When Mahesh, 35, learned that he had been apparently targeted for assassination, he ran. In that instant, he was cast, if unconsciously, as a flesh-and-blood symbol of the fear that has gripped the Pandit community in Kashmir and to escape which they have been agitating for weeks now.
Mahesh’s flight from home, in the evening on May 31, was also tragically ironic: he had spent that day protesting at Batwara Park in Srinagar against the killing of a Hindu teacher in south Kashmir and now he was running for his own life.
The schoolteacher was shot dead by unidentified gunmen early on May 31. , 36, a Dogra from Samba, was the second person from the Hindu minority to be killed in under a month, the other being Rahul Bhat, 35, a Pandit revenue official in central Kashmir’s Chadoora. Bala’s killing intensified the protests sparked by Rahul’s killing, with Pandits threatening to migrate en mass if they weren’t moved to safer places outside the valley.
Most of those asking to be relocated were government employees recruited under a to enable the Pandits who had fled Kashmir in the 1990s to return. There are an estimated 4,500 such employees, including Mahesh.
He took the lead at the Batwara protest against Rajni’s and Rahul’s killings, distributing water and speaking with journalists to voice the concerns and demands of his community. He had just returned from the protest on Tuesday when he was alerted to a disturbing poster circulating on WhatsApp. Purportedly created by Kashmir Fight, a blog which the police have denounced as a , it showed Mahesh at the protest and labelled him the “Next One”. The message was clear.
He immediately left home. “Obviously, fear and paranoia are the first response,” he said. “As a precaution, we had been hiding our faces at the protests. But this time we didn’t. Covering our faces wouldn’t matter since the situation had gotten out of hand.”
The threat to Mahesh could well be a fabrication, Anil, a fellow protester, pointed out, but it has deepened the “fear psychosis” resulting from “the Indian government’s failed Kashmir policy”. “They want to project normalcy to the world when it is the exact opposite,” he said, referring to the Narendra Modi government. “And Kashmiri Pandits are being used as scapegoats to do this.”
It’s a running theme of the protests by Pandits that are now taking place across Kashmir: that the Modi government has done nothing to help them despite proclaiming to champion their cause.
“Kashmiri Pandits will not be made scapegoats”, the protesters have been shouting, accusing the BJP government of using the community to further its political interests in Kashmir.
“It’s sad that we have to resort to this,” said Shiv, who has been protesting at Batwara. “We have been protesting since Rahul’s killing but the government hasn’t heard our demands. Now we have lost another life.”
On May 14, two days after Rahul’s killing, All PM Package Employees Forum, which represents the returning Pandit public servants, gave a memorandum to the prime minister and the home ministry seeking “safe evacuation to a safer place”, mainly Jammu. They threatened to migrate if their demand wasn’t met within 24 hours.
The previous day, some 350 Pandit employees had reportedly sent their to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, who heads the administration in the absence of an elected government. They had done so after a peaceful protest asking for the lieutenant governor to visit the Sheikhpora migrant colony, Budgam, where Rahul lived, and assure the residents of security invited a by the police.
Sinha did , but only 11 days later, and to give a job to Rahul’s wife, provide for their daughter’s education and pay Rs 5,00,000 to the family as compensation. The family rejected the offer. Rahul’s wife, Meenakshi Bhat, said she had pleaded with the district administration to transfer her husband to a safer location, as had his father Bitta Bhat, a retired police officer, but to no avail. Rahul, a survivor of the Sangrampora massacre, had for long been seeking a transfer because he didn’t feel safe working where he was posted.
Most of the Pandit employees recruited under Manmohan Singh’s 2008 scheme are housed in what are commonly known as “migrant colonies”, specifically built for them and segregated from the local Muslim settlements. There are seven such colonies in Kashmir – at Sheikhpora, Budgam; Mattan, Anantnag; Nutnussa, Kupwara; Vessu, Kulgam; Tulmulla, Ganderbal; Veervan, Baramulla; Haal, Pulwama.
Pandits protest at the Sheikhpora migrant colony in Budgam.
At Mattan, the police have barricaded the colony to prevent the residents from acting on their threat to mass migrate. Still, 400 people have left in the past three days, according to Sanjay Tickoo of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a civil society organisation which primarily represents the Pandits who never left the valley and do not stay in migrant colonies. More are likely to follow. Not least because the killings continue unabated, deepening the sense of fear.
In fact, several families at the Mattan colony had packed up to go, only to have their way blocked by the police.
"We wanted to migrate to Jammu to save our lives,” said Omkar, a resident. “The deputy commissioner had visited us and we told him we would leave if they were not able to provide us security. They stationed police outside to block our way. We aren’t being allowed to move out. Security doesn’t mean putting us in custody. We have a social life, we need to step out to get essentials as well. Our lives in the colony are horrible anyway.”
Ranjan, who has been spearheading the protests in Mattan, added, “If the government is unwilling to relocate us to Jammu, despite weeks of protests and three killings, we obviously will seek the route ourselves.”
The third killing happened on June 2, when a bank manager from Rajasthan, Vijay Kumar, was by a suspected militant in Kulgam.
“What exactly does the government want to show?” Ranjan asked. “Peace and serenity? If we were blessed with those we would not have been forced to leave like this.”
The police denied barricading Pandits inside the Mattan colony. “We are deployed there to provide security,” Waseem Shah, the head of the local police station, said. “The families are still here. Everything is alright.”
But are the police “deployed for security” stopping the residents from leaving? Shah cut the call.
Piyush Singla, Anantnag’s district commissioner, wouldn’t respond to Newslaundry’s questions, excusing himself saying he had to take an “urgent call”. He didn’t reply to queries texted to him either.
“The consensus is that the government is not capable of saving us from targeted killings,” said Omkar. “We see no hope of safety. All our talks with the administration have failed. There is not a single secure zone in Kashmir.”
At the Sheikhpora migrant colony, the protest has entered the fourth week. The government servants who live in the colony – which looks like a military installation, ringed by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire and guarded by armed men – haven’t been to work since the killing.
“The authorities have asked us to end the protest and return to work. We will not resume our services until we are relocated to Jammu. That is our only demand,” said one of the protesters. “If they can’t assure us of security they should at least relocate us.”
Addressing the demand, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Wednesday that all Pandits given jobs under the rehabilitation scheme would be posted at “secure locations” by June 6. Nearly 500 employees have already been transferred to their preferred locations, an unnamed top government official told the news agency KNO.
The protesters weren’t impressed. “They are shoving the same old lollipop down our throats,” said Dev, a protester at the Sheikhpora colony. “They have promised to transfer us to district headquarters as if those trying to kill us would not be able to reach us there. Our demand all this while has been for relocation outside the valley. All this is hogwash.”
The protesters also dismissed as “lip service, an eyewash” the administration’s decision to set up a for religious minorities in Kashmir. The cell, they pointed out, was meant to address their concerns related to employment. “This time our problem is a threat to our lives,” said Ashutosh, who is protesting in Mattan. “Threat to life isn’t a mere grievance. This is yet another attempt at headline management.”
Concerns about their safety among the Pandits precede the recent killings, although they are greatly heightened now. Not without reason. In the past four weeks alone, unidentified gunmen suspected by the police to be militants have killed one Pandit, one Kashmiri Sikh and three non-Kashmiri Hindus. In the same period, suspected militants and the security forces have killed at least two Kashmiri Muslims.
To add to the frustration of Pandits, an investigation launched into the separate killings of two Hindu teachers and a chemist last October seems to have gone nowhere because of the “lack of response and bureaucratic involvement”, the protesters said, leaving them “feeling hopeless”.
“It’s increasingly difficult for us to work in Kashmir. There were two killings before Rahul’s which we had tried to ignore, hoping the government would do something. But they’re sitting on their hands," said Pooran, a protester at the Sheikhpora colony. “Now our demand is clear and direct: relocate us.”
Shiv from Batwara added, “Any of us could be the next target. The government could not care less. They are busy garnering votes in our name.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Pictures by Rounak Bhat.