The targeted killing of Hindus in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley over the past month has triggered fear and anger among the region’s religious minorities. Militants are said to have killed around nine Hindus, both locals and non-locals, between May 1 and June 2 this year.
People are visibly scared and insecure, and chaos has gripped the valley. “Anger is mounting with every killing,” Ramesh Koul, a Kashmiri Pandit, who migrated out of the valley in 1990, told The Diplomat.
Kashmiri Pandits are Hindus from the valley. In 1989-90, when the anti-India insurgency was just beginning, several Pandits in Srinagar and other towns in Kashmir were killed by militants. It triggered an exodus of tens of thousands of Pandits from the valley to Jammu and other parts of India.
On May 12 this year, 35-year old Rahul Bhat, a Pandit, was gunned down by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants at Chadoora in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam district. On May 31, suspected militants shot dead a school teacher, Rajni Bala (36) from Jammu. Two days later, Vijay Kumar, a bank manager from the western Indian state of Rajasthan, was shot dead. Both Bala and Kumar were gunned down in Kulgam district.
Understandably, the recent killings have triggered fears of another exodus as in the early 1990s.
Pandits and other Hindus have started to flee the valley. Many have vacated the seven government-made transit camps for Pandits who returned to the valley over the past decade. Local residents of the Mattan and Vessu Camps in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district told The Diplomat that with over 300 families vacating these camps in recent days, only two dozen Hindu families remain.
Following the departure of the Pandits from the valley and the anti-India militancy roiling Kashmir for decades, the Pandit community was by and large reluctant to return to their homeland. Their return has been a relatively slow process given the changing dynamics of politics and terrorism in the region.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a package to encourage Pandit migrants to return to the valley. The package envisaged their rehabilitation by providing facilities for education, jobs, and financial assistance for building or buying homes. The government also promised to provide them with group housing to ensure their security.
Since coming to power in 2014, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has made many promises to Kashmiri Pandits. Its 2019 election manifesto, for instance, made specific mention of the Pandits, assuring that the party would make “all” efforts to ensure the return of the community. The Narendra Modi government’s package offered returning Pandits more than the policies enacted by the previous government.
However, in terms of substance, it has done little for the community. It has, for instance, been unable to construct housing units to accommodate returning Pandits, let alone facilitate their return. According to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, only 17 percent of the proposed housing units for Pandits were completed in the past eight years. Through February 2022, construction of only 1,025 units was completed, while work at over 50 percent of the planned units was yet to begin.
Not only has the BJP government not built housing units to accommodate returning migrants, but its policies and actions have made returning Pandit migrants vulnerable to violence.
In August 2019, the BJP government altered Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status. Articles 370 and 35A were abrogated. The government claimed that by stripping Kashmir’s autonomy, terrorism would end. This would in turn encourage Pandits who left the valley to return.
However, the BJP government’s actions vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir have not only boosted terrorism and prompted more locals to pick up arms, but also it has prompted terrorists to target Pandits and other Hindus. In 2020, militants killed Satpal Singh, a Hindu goldsmith. The killing of a well-known Pandit pharmacist in Srinagar, Makhan Lal Bindroo, on October 6 of last year set off a string of killings of Hindus.
Three years after J&K’s autonomy was abrogated, Pandits who had responded to Singh’s packages to resettle migrants are fleeing Kashmir again, as they come under fire from terrorist bullets.
R. Nath, a relative of Bhat, told The Diplomat that Pandits are angry with the government’s lack of action to protect Hindus. “We are not safe, BJP needs to understand that,” he said. “Who knows, I could be [killed] next.”
Mohit Bhan, a Pandit who resettled in Kashmir, credits his return to the support he received from his Muslim friends. A spokesperson of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the last party to govern Kashmir before its autonomy was abrogated, says that the rehabilitation of Pandits will not be possible until the larger issues relating to Kashmir are addressed. “Unfortunately, for BJP, the Kashmir issue ceased to exist after the abrogation of [Articles] 370 & 35A,” he pointed out.
Besides, the BJP government “used Kashmiri Pandits as their poster boys to back their decision” on abrogation of J&K’s autonomy, Bhan said. This made Pandits “vulnerable” to attacks by militants.
The BJP’s politics have made the Hindu population in the valley vulnerable to a renewed wave of targeted killings over the past two years. To settle Hindus in the valley, the Modi government passed laws allowing non-locals to buy property there, which militant outfits and other stakeholders perceived as an effort to Hinduize the region’s demography.
Analysts are arguing that Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies and increased attacks against Indian Muslims are impetuses for the surging violence in the valley.
The killing of Hindus in Kashmir is yet more evidence that the Narendra Modi government’s policies on Kashmir are a complete failure.
Hindu and Muslim extremists have sought to project the conflict in Kashmir as a religious one. Islamist militants, for instance, supposedly target Pandits because they view the community as loyal to India, by virtue of their being Hindu.
However, the bond between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits transcends religion. There is a composite Kashmiri culture that policymakers need to bear in mind while making decisions.
The BJP government needs to understand that Kashmiris, irrespective of religion, comprise a shared culture and society. Policymakers who aim to resettle Pandits in the valley must work toward knitting Pandits with Muslims together. Settling Pandits into separate ghettos devoid of interaction with Muslims will not secure them. If the government is keen to safeguard Pandits, it cannot be without involvement of local Muslims.