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J&K Violence: With No End To Terror, Kashmiri Pandits Grapple To Find Safe Spots

Sanjay Sharma's death by the hands of militants has triggered fear & panic, prompting many to leave Kashmir.

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“Please ask him to get up one last time,” cried a relative of the slain Sanjay Sharma, the Kashmiri Pandit man who was shot dead by militants in Achan, a grief-swept village in Pulwama district of South Kashmir on Sunday morning. “His chest must be in pain.”

Scores of women – some family members, others from the neighbourhood – were trying to console the grieving lady as she wrestled with the emotional torment, her saffron-hued scarf unravelling.

45-year-old Sanjay Kumar Sharma is survived by his wife Sunita and three children. On Sunday morning, Sunita was accompanying him as the couple was leaving home to see a doctor in Pulwama town. Sanjay’s relatives told The Quint that he was suffering from a nerve disorder.

The duo had barely walked 50 meters from their house when the militants accosted Sanjay and fired a bullet in his chest.

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Killings Return To Haunt Pandits

The incident has triggered a fresh round of protests and a haartal in the union territory with the political parties criticising the government for declaring normalcy despite the ensuing unrest.

The killing also became a national talking point on Monday after the Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri who made The Kashmir Files based on the displacement of Pandits from Kashmir, dedicated his award to Sanjay Sharma, the deceased man. 

The scenes from Achan are a reminder that not all is well in Kashmir. The last two years have been very eventful, marked by a sudden surge in violence as the militant activity charted an irregular curve; crisscrossing as it were up and down the graph.
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The Threat of Hybrid Militancy

Much of the mayhem has been ascribed to the “hybrid militants” — a relatively new epithet that signifies a starker turn within the local insurgency. People who were previously sympathetic to the militancy and went so far as only to help gun-wielding militants with logistical assistance were now motivated enough to become perpetrators and carry out the attacks themselves.

A large number of killings in 2021 and 2022 were attributed to the “subversive” networks dominated by the hybrid militants. Unlike their forebear groups, hybrid networks prefer the shroud of secrecy, police claim.

One police source last year explained to this reporter how information regarding militant recruitment was becoming fragmentary as many of the militants did not formally register or announce their entry into militant ranks, but only participated in the attacks using borrowed weapons. “The middlemen remain in complete anonymity here,” an officer explained. “The attackers take the weapon and return it to the place after committing the attack.”

While this has definitely made things difficult for the investigators, it hasn’t precluded them from busting the networks and nabbing the assailants.

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Calling it a “faceless militancy” that enlisted recruits aged 16-17 years, those who have no knowledge of religion or what is good for them or the society, J&K Police Chief Dilbagh Singh said last year that hybrid militants were “destined to fail as police network was strong enough to counter it.”

Around 100 teenagers are found to have been taking part in the operations led by hybrid networks over the last years. This, the Additional Director General of Police Kashmir (ADGP) Vijay Kumar told this reporter recently, constituted 12-16 percent of the total number of perpetrators who have been involved in various attacks since 2020.
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After initially being taken by surprise, the police in August last year said that the forces have rendered the challenge from hybrid militancy weak and ineffective. “Now we identify and arrest them (hybrid terrorists),” ADGP said, adding, “A year before it was a hard task but now it is no longer a challenge.”

Three months later, the police claimed that they had almost neutered the threat of hybrid militancy and busted 100 modules in the year 2022.

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Pandit Families Continue Migrating to Jammu To Seek Refuge

As per data shared by the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti KPSS, a welfare body of 789 Pandit families living in Kashmir, there have been 21 fatalities of Hindu residents in Kashmir since 2020. Last year, three Kashmiri Pandit civilians were killed in various attacks across the valley.

The death of Rahul Bhat, an employee of J&K Revenue Department who was killed at his office in May last year triggered massive protests by the Pandit community. Bhat had returned to Kashmir as part of the Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation Package and was living in a gated colony in Sheikhpura in Budgam district.

Last year, The Quint also reported on the fresh departure of 12 Pandit families from Chowdhari Gund village in South Kashmir's district of Shopian after the killing of Puran Krishen Bhat, a local orchardist. Among the fleeing families was that of Anil Bhat, whose three brothers were victims of militant attacks in 2022. One of them, Sunil Bhat died following fatal injuries.

Since then, KPSS says seven more families have left Kashmir. Till last year a total of 808 Pandit families were living in Kashmir. This number has come down to 789.

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More Departures Expected Due to Rising Hate & Intolerance

Now the attack of 26 February is likely to cause more Pandit families to contemplate relocating to the hot plains of Jammu amid accusations that the administration has been unable to provide security for them.

In the case of Sanjay Kumar, the latest victim, a police party of eight personnel was already deployed at his home on account of last year’s killings, but despite the protection, the assailants seem to have succeeded in killing him.

“In the last 32 years, it has been the same thing for us,” said Sanjay Tickoo who heads KPSS.“ Despite repeated requests to civil society as well as the government, nothing is changing.”

Tickoo said he had tried to issue a call for a strike across Kashmir in protest against the killing in Achan. “I wanted to see how majority of the community will react,” he said. But there wasn’t any meaningful response to the hartaal call on Monday.

“Unfortunately, it seems there’s no space for any other religion here,” Tickoo said. “The deceased Pandit man was on his way to see a doctor. The guard at his house had a full view of the area where he was shot. They didn’t even fire in the air to scare away the attackers. Instead, after they saw Sanjay being shot dead, they ran to his brother and informed him of the killing,” he said.

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Tickoo travelled to Achan on Monday to share the grief of the family members. “I did confront the local Muslim community there,” he tells The Quint. “How could the terrorists come and go without anyone even noticing them unless he had some sort of local support?”

Sanjay was a commerce graduate, Tickoo added. “But unfortunately, he didn’t get a job and then became average. Somehow he got a job as a guard at a J&K bank ATM posted not more than 100 meters from his home,” he said.

Tickoo said that many Pandit families had been relentlessly calling him since Sunday’s killing and seeking directions as to what they should do now. "There is a sense of desperation,” he said. “Pandits can’t sit at home all the time. The current situation is worse than in the 1990s.”

He added that the community was apprehensive about more killings. “There’s a G20 meeting that is going to be held in Kashmir this year, then there are land retrieval campaigns being undertaken by the current administration followed by the imposition of Hindi language in schools across Kashmir. All these steps are inflaming the local anger and adding to the overall bad situation that makes us vulnerable,” Tickoo adds.

Tickoo said that the Achan incident wasn’t the only occasion when Pandits were attacked in 2023. “In January, an elderly man who works as a pharmacist at DH Pora village in Kulgam in South Kashmir was shot at by a young man. Fortunately, he survived the attack,” he said.

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Sunday’s killing has been met with an outpouring of grief, solidarity, and condemnations from civil society groups and political leaders in Kashmir. On Monday, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti paid a visit to Sanjay’s family in Achan.

The separatist Hurriyat group led by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq also condemned the death saying that the “Killing of human beings in such a manner is a tragedy that Kashmir has been witnessing for the past three and a half decades now, with no seeming end in near future.”

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.inArticle 14CaravanFirstpostThe Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. Faizan Mir is an independent multimedia journalist and tweets at @faizanmirtweets.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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