Srinagar: MEANDERING through thick apple orchards, a narrow stretch branching off from Shopian-Wanpoh road leads to the quaint Chotigam village, some 62 km south of Srinagar. Just three doors down the village street sits a two-story house fenced with corrugated metal sheets. The house has been witnessing a stream of visitors since its owner Sunil Kumar, who lived there with his family and two brothers, was shot dead by militants on the morning of August 16.
Sunil (44) and his brother Pitambar were in their apple orchard, located a short walk away from their house, when militants emerged out of the blue and opened fire on them.
While a few slugs tore through the body of Sunil, a bullet whizzed past Pitambar, grazing his abdomen.
They were shifted to the Shopian District Hospital, some 12.5 km away, where doctors declared Sunil as brought dead while sending his brother to Srinagar for further treatment.
Only two Kashmiri Pandit families, one being the Kumars and another of Janki Nath Bhat’s, are residing in the village, comprising around 150 households. The families stayed put in the area after well-nigh the entire Kashmiri Pandit community migrated to Jammu and other parts of the country following the outbreak of armed insurgency in the region in the early 1990s.
Everything was going like clockwork for these well-heeled families of apple orchardists till April 2022, when militants walked into the pharmacy of Bhat’s son and opened fire on him. He, however, survived the attack, but it unleashed fear in these families. The Jammu and Kashmir police stationed some cops at their houses located next to each other for their security, which instilled a sense of security in them.
However, on Tuesday, the militants succeeded in targeting the Kumars when they were grazing their cows on their apple farm, sprawling over 30 kanals.
Following the incident, an air of melancholy enveloped the entire village. The whole Muslim neighbourhood sank in grief. While some accompanied the injured Pitambar, locally known as Pintu, to the hospital, others tried to offer solace to the family of the victim, who left behind four minor daughters and a wife.
“Kumar was a simple man. He was known for his innocence and naivety in the entire village. The incident has sent a ripple of shock across the area”, said a Muslim friend of the deaseased Kumar, who declined to be quoted by his name in this report.
Members of the majority Muslim community not only participated in the last rites of Kumar but also held a peaceful protest against the targeted attack. The village reverberated with slogans like Qatal-e-nahaq namanzoor (Killings of innocents are not palatable) for quite some time. A few kilometres away in Shopian town, a knot of social activists held a candlelight protest against the killing.
“Hindus and Muslims are brothers. We have been living in harmony for ages. Such despicable attacks needs to be deplored and denounced”, said Magray Mansoor, standing near a clock tower with a sign, which reads: “we are one, we believe in brotherhood”.
Mansoor said that they wanted such targeted killings to be stopped right away.
Meanwhile, the J&K police chief Dilbagh Singh said that Kumar’s killers had been identified and would be given an exemplary punishment. The police also said that it had begun the process of attaching the property of a local militant Adil Wani, who was allegedly involved in the killing.
There has been no let-up in the targeted killings of non-locals and members of the Kashmiri Pandit community since the Union Government put paid to the special constitutional provisions of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Barely two months later, militants had targeted non-local truckers in Anantnag and Shopian areas, killing at least four of them. The Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai informed the Rajya Sabha last month that a total of 118 civilians, including 21 non-Muslims were killed in terror-related incidents in the union territory since August 5, 2019.
The militancy in Kashmir has entered a dangerous phase after 2019. The emergence of hybrid militants – militants who keep their militant identity under wraps and masquerade as civilians – has posed a new challenge to the security establishment. It marks a shift from the pre-abrogation phase of militancy – re-animated by slain Hizbul Mujahidin militant commander Burhan Wani – when militants would announce they are joining using different social media platforms and proudly wear their militant identity on their sleeve.
“Now there is a thin line between militants and civilians”, said a Valley-based political analyst.
He said that the sweeping constitutional and structural changes made by the government over the past three years may have provoked the militants to carry out such targeted killings.
“Such killings also lay bare the normalcy narrative of the government”, he said.
The significant delay in the restoration of democracy by deferring the Assembly elections is seen as another reason for the spurt in militant attacks.
“There is much frustration among the youth who feel more alienated than before. An elected government behaves differently. It directly connects with the people and creates a sense of belonging”, said the analyst.
There are many apprehensions that the attacks may help in spurring a fresh wave of migration. The continuous protests by Kashmiri Pandit public sector employees, who got their jobs under the Prime Minister’s special rehabilitation package, have been demanding the relocation of their postings from the Valley.
At least 3,000 youth, who got jobs under the package, had moved back to the Valley along with their families since the United Progressive Alliance-led Union Government rolled out the package in 2008.
“Life is more important than jobs. If the government does not transfer us out of the Valley, we will resign from our jobs and leave the place”, said Ajay Kumar, a Kashmiri Pandit employee.
If the government fails to contain the ongoing targeted killings, all the good work done under the PM’s package over the last many years is bound to go down the drain.