Shiekhpora, Budgam: A day after 35-year-old Rahul Bhat was shot dead, his neighbours, colleagues and friends gathered for a sit-in protest at Sheikhpora Pandit transit camp in central Budgam, blocking the main road that connects Budgam with Srinagar.
The heavy presence of policemen and paramilitary forces did not deter them. As the forces tried persuading the protestors - which included women, men, young and old— to return to their quarters at the camp, barely a few hundred meters away, they responded with slogans.
The slogans were raised against the BJP government at the Centre and Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha. Earlier in the day, protestors tried to march toward Srinagar airport but the police resorted to lathi charge and tear gas shelling to stop them.
On Thursday, Rahul Bhat, who worked as a clerk at the Revenue department in Chadoora area of Budgam, was shot by militants while he was at work. Jammu and Kashmir police on Friday said it has killed two Pakistani militants behind Bhat's assasination in an encounter in North Kashmir's Bandipora district.
Bhat lived with his wife and six-year-old daughter in a one-room quarter in Sheikhpora. Ashwin, Bhat's neighbour, remembered him as a kind person who always had a smile on his face. "Ask anyone, not just the residents of the camp but our Muslim neighbours will tell you how good he was to everyone. That's the reason our Muslim neighbours have stood by us. They even arranged water for protestors."
Ashwin said Bhat had nothing to do with the politics of Kashmir and the only reason he had moved to Kashmir, leaving his parents in Jammu, was to earn a living.
As Bhat's body was taken to Jammu for his last rites, a spontaneous protest by Kashmir pandits broke out in pandit transit camps in Baramulla, Kulgam and Budgam.
Hundreds of protesters— all of them Kashmiri Pandits who resettled in Kashmir after the Congress government's rehabilitation programme in 2008 offered them jobs in the Valley. The protestors demanded justice for Bhat's family and safety of their own lives.
"He was killed in his office. How safe are we here? The government should either transfer us to Jammu or accept our mass resignation. We can't stay here and let our children become orphans," Ashwin told BOOM.
The residents of Sheikhpora colony told BOOM that just months before he was killed, Bhat had requested the local administration for a transfer to a nearby office owing to the growing number of attacks on Kashmiri Pandits. "If his request had been heard he might still have been alive today," a protestor said.
Govt Job Convinced The Pandits To Return
About three lakh Pandits had left the Valley when the first wave of militancy began in early 1990s.
In 2008, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 1,614 crore employment and rehabilitation package for the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley. As part of the package, 3000 state government jobs were offered to the community. The government also built temporary transit accommodation for them with a promise of facilitating their permanent settlement in Kashmir.
After having lived in squalid migrant camps for two decades in Jammu, a stable government job convinced some to return. Over the last decade, over 4000 members of the Pandit community returned to the Valley. Bhat was one of them. The 35-year-old had returned in 2011.
The rehabilitation package was seen as the step towards the return of thousands of Pandits to Kashmir. But it has since turned into a tale on unfulfilled promises. The government's failure in proper implementation of the rehabilitation program on the ground had already led to resentment among residents. While over-crowded accommodations, delay in payment of salaries, and lack of facilities were part of their daily problems, the fear of being killed has unnerved the 3800 Kashmiri Pandits who have relocated to Kashmir.
Targetted Killings? Fear Among Kashmiri Pandits
Earlier this year, a film called 'Kashmir Files' that aimed to highlight the plight of Pandits ran into several controversies for not being completely true to history. The conversations around the film made it to the social media platforms with many joining in to seek #JusticeForKashmiriPandits, three decades later.
Speaking to BOOM, People's Democratic Party spokesperson Mohit Bhan explained how the BJP government's abrogation of Article 370 solely projected as a move to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits back to the Valley has made the community members a target.
"Since 2019, the BJP governments has been giving an impression that everything they do is to bring back pandits to the valley, but they have failed to even build decent living quarters for some 5000 pandits living here. How would they manage to convince some 3-4 lakh Kashmiri pandits back to the valley?"
Bhan added that there had been inputs that Kashmiri pandits could be targeted and despite such attacks in the past, the administration has failed to give any sense of security to the community.
"Such attack are a major failure on part the LG's administration. It's not only detrimental for any efforts to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits, but also paints Kashmir muslim society in a bad light, which is then used by some people in rest of India incite emotions against Muslims," he said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data shows that atleast 14 Kashmiri pandits and non-locals have been killed by suspected militants since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir's special status in 2019.
One of the protesters, Amit, said instead of listening to the concerns of the community the government has acted insensitively. "They beat us up and detained women. Who do we plead to?" he asked. Amit, who has been living at the transit camp for the last 8 years said they were tricked into returning to the valley on the promise of jobs but they are now forced to live in highly fortified and isolate camps, with a threat of killing looming over their heads.
"Despite the tall promises by the government, our situation here has not improved one bit. We have been living in a constant fear of being killed. So why should we continue to risk our lives?" he asked.
Every time there is a killing of a pandit, Amit said, they are given a lot of assurances from the government on security. But then there are more killings.
Satish Mahaldar, a pandit activist based in New Delhi accused the government of exploiting Kashmiri pandits for political gains while doing very little to ensure the safety and well-being of those who are settled in the valley. "The government is projecting the number of tourists visiting Kashmir as a sign of peace. But what sort of peace is it when civilians are being killed on a daily basis?"
Mahaldar said that it was 'failure' on the part of Jammu and Kashmir L-G Manoj Sinha that he was unable to meet members of Kashmiri community in Kashmir. "Instead of assuring the community, LG's administration ordered a lathi charge on the pandits who were peacefully protesting against the killing of their colleague and a friend."
Mahaldar also questioned the security establishment's claims of having ended militancy in Kashmir. "The number of active militants in Kashmir hovers around 200. This number has stayed the same for almost the last 7-8 years. How is it possible? There is something seriously wrong which needs to be looked at."
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