Chotigam, Shopian: Thirty years apart, a militant attack on a Kashmiri Pandit in south Kashmir this week has pushed the family to ponder over the age-old dilemma: whether to leave or live in Kashmir.

The Chotigam village housing nearly sixty families — located on the southern side of the Shopian district — remained largely peaceful for years until Balkrishan Bhat, 39, was shot at his medical shop, located a few meters from his single-storey house. The Bhat family is among the two minority families who didn’t migrate during the 1990s, following an uptick in the violence. 

On Monday, the first day of Ramzan, the locals were offering evening prayers in a nearby mosque when Bhat was attacked by gunmen at his shop. “Militants aimed for his head but he resisted and they missed the target,” Anil Kumar, Bhat’s younger brother told The Kashmir Walla. 

The family’s Muslim neighbours “immediately rushed [Bhat] to Shopian hospital and attended him for the night” so that Anil could stay with his “inconsolable” parents. 

“We have lived here peacefully. We share our grief and celebration with our Muslim neighbours,” added Anil. “The attack has definitely intimidated us but thank God he survived.”

Since the attack, however, the Pandit families said they have not moved out of the house. “[Earlier] we would come home late in the evening but we are feeling threatened now,” said Anil.

Kashmiri pandit, kashmiri pandit attacked
The shuttered medical shop is run by Balkrishan Bhat in Chotigam village of Shopian. Photograph by Pirzada Shakir for The Kashmir Walla.

Sharing sorrows and celebrations

The Pandit families’ homes — separated by a tin wall — were guarded by the government forces till the 2016 civil uprising erupted after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.

Anil said that “the security was taken off without letting us now”. “Since 2017, we were offered security many times but we declined because we didn’t feel any threat,” Anil told The Kashmir Walla. “Some ten days ago, authorities again offered us security but we declined.”

After the attack, the government forces reached the village to guard the Pandit families. But Anil fails to see it of any help, he said. “They cannot guard us for the entire day when we are out in the orchard fields or in markets,” Anil said. “They will just guard our house.”

While Bhat is being treated in an Army-run hospital, his family is clouded by the déjà vu from the 90s. Pandit Jankinath Bhat, the 70-year-old father of Bhat, had declined to leave Kashmir when he faced this choice last. “I was very upright from my childhood. I did not leave. It is my homeland,” he said. “I lived with Muslim neigbours peacefully. We would share our sorrows and celebrations.”

A Muslim neighbour, outside Bhat’s home, entered the conversation, saying: “We would get medicines from Sonu’s [Bhat’s nickname] medical shop. He would come to our houses during Covid-19 [pandemic] when nobody would dare to leave their house.”

“Whatever the situation has been, we live together peacefully,” added Ghulam Hassan, another neighbour. “[When Bhat was attacked] we stayed with them and spent the entire night.”

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The street outside the Bhat family’s home in Chotigam village in Shopian. Photograph by Pirzada Shakir for The Kashmir Walla.

Not the 90s anymore

Post-2018, when the militant numbers were focused more in south Kashmir, two youth from Bhat’s village had joined ranks. But that neither impacted the lives of the Pandit families nor the peace in the village. The duo was killed in two separate gunfights with government forces in Adhkara area of neighbouring Imam Sahib and Nandigam area of Shopian immediately after joining ranks.

“If the situation continues to remain the same we will have to decide whether to live here or not,” said Anil. “But the priority is [Bhat’s] safety. We will decide once Sonu reaches home.”

This week, at least four non-local labourers and a Pandit have been shot at by suspected militants in south Kashmir. On Wednesday, Kashmir police chief Vijay Kumar said that the government forces have started night patrolling in villages, “where non-locals work and Kashmiri Pandits live”, to prevent the killing of “soft targets”.

Anil, however, said that society needs to “stand strong against forces who carried out the attack and condemn it unequivocally”.

“In the 90s, we understood that there was a different scenario and everyone suffered but now people are well educated. But this is not the 90s anymore,” added Anil. “This should not happen now. We should not be targeted.”

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