The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Kashmir, militants target minority civilians, stoking fears of a return to violent past

Security forces stand guard along a street in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Oct. 15 following the killing of two army personnel in an encounter with suspected militants. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Militants in Kashmir have killed seven civilians, including Hindus and Sikhs, in targeted attacks this month, marking an escalation in the decades-old conflict in the Muslim-majority enclave and setting the stage for new clashes.

One of the victims, Makhan Lal Bindroo, a Hindu, spent his life running a large pharmacy in Muslim-majority Kashmir’s Srinagar city. This month, militants barged into his shop in a bustling market and shot him four times at point-blank range.

“He died before reaching the hospital,” his son, Siddharth, said.

The others killed included two schoolteachers and a street hawker. Four were Hindus and Sikhs, prompting dozens of families — mostly those whose members work government jobs — from those communities to leave for the neighboring Hindu-majority region.

Kashmir has been a flash point between India and Pakistan since the subcontinent’s partition. In the 1990s, the rise of militant groups battling the Indian state for independence or merger with Pakistan triggered the exodus of tens of thousands of its minority population, considered a dark chapter in the region’s history.

A well-regarded figure in Kashmir, Bindroo, 68, was among the few hundred Hindu families that remained in the valley. Siddharth said his father vowed he would never leave his homeland.

This moment marks a “turning back in time” for Kashmir, said Avinash Paliwal, a foreign policy expert on South Asia at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“These targeted killings of minorities are meant to create a political effect and further polarize an already polarized situation,” he said. This was likely to invite a forceful response from New Delhi, Paliwal said.

The ratcheting tensions come amid a crackdown by the Indian government in Kashmir. In August 2019, the Indian government stripped the region of its autonomy and statehood, a move Prime Minister Narendra Modi said would end the cycle of violence and corruption to build a “new Kashmir.”

Locals opposed the move, and the aftermath — a severe communication blackout, mass arrests and instances of abuses by security forces — generated further alienation and anger against Indian rule among Kashmiris.

The night the soldiers came: Allegations of abuse surface in Kashmir

A group known as the Resistance Front, which emerged after the revocation of autonomy, has claimed responsibility for this month’s killings on a Telegram channel. The group in a statement said it had attacked those working at the behest of the Indian government and was not targeting minorities. Indian researchers say the group is a product of Pakistan-based terrorism groups who want to make militancy in Kashmir appear “homegrown.”

Police officials in Kashmir did not respond to requests for comment on the identity of the attackers, but they have moved to question hundreds of people in a sweeping crackdown across Kashmir. Nine militants have been killed in gunfights in recent days. Members of Indian security forces have also died.

Vijay Kumar, a high-ranking police official in Kashmir, told ANI news agency that “newly recruited terrorists or those who are about to join the terrorists” were behind the killings.

Civil society and political leaders in Kashmir condemned the attacks on civilians and have called on locals to protect minorities.

But for many, it was not enough. One of those who left last week was Sunny Raina, a government engineer living in south Kashmir’s Anantnag town. He said there was “absolute chaos” in the colony where around 400 Kashmiri Hindus families reside when the news of the killing of two schoolteachers spread.

For Raina, 32, it marked an emotionally turbulent moment: his second flight from Kashmir. He was 4 years old when his family fled Kashmir in the exodus. “But I had never imagined that three decades later, I will take the same route out of Kashmir with my family,” he said.

There is also anger directed at New Delhi, which has ruled the region since 2019 in the absence of elections to select local officials. The Modi government had claimed that revoking Kashmir’s special status would help secure the region.

This year, an Indian army official told local media that militancy-related violence had declined by half and that the situation was stable. The government recently announced concessions for Kashmiri Hindus who wanted to return.

For Raina, these promises now ring hollow. He said he didn’t believe the government had a security road map for Kashmiri Hindus. “Our plight is being exploited for political gains,” he said.

Politicians who advocated a pro-India path in Kashmir for decades and served as chief ministers were also among those detained for months in 2019, leaving Delhi with few allies on the ground.

Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of the state and an erstwhile ally of Modi’s party who spent more than a year in detention, said she worried that these killings would give the government another “excuse to weaponize the situation further by polarizing people in the rest of the country” for electoral benefits. Citing the recent crackdown, she said, people were “being hounded as collective punishment.”

‘A dormant volcano’: Kashmir’s streets are quiet, but residents seethe with resentment

The killings have the potential to “destabilize India’s national security,” said Paliwal, the foreign policy expert.

Recent developments in the broader region — China engaging India in a prolonged military standoff, cross-border infiltration attempts from Pakistan and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan — have raised concerns. “The political effects [that the killings] create can be really damaging in this wider context,” he said.

At the home of Bindroo, the pharmacist who was fatally shot, friends and relatives poured in on a recent afternoon to offer their condolences. Losing his father has been difficult for Siddharth, who said he had worried something like this could happen.

But, he said, the way Kashmiri Muslims turned up to mourn and pay respect to his father touched him deeply.

“That is the beauty of Kashmir,” Siddharth said. “That cannot be shaken by a few people who want to divide the society.”

Irfan reported from Srinagar, India.

Read more:

Voices from Kashmir: Inside India’s year-long crackdown

India’s Internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy

Among the 3,000 detained by Indian authorities in Kashmir: Children