NEW DELHI -- The television interviews finally wrapped up sometime after ten in the night on Tuesday, but even after hours of talking about it, Athar Aamir Ul Shafi Khan was still coming to terms with the fact that he has been placed second in the toughest examination in India.
"I haven't had time to think. The whole thing is yet to sink in," said the 23-year-old, who hails from the southern district of Anantnag in the Kashmir Valley.
Over nine lakh candidates applied for the 2015 Civil Service Exam, and over four lakhs sat for the preliminary test. Just over 15,000 candidates made it past the first round, and 1,078 of them were finally selected to work for various central government services.
On Tuesday night, Khan spoke to HuffPost India over the phone from Lucknow, where he is currently undergoing training for the Indian Railways Traffic Service. He joined the IRTS after securing the 560th rank in the Civil Service Exam, last year. Not satisfied with his performance, Khan decided to give it another go. The rest is history.
"I was having tea when the news came. I just stood up, frozen. And then I called my father," he said.
There was joy, there was elation, there was relief, but Khan said that the realisation of having made it came with an overwhelming feeling of responsibility. "It is a great opportunity, but a bigger responsibility," he said. "Passing the exam is just an entry into the civil service, but then people expect you to deliver."
Deliver what exactly, we asked Khan. "Deliver a clean, responsible, accountable, civil service — driven purely by the desire to serve the public," he said.
While it is a tremendous achievement for any individual to crack the Civil Service Exam, there is always a great deal of interest around successful candidates from the beautiful yet blood-soaked Kashmir Valley, which was ravaged by a brutal militancy, and is still plagued by a low intensity conflict, with a large section of its Muslim population hostile to India.
People outside the Valley are curious to know about how successful candidates manage to crack such a tough exam despite all the troubles in Kashmir, how do they feel about India, and whether they even 'feel Indian'. Back in the Valley, many celebrate their achievements, but there are others who give them a hard time for ""surrendering"" to the Indian State.
When HuffPost asked Khan whether questions linked to him being Kashmiri gets tiresome, he said, "I don't see it as a burden, but as a responsibility."
"If this achievement makes sense to anyone in Kashmir then it would have been meaningful," Khan said.
"I Don't See Any Contradiction"
Khan said that he grew up in the countryside of Anantnag, quite isolated from the tensions which grip the towns and cities of Kashmir Valley. Like many families in their area, Khan's grandfather owned an apple orchard. His father still teaches economics at a local high school for girls and his mother is a homemaker. After graduating school, he went to the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh.
While talking about growing up in the Valley, Khan didn't offer an intense narrative of dealing with the conflict while keeping his nose to the grindstone to achieve his goals. Nor does he see any "contradiction" in being a Kashmiri and working for the Indian State.
By his own admission, Khan says he was always too driven to get distracted by the chaos around him, and he isn't prone to theatrics. "I don't see any contradictions," he said, matter-of-factly. "There is no doubt about my patriotism."
Contrary to the prevalent worry of the youth flocking to join the militants, Khan believes that young Kashmiris are broadening their horizons like never before. "The situation is much better," he said. "More young people from Kashmir are getting into different fields not just the Civil Service."
Khan's inspiration was Shah Faesal, who became the first Kashmiri to top the 2009 Civil Service Exam. The first Kashmiri to become an officer of the Indian Administrative Service was Mohammad Shafi Pandit in 1969, making it to the fifth rank.
While Khan says that his life was relatively untouched by the conflict, Faesal, who is now Director School Education in J&K, could not escape it. His father was gunned down by militants, three days before his pre-medical exam in 2002. He still went onto become a doctor and then an IAS officer.
In reply to one person who accused him of "surrendering" to the Indian State, Faesal wrote, "While you consider yourselves to be the self-appointed guardians of Kashmir cause, I cannot afford to do. I know how mundane and minuscule my mandate is. I can’t afford to sound statesmanly like you, I am not just meant to be. As a civil servant, I have the job well defined."
Working In India
While the top-ranking candidates have the choice of joining the Indian Foreign Service, which means a career in diplomacy and overseas postings, Khan has opted for the Indian Administrative Service. "The IAS gives you an opportunity to stay in India and that is what I want to do," he said.
Incidentally, the topper of the Civil Service Exam, 22-year-old Tina Dabi from Delhi, has also chosen the IAS.
And Khan was happy to doff his hat to the one person who had bested him. "She is definitely the topper. It is a big feat," he said.
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