On the evening of 8 July, Marouf Bhat was driving towards Srinagar when his phone began buzzing with social media updates, his long-time friend Waseem Bari had been shot dead along with his brother and father.
All three were shot in the head. “He was like an elder brother to me,” Mr. Bhat said of his friend, Mr. Bari, whose family was guarded by at least ten police personnel who have since then been dismissed from service. “I don’t have words to explain how his killing has impacted me. I can’t help but cry.”
The reason for their killing? “Politics”, said Mr. Bhat. Both friends had joined the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kashmir chapter years ago. While Mr. Bhat was a district president in the party’s youth wing, Mr. Bari actively worked for the party, in his native Bandipora in north Kashmir, since 2013.
An anxious Mr. Bhat turned the car back to his home in Baramulla, also in north Kashmir, to make sure that his own family was safe. Mr. Bhat was at that time the district president of the party’s youth-wing Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in the Baramulla district.
Mr. Bhat’s mother, in turn, pleaded with him to leave politics for the sake of their safety. “I thought about my family whole night,” recalled Mr. Bhat. “My passion to work for people is intact but if my resignation helps save lives, then I shall do it.”
A day after his friend was killed, Mr. Bhat resigned from the BJP. Shortly after him, two more followed. The BJP, however, has not taken a sympathetic view of the dilemma of its own party members. The party’s general secretary, Ashok Kaul, was quoted by the media to dismiss the resignations as the weeding out of those who had joined the party to seek “favours from officials”.
In Kashmir, unionist politics has been demonised and sometimes punished with death. Unionist leaders have long been targeted by militants for strengthening electoral politics. in Kashmir.
However, post-August 2019, New Delhi has also seemingly turned hostile towards the Valley’s unionists. When it revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s (J-K) semi-autonomous status, the then Governor-administration detained all prominent unionist leaders, those who had long fought for New Delhi in the Valley even at the cost of losing family members and party cadres.
North in disarray
The BJP has never won a seat in any assembly elections in the Kashmir Valley; however, with an overwhelming majority in Hindu-dominated Jammu division in the 2014 state assembly elections, the BJP rose to power in coalition with a regional unionist party, the People’s Democratic Party.
Since then, the BJP has claimed to have grown its membership base by lakhs in Kashmir alone. The party has been able to manage some success in the panchayat and Block Development Council elections, giving the BJP a semblance of foothold in the Muslim-majority Kashmir.
However, the seeming victories were in-fact made possible only because regional parties had, at least openly, boycotted the elections and the fear of reprisals from the militants had dissuaded others. The BJP won most of its seats unopposed or poached the victors from other parties.
However, as the militants have seemingly renewed the offensive against the unionists in Kashmir, BJP workers find themselves the focus of these attacks–being the only party that has continued political work after the abrogation of the special status, feared by Kashmiris to be the first step towards a demographic change but welcomed by the BJP.
Among those who have resigned is 31-year-old Asif Malik from north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, who had joined the BJP as a worker in 2018 “hoping to work for my people” and claimed to have brought about 8,000 people to the party. In the last two years, he had risen to be a vice-president of the party’s district committee in Kupwara.
However, he said, over time and again he felt being singled out by the administration “due to my association with the BJP”. “I’m not afraid of being a part of the BJP,” he said, talking about his resignation and the killing of the Baris. “My issue is with administration. They call me out: ‘He is a BJP man.’ It makes me feel that they won’t do my job.”
Tired of this, he said, he resigned. So did Mubeena Bano, another party leader from Handwara, north Kashmir.
The spokesperson for the BJP’s J-K chapter, Altaf Thakur, agreed to the “non-cooperativeness” of the administration with the BJP. “Democracy is the best. The LG government tries to work but an elected government can only reach on the ground,” he said on 15 July. “Not everyone can reach bureaucracy. If there had been an elected government, there wouldn’t be such lack of cooperativeness.”
Killings in the past
The attack in the town jolted the BJP as the party’s top leadership, including National Secretary Ram Madhav, visited the Bari family. Mr. Madhav was joined by Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office and Udhampur Member of Parliament, Jitendra Singh, BJP national vice-president, Avinash Rai Khanna, and J-K BJP president Ravinder Raina.
“This has to end. We don’t want politics of terror. And we have two ways to end it. Either all our cadres and members lower the flag and sit at their homes,” Mr. Madhav told the press. “However, I can say that this will never happen.”
“There will always be people who will stand for the flag of India,” he added. “People who get exported by Pakistan — those who have committed this [murder] — will have to be given an answer.”
However, the political killings aren’t new. All unionist parties have been targeted since the inception of the militancy in the early 1990s. So is the BJP. During 1999 parliamentary polls, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off and killed four BJP’s men. Many houses were burnt over the years as the threat calls continued to spike.
In August 2017, an explosion near the party’s office in Srinagar jolted the workers inside. Later that year, in November, a 30-year-old BJP youth president inShopian, Gowhar Hussain Bhat, was kidnapped from his home by militants. His slit-throat body was found later. Next year, Shabir Ahmad Bhat, BJP’s Pulwama district president, was kidnapped and shot dead.
The BJP’s north Kashmir in-charge, Muddasir Ahmad Wani, said that the impact of these killings on ground workers is inevitable. “We have also halted our activities [in north Kashmir] due to the current situation,” he said. “This is time to relook into issues, including security [of the BJP’s worker].” Recalling the funeral of the Baris in the north, Mr. Thakur recalled that “people were so angry, but not defeated.”
With increasing violence against the political workers, the fear is inescapable. And it is taking over, at least, north Kashmir for now.
“Representing Delhi is the problem”
On 31 October 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that “Article 370 had been the gateway for the entry of terrorism in the country”. “By repealing the Article from Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister played a role to establish a gate on the gateway to stop terrorism,” he said.
Noor Ahmad Baba, former dean, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Kashmir, said, in the backdrop of the killings, the BJP’s claims have fallen on face.
To him, the motive is straight: “This is similar to the beginning of militancy; back then, [the] National Conference was seen as representing new Delhi so they were targeted. Now, [the] BJP is seen as representing Delhi, therefore they are targeted. The idea of representing Delhi is the problem.”
For all practical purposes, the BJP has failed, claimed Mr. Baba. After the killings in Bandipora town, a report claimed, militants threaten people to dissociate from the BJP. “[The BJP] is targeted because they are not being accepted by the common masses,” he said. “And if [acceptance] had been happening, militants had been isolated, but that’s not happening.”
After the killing of the Bari family, the BJP leadership has outrightly called out the opposition parties. However, Mr. Baba claimed that in post-August Kashmir, “the policies that were undertaken to suspend democratic politics have created issues” which are proving detrimental to the BJP only.
Implications of the killings
The BJP sees this attack in line with “[the] growing BJP influence in Kashmir’s politics”, said Mr. Thakur, the party’s spokesperson. “This is being done as a part of a conspiracy as [the] BJP has strengthened itself,” he said. “Majority of our party cadre is youth and these attacks [are aimed] to stop youth from joining the path of development.”
“In Kashmir, some powers who used to give slogans of azadi (freedom) are afraid now,” he said. “I’m talking about Pakistan’s agents here and now they are facing problems.”
Mr. Wani, the north Kashmir in-charge of the party, “requested the LG government to secure and accommodate our workers so that we can continue to work.” The local administration did not respond on time, alleged Mr. Wani, and that has led to the killing of the Baris and other leaders.
Mr. Bhat, who recently resigned on security threat, said he has paid the price of being a BJP worker by risking his life on multiple occasions. “My house was pelted with stones [earlier this year] and the SHO (Station House Officer) told me to ask my leaders to get me security cover,” Mr. Bhat claimed. However, he said, the party did nothing but delayed his requests.
He claimed that several other party leaders continue to remain vulnerable, but didn’t divulge into details. “I just want to spend my life in peace and don’t want to go back to politics now,” he said. “I cannot push my family into this.”
Mr. Thakur, the spokesperson, claimed that recently the police’s security department had sent him a letter stating that militant outfit Al-Badr “might target me and many more”. He added: “All the workers are being told that precautions should be taken and the security situation should be reviewed.”
As the one year anniversary of the lockdown and the revocation of J-K’s semi-autonomous status approaches, many worry that political killings might spike in the coming months. For the BJP, for now the only party that has welcomed the abrogation and dared to light the way for New Delhi, the road ahead will not be easy.