Conflict

Students of Rizwan stare at his empty chair: ‘He was our School’

As they frequent their beloved teacher’s home in Awantipora and huddle around his despairing mother, Rizwan Pandith’s broken-hearted students cry a river, before taking turns to recall his ‘genius and generosity’.

On a dull spring day, some students made rounds of a deserted coaching centre in a downcast neighbourhood of south Kashmir’s Awantipora. It was there the 29-year-old school principal Rizwan Pandith taught Chemistry. After his “custodial killing”, many of his students have “locked themselves” in their homes, while others are paying solidarity visits to his residence.

During mournful meetings, these students often revisit the times when their teacher’s “compelling lectures” would hold them captive inside his classroom. Some of them flip through greeting postcards they sent him—wishing him a long life—when he became the principal.

Rizwan’s family members flipping through the greeting cards his students sent him. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Besides serving as a principal at a local school in his hometown Awantipora, Rizwan was also running a tuition centre named Elite, near his house.

“Rizwan Sir taught me Chemistry for four years,” said a teary-eyed student, Seerat Pervaiz. “He was simply a genius in that subject. It’s a colossal loss for all of us. These days I’ve flashbacks of his classes. Sir’s departure has devastated us.”

Wiping her tears, Seerat sobbingly recalled her teacher as a noble person. “Apart from being a brilliant teacher, he was our kind, humble and great guardian. There can be no second Rizwan Sir.”

Students of Rizwan holding posters and demanding justice. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Many of these students are still downhearted with memories and mourning over the passage of their beloved teacher who was reported dead inside the Cargo police camp in Srinagar on March 19.

“When I heard about Rizwan Sir’s death, I was shell-shocked,” said Danishta Zahoor, another student. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I thought it was some prank or something like that, but I was wrong. They killed him. They killed him so cruelly. What had he done to deserve such inhuman fate?”

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

Parents of Rizwan’s students are equally distraught. Their children don’t want to go to school and the coaching centre where Rizwan used to teach them.

“My son has not attended any classes since Rizwan’s death,” said Mohammad Ashraf, father of one such student. “I can’t even ask him to go to school. How can I? He has lost his motivation.”

Distraught students of Rizwan visiting his home. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Rouf, Ashraf’s son, studies in Class 11th. Dejected, he said, “Rizwan Sir was our school. No Rizwan Sir means No school!”

Following a fleeting emotional silence, Rouf said, “Rizwan Sir had introduced practicals in his coaching centre. As an ideal teacher, he understood his students’ needs and wanted to prepare us for bigger competitions.”

At a small distance from his coaching centre, Rizwan’s family recalls that Sunday night, on March 17, when armoured vehicles had pulled over outside their residence. Following loud knocks, around 15 armed personnel had barged in. While all family members were kept in one room, Rizwan was asked to lead the raid team to his room.

“They searched every nook and corner of his room. His cupboard, books, and clothes were scattered everywhere,” said Haneefa, Rizwan’s mother.

Rizwan’s mother mourning his passage. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Later, when they took Rizwan along, on pretext of another raid in the neighbourhood, his father tried to protest, but ended up drawing a shocking response. “One of the armed men placed a gun on my father’s chest and warned us of consequences, in case we raise an alarm,” recalled Rifat Assad, Rizwan’s younger sister.

That Sunday night eventually died in the dawn of fright for the family. Following morning, inside a local police station, they were told that their son was being interrogated. “They told us that he has been lodged at Cargo in Srinagar for some questioning and will be released shortly,” Rifat recalled.

But the questioning never ended and two days later, his dead body was brought home.

“When his body was brought back, his nose was still oozing blood,” said Mohsina, Rizwan’s cousin. “His left eye and face was bruised. The iron shaped burn marks on the thighs showed the brutality he had gone through. The skin on his legs had been peeled off. He was hit with a sharp weapon on his head. The lower portion of his head was swelled.”

Every morning Rizwan used to stand in front of this mirror and dress for the day, says his cousin. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Ever since his passage, Rizwan’s shocked students have been paying visits to his family. His mother is often seen surrounded by his grief-stricken students.

Rizwan was also teaching Chemistry at Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) Awantipora. “I’ve not seen a personality like him in my whole life,” said Suzain Altaf, student at IUST. “It’s very unfortunate that a teacher like him, who inspired and guided so many students to become engineers and doctors, has been killed in such a brutal way. The cause of his death should be enquired thoroughly.”

Rizwan had pursued his Masters in Chemistry from Dehradun College. In 2018, he had applied for Ph.D in IUST but could not appear in exam due to his detention.

Rizwan’s cupboard filled with books. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Earlier, on August 16, 2018, he was called by the officials of police station Awantipora for a general investigation. After few weeks under the police custody, Rizwan was slapped with PSA and was shifted to Kot Bhalwal Jail in Jammu. His family approached the court and produced evidence that eventually proved Rizwan’s innocence. His PSA was quashed in January, this year.

But two months later, Rizwan was again taken to the police station and subsequently “tortured to death”.

ALSO READ: To get justice for Rizwan, family ready for exhumation and a legal battle

“We’ll not remain silent till we get justice,” the family said. “We want to know, why our Rizwan was killed? What was his crime? Was he a militant? Today, it’s our brother, tomorrow it’ll be someone else’s. We demand a fair investigation.”

Sitting silent in a room full of students and visiting relatives, Jannat-ul-Fiza, the late teacher’s cousin, was thinking about his unfulfilled promise.

“I once asked him to teach me,” Jannat, a Class 6th student, recalled. “He smiled and said, ‘I would love to, but only when you’re in 10th standard.’ Now, my brother is dead, so is his promise.”

 

Bilal Ahmad contributed to this story. 

 

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