With a rise in targeted killings, are Kashmiri Pandits staring at second exodus?
A great sense of insecurity, coupled with a lack of sympathy of majority community and a political vacuum in the region since 2019, puts migrant Pandits on the backfoot
Srinagar: A security vehicle stands guard outside the Veerwan transit camp, 60 km from Srinagar on the highway to Uri, as an uneasy calm prevails inside with migrant Kashmiri Pandit government employees and their families holed up in fear in one and two-room fabricated sheds for the past 20 days.
None of the employees from the camp have joined duty since May 12, when Rahul Bhat, a revenue officer, was shot dead by militants inside the tehsil office at Chadoora in neighbouring Budgam. Bhat was killed by two gunmen inside his office when he was called by his name by the attackers. Though police and even Jammu and Kashmir Lt Governor Manoj Sinha claimed to have neutralised the militants responsible for the killing in the forests of Bandipore, security experts doubt the claim.
In panic and protest mode
Bhat’s murder was followed by the targeted killings of a school teacher from the Kashmiri Pandit community, Rajini Bala, in Kulgam on May 31, and a fatal attack on a bank manager from Rajasthan, Vijay Kumar, also in Kulgam on Thursday, triggering fear in the migrant Pandit community that has only one demand now: To be shifted out of Kashmir.
“Half of the families have left this camp. This is the second exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland,” said Avtar Krishan, a resident of the Veerwan camp. “This government has failed us. They don’t have any plans. The government has posted a magistrate outside our transit accommodation and we are not allowed to move out. We feel as if we are in jail.”
Krishan said that even Kashmir inspector general of police, Vijay Kumar, had admitted that it would take three years to improve the security situation. “Does this mean that for three years they will leave us to the mercy of The Resistance Force?”
Krishan countered the plan to post migrant employees to district and tehsil headquarters. “Rahul Bhat was killed at the tehsil headquarters, while prominent chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo was killed in the high-security zone of Srinagar. “If the government guarantees that there won’t be an attack on us at the district and tehsil offices, only then will we return to duty,” he said.
Another migrant Pandit, Sandeep Kumar, said that in the present scenario, it’s not possible for them to work in Kashmir. “There is fear everywhere. Our only demands are relocation and revocation of the bond which migrant employees are forced to fill at the time of getting a job,” he says.
The employees, who were recruited in 2008 under the Prime Minister’s package to facilitate their return following the mass migration of the community from the Valley in the early 1990s, have been protesting since Bhat’s killing. Besides them, there are hundreds of non-local workers in private and government establishments who are also in a state of panic amid the back-to-back attacks on civilians.
Is the nullification of Article 370 to blame?
A majority of Kashmiri Pandits left the Valley after militancy erupted in 1989. In 2016, the then state government had said that 1,54,080 people migrated from the Valley in 1990.
This year, the series of targeted killings have left migrant employees and non-local residents in a fix.
On April 13, militants shot dead 50-year-old Satish Kumar Singh, a Kashmiri Rajput Hindu.
On May 17, a wine shop employee was killed in a grenade attack in Baramulla.
On May 12, Kashmiri Pandit government employee Rahul Bhat was killed and on May 31, Rajni Bala, a teacher of the community from Samba, was killed in Kulgam district.
Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) president Sanjay Tickoo says that after the PM’s package for Pandits was announced in 2010, there was sympathy in the majority community towards the Valley’s Pandit minority.
“But after the revocation of Article 370 in 2019 and the recent release of the film, Kashmir Files, that sympathy has got eroded. The main reason for our predicament is the wrong policies of the Government of India and UT administration,” says Tickoo, who lives in the old city of Srinagar and chose not to migrate from Kashmir since the eruption of militancy in the late ’80s.
The political vacuum in the bureaucratic state
Tickoo says there is a political vacuum since 2019 and no political party is able to reach out to people. “It has become a bureaucratic state. The common man has no access to officials, who are not held accountable in any case, hence the rise in militancy. A change of approach is needed. No heads rolled since the killings started, particularly since Bindroo’s death,” he says.
Like Veerwan, at Vessu transit camp, too, hundreds of migrant employees have been demanding relocation. “The day police and administration officials will move without security in Kashmir, we will believe the situation has improved here. They (the government) want us to become scapegoats. Only one meeting was held with our representatives. We have given an ultimatum and will stay here only if the government commits in writing that there won’t be any attack on us,” says Anil Kumar, who works in J&K’s finance department and lives at the Vessu camp in south Kashmir along with four family members.
In March, minister of state for home, G Kishan Reddy, informed Parliament in a written reply that, since 1990, 44,167 Kashmiri migrant families left the Valley due to security concerns. Of them, the count of registered Hindu migrant families is 39,782. He said that nearly 3,800 Kashmiri migrants have returned to Kashmir since the 1990s and 520 have returned since the abrogation of Article 370 to take up jobs under the Prime Minister’s package.
Last Friday, a 25-member delegation, representing Kashmiri Pandit employees, met the J&K lieutenant governor and top government officials at Raj Bhavan in Srinagar. The discussion on their main demand of relocation to safer places remained “inconclusive”. Though it was agreed to meet for the second time in the coming days, on Wednesday night, the government announced the setting up of a dedicated cell in the general administration department (GAD) to redress the grievances of minorities in Kashmir. This cell will be headed by the additional secretary (administration).
Officials admit it’s not possible to provide security to every migrant Pandit employee. “Apart from Pandits, there are hundreds of non-local Hindus working here. They too could demand security, which isn’t possible. We aim to create a safe environment for employees,” a senior officer said, requesting anonymity.
The ground reality is far from normal
Political parties have been critical of the administration for its failure to secure the lives of migrant employees and non-locals.
National Conference chief spokesman, Tanvir Sadiq, said that Kashmir is far from normal today. “There is a huge gap between the government’s narrative and the situation on the ground in J&K. Not only Kashmiri Pandits but a policeman off duty is being killed outside his home. A government official is shot inside his office. A teacher is shot in school. The sense of security is missing,” he said, adding that it will be “very unfortunate if they leave again”.
“Kashmir is their home and we all have a responsibility to keep Kashmiri Pandits safe. Hollow promises won’t do. The situation is worse than what it was in the early ’90s. The BJP has mishandled Kashmir,” the NC leader said.
Peoples Democratic Party spokesman Suhail Bukhari said that it was due to the efforts of political parties that the return of migrant Pandits had taken place under the PM’s package. “Unfortunately, the policies of the BJP and the RSS have ruined this. The balloon of normalcy has been punctured by such incidents,” Bukhari said.
BJP state spokesman Altaf Thakur termed the security situation in the Valley fragile. “Security forces should revisit their policies. The demand for migrant Pandit employees is genuine. Nobody can guarantee their safety in these circumstances,” Thakur said.