On Wednesday afternoon, government forces from the nearby army camp arrived in Lukbawan, a day after the village’s sarpanch, Ajay Pandita, was shot dead by suspected militants near his home.
“Are you okay?” one of the troopers asked Mr. Ajay Pandita’s neighbour, Ghulam Mohammad Magloo. He broke down: “The village is mourning.”
This is not the first instance of a sarpanch in Kashmir being shot dead, but the killing of Mr. Ajay Pandita, who was affiliated with the Indian National Congress, marks the first fatal attack on a Kashmiri Pandit in the Valley since 2004.
The Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police Dilbag Singh has said that the police suspect that the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group was behind the attack. But the outfit has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
A second migration?
Enveloped in the hills, under a dense cover of walnut trees, Lukbawan is an isolated village of about 150 families in Anantnag district of south Kashmir. On the evening of 8 June, the sounds of two gunshots startled the sleepy village.
Mr. Pandita’s sister was on her way to the family orchard along with Mr. Magloo’s wife when they heard the gunshots and rushed back, said Mr. Ajay Pandita’s father, Dwarka Nath Pandita. On their way home, he said, the shop was shut and the women found Mr. Pandita on the ground, with gunshot wounds.
A local resident, who wished to stay anonymous, said that the villagers had fled in fear after Mr. Ajay Pandita was shot. “Two men rode on a bike and fired at him, he was eating a mango at the time,” he said. “He would usually come to the shop to buy cigarettes, and would hang around for some time.”
A car that had been passing by picked up Mr. Ajay Pandita and his sister took them to the Government Medical College in the district headquarters, about ten kilometers away.
Mr. Ajay Pandita was declared dead on arrival.
The 40-year-old sarpanch had joined active politics after quitting his job at the public broadcaster, Doordarshan. The only Kashmiri Pandit household in the village, the fear-stricken Pandita family has now fled to Jammu, more than 200 kilometres away, where Mr. Pandita was cremated.
Apart from his father, wife, and two daughters, Mr. Ajay Pandita’s sister and two nieces also live in their home in the Lukbawan. While the adults of the family left for the hospital soon after he was attacked, the police drove the children to Jammu later that night.
This is the second time the family of the unionist politician has left their native village in Kashmir, two decades after they were first forced to flee the environment of insecurity prompted by the eruption of militancy in the late 1980s.
Unlike lakhs of other Kashmiri Pandits who never returned to their homes, the Pandita family had come back to Kashmir within a year. “We had returned because we knew we would be safe in our village,” said Mr. Dwarika Nath Pandita, over the phone from Jammu. “Now we are not so sure.”
Grassroots workers, sitting ducks
In a haunting interview with a Jammu-based news channel, Mr. Ajay Pandita complained about the lack of security: “Does the lieutenant governor know who Ajay Bharti is? He doesn’t. We have stood for elections. We will be looted. We will die. And they will say the situation is good [in Kashmir].”
Immediately after the killing, the state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir had said that Mr. Ajay Pandita had informed the district authorities that he had felt vulnerable since a few months and had requested security cover from the district police. His requests, Mir added, were not entertained by the district authorities.
The superintendent of police in Anantnag, Sandeep Choudhary, did not respond to requests from The Kashmir Walla for comments.
Elected village heads across Kashmir have increasingly been under threat by militants, who detest them for working with the Indian state; in the past years, despite the killings of sarpanches having been frequent, the Jammu and Kashmir administration, under the central government’s direct oversight, has so far not introduce any concrete safeguards.
The Central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attempted to thrust development in the discourse over Kashmir; the Panchayati Raj being the system to bring this about, the panches and sarpanches acting as the footsoldiers. The Centre’s preferential treatment of grassroots workers is evident.
Instead, last August, when the Government of India abrogated J-K’s special status, security cover from various politicians and protected sites – including temples and shrines – were withdrawn. The police picket in the Mata Siddh Lakshmi temple in Lukbawan was also withdrawn.
At a time when the Modi government had distanced itself from the unionists of Kashmir, a delegation of J-K’s sarpanches was the first to have met the Union Home Minister Amit Shah after the abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy last year.
In a meeting with elected village representatives in September, the union minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, had promised them security cover and an insurance scheme of two lakh rupees, both of which continue to elude many sarpanches and panches nearly a year later.
Nana Jee Wattal, another Congress sarpanch from the Kashmiri Pandit community, is among the few who were assigned a personal guard for over a decade until last year when his security cover was also taken away. “We are happy that BJP sarpanches are getting security and accommodation,” he said. “But the government has made us scapegoats.”
Mr. Wattal said that Mr. Pandita’s assassination as not linked to his being from the Pandit community: “Other sarpanches who have been killed were Muslim. Anyone working on a grassroots level for nationalism, secularism, and democracy is a target.”
Sanjay Tickoo, a resident of downtown Srinagar and the president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a Srinagar-based association of Kashmir Pandits, also agrees: “Militants are not lenient towards anyone participating in the political process.”
A shaken village
“Sorui kenh go khatam,” (everything is finished), said Bashir Ahmad, an elderly neighbour who works as a carpenter. “We have not eaten anything since his death.”
Mr. Ajay Pandita had adopted and was also known by the pseudonym Bharti, or Indian; the village, however, endearingly referred to him as Nitt batta. Many in the village have been taught by his father, Mr. Dwarka Nath Pandita, now retired, at the local government run school near the village.
“I have known his father since I was a child,” said Mr. Ahmad, now 60. “He really loved his students.”
Lukbawan had never witnessed any incidents of violence before their sarpanch’s killing. Without thinking twice about it, Muslim residents often perform ablutions in the pond attached to the village temple, and offer namaaz in its lawn. Mr. Ajay Pandita would also frequently visit the local mosque, said Mr. Ahmad. “Those who killed him are beasts,” he added. “We are still in disbelief.”
The villagers also remember Mr. Pandita as a dedicated worker who had gotten a drainage channel constructed in the village and just days before his death had met with the block development officer to discuss more projects. Mr. Pandita had won the village panchayat elections in the controversial December 2018 elections, defeating another Kashmiri Pandit – currently a resident of Jammu, and who visited the village only once on the voting day – representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the absence of security, especially after Mr. Pandita’s killing, Lukbawan residents are even less likely to stand up in elections to fill the space he has left behind. In 1972, Mr. Ahmad had unsuccessfully contested state assembly elections from his constituency. But today, “if anyone even offers me the position, I will decline,” he said. “We don’t understand anything that is happening. I can’t even trust my own brother.”
For now, the villagers are trying to make sense of how the killing has altered their village.“He used to tell me, ‘Hindus want to go to swarg, and Muslims want to go to jannat, but God is in here,’” said Mr. Ahmad, pointing to his heart.