On the evening of 8 June 2020, a sarpanch of Lok Bhawan in Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was killed by Islamist terrorists. The sarpanch, Ajay Pandita (Bharti), was associated with the Congress party, and belonged to the minority Kashmiri Hindu community in the Valley. The same community, known as Kashmiri Pandits, was first persecuted and then driven out of their homes by separatists and terrorists in 1990. The ethnic cleansing of Pandits was seen as having tacit, and often even explicit, support from many sections of the majority Muslim community in Kashmir.
The murdered sarpanch (and his family) have spent much of the year in Kashmir, in their native village, for over a decade now. They have been part and parcel of the social milieu since their voluntary return to Kashmir post-1990. In an interview to the local press, which has surfaced on social media, Bharti was seen lamenting the J&K administration’s lack of acknowledgment of the security concerns raised by him. This is perhaps the first killing of a Kashmiri Pandit after a long time – the last being the massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits at Nadimarg village in Pulwama district on 23 March 2003.
Kashmir’s ‘Separatist Ecosystem’ – And the Routine ‘Labelling’ of Pandits As ‘Indian Agents’
The Resistance Front (TRF), which is reportedly a proxy of Pakistan’s foremost terrorist group, Laskhar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), claimed responsibility for Bharti’s murder. The handout released by the terror outfit termed the deceased sarpanch as a ‘political leech’ and ‘collaborator of the occupational regime’. However, J&K Police Chief Dilbag Singh stated that local Hizbul terrorists had killed the sarpanch.
Earlier too Kashmiri Pandits were often labelled as ‘Indian agents’ and ‘collaborators’ by the separatist ecosystem, and this justification would be offered for their targeted killings – in 1989-1990 – by the terrorists in the Valley.
One may recall the killings of Pandit Tika Lal Taploo, Justice Neelkanth Ganjoo, Advocate Prem Nath Bhat, Sarwanand Koul ‘Premi’, Lassa Koul and many others.
The separatist ecosystem in Kashmir, comprising elite civil society members – journalists, media persons, academicians, writers, and politicians – has been in place for over thirty years now. It created a narrative which offered cover to the separatist/terror activities under the garb of ‘justice’ and ‘rights’. If accountability was sought from this cabal, they would cry ‘freedom of speech’, ‘oppression’, and what not. The ecosystem would lay down the ground work, the terrorists would do the killing, and then the ecosystem would offer a rationale behind the killing and violence. This ecosystem would often get the (direct or tacit) support of the Indian commentariat as well as international intelligentsia.
We have the case of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri-origin American who would lobby against India, for the ‘cause of Kashmir’ at global platforms on behalf of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Through the Washington-based Kashmiri American Council (KAC), he would organise conferences in the United States and Europe which would be sponsored by the ISI, and attended by the Indian intelligentsia.
Present at one such conference organised by Fai in 2005, was Dilip Padgaonkar, who would later be appointed as an interlocutor for J&K in 2010 by the then Dr Manmohan Singh-led central government. Radha Kumar, another interlocutor on the same team, was soon after slammed by a colleague for attending a Kashmir seminar in Europe organised by the reportedly ISI-linked Abdul Majeed Tramboo’s organisation, ‘Tramboo Centre’. Fai was convicted in 2011 for illegal lobbying and receiving funding from the ISI.
‘Denial of Facts’ About Kashmiri Pandit Exodus
This very ecosystem has often campaigned against Kashmiri Pandits – be it their employment in J&K, meagre relief funds to displaced families post 1990, revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution or the latest domicile rules. A recent example is that of Haseeb Drabu, former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who implied that the Pandits were ‘collaborators’ / ‘agents’ in an article in Greater Kashmir.
In 2017, Junaid Azim Mattu, who is the current mayor of Srinagar city, had tweeted that there was ‘no massacre of Kashmiri Pandits’ in Kashmir.
We have often heard the refrain that IAS officer and the then Governor of J&K (who served two consecutive terms till May 1990), Jagmohan was ‘responsible’ for the mass exodus of Pandits in 1990. Nothing can be further from the truth. Such assertions, or rather denial of facts, by Kashmir’s majority community, are neither new nor surprising.
Are Pandits Still Welcome to Participate in Kashmir’s Political Process?
What does the killing of the Congress sarpanch signify? It perhaps hints at the fact that Pandits are not welcome to be a part of Kashmir’s political process, and that, they should restrict themselves to regular jobs and businesses but should not be vocal about their politics. Pandits have, in recent history, been politically disempowered and marginalised in Kashmir and have only been given token representation – restricted to one or two legislative council seats in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and very few times, a ministerial seat in the chief minister’s council of ministers.
One must question – how can a sarpanch be a threat in the larger scheme of things in Kashmir?
A sarpanch is just a village head working towards resolving the basic issues of a particular area. In the 2018 local body elections, various Kashmiri Pandits fought elections and won, especially in the rural areas. This was perhaps an attempt to ‘integrate’ into the Kashmiri society – the same integration which the majority in Kashmir always tom-tom about, by saying that Pandits are welcome to live in Kashmir.
It should be noted that a few thousand displaced Pandits have been working for around ten years in Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s Employment Package. Also, nearly 800 Pandit families have been living in Kashmir, who didn’t move out during the turbulent 1990s. Bharti’s murder reiterates the fact that Pandits continue to be at risk in Kashmir even after thirty years of their exodus.
I remember that in 2011, a Kashmiri Pandit woman, Aasha Jee, won a panchayat election in Wussan village in Baramulla district of North Kashmir. Her victory was widely celebrated. It was hailed as symbol of brotherhood and communal harmony – ‘Kashmiriyat’. Cut to 2020 – Bharti’s killing by terrorists breaks this so-called ‘Kashmiriyat’ yet again.
Of late, there’s been much talk of the origin of the terrorists in Kashmir, with an emphasis on ‘Pakistani terrorists’ – as if ‘Kashmiri terrorists’ no longer exist. The killing of the Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch is likely to have had some local support.
After Sarpanch’s Killing, Can Kashmiri Pandits Still Re-Settle With A Semblance of Security?
Does Bharti’s death show that if Pandits choose to live in Kashmir, they must live in fear of separatism and militancy? Do Kashmiri Hindus now have to live in their own homeland by the codes of present-day Kashmiri society, and not just the law of land?
While the Modi government has been discussing the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir, the killing of a Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch certainly raises concerns about the security of the Pandit community in the Valley.
All talk of return to their homeland will be reconsidered now. It won’t be inappropriate to say that the clock has turned back with this killing in Kashmir as far as Kashmiri Pandits are concerned. Whether the Pandit community will see any visible justice (which has been denied even by the Supreme Court of India) in the case of Bharti’s killing or not, only time will tell.
(Varad Sharma is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of a book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled, ‘A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, published by Bloomsbury India. He tweets @VaradSharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. )