‘Don’t have to leave home’: In Kashmir, minorities vow to stay after killings

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Neha Bhat, a 28-year-old government employee, was caught up in the office when her phone flashed a news report: suspected militants had shot dead two teachers in the capital, Srinagar.

Bhat, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was, however, shocked when she read that the militants had allegedly separated two non-Muslim teachers before the shooting.

She was raised in Kashmir — but now, she said she felt helpless. Last week, a Sikh principal and a Hindu teacher were shot dead in broad daylight in a Srinagar school. In the spree of civilian killings, a total of seven persons were killed in seven days. “When I heard about target killings, that’s when I panicked the most,” she added.

The attack was claimed by The Resistance Front (TRF), a militant group that the police claim is an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a statement, TRF said that the duo were killed because they had pressured parents of students into sending their wards to schools on 15 August, the Independence Day, and claimed that the killings were not communal in nature. 

Since the attack, hundreds were detained in a sweeping crackdown while it triggered a panic for the minority communities. Amid the echoing messages of brotherhood, Kashmiris yet again face an uncertain security situation.

It was hard to comprehend for Bhat too. Her phone choked with the phone calls and messages. Everyone was worried about each other’s whereabouts. 

“I did not know what to do. I was confused but more importantly, I was scared,” she told The Kashmir Walla. Reluctantly, she went to her manager and other colleagues of Pandit ethnicity. Unanimously, they decided that they would take a week-long off due to security reasons. One of her Muslim colleagues dropped her home, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama.

The attacks sent the minority communities in Kashmir in frenzy, invoking fear of what lies next. In central Kashmir’s Budgam district, many had packed their bags and left after the attack. Now, in the Sheikhpora area of the district, a lock hangs outside their rented rooms. 

But Sanjay Tickoo, the president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), who had earlier told The Kashmir Walla that seven families had migrated to other places, on 14 October said that the families were back. 

“The good news is that all seven families are back firstly because of the all-out support from the muslim brothers and secondly due to the exams of their children slated later this month,” Tickoo said.

At Bhat’s two-story home in Pulwama, her Muslim neighbors had gathered around her mother in the guest room to console. “Our neighbors came to our home and assured us that they are there. They stayed till late and assured us that they will protect us,” she added.

Her friends called in too with assurances. “What else does one need? If someone is there with you in this tough time, I don’t think there is anything else that I could have asked for,” she said. 

When the militancy sparked to peak and situation worsened in Kashmir in the 1990s, the majority of the Pandits left the valley and migrated to other places — mostly Jammu. 

KPSS, a local collective of the Pandits, after carrying out a survey in 2008 and 2009, noted that 399 Kashmiri Pandits were killed by militants from 1990 to 2011, with 75 percent of them being killed during the first year of the insurgency.

After the killings, the condemnations came from across the Kashmiri society. Leaders, including unionists and pro-freedom voices, denounced the killings. All Parties Hurriyat Conference said that it shares the grief and pain that the families of the victims are going through and extended its heartfelt condolences to them.

Jagmohan Singh Raina, the chairperson of the All Parties Sikh Coordination Committee (APSCC), saw the attempts being made to “communalise” the situation.

Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Raina said: “We want it not to be politicised as many elements are trying to do so. I want that to be avoided. My attempt is to protect the brotherhood we have here … We have grudges against the authorities who have time and again failed to give us our rights and have always ignored us.”

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah made a fervent appeal to members of minority communities and urged them “don’t allow repeat of the early 90’s and not to leave their homes.”

“I believe these attacks are aimed to drive a wedge between the communities and to push them out of Kashmir,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.” 

But, even during the peak, the Bhat family didn’t leave. They endured everything until this day. “I never felt unwanted. The situation was not always great, but it never scared me,” she said. “Who is scared in their own homeland?”

Though she believes that even for Muslims, the civil liberties have been very much curbed by the state, she added that the recent killings have had an impact on her mental health. She hasn’t left her house for the last five days. “Earlier we knew that if someone was killed, we knew that they had done something wrong but at this point, it is ‘target killing’ and it scares me,” she said. 

However, the family is still apprehensive about leaving Kashmir. “If we wanted to leave, we would have left when the situation was much worse than this,” she said. “But we won’t leave. And I have that satisfaction in my heart: we don’t have to leave this place — our home.” 

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