On May 12, a gunman walked into a government office in central Kashmir’s Chadoora town. Seemingly knowing exactly where his target was seated, he entered the office of a Kashmiri Hindu employee, Rahul Bhat, and shot him. Bhat died immediately.
Prior to the murder, Bhat lived with his wife and a 6-year-old daughter at the migrant colony for Kashmiri Pandits at Sheikhpora in Badgam district.
Almost two weeks later, a 36-year-old Hindu teacher from the Jammu region was entering her school premises in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district when a gunman shot at her. She was rushed to a hospital but succumbed to her injuries.
These targeted killings of minority community members has triggered panic and fear among the Kashmiri Hindus, or Kashmiri Pandits, in local parlance. Though only a few thousand Pandit families are left in Kashmir, and most of them live in gated colonies, the fear is palpable. But it was not new; it was an encore of what they underwent in the early 1990s.
At that time, as hundreds of Kashmiri Muslims joined a militant movement demanding freedom from India, several Kashmiri Pandits were killed in targeted attacks, triggering fear in the community. It led to a mass migration of thousands of Hindu families. Only a few hundred Hindu families stayed behind.
Bhat’s killing was not an isolated incident. Before and after he was killed, several Pandits and non-Kashmiri Hindus were killed in targeted attacks by gunmen. But it was Bhat’s killing that catalyzed panic and paranoia in this community.
In Sheikhpora, one of the Kashmiri Pandit transit camps in central Kashmir’s Badgam district, Sonu Pandit and his family have not ventured out in a month. Like hundreds of other Pandit families, Sonu’s family feels paranoid and vulnerable. “Who knows who will be killed next?” he said.
Following Bhat’s killing, there were widespread protests across the valley, with demands for relocation to safer places outside of Kashmir.
Bhat was among the thousands of Kashmiri Pandits who returned to Kashmir under the prime minister’s Rehabilitation and Return Scheme, which was launched in 2008. Under this scheme, the Kashmiri Pandits were offered government jobs and their return was facilitated. Most of the returnees lived in government camps.
There are around 4,000 such migrants in the Kashmir Valley who have been employed under the prime minister’s scheme. Following the targeted killings of Bhat and others, they threatened to resign en masse if they were not relocated to safer places outside Kashmir.
The year 2021 saw similar targeted killings in Kashmir. In October last year, seven civilians were killed in five days, including a Kashmiri Pandit, a Sikh, and two non-local Hindus.
The killings of Bhat and Bala are the latest in a series of targeted attacks on minority communities and migrant workers that have taken place since August 2019, when the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and brought it under the direct control of New Delhi.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to downgrade the status of Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a federally-controlled territory, many Kashmiri Pandits hoped that the government would chalk out a roadmap for their return to the valley.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah in March credited his government’s decision for bringing down terrorism in Kashmir. “We have a decisive control over terrorism” after the abrogation of Article 370, he was quoted as saying.
However, the killings of Hindu employees and migrant workers since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution contradict the Indian government’s statements.
Despite the fear, panic, and a sense of insecurity among the Pandit community, the government has not taken any decision to relocate them outside Kashmir. Instead, the security forces at several places prevented them from leaving their gated colonies.
Several Kashmiri Pandits said the government does not want to undermine its claims of normalcy in Kashmir by letting another migration of Hindus happen after 32 years. The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has often blamed the previous governments for allowing the exodus of Pandits from the valley and accused them of not doing anything to bring them back to their ancestral homes. Giving in to the demands of relocation by Pandits will defeat their claims.
Mohit Bhan, a Kashmiri Pandit activist, told The Diplomat that if the government relocates Kashmiri Pandits out of Kashmir for their safety, “all this facade of normalcy and the credit of abrogating Article 370, 35A for the betterment of Kashmir and so many other things would fall flat.”
He added that had the situation improved, “We would not have seen these killings. We would not have a sense of fear everywhere in Kashmir. Police officials are saying that hybrid militancy is on the rise. So if all this is normalcy, then God knows what good days we are looking at.”
In the Sheikhpora transit camp, several families have left for the plains in the Jammu region, seeking safety. But hundreds of families are still staying put in their gated colonies and are unable to relocate.
Sonu said he wanted to leave with his family but due to his son’s studies, he has no option but to stay. “If I leave, my child’s academic career will be wasted. But then we are not even safe here,” he said.
Sonu, a government employee, said he and other Kashmiri Pandits have not been to work since Bhat was shot dead by gunmen in his office. “We don’t go out of the gate. We feel so unsafe and paranoid that we feel anyone would take out a gun anytime and shoot us. It’s a terrible way to live,” he said.
Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha urged the Kashmiri Pandit community not to leave while assuring that the administration would take care of their concerns of safety. But these assurances do not seem to assuage the fear.
Even the children of this minority community have not been to school in over a month for the fear of attacks. “My son tells me we should pack our bags and leave. He is just a child, but he told me he would work as a child laborer if need be, but we should not live where I might get killed. That is the intensity of fear,” Sonu told The Diplomat.
Bhan said holding these Pandits in their camps and “turning those camps into prisons is absolutely insane and uncalled for.”
“So instead of working towards creating a conducive and a secure atmosphere, the government is trying to bring in a smoke screen of normalcy at the cost of the minority. I don’t know how it is going to pan out, but the employees are still steadfast on their demands of being transferred to safer locations anywhere in the Jammu division,” he said.
Before the recent spate of targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits, the Indian public was polarized when “The Kashmir Files,” a film about the migration of Pandits and their plight, was released.
While fans termed it an essential visual document of history, critics claimed that it did not show the complete truth and that it painted the entire Kashmiri Muslim community in a bad light.
The BJP used the film to polarize the country at a time when there were calls for violence against Muslims. The BJP leaders and its activists across India used the film to further the narrative of “Hindu khatre Mai Hain” – that Hindus are under threat from Muslims. The narrative is frequently deployed by right-wing Hindu nationalists who demand that India be declared a Hindu nation and Muslims downgraded to the status of second-class citizens.
The BJP recommended and even facilitated its supporters to watch the movie in cinemas. In several cinemas, there were incidents of anti-Muslim sloganeering and hate speech following the screening. All this happened at a time when India witnessed an increased attack on its largest religious minority.
The makers of “The Kashmir Files” termed the movie a document of truth that every Indian Hindu must be aware of. Social media was abuzz with demands for justice for displaced Pandits.
Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organization advocating for the rights of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandit families, told The Diplomat that the current government uses the plight of Kashmiri Pandits for political advantage. “They are not sincere towards Kashmiris. Wherever the minority gets killed, it is to gain political mileage. That is what you have seen in the rest of India as well, that only one side of the story is being told,” Tickoo said.
Tickoo even cited “The Kashmir Files” as one of the reasons for the increased attacks on Kashmiri Pandits. He said the episodes in the film are true, but the way they have been presented is totally unfair: “In the movie, every Kashmiri Muslim has been labelled as a jihadist and a fundamentalist. I think that is what triggered this violence,” Tickoo said.
Tickoo, Bhan, and other Pandits said the picture of a normal and peaceful Kashmir painted by the government to show its success in the valley is a lie. Tickoo said the Kashmir Valley may be safe for tourists, but neither Pandits nor Muslim residents feel safe. He said that around 60 percent of the Pandits living in transit camps have already left the valley for their safety.
Bhan said if the situation really had improved, there would not be a sense of fear everywhere in Kashmir. “You can create a narrative in the media or you can create a narrative by bringing in some foreign envoys on a guided tour to Dal lake and Cheshmashahi, but that doesn’t reflect the real picture.”
The real picture, Bhan said, is “Rahul Bhat killed in cold blood. Rajni Bala killed in cold blood.”