Since January 2021, over 55 civilians have been killed in the region. Since the government made biometric attendance compulsory in government offices in June, Kashmiri Pandit employees have become more vulnerable to militant attacks.
LAST Saturday afternoon, most of the people in south Kashmir’s Shopian district were busy with picking apples when a few gunshots rang out in the neighbouring Choudary Gund village. Within a few minutes, social media platforms were littered with news of the killing of Puran Krishan Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit.
Bhat was talking on the phone, just a short walk away from his house, when militants riddled him with bullets. Soaked in blood, Bhat was rushed to a local medical facility where doctors declared him dead.
Nestled among the thick apple orchards, Bhat’s house is located barely 200 to 250 meters from a major army camp in the area. A police post was also set up close to his house to guard his and seven other Pandit families living in the village.
The militants, however, managed to snuff out the life of Bhat.
Deputy Inspector General of Police, Shujit Kumar told reporters that action would follow if any security lapse on part of the police guards was found. According to him, an initial probe has suggested the involvement of only one militant.
Bhat’s family had preferred to stay put in their native village when well-nigh every member of their community fled the Valley in the early 90s after guns began roaring in the region.
“They never felt a need to leave this place. They would live happily among their Muslim neighbours till the tragedy struck them last week”, said Mohammad Yousuf, one of Bhat’s neighbours.
Bhat was a well-heeled apple orchardist who never indulged in any political activity. He would spend most of his time tending his ancestral apple farms sprawling over dozens of kanals.
“He was a simple farmer who used to live off the land”, said Yousuf.
Bhat’s wife and two children have been living in Jammu since 2016 when the Valley erupted in street protests, spurred by the killing of Hizbul Mujahidin militant commander Burhan Wani.
As the lifeless body of Bhat reached his native village, the entire Muslim neighbourhood sank in grief. The cries of both the communities filled the air for quite some time. Several members of Muslim community accompanied the body to Jammu to perform his last rites.
When the ambulance showed up in Jammu’s Muthi migrant camp at around 9 p.m., women sang dolorous dirges and bawled their eyes out.
“It was like doomsday there”, said Muzafar Ahamd, a Muslim neighbour who accompanied Bhat’s body to Jammu.
Ahamd said that the Pandit community did not hold a grudge against them and they were received warmly despite the mourning.
Meanwhile, members of Muslim community held protests and candle light marches at different places against the killing in the Valley. “Such killings have no place in our society and they could not drive a wedge between the two communities”, said a protester.
Apart from the leaders of different political parties, religious scholars and civil society members also condemned the targeted killings.
Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a body of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, billed the protest against the targeted killing of Bhat by the majority community as sponsored. “Except for a few places, all the protests were sponsored by the administration”, alleged Tickoo.
He said that unless the entire majority community hit the streets against such killings, nothing was going to help. “It is the responsibility of the majority community to ensure security to the minority community”, he said.
In August, Tickoo had asked the members of his community to leave the Valley in the wake of fresh attacks. He, however, said that the community did not respond to his call.
No let-up in killings
There hardly seems any let up in targeted killings. Bhat is the third member of the community to be killed this year. In Shopian district, this is the second such incident since August. On August 16, militants shot dead Sunil Kumar in Chotigam village of the district.
Since January 2021, over 55 civilians have been killed in the region. According to the police, most of the civilians over the last few years were killed by hybrid militants – such militants who keep their militant identity under the wraps and pose as civilians. They have thrown up a new challenge to the security forces.
Additionally, the number of foreign terrorists in the Valley has also gone up. Last month, the Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force, Kuldiep Singh said that the number of foreign militants has increased after the Taliban took over the reins of Afghanistan.
Jolt to rehabilitation policy
The targeted killings of members of the Kashmiri Pandit community has caused a huge set back to the rehabilitation policy rolled out by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2008. The policy aimed to facilitate the return of the members of the community to the Valley. More than 3,000 youth from the community were provided government employment under the policy and they returned to the Valley.
Most of these employees, however, have been protesting since the killing of their fellow employee Rahul Bhat in May this year and are disinclined to resume their duties. Although the government tried to post these employees to safer places, they have been demanding the relocation of their post to Jammu.
“Most of them have moved back to Jammu, where they have been holding peaceful protest for more than 150 days demanding relocation of their jobs”, said senior Jammu & Kashmir National Conference leader Umesh Talashi.
He said that since the government made biometric attendance compulsory in government offices, Kashmiri Pandit employees have become more vulnerable to militant attacks. “Now, they have to attend and leave their offices at a particular time, which makes it easy for militants to target them”, said Talashi.
Pertinently, on June 2, the Jammu and Kashmir administration issued an order asking all government offices, public sector undertakings and corporations to shift to the biometric system of attendance.