Since the invalidation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India on August 5, 2019, the Government of India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is possibly facing the biggest security challenge in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the light of fresh spate of killings of the minorities and migrant workers by Islamist terrorists. The anti-India insurgency in J&K, which is nothing but an Islamist movement, continues to manifest from time to time especially when there is a semblance of peace.
Pakistan-backed terror outfit, The Resistance Front (TRF), which is reportedly a proxy of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is spearheading the Islamist movement in Kashmir currently, although the outfit portrays itself as a secular one. Apart from TRF, the other terrorist outfits that surface intermittently in J&K are Peoples’ Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), United Liberation Front, Geelani Force, Ghaznavi Force, Muslim Janbaz Force, and Islamic State (JK). The members of these outfits are largely radicalised Muslim youth of Kashmir.
The intent behind the minority killings
The killings of Makhan Lal Bindroo on October 5, 2021, followed by Supinder Kour and Deepak Chand on October 7 by Islamist terrorists have displayed the true nature of the so-called freedom movement in J&K. It has reminded us of the targeted killings of Hindus in 1989-90, when the anti-India insurgency had just started. Many Kashmiri Muslims played an aggressive role in the insurgency and were supported by Pakistan — both logistically and financially. Importantly, Bindroo, Kour, and Chand were citizens of J&K.
The Islamist terrorists also murdered Virendra Paswan on October 5, 2021, Arbind Kumar and Sagir Ahmad on October 16, and Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Reshi Dev on October 17. Except for Ahmad who was from Uttar Pradesh, others were from Bihar — all were trying to earn their livelihood in Kashmir.
The aforementioned killings have several connotations in the context of Islamist movement in J&K but the end message delivered by terrorists remains the same — India is an ‘illegal occupier’ in J&K and non-Muslims innately represent India because of the faith they follow and hence can be targeted anytime.
The terrorists have labelled the victims as ‘collaborator’, ‘informer’, ‘RSS stooge’, and ‘Hindutva agent’ in their handouts to justify the recent killings. In 1989-90, the terrorists would use similar nomenclatures especially ‘mukhbir’ and ‘Jan Sanghi’ to justify the killing of Hindus. Notably, mukhbir means informer and Jan Sanghi implies member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the forerunner of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Bindroo’s killing is a worrying sign, particularly for 808 Kashmiri Pandit families who stayed back in Kashmir even after 1990 when most Pandits were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in Jammu and other parts of the country. Despite remaining part of Kashmiri society and enduring the gory 1990s, he was killed by terrorists. A non-displaced Pandit getting killed suggests that other Pandits living in Kashmir can be harmed.
Previously, on September 17, 2021, off-duty policeman Bantoo Sharma (a non-displaced Pandit) was murdered by terrorists in South Kashmir’s Wanpoh area. Two more Pandit killings happened earlier — Ajay Pandita (Bharti) on June 8, 2020, and Rakesh Pandit on June 2, 2021. Bharti was Sarpanch in Lok Bhawan, whereas Pandit was Chairman of Municipal Committee in Tral. Both were (displaced) Kashmiri Pandits and got killed because they tried to reclaim their space in their own homeland by participating in democracy at local level.
Like Bindroo’s killing, terrorists shot dead Supinder Kour (a Kashmiri Sikh woman and the principal of Government Boys Higher Secondary School, Eidgah in Srinagar) and Deepak Chand (a Hindu teacher in Kour’s school) because they were non-Muslims.
Virendra Paswan, Arbind Kumar, Sagir Ahmad, Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Reshi Dev were killed because ‘outsiders’ aren’t welcome in Kashmir as they are seen as a threat to Kashmir's homogeneity and demography. The ‘outsiders’ are not welcome to make Kashmir their home but should only visit as tourists.
It should not be forgotten that the minorities, who stayed back in Kashmir post-1990, were targeted many times by terrorists including the brutal massacres of Sangrampora (Budgam) in 1997, Wandhama (Ganderbal) in 1998, Chittisinghpura (Anantnag) in 2000, and Nadimarg (Pulwama) in 2003.
The minority killings in Kashmir have brought back the disquietude of the year 1990 for around 4,000 Pandits who are working in Kashmir mostly under Prime Minister’s employment package. They ‘returned’ to Kashmir as part of the government’s rehabilitation plan and have been living either in government-provided transit settlements or rental accommodations. Many such Pandits have quietly shifted to Jammu for the time being and are demanding safety for working in Kashmir.
Resentment against altering of the status quo
The BJP government has altered the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir by nullifying Article 370 which was followed by key policy measures such as introduction of domicile certificates, amendments to land ownership rights, and online portal for property-related grievances specifically for Kashmiri Pandits. Although all such measures are corrective and are meant to fix the imbalances in J&K, it has engendered resentment among many sections of the populace in Kashmir.
Satpal Nischal, a Punjabi jeweller who was living in Srinagar for around four decades, was killed by terrorists on December 31, 2020, apparently for obtaining a domicile certificate. This was perhaps the first killing as a response to introduction of domicile certificates. On February 17, 2021, terrorists shot at Aakash Mehra — son of the owner of the famous Krishna Vaishno Dhaba in Srinagar — when a foreign delegation of envoys was visiting J&K and present in Srinagar, not far from where Mehra was attacked. Mehra succumbed to his injuries, eleven days later, on February 28.
Manoj Sinha-led J&K administration’s move to facilitate retrieval of encroached Pandit properties in Kashmir has not been welcomed on the ground. There is an impression that giving genuine rights to the displaced Pandits in Kashmir may create an enabling environment for their empowerment which is disfavoured by the majority Muslim community — often proclaiming their ‘love’ for and ‘waiting for return’ of the minority Pandit community.
Post-Article 370 order (i.e., Naya Jammu Kashmir by Modi government) is being viewed as an attempt to change J&K’s demography vis-à-vis its Muslim-majority character. Kashmir-centric mainstream political outfits as well as the separatist elements have been at loggerheads with the BJP government. This has been further provoked by the press in Kashmir and sections of the media in the rest of India. In totality, an already existing anti-India sentiment in Kashmir is aggravated for political interests, which have yet again sowed the seeds of hatred against anything Indian.
Both the mainstream as well as media in Kashmir shy away from denouncing Islamist terrorism and prevalent radicalisation in Kashmiri society. Instead, they offer meaningless condolences over the killings, blame ‘unknown gunmen’ for dastardly acts, and indulge in obfuscation over jihad.
It is important to note that the new wave of terrorism in J&K (which involved many young and oftentimes educated Muslims) was nurtured on the rise of Narendra Modi as a national leader and BJP becoming a dominant force in India in the run-up to 2014 general elections. The undercurrent of terrorism remains the same in J&K — Muslim Kashmir versus Hindu India.
Given the disturbing developments in Kashmir, what has perhaps lacked in the Modi government’s strategy is to factor in the after-effects of altering the status quo over J&K. When bold moves — which must be taken to remove the inequities — are initiated, it is important to calculate the risks and have robust mechanisms in place to ward off any untoward incidents. Instead of presenting a hunky-dory picture of J&K and harping on the invalidation of Article 370, the focus should have been on tackling the existing radicalisation in the society which often translates into young Muslims participating in terror activities. The Modi government has largely been able to prevent street violence in Kashmir but the recent killings have indicated hole in the security apparatus.
In an online interaction with Kashmiri Pandits in August 2021, Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture Meenakshi Lekhi — on the question of rehabilitation of Pandits back in Kashmir — said, “Nobody is stopping people from going back to their homes, and whatever else is needed will be provided. When corona happened in Delhi, a lot of migrant workers had come from Bihar, Jharkhand and wherever. They were here and whatever was the treatment meted out to them by the Delhi government, they all went back and they have all come back. Where is the problem? I think people also take a call where they wish to be.” She further added, “Lot of people I know who are settled across and they are settled well. On one side, their heart may be pining for their original place of habitation but they are very happy with wherever they are living also. They do not want to be disturbed. People need to take some private initiative as well.”
This reflected lack of understanding at the topmost level of government regarding ethnic cleansing of Pandits and the circumstances which led to their forced exodus from Kashmir. The Modi government, especially Lekhi, needs to answer what kind of private initiatives should be taken when the government has failed to protect the tiny population of Pandits in Kashmir.
It takes considerable time and sustained effort to build peace but a mere short spell of terror and violence to rupture it. Pakistan’s sponsoring of terrorism as a state policy in Muslim-majority J&K and its takers in the region make it easy to foment trouble. Indian state has to defeat Islamist terrorism not only operationally but also ideologically. Till the time the state doesn’t dismantle the enabling ecosystem for jihad and its network in academia and intelligentsia, such spurts of violence won’t stop in J&K, or for that matter, in the rest of India.
The writer is an author and political commentator. He is the co-editor of a book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled ‘A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, published by Bloomsbury India. The views expressed are personal.