Civilian killings in Kashmir | A throwback to the 1990s

A spate of targeted killings in Kashmir has kept the minorities and migrant workers on edge. Peerzada Ashiq reports on how the attacks have once again disrupted the hard-earned goodwill between the majority and minority communities in the Valley

November 13, 2021 03:15 am | Updated 06:48 am IST

Sanjay Raina, a government school teacher, at the Vessu migrant colony in Kulgam.

Sanjay Raina, a government school teacher, at the Vessu migrant colony in Kulgam.

At Bohri Kadal, the spice market of Kashmir, the air was thick with the fragrance of spices. It was the second Monday of November. Just as the market closed for the day, unidentified armed militants, hiding in a dark alley, emerged around 8:10 p.m. They followed a local salesman and waited for him to open a parked car nearby. As Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, 45, climbed into the driver’s seat, the militants pulled the trigger . Khan, a loyal salesman of Sandeep Mawa from north Kashmir’s Bandipora, died.

“Security agencies had told me during the day that militants might target me. I left the market around 3 p.m. in a different car. I had asked the salesman to get my car in the evening,” said Mawa, whose father Roshan Lal Mawa was shot four times in October 1990 but survived the attack. It was only in 2019, 29 years after his father was attacked, that Mawa decided to re-open the spice shop. He got a rousing reception by the Kashmiri Muslim traders on that day.


Khan’s killing ended the brief lull that followed a spree of targeted killings by militants across the Valley in October. Fear has once again gripped the minority community and non-local labourers.

A fresh bout of violence

The flowers have started wilting in the mild autumn sun in south Kashmir’s Vessu area in Kulgam district, 65 km from Srinagar. The Vessu migrant colony has many rows of single-storey accommodations. It was developed by the Department of Disaster Management, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction and is a designated enclave for Kashmiri Pandits. Many Pandits left the Valley in the 1990s in the face of raging militancy, but some bravely returned and took up government jobs .

In the first two weeks of October, watchtowers overseeing the boundary walls of the colony multiplied. Bunkers guarding the colony were wrapped in a tight net, to repulse any grenade thrown at them. Heavily armed guards in bulletproof vests man the gates round the clock. Only those known to the inhabitants are allowed inside. All visitors have to submit their identity cards at the gate checkpoint. The cards are returned only once the visitors leave the premises. Most of the daily grocery — milk, vegetables, bread — is delivered inside. “We have sought installation of floodlights so that the security personnel manning the pickets maintain eye contact with their colleagues during the night,” said a police official.

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The security bandobast and installation of floodlights have been approved for most of the Pandit colonies in the Valley located in south Kashmir’s Hall in Pulwama district, Mattan in Anantnag district and Vessu in Kulgam district; north Kashmir’s Natnusa in Kupwara district and Weervan in Baramulla district; and central Kashmir’s Sheikhpora in Budgam district and Tulmulla in Ganderbal district.

Sanjay Raina, a teacher at a government middle school in Anantnag, decided to return to the Valley in 2010 along with his wife under an employment package announced by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008. “We were among the last Pandit families to leave in 1990. Our family left in May (1990) after close friends and neighbours started saying that all was not well and we should save ourselves for the time being. We faced indirect threats and left for Jammu,” Raina recalled.

After a fresh bout of violence in October this year, only 18 families decided to stay back at the Vessu colony out of the 450 Pandit families that had returned and taken up government jobs. The rest left for Jammu . “Most Pandits preferred to leave for Jammu early October. The atmosphere had suddenly changed here,” Raina said, without qualifying what happened.


Over the past few years, 3,841 Pandit employees, who took up jobs under the 2008 employment package for 6,000 educated Pandit migrants, started to bring their relatives and extended families to the Valley. They wanted the new generation to know about their roots. However, that dream is now shattered.

It was around 12 p.m. on October 7 when Raina was asked by his Muslim colleagues to leave the school premises and head home, immediately after news broke on social media about the the killing of a female principal and a teacher . “For a week, we were not allowed to come out of the Vessu colony,” Raina said.

For many, 2021 is like a replay of the 1990s. Raina is jittery. Till September, Raina, an early riser, would go on a one-and-a-half-hour run and exercise in a nearby industrial area in the morning. He would also go to the nearby Muslim neighbourhood for evening chats, take long strolls on the school lawns and frequently visit his apple orchards. All that has stopped suddenly. “If I see any unknown person walking towards me, I get scared. I had to change my timing and route towards school. My colleagues advised me against going on strolls,” Raina said.


For the first time in 18 years, since the Nadimarg massacre saw the killing of 24 Kashmiri Pandits by gunmen in Pulwama on March 23, 2003, militants have carried out targeted killings. They left 11 civilians dead in October this year. The civilians included widely respected Pandit pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo , female Sikh school principal Supinder Kaur, Jammu-based Hindu teacher Deepak Chand , two golgappa sellers and three labourers. Unlike the past, the militant outfits, The Resistance Front and the United Liberation Front, claimed responsibility for the killings and justified the same in their statements issued online.

The killings have once again disrupted the hard-earned goodwill between the two communities in Kashmir. Even the five-month-long street violence, over 100 deaths and a cycle of shutdowns in 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani , did not harm this relationship. “We felt no fear in 2016 when the streets were burning. It did not disturb our routine,” Raina said. Another Kashmiri Pandit recalled: “There were times when Pandit boys from the Vessu colony would play cricket in the fields with Muslim friends. Later, we were told that a few Muslim players they were playing with had joined the militant ranks. But there was no such fear.”

This time again, the community is being forced to make some hard choices. Most family members of the Kashmiri Pandit government employees decided to leave for Jammu immediately after the attacks. According to the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government figures, 40,142 Hindu families were among the 60,000 families which migrated from the Valley in the 1990s. Among the rest were 2,684 Muslim and 1,730 Sikh families.

A volcano waiting to erupt

Locals believe that the shrinking political space, among other factors, has resulted in a sudden spurt in militancy in Kashmir this year. There are also many who see the J&K government’s push to reclaim Pandit property from Muslim owners or encroachers as a trigger for the new wave of violence against minorities.


In the last week of September this year, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha launched a specially designed portal for Kashmiri Pandits living outside for time-bound redress of grievances related to their immovable properties. He said this was being done “to rectify the mistakes of the past”. The government machinery was directed to address the cases within 15 days of the filing of the complaint. Complaints from Pandits living outside J&K and abroad poured in. According to officials in the Divisional Commissioner’s office, over 3,000 applications from Pandits living outside J&K were received within a fortnight. In scores of cases, even eviction notices were served to owners, mostly Muslims, considered as encroachers and illegal occupiers.

The J&K administration also sought details from Pandits about properties sold after 2007 to prepare a list of distress sales of properties. In 1997, the J&K government had passed The Jammu and Kashmir Migrant Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Restraint on Distress Sales) Act , which seeks to preserve, protect, and restrain the distress sales of immovable property of Pandit migrants. In March 2020, the requirement of written complaints for survey or measurement of a migrant property, proviso 2 of sub-section (2) of Section 6 of the Act, was omitted for speedy redress.


The property cases were addressed on a priority basis. The authorities removed a Muslim owner, Sara, wife of Nissar Ahmad Reshi, after 15 years, among others. “The land recorded in the name of Prabhavati Raina, wife of Late Shambunath Raina, a resident of Vessu, was illegally occupied by Sara. With the eviction of unauthorised occupation of the land, the migrant breathed a sigh of relief,” an official said, after the eviction was successfully conducted by a local police officer and a magistrate in September.

Sudhir Pandita (name changed), a Kashmiri Pandit in his late 30s, has been camping in the Valley for several weeks now, to recover the land occupied by three Muslim occupiers, after he heard that the action is prompt in such cases . “I have put up a complaint on the portal. The status still shows pending. I am hopeful that my issue will get resolved. I tried all other means to get back my land. Three Muslim families have encroached on our ancestral agricultural land. We are threatened whenever we ask them to vacate,” Pandita said.

Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a body of 808 Kashmiri Pandits families that did not leave the Valley in the 1990s, sees such controversial property cases as a trigger behind the violence against minorities. “After August 5, 2019 (when the Centre ended J&K’s special constitutional status ), the volcano was only intensifying without any vent in the Kashmir Valley. The J&K government started making claims of organising Hindu festivals for the first time, which is not true. Then, the property cases became a trigger for the fresh cycle of violence,” Tickoo said.


The reclaiming of properties by Pandits from current Muslim occupiers or buyers or owners comes with its attendant problems, Tickoo said. “There are properties that were handed over to Muslims on the power of attorney but without registering them in the revenue records. Such owners are scared that they will lose property rights now. The distress sale cases post 1997 will also result in action against many Muslim owners. It will also annoy the land mafia in Kashmir. Srinagar city has most such problematic cases,” he said.

Insecure at home

Tickoo has stayed in Muslim neighbourhoods for the past three decades but he no longer feels secure. The condition of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits can be gauged from the fact that he was shifted at midnight by the security forces on October 5 because they feared that he was on the target list of the militants.

Migrant workers in the Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama district, Kashmir.

Migrant workers in the Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama district, Kashmir.


It was in June this year that Tickoo smelled a rat and wanted to convey his fears to the Raj Bhavan but could not get an audience. “There was talk on the streets that October will see a turn of events. It was like 1989-90 when our Muslim neighbourhood all of a sudden started talking about Pandits leaving the Valley. This time, too, the whispering voices came true. The community has been a target for a long time now. Unfortunately, the L-G administration could not sense and prevent it,” Tickoo said.

For nearly a month Tickoo has been living at an undisclosed location in the city. He is not allowed to return to his home in Srinagar’s civil lines, where his wife and children stay. “Unlike the 1990s, militancy is faceless this time. The security agencies are yet to crack the cases and stop the trend,” he said.


The Pandit leader, who braved many pressures and threats in the past, fears that the remaining Pandit population will leave if the attacks are not stopped. “Four Pandit families in Anantnag have already left for good. The new generation of Kashmiri Pandits does not want to live in this uncertainty. If there are more killings, the small Pandit population will leave forever,” Tickoo warned.

A senior police official said pickets were being worked out in districts to safeguard Pandits. “It will take time. There are a few difficulties. We did offer five to 10 security personnel to a few vulnerable Pandit houses. Many refused because of accommodation issues. We need to set up accommodation for the personnel first,” he said.

Putting up a brave face

Besides Kashmiri Pandits, security agencies have been working round the clock to ensure that attacks against non-local migrant workers also stop. The deaths of five non-local workers — two street vendors, one carpenter and two labourers — have already triggered panic among the migrant workers.

The second week of October saw labourers leaving the Valley in droves. This has impacted different labour-intensive sectors such as horticulture, construction, and brick kilns.


Birendra Paswan, a resident of Bhagalpur in Bihar, was the first on October 5. The non-local vendor, selling golgappas in the old city’s Madeen Sahib area, was killed post sundown from close range, with the attacker making a video on his body camera. The wooden single-room accommodation where Paswan stayed in Alamgari Bazar remains locked. Scores of non-local Hindu workers, who came with him, have left the Valley but many find it hard to end business relationships forged over decades.

“I have made a name for myself here thanks to my plaster designs, tiling and paint work. I have my co-workers at half-a-dozen construction sites at present in the old city. Locals trust me so much that I take advance money. I am in demand. How can I think of leaving,” Sanjeeb Kumar, 55, a resident of Bihar’s Darbhanga, asked. Kumar said he could get his three daughters married with the money he made. “Tiling, plaster and paint are three areas where the non-Kashmiri workforce is better. People prefer us for our fine work. Who will construct such beautiful houses here if we leave the Valley?”

Sangram, in his 20s, and Kanaya Lal, in his 40s, are among the hundreds of non-local labourers who run over 277 industrial units at the Lassipora Industrial Area in Pulwama, which is known for cold storage, juice plants and cement floor tiles. “I am from Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh area. I feel as insecure in Azamgarh as in Kashmir. Fear is everywhere. But we are able to earn ₹700 per day here compared to just ₹400 back home. Besides, we get non-stop work,” Sangram, who works at Billo Tiles, said.

Kashmir is heavily dependent on non-local workers to run businesses such as horticulture, hair salons, copper and gold designers, and brick kilns. According to the J&K Brick Manufacturers’ Association, over 80,000 non-local labourers work in the Valley’s brick kilns. “The sudden exodus of the migrant labour force has already affected the manufacturing capacity of brick kilns in Budgam. It’s going to slow down the construction sector this season. We are hopeful that the labourers will return by the next summer and we are able to keep pace with the demand,” Nazeer Jan, a brick kiln owner, said.

An island of hope

Away from the violence in Srinagar, Pulwama’s idyllic Haal area, around 35 km away from the capital, is fast emerging as an island of hope. A Pandit couple lives amid the ruins of around a dozen empty houses of Kashmiri Pandits, who left in the 1990s. Perched on an undulating highland with tall walnut trees is the house of Poornima, a housewife, and Ashok, an employee in the local postal office. A garland of marigold hangs from the sun-facing wall of the house, typical of Pandits in the Valley.

“We have maintained very good relations with our neighbours. We just finished harvesting apples from the orchards together. I helped my Muslim neighbours to pick apples and they helped me too. We have never faced any problem,” said Poornima, whose son works as a junior engineer in the Valley.


Tickoo has urged the majority community to come forward and help create an atmosphere of peaceful existence in Kashmir. “If one has to compare the role of the majority community between 2021 and the 1990s, I would say they failed us more this time. Except for a few mosques denouncing the killings of the minorities, we saw no spontaneous shutdown or street protests by the majority community. The civil society could not do much,” Tickoo said.

He appealed to the authorities to allow Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, also a head cleric, to lead the Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid and help galvanise support in favour of the minorities. “Unfortunately, the government did not heed my request and the Mirwaiz was not allowed to lead the prayers. His statement would have gone a long way to create a positive narrative,” he said.

School teacher Raina has one big fear. “Who will prune my apple trees if the security situation keeps me away from my orchards? My apple trees will get uprooted by a spell of heavy snow in the coming winters. If I am not able to nurse them in time, I am not sure if my orchid will be in full bloom again,” a worried Raina said.

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