Kashmiri Pandits living on the edge

A spate of targeted killings of Hindus in Kashmir threatens to reverse years of efforts to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. Peerzada Ashiq reports on the fear in the community, which is once again faced with the dilemma of whether to stay or leave in the face of violence

June 11, 2022 03:15 am | Updated 10:46 am IST

Three-storey towers at the protected Sheikhpora transit Pandit colony in Budgam. This is where around 300 Kashmiri Pandits, who returned to the Valley after being forced to migrate two decades ago, live.

Three-storey towers at the protected Sheikhpora transit Pandit colony in Budgam. This is where around 300 Kashmiri Pandits, who returned to the Valley after being forced to migrate two decades ago, live. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

It is easy to spot from a distance the curtains drawn on the windows. Many two-bedroom flats have their doors locked from the outside. The buzz of residents that should surround the 14 three-storey towers is missing at the protected Sheikhpora transit Pandit colony in Budgam, bordering the posh colonies of Srinagar. The families of around 300 Kashmiri Pandits, who returned to the Valley and took up government jobs after being forced to migrate two decades ago, live in these flats.

The anxiety of the residents is palpable. The additional security personnel, stationed at strategically located watch towers, have become more vigilant. Glittering spools of concertina wires have been placed on top of the walls of the towers. The only Muslims who regularly enter the premises are well-known milkmen and vegetable vendors. No unknown person from outside is allowed inside any more. Around 30 Muslim students, tutored privately by Pandit teachers, have stopped visiting the colony.

Life at the Sheikhpora colony was not dull and grim until May 12 this year. On that day, Rahul Bhat, a 35-year-old Pandit who lived in one of the vertical towers, was shot dead in his office chair by well-trained militants in Chadoora’s tehsil office in Budgam, about 12 km from the colony. This was followed by back-to-back targeted killings of a Hindu schoolteacher from Jammu’s Samba district, a Hindu bank manager from Rajasthan, and a Hindu wine shop employee from Jammu’s Rajouri district. Shock over the first killing quickly turned into unease. Today, Kashmiri Pandits, who are living on the edge, recall the violence of the 1990s when they were driven out of the region and fervently hope that the efforts that have been made towards ensuring peace and security since then do not end up futile.

‘We are again caged’

Almost a month has passed since Bhat’s killing. Rinku, a Class 9 student at the Kashmir Valley School, which is less than 5 km away from the Sheikhpora colony, has stopped going to school. He has already missed his term examination. Schools in Kashmir are planning online classes for students of migrant Hindu families. Rinku’s parents — Ajay Pandita, 45, and Sharda Bhat, 44, both government teachers posted in Srinagar — have also decided to stay home in their two-room flat. The silence in the flat is broken by Pandita’s 82-year-old mother, who insists that she should be shifted to the upper storey of her three-storey house where she lived before migration in 1990, at Dhar Bagh on the outskirts of Srinagar’s Harwan area.

“My mother has had dementia for many years,” says Pandita. “The only thing she remembers is her pre-migration house in Harwan. Little does she know that we are again caged (like in the 1990s).” He was 13 years old in July 1990 when his family was faced with a similar dilemma: whether to stay or leave in the face of violence. “I faintly remember Pandit killings,” says Pandita. “We decided to leave behind our house as well as 30 kanals of land. They have all been sold.” Pandita is still in touch with Muslim men from Dhar Bagh, many of whom were part of his cricket team.

Pandita quit his job in Jammu and joined the education department in Srinagar in 2017 to be with his wife. Sharda was among the first educated Pandits to get a job under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s package for the return and rehabilitation of Kashmir migrants in 2010.

It is on account of Pandita’s mother and his son that the family has decided not to migrate this time round. Around 50% of the 300 families living in the Sheikhpora colony have left to safer locations in Hindu-majority Jammu, after weeks of protests demanding a transfer outside the Valley until “the situation improves”.

“My son has grown up here, he likes Kashmir,” says Pandita. “He has Muslim friends. He has never felt out of place in his classroom. He does not like the Jammu weather; it’s too hot. I don’t want his education to suffer. We are not leaving.” His two-year-old daughter goes to a local preparatory school.

Pandita, like others in the colony, is staring at an unanswered question: “Why are we being targeted? Who has cast an evil eye on our healthy routine?”

‘The times have changed’

The last decade was peaceful at the Sheikhpora colony. Sanjay Bhat, now in his 60s, says he would walk in the Eidgah ground adjacent to the colony. Muslim boys played cricket and football while scores of Pandits ran around with no sense of fear, he recalls. “Pandits mingled with locals outside the camp. I would buy vegetables from shops outside the colony. I would go out to meet my Muslim friends and they would come to see me. All that has changed.” Attending weddings and final rites in the case of deaths of members of the other community strengthened bonds, love, respect and compassion, he says.

Pandita, posted at a government school in the Safa Kadal area of the volatile old city in Srinagar, says the community was harmed neither in 2010, when the killings of protesting civilians sparked a cycle of violence, nor in 2016, when Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani’s killing led to street protests for at least five months. He recalls how stone-throwing youth helped him get to safety in 2016: “I was caught in a clash between young stone-throwing men and security forces near Sheikhpora’s main road. The young men helped me to take the safe route home.”

Pandita’s daily routine changed on October 7, 2021, when militants shot dead the principal, Satinder Kour, and a schoolteacher, Deepak Chand, within the premises of the Government Boys Higher Secondary school in Eidgah, Srinagar. This is in the same zone where Pandita and his wife were posted. “I was in class when I heard about the attack. Sharda was in a state of shock. My staff accompanied me to my wife’s school. We were asked to leave for home by noon,” Pandita recalls. Sharda had to remove her bindi and cover her head to leave the downtown areas.

“Our colleagues miss us. Sharda still gets calls from the staff. Students, who always showed us respect, insist that we return to the classroom. The times have changed though,” Pandita says.

The killings reported in October 2021 and May this year have not only scared Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, but also frightened other Pandits who were planning to return without government hand-holding. “My sister and brother-in-law were so encouraged by the situation earlier that we began looking for land to build a house,” Pandita says.

Targeted killings of civilians by militants in Kashmir, including of a Kashmiri Pandit employee, a Hindu schoolteacher from Jammu, and a bank manager from Rajasthan, have triggered a wave of protests in the Valley from the minority communities. Protests in Budgam district against the killings.

Targeted killings of civilians by militants in Kashmir, including of a Kashmiri Pandit employee, a Hindu schoolteacher from Jammu, and a bank manager from Rajasthan, have triggered a wave of protests in the Valley from the minority communities. Protests in Budgam district against the killings. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Sixty-five kilometres from the Sheikhpora colony, the Vessu transit camp on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway in south Kashmir’s Kulgam is home to more than 450 Pandit families. It also wears a deserted look. Much like in other transit camps, an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police has been put in charge of security. Over 50% of the families have left for Jammu in the past one month and those who remain prefer to stay indoors. Sanjay Kaul and his wife, both teachers, work in the Qazigund area but have decided against re-joining school till their issues, especially concerning security, are addressed.

“Around 250 students from the Vessu transit camp study in different schools. My child is in Class 10. It’s a crucial year. He never felt unsafe earlier. There were times before these killings when I used to freely visit my ancestral property in the village,” Kaul says.

Scores of Kashmiri Pandits who owned orchards, including apple, in south Kashmir were able to look after the fruit till the harvest time in autumn. “I would help my Muslim neighbours pluck fruit from the orchards and they would help me. All that may come to an end if the killings continue,” says a worried T. Raina, a Pandit employee with ancestral land in south Kashmir.

Kaul, who was appointed in 2010 under the Prime Minister’s package, says the recent killings have made it clear that no place is safe in the Valley for the employees. “Of late, our sense of security is waning. I am not even safe in my colony, in spite of the security cover. An employee was killed in broad daylight in his office chair. We are killed because of our name and faith,” Kaul says. All the 1,200 Pandit employees who were living in rented accommodation in several districts have fled the Valley, he says. “They are the most scared lot,” he adds.

A series of killings

The new militant movement against minorities started on December 31, 2020, when a Hindu goldsmith, Satpal Nischal, was shot dead in his shop in the upmarket Hari Singh High Street in Srinagar, just weeks after the Centre’s new domicile law was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir. Later, from October 2021, a series of targeted killings of members of minorities, including Kashmiri Pandits, began. The first was on October 5, when Makhan Lal Bindroo of the famous Bindroo Medicate was killed in his shop in Srinagar. Eleven civilians became victims of targeted killings that month, including five non-local labourers and three members of minority communities. Four Kashmiri Pandits have been killed since October 2021 till date in the Valley by militants.

On May 12, 2022, Rahul Bhat, a 35-year-old Pandit, was shot dead in his office chair by well-trained militants in Chadoora’s tehsil office in Budgam, about 12 km from the Sheikhpora transit Pandit colony where he lived. A colony of Kashmiri Pandits with a poster demanding justice for Bhat.

On May 12, 2022, Rahul Bhat, a 35-year-old Pandit, was shot dead in his office chair by well-trained militants in Chadoora’s tehsil office in Budgam, about 12 km from the Sheikhpora transit Pandit colony where he lived. A colony of Kashmiri Pandits with a poster demanding justice for Bhat. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

The string of killings followed the implementation of new land and job policies after the Centre’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and divide the State into two Union Territories. These new policies were widely opposed by the mainstream regional parties, including the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC, and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). A website was also launched in September last year to address the grievances of Kashmiri Pandits related to land alienation, distress sale, encroachments and trespassing of Pandit properties in Kashmir.

The new security situation has also posed a threat to the 808 Kashmiri Pandit families who never migrated from the Valley. “If even one non-migrant Pandit is killed, they too will have no option,” says Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a caretaker body of the 808 families. Tickoo says many factors have together created a worrisome situation for the Pandits in Kashmir. “One of them was the government’s decision to end the role of civil society in Kashmir. In 2010 and 2016, civil society stopped many bids at sparking communal tension. Today, members fear that they will be slapped with the Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their activism,” he says.

Editorial | Grim turn: On targeted killings in Kashmir

Tickoo advocates an end to the muscular policy that New Delhi has pursued in Kashmir since 2019. “Danda (stick) will not work. The political process needs to be put in place in Kashmir now. We need to involve civil society and mosques to carry out a door-to-door campaign on the real teachings of Islam, co-existence and humanism,” says Tickoo, who had to go underground due to death threats last year.

Events outside Jammu and Kashmir are also causing anger, he says. Tickoo claims that the recent remarks by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma about Prophet Mohammad, the Azan issue, the Masjid-Mandir disputes, and “bulldozer politics” all add to the volatility of Kashmir. “The wrong portrayal in The Kashmir Files of all Muslims in Kashmir as ‘jihadi’ and militants was the last nail in the coffin,” he says.

No intelligence agency in Kashmir can predict the next targeted killing, Tickoo warns. “Only The Resistance Front (TRF) knows who the next target will be.” The TRF, which the police believe is an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has warned of attacks against Pandits and non-local workers for “becoming a part of New Delhi’s design to change the demography of Muslim-majority J&K”. Officials say the pattern of killings makes it clear that militants are targeting not just Pandits but Hindus from Jammu too, especially those serving in Kashmir against posts reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC). Two SC teachers — Rajni Bala and Deepak Chand — and two shopkeepers from Jammu, including the son of the owner of the famous Krishna Daba in Srinagar, were among those killed in Kashmir in the last one year. Satish Kumar Singh, a driver living in south Kashmir’s Kulgam, was also killed on April 14 this year.

“It is sad that there is a lot of focus on Kashmiri Pandits, but not on the Hindus from Jammu who have also suffered at the hands of militants. More than anyone, we need a transfer policy. We are alien to the local culture. We will work here for a certain period, but eventually we should be transferred to our home districts,” says Rajiv Kumar, an SC employee posted in Kulgam.

According to the KPSS, 12 attacks were carried out on religious minorities from June 2020 till May 31, 2022. Nineteen targeted attacks also left 13 Muslims dead this year. Around 33 targeted attacks recorded last year left at least 20 local Muslims dead too, according to official figures.

What is at stake in Kashmir?

The resurgence of militancy is posing an unprecedented threat to the process of return of Kashmir Pandits since the Prime Minister’s package was implemented in 2010. The package aimed at recruiting 6,000 educated Pandits and housing them in transit colonies in Kashmir first, before they decided to shift to localities with the local population. The ₹1,876-crore package, conceived by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008, also offered an initial financial assistance of ₹7.5 lakh per family, which was later increased to ₹20-25 lakh. The migrant Kashmiri Pandit families from rural pockets were assured of a waiver of interest on loans and a cash assistance of ₹1-1.5 lakh for re-cultivation of agriculture and horticulture land.

“There was a deeply strategic dimension to the package too. It is also for the majority community, which must see the importance of diversity. History has shown that when a society becomes homogenised, it creates fault lines within itself. Heterogeneity is a psychological enabler for young minds to get intellectualised early,” says Kapil Kak, a Kashmir Pandit who retired as an Air Vice Marshal and worked on a track-two dialogue with Prime Minister Singh on the return of Pandits. The package bore the desired results on the ground without much politics around it, with the NC and the PDP lending their support when in power in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the latest official figures, 5,928 youths have been appointed under the package in various departments in different districts of the Valley between 2010 and 2022. Over 5,412 have already been posted. The number of Pandit employees is nearly 15% of the total Pandit families who migrated in the 1990s. As per Jammu and Kashmir government figures, 60,000 families migrated in the wake of unprecedented militant violence in Kashmir in the 1990s, which included 40,142 Hindu, 2,684 Muslim and 1,730 Sikh families.

The transit colonies came up without any opposition in the Valley. In south Kashmir, a transit colony was set up in Pulwama’s Haal, Anantnag’s Mattan and Kulgam’s Vessu areas. In north Kashmir, Pandit colonies were set up in Kupwara’s Natnusa and Baramulla’s Veervan. In central Kashmir, Budgam’s Sheikhpora and Ganderbal’s Tulmulla have transit colonies.

“A total of 1,200 transit accommodations are also coming up at Ganderbal, Shopian, Bandipora, Baramulla and Kupwara, and additional land for another 2,744 units [flats] has been identified at seven locations,” a senior official says, on the condition of anonymity. Among the new identified localities are Anantnag’s Marhama, Ganderbal’s Wandhama, Baramulla’s Fatehpora, Shopian’s Keegam, Bandipora’s Sumbal and Kupwara’s Kulangam.

The demand of protesting Pandit employees to be transferred to Jammu would, in effect, defeat the purpose of the package. None of the 5,412 employees has resumed duties even after three weeks of the killings.

“When these appointments were made, there was a clause that they will only serve in the districts where they were appointed. However, all those supernumerary have now been re-designated as divisional cadre posts. The employees cannot be posted in any district within the Valley now onwards,” Jammu and Kashmir Relief Commissioner A.K. Pandita says. “Pandits should treat the killings as accidents. The government will not accept the demand to transfer them to Jammu. The security situation has improved, as we saw the Kheer Bhawani Mela being celebrated smoothly in Ganderbal’s Tulmula area. The government will not allow such incidents to become a factor for the failure of the initiative.” Pandita hopes that 50% of the employees who left for Jammu will return soon. “Fifty per cent of the employees are already present in the Valley but not attending to duty. Their demands regarding promotions and postings have been considered and addressed too,” he adds.

Officials say Pandit employees who are couples have been transferred to a single district. Around 170 teachers have been already posted in ‘safer zones’ in Srinagar. The government has also increased the area domination of all the areas where around 4,000 Hindus, who did not migrate in the 1990s, live.

Back in the Sheikpora colony, Ajay Pandita is willing to join duty only after he feels secure. “It has to come from the majority community first. The government has to work towards creating a conducive atmosphere in Kashmir for the minorities,” he says.

The names of some Pandits have been changed on request

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