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What's behind Hindus' renewed exodus from Kashmir

June 29, 2022
tags:#Kashmir, #India, #Pakistan, #Hindu, #Pandit
located:India, Pakistan
by:Hanan Zaffar
Targeted killings have sparked a migration of Kashmiri Hindus, most of whom work as government employees.

Earlier this month, a masked man armed with a pistol entered a bank in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Kulgam district and shot at Vijay Kumar Beniwal, a manager hailing from the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Beniwal was declared dead on arrival.

Later in the day, suspected militants in the conflict torn Himalayan valley opened fire again, this time at two non-local labourers - one of whom succumbed to his injuries.

Since January this year, there have been at least 16 such targeted killings in the region, many of them targeting Indian nationals and members of the Kashmiri Hindu community known as Pandits

Hundreds of Pandits. most of whom worked at various governmental departments, have fled the valley. 

Obscure militant organisations that claimed responsibility for these attacks have framed the Indian government’s plan to engineering a demographic change in the Muslim majority region as a catalyst for their violent actions.

In a social media statement on the killing of Vijay Kumar Beniwal, Kashmir Freedom Fighters (KFF) - an unknown militant organisation in the valley - said, "Mr. Kumar, holding a domicile, was eliminated by our cadre. Anyone involved in the demographic change of Kashmir will meet the same fate."

Two days before Beniwal’s killing, a Hindu teacher was killed in Kashmir after assailants barged into her school.

Fears of a demographic change engineered by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Muslim majority region have been looming large ever since the revocation of Kashmir's autonomy in August 2019. Since, there has been a spate of targeted killings in the region.

Among those killed were Kashmiri Muslims working for the Indian government in different capacities. As per the official figures, 55 civilians have been killed in targeted attacks this year alone.

"The situation is not good for the minority community in Jammu and Kashmir right now. Everyone is scared about their life," said Sandeep Koul, a Kashmiri Pandit activist residing in the valley.  

"After the abrogation of Article 370 [ a provision in Indian law that provided special autonomy to Kashmir], everyone was hoping that the situation will be better, that there will be a new Kashmir. But it doesn't change anything for minorities - we are losing our members in this new Kashmir," Koul said.

The Indian government has blamed militant outfits from neighboring Pakistan for the attacks. Pakistan claims Indian-administered Kashmir as its own territory, a sentiment viewed by India as a driver of separatism and bloodshed in the region.

Since 1990, when the armed rebellion against the Indian rule erupted in Kashmir, thousands of civilians have lost their lives, many at the hands of Indian military and paramilitary forces. 

"We want to leave"

The current spate of targeted killings in Kashmir have inspired fear among the minority Pandit community, which led many of them to leave. 

"We are not even allowed to step out of our houses because of security threats. The only safe place seems to be any place outside Kashmir. If anyone asks me about our security, the answer would be that we want to leave the valley," Koul said.

As per reports, more than 100 Pandit families have already left Kashmir over the last few weeks.

Last month, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit recruited as a government employee under a special employment scheme by the Indian government, was killed in his office by suspected militants; his murder triggered protests by the minority community. 

In a memorandum to the government, Pandit employees had also threatened to resign en masse if the authorities fail to ensure their safety. "Due to dejection by the policies of the administration and subsequent failure of providing the sense of security to all Kashmiri Pandit minorities serving in the Valley for the last 12 years […]We are left with no option but to give en-masse resignation, which we know is the only solution to save our lives," reads the letter.

a governmental failure

"There is no medium or for that matter scope of a political engagement at this point, which is escalating the problem," Dr. Radha Kumar, a former interlocutor appointed by government of India in 2010 to deal with the Kashmiri problem, told FairPlanet.

"Unfortunately, there seems to be little that could bring a change. If there is greater international pressure on India, then, maybe there will be a slight improvement. But overall, there seems to be a lot of despair in sight," Kumar added. 

Mohit Bhan, a Kashmiri Pandit residing in the Kashmir valley, blames the Indian government’s high-handedness for the deteriorating situation in the region.

"The big claims that the government was making about normalcy here are proven to be wrong. The situation is not normal on the ground. The government and the administration need to relook and rethink its policies in Kashmir, and they need to call all stakeholders in Kashmir over to one table [to discuss] the situation," Bhan, who is associated with the regional People’s Democratic Party, told FairPlanet.

"It is not that only Kashmiri Pandits are being killed. There are mixed casualties. Non-Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims are also being killed. We stand vindicated on our stance that [...] the situation is not normal,"Bhan added.

At the onset of armed militancy in the region in 1990, more than 100,000 Pandits had fled Indian-administered Kashmir as they were subjected to violent attacks. Revoking the special autonomy of the region in 2019, the Indian government had claimed that its decision would bring peace and prosperity to the region and ensure the community’s return to their homeland. Alas, the situation has only gotten progressively worse since.

"Our attempt would be to make sure that the situation doesn't worsen, but our prayers alone won’t help," Bhan said. "The government needs to do something. They must analyse their mistakes of the past three years and work on the ground to [improve] the situation."

The government, however, appears to be in denial. Altaf Thakur, a spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believes that the situation in Kashmir is "improving."

"After the abrogation of 370, terrorism has significantly decreased in Kashmir," Thakur told FairPlanet. "Initially, [militants] used to attack police and security forces, but now they don’t have the strength to attack and carry out attacks on civilians using small weapons in some remote areas."

"We give assurance to the Kashmiri Pandit community that the government is prepared to deal with these kinds of issues, you just have to bear with us," he added. "Terrorist and terrorism will not be spared, and we will make Kashmir terrorism-free so that minorities and non-locals feel safe here."

"Our prayers alone won’t help."

Gov't won’t partake in 'ethnic cleansing'

Migrant Kashmiri Pandit families fleeing the region have been locked in their government provided accommodations in gated areas - locally called 'migrant colonies' - and also stopped from travelling on the sole national highway that connects the conflict-worn valley with the rest of India.

Pandit employees in the region also asked the authorities to transfer them to the other areas outside of Kashmir. Government officials in the valley, however, rejected the request, saying they cannot lift lockdowns in their colonies or facilitate the migration of the community and be a party to "ethnic cleansing."

"We can’t allow a similar situation [to 1990]. We are trying to beef up the security more, so that [Pandits] are safe. But we can’t facilitate their transfer outside the state. That means we are doing what the terrorists want," said a senior Police official based in the region.

"This escalation in violence will stop soon and there won’t be any more people moving out of the state," the official added.

Hina Shafi Bhat, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blamed Pakistan for fomenting unrest in the region and dismissed claims that the Indian government is trying to alter Kashmir's demographic makeup.

"Pakistan is getting increasingly frustrated because the current government has taken stringent action against terrorist groups operating here," Bhat said. "So they are spreading these unfounded theories [of demographic change]. The escalation of attacks on minorities is a desperate attempt to show their presence. But these attacks will fizzle out soon and peace will prevail."

"We can’t facilitate their transfer outside the state. That means we are doing what the terrorists want."

Indian media has also reported that Pakistan is increasingly using drones to smuggle weapons into Indian-administered Kashmir to carry out the attacks.

"The government understands that the Kashmiri Pandits are scared. But there is no question of another exodus. Security has been increased manifold," Bhat added.    

Hope amid despair

As attacks escalate, members of the minority Pandit community feel that their safety in the region can only be ensured if the Muslim majority continues to support and share a bond of brotherhood with them. 

"If the majority community supports us there is some hope for our safety," Koul said. "Otherwise, we are not safe in Kashmir."

Muslims and Pandits in the region share a centuries-long bond and communal harmony. Even in the recent times, with targeted killings heightening tensions in the region, there have been several incidents attesting to the prevalence of a strong composite culture in the conflict-torn Himalayan valley.

For instance, many Muslims have joined protests organized by the Pandit community against the recent killings. Muslims in the region have also, for decades, been performing the last rites of Pandits whose close relatives reside elsewhere. The two communities have also been celebrating their festivals together for decades.  

"Pandits are our brethren, and we want to live together with them and share our grief and joy. They are very much a part of our shared culture and heritage," Mohammad Faizan, a Muslim research scholar from Kashmir, told FairPlanet. 

"Both communities here are unfortunately used to this kind violence. But this too shall pass and there would come a day when we would live happily together," he insisted.   

Image by Rishabh Pandoh

Article written by:
Hanan Zaffar
Hanan Zaffar
India Pakistan
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Indian security personnel stop a demonstrator from marching towards the governor's house to protest against the killing of a government employee belonging to the Kashmiri Pandit community on the outskirts of Srinagar on 13 May, 2022.
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Mourners gather around the body of Makhan Lal Bindroo, a pandit businessman and owner of a pharmacy, after suspected gunmen killed three civilians in separate street shootings a day before in Srinagar on 6 October, 2021.
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"If the majority community supports us there is some hope for our safety."
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