Jammu & Kashmir

Central government policies and escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir leading to alienation of Kashmiri Pandits

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Kashmiri Pandits protesting against the killing of Hindus in Kashmir, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on October 9. Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

A view of the Vessu colony in Anantnag, one of the heavily guarded camps built across the valley especially for Kashmiri Pandit government employees. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The Modi government continues to claim that its policies have solved the problems in the Union Territory and restored normalcy, but the situation on the ground, including the recent spate of civilian deaths, belies such claims and has ended up frustrating the Kashmiri Pandits.

ON October 25, at a well-hyped event at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir convention centre, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had a bullet-proof glass shield removed as he declared his intent to speak to the people directly. “Time has gone when militants would exploit the situation. No one will be allowed to kill civilians.…” he said, as he lauded Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha’s administration for ushering the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir into an era of development. He then took on mainstream politicians of Jammu and Kashmir in a now identifiable bellicose tone, accusing them of corruption, nepotism and perpetuating anti-India sentiment by calling for dialogue with Pakistan. In Amit Shah’s assessment, New Delhi’s iron-fist and bureaucratic control of Kashmir has resolved or, at any rate, put an end to the decades-old conflict in a region that has imploded violently time and again since 1990. He said as much: “Today, we have succeeded in replacing guns with pens even in militancy hotbed of Pulwama and other districts of Kashmir.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth as the recent spate of civilian killings in Kashmir demonstrates. It is likely that Amit Shah’s fallacious self-applauding was meant for audiences in the Indian mainland, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having reduced Kashmir to a tool to excite people’s imaginations. But even that did not happen as several developments in Srinagar preceding Amit Shah’s arrival there and throughout his stay in the valley ran counter to his claims extensively. In October alone, nine civilians were killed in different pockets of Kashmir. The deceased included two Kashmiri Pandits in what was the first assault on the community since the peak militancy years of the early 1990s. It led to an instant flight of migrant Kashmiri government employees from the heavily guarded camps built especially for them across the Himalayan valley.

On the night of October 24, while Amit Shah was in the Union Territory, the youths of Kashmir spilled onto the streets to celebrate Pakistan’s victory over India in a cricket match. According to a senior leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), although pro-Pakistan sentiment is not unusual, especially over cricket, the whooping by students, including women, regardless of the consequences, is an indicator of how much ground the Union government has lost in the Union Territory. Amit Shah had no plausible explanation either for these embarrassing optics or for the dangerous escalation of violence that has left minorities in Kashmir fretting.

Also read: ‘Alienation of people in Kashmir at an all-time high’

Inside a poorly furnished chamber of a hotel in the Indira Nagar locality of Srinagar, now under the strict vigil of personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a sarpanch from the Kashmiri Pandit community repudiated everything Amit Shah had taken credit for. The Sarpanch, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that the condition of his community had improved in the Modi years. “That is a narrative invented by the BJP and perpetuated by migrant Kashmiri Pandits whose interests are embedded with the BJP’s. They have little knowledge of the ground situation. Their raucous support for the BJP’s Hindu nationalism on prime time TV debates adds to our predicament and vulnerability,” he said, implying that the killing of Hindus in Kashmir could be a fallout of India’s majoritarian politics.

The Sarpanch’s views resonate with most Kashmiri Pandits living in the valley. This reporter managed to enter the heavily fortified Vessu camp in Anantnag, where currently outsiders’ entry is barred, and wheedled one resident to speak. Although guarded in his choice of words, the Kashmiri Pandit indicated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direct control of Kashmir, the decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the repression seen in the aftermath of August 5, 2019, when the revocation came into effect, coalesced to create an atmosphere that seems inward-looking, 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,” he said.

Another resident of the Vessu camp, who works in the Education Department, had a litany of complaints against the BJP. Speaking over the phone, he told Frontline that both the United Progressive Alliance government of the past and the incumbent Modi government failed to give migrant Kashmiri Pandits the promised 6,000 government jobs. “We live in pitiable conditions; successive governments have been largely indifferent. The flats inside the camps are one-room shelters with a kitchen and a bathroom. There is seepage of water, and these structures are in a decrepit condition, some of them built without a plinth,” he said.

Promotions have been few and far between, and the Pandits who live in the camps do not have any claim over these accommodations. “There is an undertaking that we will have to vacate the flats once we retire. Why can’t we be given permanent residences? How else do we feel a sense of certainty about our future in the valley?” the Education Department employee asked.

Also read: Prelude to a revolt

Nanajee Wattal, a Kashmiri Pandit who was elected Sarpanch in 2018 from Akin Gram B in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, said that the Lieutenant Governor administration had failed to provide the office-holders from the minority Pandit community with security. “My personal security officer was transferred in 2019. Since then I’m without security. I have no option but to either remain locked in a hotel room in Srinagar provided by the government or spend time in Jammu. There is a provision for incidental security when an office-holder travels to his constituency, but favouritism is rampant. I am unable to visit my constituency because of the lack of security,” Wattal complained.

Sanjay Tikoo, president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, agreed that the Modi government’s political incursions in Kashmir and its overall repressive handling of Muslims in India had contributed to social unease in the valley. He rued the narratives that successive Indian governments and the think-tankers aligned with them had built over the decades at their expense. “Even before India’s Independence, as early as 1931, there was a concerted move to project Kashmiri Pandits as the face of the Indian ethos and Muslims as cheerleaders of Pakistan. Our distinct ethnic identity as Kashmiris was overlooked,” Tikoo told Frontline.

He traces the genesis of the Kashmir conflict to the cosmetic nature of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. He framed it as “an accession [agreement] essentially between [Jawaharlal] Nehru’s family and Sheikh Abdullah’s family”. Unlike what the BJP’s well-oiled public relations machinery would have one believe, Tikoo said it was misleading to blame the Congress alone for the present mess, particularly the community’s exodus from Kashmir in 1990. “I blame the entire state machinery, be it the intelligence-gathering agencies, the political leadership and the security apparatus. This [killing of Kashmiri Pandits] was happening inside India, and you could not do anything to prevent it,” he said, somewhat riled.

Tikoo said that the staple of the BJP’s politics, committed as it is to placing the majority’s interest on top, had added to the vulnerability of the 800-plus Kashmiri Pandit families in the valley who had stayed back against all odds. He said that when militancy erupted in 1990, youths who picked up the gun largely believed in Kashmir’s composite culture. The present day is a gloomy contrast, according to him. “There were militants who targeted Kashmiri Pandits then, but there were thousands of Muslim brethren who also saved us. Today I see a lull,” he says, crestfallen.

Also read: Jammu fights back

Historically, there have been competing narratives and choices between Kashmir’s Hindu and Muslim populations. The Muslim refrain is that the well-off Kashmiri Pandits, though much fewer in number, sided with the ruling elite over the centuries and their political and social positions augmented, whereas the majority community lived in abject poverty. The Kashmiri Pandits, on the other hand, are agitated over a “unilateral Muslim narrative” that puts the blame for their exodus in 1990 on Jagmohan, the then Governor of the State. According to the Muslim perception, Jagmohan planned to quell dissenters with an iron hand as the Gawkadal massacre betrayed.

On January 21, 1990, two days after he took charge, the CRPF opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Gawkadal bridge in Srinagar. The Muslims maintain that Jagmohan facilitated the Kashmiri Pandits’ flight to Jammu on the night of January 19, 1990, in order to save them from any retaliation that might take place in reaction to his coercive ways. Kashmir Pandits thoroughly reject that claim. They allege that the National Conference propped up this narrative, and later Rajiv Gandhi perpetuated it since both the N.C. and the Congress had an axe to grind with Jagmohan. Kashmiri Pandits contend that the Muslim narrative ignores the targeted killing of Hindus that had begun as early as March 1989 and continued routinely until May 1990, which left them with no choice but to flee.

A Kashmiri Pandit, who was living in the valley until he recently fled to New Delhi, said: “The message from the mosques was threat-laden. It was clear that an armed section wanted us to leave. Calls were given to either assimilate [convert] or flee, and leave women behind. If there was any doubt, the killings made it clear. It is convenient to blame Jagmohan; it absolves some people’s conscience but to us it is an indicator that any articulation that does not match the majority’s understanding of events will be rebuffed.”. He said that much of the Kashmiri Pandits’ support for the BJP is reactionary: they felt betrayed by Rajiv Gandhi’s endorsement of the Muslim narrative of their exodus. He admits that these sentiments had been brushed under the carpet but were resurfacing under the Modi regime.

A case in point is the debate on whether the recent killing of Hindus in the valley was communal in nature. An overwhelming sense prevails among Kashmiri Muslims that militants are targeting people irrespective of their religious identity. The trigger for the killings is a person’s pro-India affiliation, they say, pointing out that of the 28 civilians killed in 2021, only five were Hindus. Kashmiri Pandits not only maintain that they were targeted because of their religion but are saddened that there is blanket acceptance of terrorist explanations that come in the aftermath of Hindu killings.

Cross-border provocation?

Soon after the popular pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo was gunned down in Srinagar on October 6, a new extremist group called The Resistance Front (TRF) took responsibility for the killing, accusing Bindroo of covertly working for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Incendiary messages slandering the deceased’s character were circulated over WhatsApp. Kashmiri Pandits said that although their Muslim counterparts mourned Bindroo’s death along with them and there was genuine solidarity, what was worrying was that most of them seemed to believe the TRF’s description of things without question. While it is not easy to dissect what happens in the mystifying alleys of a conflict region anywhere in the world, an interaction with Kashmir’s mainstream political leadership gives one the sense that Bindroo’s killing was green-flagged from across the border, most likely to create a fear psychosis and thwart the BJP’s perceived project to change the demography in the erstwhile State. Another objective, according to the mainstream leaders, could be to puncture the BJP’s claims of having created normalcy in the valley, as the killing of a Kashmiri Pandit was bound to be covered extensively in the national media.

Also read: Jammu and Kashmir’s apparatus of repression

A senior PDP leader said the killings were Pakistan’s tactical response to the BJP’s attempt to change the demographics of Jammu and Kashmir by stepping up the process of domicile certification of non-local people. “Pakistan knows that the goodwill it enjoys in Kashmir is by virtue of the salient Muslim population living here. It would do all it can to prevent India from flooding Hindus into the [erstwhile] State,” he said. Before the abrogation of Article 370, jobs and land rights were exclusive to the natives of Jammu and Kashmir, who were referred to as “State subjects”. The new domicile rights have ended that exclusivity.

And yet, despite all that complexity, there is a consensus between Kashmir’s Muslims and Pandits that the relaying of communal messages under Modi’s watch has pushed India to the edge of a violent implosion. Sanjay Tikoo warned: “Repression cannot continue forever. The BJP’s treatment of minorities is pushing India towards inevitable armed strife.” Former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah shared this apprehension. Soon after the Manoj Sinha administration booked students and staff of two medical colleges in Srinagar under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for celebrating Pakistan’s cricket victory, Abdullah said: “A volcano is building up even as they [BJP] think they have silenced [the people].”