Under the scorching sun, and in the presence of a heavy deployment of the government forces, the barbed wires blocked the roads leading to the site, where people had been sitting in protest for hours. They demanded protection for Kashmiri Pandits and the justice for Rahul Bhat.

Bhat, who worked as a clerk at the Tehsildar’s office in Chadoora under the Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation package, in Budgam, was shot dead by militants on Thursday night.

Soon after his killing, several people from the Kashmiri Pandit community, joined by Muslims, took to the streets to protest outside their residential quarters in Sheikhpora Colony of Budgam district. Among them was Vikas Pandita. As he joined the demonstration, his question remains the same as everyone else: “Why was he targeted?”

Pandita said that the killing of Bhat has shaken the community to the core and “we don’t feel safe anymore [in Kashmir]”. “I think it’s a continuous process right from 1990,” he said. “There are some breaks, for weeks or months, but eventually, [violence] starts all over again. It’s a cycle.”

The protesters told The Kashmir Walla that they are demanding “either they should be transferred to Jammu or their mass resignation should be accepted”. 

“Even if they [government] provide an army for our security, we still wouldn’t feel secure. There is a 24-hour perception of threat in our mind,” he said.

After witnessing mass migration in the early 1990s, several Kashmiri Pandits returned under various government schemes to start afresh. But they keep on hanging between the longing for home and fear of being there.

Priya Malhotra, the 32-year-old who joined the demonstration, said that despite the continuous assurance from the government, “I feel we are going back to the 1990s.”

“We cannot push our children to the same fate,” said Malhotra, who was sitting in a group of women protesters. 

As Malhotra explained the ordeal of Kashmiri Pandits, the protesters began to raise slogans against the ruling government and militants.

The incident came nearly a month after militants attacked Sonu Kumar, a Kashmiri Pandit shopkeeper, in the Chotogam area of south Kashmir’s Shopian district. Kumar, however, survived.

One of the protestors, who requested anonymity, mentioned that “despite all the tall claims by the government for a better situation in the Valley”, in wake of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy in 2019, “nothing has changed on the ground”.  

“Nothing happened after the abrogation for us. It was all a lie,” the protestor said. “Their claims are hollow. They have only made us scapegoats. We can’t live here in this situation now.”

As per the data of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), as many as fourteen Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals were killed in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 till April 2022.

Budgam killing, Rahul Bhat
The government forces deployment blocking the roads to the protest site, The Kashmir Walla photograph.

While the Kashmiri Pandits started their sit-in last evening, Bhat’s family took his body to Jammu, his hometown, for the last rites. “They left around 8 pm and reached at 4 am,” said one of the protestors, who works in the education department. Bhat is survived by his wife, a six-year-old daughter, and his parents. 

On Friday evening, Sinha’s office said in a tweet that he met the relatives of Bhat and assured a government job for Bhat’s wife, financial assistance to the family, and educational expenses for his daughter.

Bhat’s killing has been widely condemned by all the political parties in the region. Omar Abdullah, National Conference (NC) Vice President, said that targeted killings continue and a sense of fear grows unchecked.

“I unequivocally condemn the murderous militant attack on Rahul Bhatt. … My heartfelt condolences to Rahul’s family. RIP,” he tweeted.

Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the People’s Democratic Party, tweeted: “Another life ended and another family [was] devastated. … It also belies the false claims of normalcy in Kashmir.”

Back in Srinagar’s outskirts, the protestors demanded the immediate presence of Manoj Sinha, the lieutenant governor of J-K. And some of them decided to march and block the Srinagar Airport road. However, the police resorted to teargas shelling and lathi-charge.

The police later said in a statement that “the magistrate repeatedly requested and tried to pacify the protesters not to proceed towards the very busy and over crowded Airport road … there were inputs that (militants) may take advantage of the same and may attack the protesters in order to create communal clash/tension.”

However, a female protester told The Kashmir Walla that she failed to understand the motive behind J-K police’s “highhandedness”. “There are people who have suffered fractures,” she said. The claim couldn’t be independently verified by The Kashmir Walla. She added: “If they always wanted a peaceful protest and now when we are doing the same, what is happening then? This is not the way to deal with it.”

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