Kashmir has slipped into a vortex after the targeted killings of the minority Hindus sporadically by Islamist terrorists. It has punctured holes in the Narendra Modi government’s proclamations of the improved security scenario in Kashmir, especially concerning the minorities. The government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have doggedly portrayed the picture of ‘Naya Kashmir’ while underestimating the nature of jihad in the entire Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
The Modi government has emphasised ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir through burgeoning tourism and trumpeted ‘victory’ over jihad through the killing of terrorists and shortening their life span. Around 700,000 tourist bookings in Kashmir in the first five months of 2022, as per data from the J&K Tourism Department, have supported the notion that everything is in order. However, the recent minority killings in Kashmir have explicitly shown the face of Islamist terrorism.
Targeted killings of minorities in Kashmir
The killing of Rahul Bhat, a young Kashmiri Pandit working under the prime minister’s employment package for the community, by terrorists inside his office at Chadoora in J&K’s Budgam district on 12 May 2022 has shocked the minorities in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Pandits living in Kashmir. Unlike the past minority killings in 2020-21, Bhat was shot dead by terrorists at his workplace. If terrorists can barge into a supposedly secured government office, it is a big question mark on J&K’s security apparatus.
The killing of Bhat has once again torn apart the loud assertions from the majority Muslim society that Kashmir is a safe place for Pandits. Terror outfit Kashmir Tigers claimed responsibility for Rahul Bhat’s killing because he was “a corrupt and bribe-taking officer” and warned government employees not to harass the people of Kashmir.
Later on, a separate ‘charge-sheet’ was released by terrorists which listed several reasons behind Bhat’s killing. It said that Bhat was working in J&K’s revenue department to “forge the land papers and provide/point out the land for outsiders”. The ‘charge-sheet’ added that Bhat was active in Kashmir for “mobilising demographic change program of the Occupier government”. Importantly, the 'charge-sheet' alluded that Kashmiri Pandits working under the PM employment package in Kashmir are “employed either at revenue departments or in educational departments” because the Indian government wants to “change and replace everything”.
Two more minority killings in May 2022 further vitiated the atmosphere: Ranjit Singh, an employee at a recently-opened wine shop in Baramulla, on 17 May; and Rajni Bala, teacher of Government High School at Gopalpora in Kulgam, on 31 May. Both were from Jammu — Singh from Rajouri and Bala from Samba. It is disconcerting to note that Rajni Bala had written to the Chief Education Officer, Kulgam requesting a transfer to a safer location because she felt insecure about where she was working.
Bala’s killing was followed by the daylight murder of Vijay Kumar, manager of Ellaquai Dehati Bank and originally from Rajasthan, on 2 June in J&K's Kulgam district. The CCTV footage showed how easily a terrorist walked inside the bank, pointed his pistol at Kumar, and pumped bullets into him.
Besides the killings of Hindus/Pandits, Islamist terrorists have targeted Muslims in Kashmir who are not Islamic enough for them or those who are labelled collaborators of the Indian state. Kashmiri TV artist Amreena Bhat was killed by terrorists in Budgam on 25 May perhaps because she was involved in un-Islamic practices. The vile comments on her Instagram page, in which many Kashmiri Muslims rejoiced her death, reflected the reason behind her killing and displayed the mindset of some sections of Kashmiri society.
Terrorists murdered Ghulam Hassan Dar (J&K Police Constable) on 7 May, Riyaz Ahmad Thoker (J&K Special Police Officer) on 13 May, and Saifullah Qadri (J&K Police Constable) on 24 May because they were directly connected with the Indian state through their profession and hence “collaborators of the state”.
The targeted killings of minorities (including Pandits and Sikhs) in Kashmir started in 2020 when Ajay Pandita (Bharti), a Sarpanch of Lok Bhawan in J&K’s Anantnag district, was shot dead on 8 June. This was followed by the killing of Satpal Nischal, a Punjabi Hindu jeweller living in Srinagar for four decades, on 31 December on the pretext of obtaining a domicile certificate of J&K.
The killings of minorities by terrorists have continued in 2021 and 2022 — Aakash Mehra, Rakesh Pandit, Bantoo Sharma, Makhan Lal Bindroo, Supinder Kour, Deepak Chand Mehra, Satish Kumar Singh, etc. Terrorists have repeatedly sent the message to the Indian state that Pandits, Dogra Hindus, and migrant workers from the rest of India are not welcome in Kashmir.
Imperviousness of the Indian state
After the murder of Rahul Bhat, Pandit employees came out on the streets of Kashmir in large numbers across the key transit camps in Sheikhpora (Budgam), Vessu (Kulgam), Veerwan (Baramulla), and Mattan (Anantnag). They protested in the heart of Srinagar city seeking justice and safety. Hundreds of Pandits protesting at various locations in Kashmir — the same Kashmir from where Pandits were ethnically cleansed in 1990 — was a historic moment that one has hardly seen before in the recent past. The protest was also the manifestation of dejection and venting of anger against the Indian state for not fulfilling its promises.
While protesting in Budgam on 13 May 2022, Pandit protestors were subjected to baton charges and tear gas shells by J&K Police personnel. The images of Pandit protestors, being beaten by the police, went viral on social media. It demonstrated the insouciant Manoj Sinha-led J&K administration and the overall imperviousness of the Modi government towards the Pandits.
On several occasions, the transit camps of Pandits in Kashmir were locked by security forces from outside — they were not allowed to protest or step out. Like cattle are locked in their sheds, Pandits were caged in their camps in Kashmir. It was the humiliation of the highest order for a persecuted community from a government that claimed to rehabilitate the community in their homeland. Importantly, BJP has always voiced its commitment to addressing the issues of Pandits. Yet the same party chose to ignore the loud cries of Pandits in Kashmir.
In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government announced a return and rehabilitation package for Kashmiri Pandits worth Rs 1,168.4 crore which included 6,000 jobs for unemployed Pandit youth in the J&K government. First implemented in 2010, the Congress government’s policy was rehashed by the Modi government and formed part of the Prime Minister’s Development Package for J&K worth Rs 80,068 crore announced in 2015. Importantly, as per the rules framed by the J&K government under SRO 412 (30 December 2009), anyone employed under this policy will not be eligible for transfer outside Kashmir whatever the circumstances.
After Rahul Bhat’s killing, Pandit employees have specifically demanded that they should be shifted outside Kashmir as they are not safe anymore in Kashmir. Back-to-back threat letters from terror outfits have exacerbated the overall situation in which it is mentioned that Pandits, among others, will be targeted.
Another handout by terrorists said, “KPs have made an agreement to follow the dictate of this settler-colonial regime after getting some filthy packages like PM Employment Program and safe settlement in the valley. KPs are welcome but not filth within their minds and thoughts. If you KPs and other collaborators keep licking the boots of this filthy fascist colonial regime then your blood will spell and no matter where you all hide, the Resistance Fighters will drag you out from your guarded dungeons.”
The Government of India had promised secured accommodation for Pandits employed under this rehabilitation package. The 2015 development package mentioned the construction of 6,000 transit accommodations for Pandit employees in Kashmir at an outlay of Rs 920 crore. However, according to the Union Home Ministry, only 1,025 residential units have been constructed in Kashmir to date. Most Pandits live with their families in rented accommodations where they are vulnerable to terrorists. That is the reality of the relief and rehabilitation policy, formulated by Manmohan Singh and furthered by Narendra Modi.
The J&K administration tried to manipulate the protesting Pandit employees by talking about service-related matters such as transfers, promotions, etc, a few days after the protest. Essentially, the administration tried to deflect attention from the core issue of the threat to Pandits. One must wonder why the J&K administration didn’t address all such service-related matters to date when several representations were made to the authorities on several occasions.
The Pandit employees called off their strike in Kashmir after the killing of Vijay Kumar in Kulgam and formally announced their forced migration to Jammu. They continue to protest from Jammu demanding that they should be relocated to a safer place outside Kashmir till the time situation in Kashmir improves. Most of the Pandit employees along with their families have shifted to Jammu. Imagine the circumstances of such Pandits — forcibly leaving Kashmir in 1990, living in exile in Jammu, starting anew in Kashmir after 2010 on the back of government assurances of rehabilitation, and leaving Kashmir in 2022. Is this the idea of homecoming? Is this the rehabilitation promised by the Government of India?
Complicity and silence of Kashmiri society
As Pandits joined government offices in Kashmir after 2010, it started their slow and steady process of reconnecting with their homeland. Families and relatives of Pandit employees would often visit Kashmir although most Pandits don’t have their houses or residential apartments in Kashmir. The appearance of Pandits more and more in Kashmir and their baby steps in social, political, and economic directions yet again invited displeasure from the society at large.
The Modi government’s bold move to invalidate Article 370 followed by several policy measures — the issuance of domicile certificates, amendments to land ownership rights, and an online portal for property-related issues specifically for Kashmir Pandits — were seen as disadvantageous to Muslims in Kashmir. The recently concluded delimitation exercise in J&K has been presented as aggression against Muslim Kashmir by Hindu India. Although such moves were corrective and aimed at fixing the imbalance, the mainstream political parties and separatist groups vehemently opposed the Modi government’s actions in J&K.
Kashmiri Pandits, always seen as agents of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the Indian state because of their religion, have become soft targets of Islamists in Kashmir. The killers and their collaborators, often Kashmiri Muslims, attack Pandits and other non-Muslims in the name of Islam for achieving ‘azadi’ from India.
While Pandits faced dire challenges and threats, the majority community of Kashmir remains a mute spectator in 2022 like they were in 1990. The tacit support from society for what happens to minorities in Kashmir can’t be overlooked. More often than not, the notion of unknown gunmen is floated to conceal the wrongdoings and complicity of Kashmiri society.
In its press release on 15 April 2022, Srinagar-based Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, while noting the failure of the government and society, remarked, “Every gunman known or unknown is a local person and their helping OGWs are also from our own Kashmiri Society who create fake trust with religious minorities to collect details and help these gunmen to kill Kashmiri Pandits/Kashmiri Hindus living in Kashmir Valley. In 1990, religious minorities were backstabbed and forced to leave Kashmir Valley by creating a hostile environment, time and again similar conditions were created in 2022 to force Kashmiri Pandits/Kashmiri Hindus to leave Kashmir Valley.” We must keep in mind that hundreds of Pandit families still live in Kashmir — not just in Srinagar but also in the hinterland — who chose to stay back in 1990.
Harping on the fact that terrorism in Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan but concealing the fact that terrorists often are from Kashmir will not lead to the betterment of the society. Anti-Pandit hatred is a reality in Kashmir. Not every terror activity is directed from Islamabad or Muridke or Bahawalpur. J&K is the primary battleground of Islamists for the supreme goal of Ghazwa-e-Hind. It must always be remembered that the Islamist cry, among others, is “Hum kya chahte — Azadi” because “Azadi ka matlab kya — La ilaha illa Allah”.
Naya Kashmir over the dead bodies of Hindus?
While terrorists executed killings of Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, especially after 5 August 2019, the Modi government and the BJP kept campaigning about ‘Naya Kashmir’. If the Manmohan Singh government created the flawed policy of rehabilitation for Pandits in Kashmir (which cages them in the Valley whatever the conditions), why did the Modi government further the same policy instead of fixing or scrapping it?
Why should the tiny minority community of Pandits be sacrificial lambs in Kashmir so that the Modi government can champion the ‘Naya Kashmir’ model by furthering the fallacious mantra of ‘Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat’ coined by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Why does the government think that bringing corrective measures, howsoever well-intentioned, would not be seen suspiciously and opposed by the populace of Kashmir? If the government is unable to pre-empt the challenges and tackle the repercussions from Islamists, then how does it proclaim to resettle a community back in Kashmir? Isn't the state aware of subversion in J&K's bureaucratic setup and police machinery?
Quiet operations are better than publicity campaigns because the focus should be on getting work done and not scoring brownie points for political purposes. However, the Modi government chose to do the latter and presented a hunky-dory picture of Kashmir.
The Modi government cannot build 'Naya Kashmir' over the dead bodies of Hindus in Kashmir. It cannot eradicate jihad by chanting ‘Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat’. Moreover, the government can't fight Islamist terrorism by blaming Pakistan and not looking into the Kashmiri society. The unambiguous message from Kashmir is that Pandits are not welcome in their homeland in the year 2022, as was the case in 1990.
The author is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of 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. He tweets @VaradSharma. Views expressed are personal.