... but due to India’s demeanour we had to take this step. Indians want Kashmiris to fight among themselves.”
“We all know how the martyrdom of our three brothers (Wani and two other militants) has brought the movement to a new point. Now we need to support this struggle and take it to its logical conclusion,” Bhat says in Urdu in the video, emailed to some media houses in Kashmir on Tuesday and widely circulated through mobile messaging service WhatsApp.