A series of attacks on Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals in Kashmir has once again raised concerns about the security situation in the Himalayan valley. The chain of civilian killings not only contradicts the government’s narrative of normalcy but also raises several difficult questions: Are the attacks on Pandits a fallout of New Delhi’s iron-fisted bureaucratic control of Jammu and Kashmir, marked by the arbitrary use of anti-terror laws against people with dissenting viewpoints, including journalists, and the summary incarceration of Hurriyat and religious leaders? Are they a backlash to the government’s perceived plan to reorient the region’s demographics? Can economic incentives and doles aimed at boosting Jammu and Kashmir’s ramshackle economy be a panacea for a layered political conflict? What are the perceptions, anxieties, and political reflections of Kashmir’s Muslim majority?
On October 15, militants gunned down Puran Krishan Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit, outside his house at Chowdhary Gund village in Shopian in South Kashmir. Three days later, two non-local labourers, Manish Kumar and Ram Sagar, were killed in Shopian’s Herman village when terrorists lobbed a grenade at them.
The autumn of 2021 had been no less bloody, prompting the flight of Hindus to the safe haven of Jammu. Among those killed were Makhan Lal Bindroo, a prominent pharmacist; Virender Paswan, a hawker from Bihar; Muhammad Shafi Lone, president of the local taxi drivers’ union; and Supinder Kour and Deepak Chand, the principal and teacher respectively of the Government Boys School in Sangam.
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This year, in summer the attacks intensified. On May 12, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit, was shot dead by gunmen at the tehsil office where he worked in Chadoora town in Kulgam; on May 17, a person hailing from Jammu was killed in Baramulla when terrorists threw a grenade in a liquor shop; on May 25, Amreen Bhat, a television artist, was fatally shot outside her home in Hushroo, Chadoora; on May 31, Rajni Bala, a Pandit, was sprayed with bullets outside the school in Kulgam where she was a teacher; and on June 2, Vijaya Kumar, a bank manager who hailed from Rajasthan, was shot dead in Budgam.
As the killings continue, there are querulous reminders from across Kashmir’s political spectrum of the BJP’s “militaristic policy”, a catchphrase of leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) to describe the BJP’s reluctance to engage with the stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict and instead rely on coercive measures to stifle dissent. Earlier this year, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah warned that “this ostrich-like approach will push the situation to a point of no return”.
Following the repeal of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government relaxed the norms for obtaining a domicile certificate necessary for people from other States and Union Territories to settle in Jammu and Kashmir. There was widespread concern that this was the first step towards flooding Kashmir with settlers from outside.
A senior leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said the killings were “Pakistan’s tactical response at a time when the BJP is attempting to change the demographics of Jammu and Kashmir by enfranchising non-locals”. Senior PAGD leaders agree off the record that terror modules facilitated by the deep state in Pakistan and even indigenous militants are likely to continue the lone wolf attacks on select individuals (Kashmiri Pandits, non-locals) in order to dissuade outsiders from settling there. Before the repeal of Article 370, jobs and land rights were exclusive to the natives, who were referred to as “State subjects”. The new domicile rights have ended that exclusivity.
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Kashmiri Muslims were alarmed when the Union Territory’s chief electoral officer, Hirdesh Kumar, recently stated that “20 lakh to 25 lakh new voters are likely to be added based on the 2011 Census population projector for the 18 plus population”. He described the criterion for inclusion in the voters’ list as “ordinarily residing” in Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Kashmir saw it as a design to stifle their political voice by granting voting rights to non-locals. Echoing that sentiment, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti described the 25 lakh potential new voters as “a posse of BJP loyalists, inducted to precipitate a BJP victory in the next election”.
The Department of Information and Public Relations, however, dismissed these apprehensions. “This revision of electoral rolls will cover existing residents of the UT of J&K, and increase in numbers will be of the voters who have attained the age of 18 years as on 1.10.2022 or earlier,” its communique stated.
It is not difficult to see the link between the targeted attacks and other actions that purport to show Kashmir’s Muslims in bad light. For instance, some saw the series of attacks in May-June as a fallout of the polarising atmosphere created by The Kashmir Files. The film was accused of stoking Islamophobia by framing the militancy in Kashmir as an Islamist project without delving into the decades-old political turmoil, human rights abuse, and other nuances embedded in the conflict that culminated in the armed insurgency in 1990. Right-wing ideologues and their Internet army are quick to label such arguments as “terror apologist behaviour”, but they have no explanation why such targeted attacks were not common during the terms of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government and subsequent UPA governments, which engaged with all stakeholders and gave primacy to dialogue and deliberation.
What Pandits feel
There is a general consensus among Pandits in the Valley that the perception of a demographic realignment, together with New Delhi’s strong-arm tactics against the Valley’s resistance groups, have led to their isolation and increased sense of vulnerability. In October 2021, at the height of the targeted killings, this reporter gained access to the heavily fortified Vessu camp in Anantnag for the Pandits, which was barred for outsiders at the time.
Though the Pandits were reluctant to speak to the media, one resident, after a lot of persuasion, stated that the decision to revoke the State’s special status and the repression seen in the aftermath of its revocation created an inward-looking atmosphere, leading to the community’s isolation.
“The local people have been supportive all the while, and they are still, but something changed with the abrogation of Article 370. What they [New Delhi] are doing is impacting social equations here,” the resident said.
The vast Muslim majority of Kashmir, which lives in the shadow of sedition charges, detentions, cordon and search operations, all of which appear to be the Centre’s ways to stave off civilian uprisings in the Valley, shares this sense of helplessness. A human rights activist from South Kashmir who had been providing legal aid to people arbitrarily charged under the anti-terror laws had his house raided twice this year.
When this reporter interacted with a cross section of civilians in Shopian, Pulwama, Srinagar, and Budgam in September, it was clear that people were uneasy about voicing their grievances. Many of them alleged that they practically lived in a “surveillance state”, where informal summons to the police station was the order of the day.
Apparently, anyone who voices anti-State sentiments comes under the radar and punitive actions follow. A shopkeeper near the Government Degree College in Pulwama said that “even if we discussed politics inside the mosque, the local police gets a cue of it. Who would dare talk against the State’s policies or repression when there are mukhbirs [informers] at every corner, and the slapping of the Public Safety Act is the norm? But this is certainly not peace, nor normalcy.”
‘Boiling pot with a lid’
In September, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested several prominent religious figureheads, including Mushtaq Ahmad Veeri and Abdul Rashid Dawoodi. A clothes and accessories store owner at the Shopian Court Road said that young men like him were furious at the incarceration of religious leaders, which is seen as an assault on their faith, but there were no protests because of repression. The store owner compared the situation in Kashmir to a “boiling pot with a lid”. One of his customers said the coercive environment and the lack of any platform to express one’s grievances and frustration were worsening Kashmir’s drug problem. “Depression is common” was the general opinion.
There is also resentment against the way Kashmiri Muslims are spoken of on television. Why does the media not talk about custodial killings that are not infrequent here, asked a government teacher in Srinagar. The most recent case of an alleged custodial killing was of Imran Bashir Ganaie, a suspect in the grenade attack of October 18 that killed two non-local labourers. The police said that on the basis of Ganaie’s disclosures, it led an ambush of terrorists at Nowgam in Shopian, where Ganaie was killed by a terrorist in cross firing.
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People are generally sceptical of the police’s explanation. Political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have demanded an independent and impartial probe into the incident. In another incident, Asif Ahmad, 25, was killed at Haal in Pulwama when the rifle of a security personnel “accidentally went off”. The civilian killing coincided with Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Kashmir.
The government, however, maintains that it has “strengthened democracy in Kashmir”. When Amit Shah held a rally in Baramulla on October 5, he iterated that the Modi government’s “biggest achievement” was to take democracy to the grassroots in Jammu and Kashmir. “Before that democracy was limited to three families, 87 legislators and three parliamentarians…. We have taken it to villages, to 30,000 panches and sarpanches,” he said.
Senior BJP leaders credit the Modi government with providing an economic impetus in the Union Territory. Kavinder Gupta, former Deputy Chief Minister, said in a recent interview with Frontline that “the BJP is addressing people’s livelihood issues”. “...We regularised the pay of daily-wage labourers to a minimum of Rs.9,000 a month, an issue no erstwhile government of Jammu and Kashmir cared to address. The environment is changing, an investment of Rs.33,000 crore [for the Union Territory] is listed already,” he told Frontline.
Influx to militancy
But most people believe that there is no economic solution to what is a deep-rooted political conundrum. “ Yeh dariya ke aage deewar lagane jaisa hai [this is akin to building a wall to thwart a river],” said a 40-something man in Shopian who was booked under the Public Safety Act in the aftermath of August 5, 2019, and spent time in a Lucknow jail. The continuing recruitment of militants supports that observation.
Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s Additional Director General of Police, said 140 militants, including 36 foreign mercenaries, were killed in the first eight months of 2022. In 2021, 181 militants were killed, of which 30 were of foreign origin. While the government takes credit for the anti-militancy operations, the considerable number of militants neutralised is also an indicator of a steady flow of new recruits. According to Jammu and Kashmir’s DGP, Dilbagh Singh, as many as 134 local youths took up arms in 2021.
- There have been a series of attacks on Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals in Kashmir once again.
- The chain of civilian killings contradicts the government’s narrative of normalcy.
- Many people point to the BJP’s reluctance to engage with the stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict and instead rely on coercive measures to stifle dissent as a reason for this.
- Following the repeal of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government relaxed the norms for obtaining a domicile certificate necessary for people from other States and Union Territories to settle in Jammu and Kashmir. There is widespread concern over this.
- Besides, Kashmiri Muslims are alarmed at the possibility of adding “20 lakh to 25 lakh new voters” based on the 2011 Census population.