MAKING A DIFFERENCE
When Rashid Pehalwan, a businessman and activist, heard about the mob attacks on Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh and other North Indian states in the wake of the Pulwama incident, he immediately mobilised his men and limited resources to launch rescue efforts putting his own life and that of his men to save the lives of dozens of Kashmiri students. Zafar Aafaq travels to Dehradun to meet the braveheart
Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily
ON the evening of February 16, Amir Rather and his mates huddled in the courtyard of their apartment block desperately waiting for help to evacuate themselves to Kashmir. They had spent the previous night and day in terror amidst reports of targeted attacks against Kashmiri students from different areas of the city.
“We were scared,” Amir, who is pursuing a paramedical degree at a private college in Dehradun, said. Originally from Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir, he resides in Bhauwala, a locality tucked away in the forests 10 miles from the city centre.
Two policemen finally arrived. “Their presence felt reassuring,” Rather said. “They said that they were going to evacuate us to a safer location.”
All the students who reside in Bhauwala area assembled in the courtyard. A half-hour later three SUV type cabs came and drove the students to Rampur – a predominantly Muslim town, 12 km from Bhauwala on the Dehradun outskirts. “We were now a bit relieved,” Amir recalled.
Violence and protests erupted calling for the ouster of Kashmiris in parts of north India following a suicide bombing in Pulwama on February 14 which killed over 40 paramilitary troopers. Kashmiri students and traders were targeted by angry mobsters across cities and towns of north India. Dehradun saw several incidents of targeted attacks against Kashmiri students with Sudhowala area, where many Kashmiris live, as its epicenter.
Suhail Malik, pursuing masters in Biotechnology, shared a life-threatening incident with Caravan Daily. He had to run for his life after a group of youth barged into his apartment. “They slapped and abused me and asked me to chant pro-Hindutva slogans,” Malik said. “I somehow managed to give them a slip and hid in an abandoned building before I called the police.” The mob even attacked a girls hostel but quick intervention came from police.
Rallies were organised throughout that week across the city including in Bhauwala. “The mobs were raising slogans against Kashmiris and we got scared,” Rather said. “We stayed indoors to avoid being harmed. Our families back home were worried.” They had spent the entire day indoors and ate the dry ration they had stored. They wanted to be taken to home in Kashmir safely as the reports of violence kept pouring in.
“My two classmates who live in Sudhowala (a neighboring locality) were forced to vacate the apartment by their landlord. They had to wait on highway amidst rain in the night for hours before they found a safe transport to Chandigarh.”
Once in Rampur, the evacuated students were accommodated in a hostel-type building. “After we entered the building and dropped our bags, a stout, clean-shaven man, wearing a black blazer and white shirt, came in and said that there was no need to worry now,” Rather recollected. “He introduced himself as Rashid Pehalwan.”
Rashid Pehalwan, 35, is a district councilor currently associated with the Congress party. His family owns the vast property and deal in the real estate sector. They live in a posh mansion in Rampur.
When students from other localities poured in, the rooms became crowded. Dozens of them were shifted to a mosque nearby or were housed in a commercial building whose ground floor constitutes Pehalwan’s office. The first floor is a mosque that Pehalwan has donated to the public. Pehalwan rescued over 200 students.
“We spent three nights with Rashid Bhai before we travelled to home in the cabs that he arranged for us,” said Bilal Ahmad, a student hailing from a village near Gulmarg, a world famous ski resort. “Rashid Bhai provided us shelter, food, and transport and above all he provided us safe environment,” a grateful and emotional Bilal recalled.
“I am fortunate that Allah chose me for this deed,” Pehalwan said with a smile and his voice full of compassion. He says he did it on humanitarian grounds. “We should not see the creed, colour, and ethnicity of victims who need our support.” He is a man of few words and shies from talking about all the good work he does.
When Pehalwan heard about the attacks against Kashmiri students, he immediately ordered his men and limited resources to launch the rescue efforts, putting his own life and those of his men in danger.
“We evacuated Kashmiri students from different areas of the city including Bhauwala, Sudhowala, Prem Nagar, Rajpor road, clock tower,” said Jameel Ahmad, one of the men who work at Pehalwan’s office. “Many Kashmiris volunteered with us in these rescue operations.”
It was horrific two days before the students arrived at Pehalwan’s place. “We had scary thoughts about mob attacking us. What if the mob compelled our landlord to throw us out,” recounted Amir.
In Sudhowala his two classmates were forced to vacate the apartment by their landlord. They were made to wait in rain for hours before they found a safe transport for Chandigarh. “We are so thankful to Allah for sending Rashid Sahib to save us,” Amir said. “Had Rashid Bhai not come to our rescue I don’t know how we would have survived.” Many students updated their social media profiles with photos of Pehalwan as a mark of gratitude once they reached home.
The students however complained of being ignored and neglected by Kashmir’s own politicians and administration. “We contacted many politicians and bureaucrats back home for help but no one came to our rescue. They either dodged our calls or made fake promises as they always do,” said Basharat, Bilal’s classmate.
For Pehalwan though the Kashmiri students had only words of praise and gratitude. “Rashid Bhai is a class apart. On the first night he slept in the mosque under the blanket on the floor,” Basharat said. “He ensured medical care to those injured in attacks despite reluctance shown by hospitals to offer treatment medico-legal grounds.”
Pehalwan’s work not only ensured the safety of the Kashmiri students, it instilled in them the confidence to return to Dehradun again once the situation returned to normal. “If Rashid Bhai had not stepped in, I don’t think we would have had the confidence to return. He is the pillar of support for us here. We look up to him,” said Basharat.
Once Kashmiris returned, Pehalwan invited them to his brother’s marriage. Some turned up while others could not due to academic commitments. “We invited the Kashmiris to marriage to make them feel welcome once again,” said Jameel Ahmad, Pehalwan’s assistant.
Pehalwan carries an aura of a philanthropist. His routine is incessantly interrupted by calls from people seeking his intervention. “He provides financial assistance to underprivileged girls for their marriage,” Jameel said. “He also helps patients who can’t afford treatment.”
Jameel who hails from Jammu sees Pehalwan as an elder brother and source of inspiration. He has been working with Pehalwan for the past four years. “I am fortunate to be with him.”
Locals credit him for being instrumental in ensuring communal harmony in the area. “He mediates in inter-community disputes to ensure peace and harmony which has earned him respect among non-Muslims as well,” a shopkeeper in Rampur said.