During the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A in August 2019, the BJP government at the Centre had claimed that the withdrawal of the special constitutional status from Jammu and Kashmir, and breaking the State into two Union Territories (UTs), would uproot terrorism and usher in an era of peace, development, tourism and grassroots democracy.
Every shred of that promise has been elusive in virtually the 10-month-long lockdown in Kashmir, even as the last three months could be conveniently attributed to the countrywide shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What a Congress Sarpanch’s Murder in J&K Means
The Congress party’s sarpanch Ajay Pandita Bharti’s murder in broad daylight, in his village of Lukabhawan, Larkipora, in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag district on Monday, 8 June 2020, is the first major setback to the government’s ambitions and intentions for a host of reasons. Forty-year-old Bharti represented not only the Panchayati Raj institutions at the grassroots level, but also a promise of the return and rehabilitation of over 300,000 Kashmiri Pandits living in Jammu, Delhi and other Indian cities after their mass migration due to outbreak of insurgency in 1989-90.
Bharti was also a shining star of Kashmir’s centuries-old ethos of composite culture and secularism.
His family was among thousands of the displaced Pandits who lived in Jammu for six years but returned to their home in 1996 when security forces had wiped out major chunks of militancy, and the first Parliamentary and Assembly elections had been held after imposition of the President’s Rule. All three major massacres of the resident Kashmiri Pandits took place in the post-1996 period —Sangrampora (1997), Wandhama (1998) and Nadimarg (2003) — but Bharti, with the family, stood his ground.
Local Muslims Supported Congress Sarpanch Bharti
“It was not the Indian Army, Farooq Abdullah or Mufti Sayeed who encouraged them to stay put. It was us, the people, we the residents of Larkipora and all adjoining villages, who assured them safety and a sense of security. They were the only family which had returned from migration. Ajay’s father used to be a teacher at the higher secondary school. They were very popular and never felt insecure,” said a schoolteacher of the Lukabhawan hamlet, wishing anonymity and fearing the situation had now ‘changed’. “Now every second day we witness killings and encounters. We haven’t seen this kind of fear of the gun in the last over 20 years. Apparently, as a consequence of Islamophobia across several Indian States, our youths are getting radicalised at an alarming pace. Of course, uncontrolled social media is playing a key role in this transformation.”
The middle-aged schoolteacher narrated how the local Muslim population had supported Bharti with fervour and enthusiasm, despite threats from militant groups, and elected him as their sarpanch in the Panchayat elections of November 2018.
“He got 51 votes, almost all from Muslims, against 10 of his rivals who belonged to the BJP. He helped everybody in getting ration cards, KCC (Kisan Credit Card) loans and rural development works. He also developed his own apple orchard with a KCC loan and grew as an inspiration for many of our villages,” said the Muslim schoolteacher.
Others in the village narrated how Bharti’s brutal killing brought a pall of gloom down on sprawling neighbourhoods in Anantnag-Kokernag-Dooru belt as scores of women were seen rushing to console the Pandit family. There were emotional scenes as the body was despatched to Jammu for cremation around midnight, and the house was locked. Bharti’s father, wife, sister and two daughters, besides some Muslim neighbours, carried the body all the way to Jammu. Over a hundred people, mostly Kashmiri Pandits and local BJP leaders, attended the cremation at Shakti Nagar.
‘Majority of Kashmiri Muslims Want Pandits to Stay With Them’
Contrary to a woman’s frantic outbursts that “everybody in Kashmir is a Pakistani and should be thrown out of our Hindu country”, Bharti’s father Omkar Nath sounded incredibly sober, calm and composed after the cremation. “Most of the people in Kashmir are our well-wishers. They sincerely want us to return and live there. Four-five Muslim youths provided us with vehicles and escorted us to Jammu. They are still here. But there are some anti-national elements and fundamentalists who don’t want Kashmiri Pandits to live there. They have always hated us,” he asserted.
Asked if the traumatised family would now stay back in Jammu, Omkar Nath said: “No, we will go back and continue to stay at our home. My son has laid down his life for his motherland. So will his family. His surname was Pandita but for the love of his motherland, he added to it ‘Bharti’. He was a brave man. The killers attacked him from behind. His daughter Sheen told me if her father was a lion, she would grow as a cub. We have decided to return and stay there.”
A year after the November 2018 Panchayat elections, Syed Rafeeq Ahmad of Hakoora Badasgam, not far away from Lukabhawan, was the first sarpanch to be targeted by suspected militants after the abrogation of Article 370.
A grenade was thrown at the organisers of the Government’s Back-to-Village programme as they were clicking photographs on 26 November 2019. Syed got killed along with an Agriculture Extension Officer Sheikh Zahoor Ahmad.
Slain Sarpanch’s Video Interview Before Being Murdered
Days later in Jammu, on 3 December 2019, Bharti lamented in a video interview that neither the BJP government at the Centre nor the UT administration had any will to empower panches and sarpanches and to provide them security.
“They have put their gun on our shoulder and left us to fend for ourselves. Employees in government offices treat us all as untouchables. They ask us why we contested elections. When we approached the Divisional Commissioner for security, he tossed us to the Deputy Commissioner. Nobody helped. The Government of India is well aware of our threat perception but there’s nobody to lend us support or security,” Bharti said in the interview.
He too appreciated that the majority of the Muslim population wanted peace, development and the Pandits’ return.
“But there are certain elements, some linked to politics and some have opened firms, who don’t want peace. The Centre does not treat the real cancer. The common man is living under tremendous fear,” Bharti asserted, beseeching Srinagar and New Delhi “to see the ground situation”. “If I am not feeling safe, what ground situation are they talking about?” he said, questioning the regime’s rhetoric on the return of Kashmiri Pandits and empowerment of Panchayati Raj institutions.
The Irony of ‘Risking One’s Life For Democracy’ in J&K
Facing threats from militants, as many as 19 panches and sarpanches have been killed in armed attacks in Jammu and Kashmir from 2012 to 2020. Contesting the elections was all the more risky in November 2018, when all the political parties, except BJP, boycotted the democratic exercise. The government claimed credit for holding the elections at the grassroots level, but did not provide security even to the most vulnerable panches and sarpanches. Recently, the DC, Pulwama, ordered the eviction of the families of mainstream activists who had contested elections and had been killed by militants.
One slain activist’s wife received a notice to deposit rentals of Rs 7.42 lakh for a two-room flat, and to vacate the accommodation.
The President, All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, Shafiq Mir, headed a delegation of 48 panches and sarpanches, which met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on 19 December 2019.
“We highlighted our issues including our demand to provide us security. It’s extremely unfortunate that even after our meeting with the prime minister, Ajay Bharti, our sarpanch in Anantnag, and the first from the minority community, was martyred by terrorists on 8 June,” Mir told The Quint. “If the government has failed to protect even an elected sarpanch of the minority community, who is it giving assurances of return and rehabilitation?”
Mir asserted that Bharti’s killing was a setback not only to the entire electoral and democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir but also to the BJP government’s repeatedly made commitment of the migrants’ return to Kashmir.
A Blow to New Delhi’s Plans Of Rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits
In the midst of intellectual discussions in the Valley as to whether Bharti was killed for being a sarpanch or a Kashmiri Pandit who had returned and re-settled, there is consensus on one point: That his assassination would lead to further political vacuum as it had shattered the only live stream of politics in Jammu and Kashmir.
It is a blow to New Delhi’s agenda of the return and rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits as well as to the efforts to reclaim a controlled political constituency.
Bharti’s killing has occurred 17 long years after the last massacre of 24 resident Pandits at Nadimarg on 23 March 2003. Ironically, both under BJP rule at the Centre.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)