The killing of Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit employed with the J&K government’s Revenue Department in Chadoora area of central Kashmir district of Budgam, has catalysed furious protests across Kashmir, setting off fresh political crises in the former state amid heightened militant activity which has seen a number of targeted assassinations in recent months.
Multiple demonstrations are being reported from several migrant colonies across Kashmir housing those Kashmiri Pandits who had returned to the valley nearly 12 years ago as per Rs 16,000 crore-rehabilitation plan announced by the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2008.
The plan envisaged rolling out 6,000 jobs, constructing clusters of transit accommodations, and pushing through other financial incentives so that Pandits, who had fled Kashmir at the onset of militancy amid killings in 1990s, could be resettled.
On Thursday, gunmen ambushed Bhat who was at the tehsil office in Chadoora. Videos circulating on social media show an empty chair in one corner of a small, smut-dusted room while the blood pooled on the floor.
Meanwhile, J&K administration has announced the formation of a Special Investigation Team to probe the killing. A government job for his wife has also been promised. "The government will bear the educational expenses of the daughter," J&K lieutenant governor tweeted.
Bhat is survived by his parents who live in Durga Nagar, Jammu, and his wife and daughter who stayed with him at Sheikhpura transit camp, a sprawling housing unit built amidst rice and mustard fields in Budgam. Reports said Bhat's body was flown to Jammu where his last rites were conducted.
Recalibrated Militancy: J&K Witnesses Surge of Targeted Attacks
Over the last few months, militancy in Kashmir has appeared to be recalibrating itself, manifesting in the surge of targeted attacks, even as the overall numbers continue to dwindle.
Just hours after the killing of Bhat, militants also shot dead Riyaz Thokar, a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Gadoora area of Pulwama.
As per police data, 62 militants have been killed in the first four months of 2022, compared to only 37 killed during the corresponding period last year, suggesting that there’s some sort of renewal of militancy on ground.
Simultaneously, there has been an increase in the number of the local conscripts who are being drawn into the fold of militancy.
Recent reports show that while local recruitment has wavered in recent years, there has been no meaningful reduction. From 187 in 2018, 121 in 2019, 181 in 2020, the local recruitment last year was pegged at 142. So far 28 locals have joined militancy this year.
Since last year, militants have also ratcheted up targeted killings. The victims have mostly been cops, non-locals and members of minority communities.
Tear Gas Fired at Kashmiri Pandits
As per estimates, around 14 persons affiliated with the Hindu faith have been killed in various targeted killings since the Union government abrogated article 370.
But the anger that the latest killing has provoked appears unprecedented, with the Pandit residents occupying the roads and staging sit-in protests.
Demonstrations took place in Qazigund area of south Kashmir, in Veervan village in north Kashmir and also in parts of Srinagar such as in Indira Nagar where demonstrators marched through the Sonwar–Shivpora road in the vicinity of Badami Bagh Cantonment, the biggest military garrison in Srinagar.
On Friday, the police swooped down on the demonstrators at Sheikhpura and swung batons, leaving many Pandits injured. Tear gas canisters were also fired to stop them from approaching the road that leads to Srinagar airport.
Images showing injuries suffered by the agitators were also being circulated on social media. A video showed a few persons trying to revive a Pandit protester who passed out during the police action.
On Friday afternoon, journalists and cameramen were stopped nearly 500 metre short of the protesting site. The prohibitions on the press were being personally enforced by the deputy inspector general of police, Central Kashmir range, and district magistrate, Budgam.
Emotions ran high at the site outside the Sheikhpura migrant colony where the demonstrators were camping out on a road. They were shouting slogans against the administration, and also against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
J&K Police said its reason to thwart protests followed an input that militants might target the Pandits protesting at the spot.
“Given the topography of the area and huge rush at the Airport road, there were inputs that terrorists may take advantage of the same and may attack the protesters in order to create communal clash,” a police statement said.
It further added that “police were constrained to hurl a few teargas smokes to disperse them. However, the protesters re-assembled at Sheikhpura road and sat on protest and blocked the main road. Later, all of them went back to their home.”
Meanwhile, the police on Saturday said they have killed two Pakistani militants who are alleged to have been involved in the killing of Bhat. The police statement does not specify the nature of involvement.
The statement further said that the militants were first trapped in a gunfight in Salindar area of Bandipora a few days ago but succeeded in escaping and decided to travel to Chadoora Srinagar on the very day that Bhat was killed.
Then they are alleged to have traveled back to Bandipora, and upon being located through technical means, were engaged in a gunfight that took place near the village of Brar and finished off.
The demonstrators at Sheikhpura were angry at what they described as the administration's failure to prevent the killing of members of the Pandit community.
“Our brother was killed, we want the family to have justice,” said Ashwin, a protester who, like many others who spoke to the media, refused to give their last names. “We want the lieutenant governor to be here. We want to ask him why the police responded so violently to the protesters,” he added.
The protesters said they had been camping at the site for the whole night and rued the attempts by the administration to stop access to the media. “They are disallowing the media so that they can do whatever they can with zero accountability,” Ashwin claimed.
They said that although the divisional commissioner of Kashmir had visited them, they sought the presence of LG. “We were told he will come to meet us at 11 am. When he did not, we started marching. That’s when police action took place. Police used force against us. Even women were caned,” said Ajay, another protester.
They also accused police of fabricating the charge of stone-throwing. “They use this pretext for almost everything,” Sumit Razdan, a protester said. Another demonstrator added, “We are protesting here peacefully. In fact our neighbours who are Muslims also joined us and brought drinking water.”
‘If Militancy Is Going Down, Why Are Killings of Pandits Increasing?'
One key demand echoed by several protesters was the repealing of the bond that obliges the beneficiaries of ‘PM’s Package’ to live and work in Kashmir. This condition is enshrined in the legal framework that entitles Pandits for job and accommodation as per the special 2008 plan.
“This demand is unconstitutional and draconian,” said a Pandit man who introduced himself as the convener of the All Prime Minister Package Employees Coordination Committee but refused to give name. “We are serving in Kashmir and staying here for the last 12 years but we have never embarked on this type of protest. We have seen our colleagues dying in similar target killings.”
He added, “If the graph of militancy is going down as administration claims, why are killings of Pandits increasing? This has escalated the sense of fear psychosis within the community. We used local transport to reach our office. Our brother was killed at his office in broad daylight. Imagine the fear it has struck in the hearts of those who work in far-flung areas?”
On Saturday, the Employees Committee issued a media release demanding that the government strike down the controversial clause, making it mandatory for them to live in Kashmir. The letter also sought relocation of the Pandit employees to “safest and terror-free places outside Kashmir division.”
An estimated 15 thousand members of Pandit community, families included, are living in Kashmir under the aegis of the 2008 package.
Anish, a 24-year-old Pandit man who was at the site till Saturday morning, said administration tricked them into returning to the colony after which the gates were padlocked and a huge police van parked there to block the exit. “We were first told that LG will be visiting us but because of the security protocol he will meet us inside. When we got in, the gates were closed.”
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets as @shakirmir.)