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Kashmiri Hindus demand government relocation after killings

Members of the JK Awami Aawaz Party protest minority killings in Srinagar, Kashmir, on June 2. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)
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SRINAGAR, India — Militant attacks targeting Hindu civilians in Indian-controlled Kashmir have set off massive protests, posing a fresh challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government three years after it revoked the region’s statehood and autonomy.

At least four Hindus have been killed in recent weeks, including a bank worker who was shot dead Thursday at his office in Kulgam, sparking fear and outrage among Kashmiri Hindus, known as Pandits. The Modi government changed the constitutional status of the Muslim-majority enclave in 2019 and has provided jobs and other incentives to Hindus who settle there. Now, Pandits are taking to the streets in large numbers and demanding to be relocated.

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

Avinash Bhat, a 43-year-old teacher posted outside Srinagar, the regional capital, said he has not left his home in 20 days.

“My daughter doesn’t allow me to go out,” said Bhat, a community spokesperson. “She is afraid that I, too, may be killed.”

The protests began after the killing of Rahul Bhat (no relation to the teacher), a 35-year-old Hindu man gunned down at a government office in central Kashmir last month. Pandits say they feel caught between militants targeting them for their faith and a government that exploits their plight for political gain.

Kashmir is a disputed region in the Himalayas, with control divided between archrivals India and Pakistan. Militant groups, some supported by Pakistan, have waged a decades-long insurgency against Indian rule. Tens of thousands of Pandits were forced to flee Kashmir during the height of the violence in the 1990s.

In May, an Indian army commander described the recent civilian killings as a result of the “frustration” of the militants who aim to keep “terrorism alive” in the valley.

“If we leave [Kashmir] again, the government’s claim of normalcy will fall apart,” Bhat said. “We understand that we are part of the optics. But we cannot sacrifice ourselves for anyone’s politics.”

Under the Hindu nationalist government of Modi, Pandits have often found themselves in the political spotlight. Critics say Modi and his party have used the community’s tragic history to stoke distrust of Indian Muslims, the country’s largest minority, and justify the militarization of Kashmir.

In its 2014 election manifesto, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, promised to facilitate the return of the Pandits “to the land of their ancestors with full dignity, security and assured livelihood.”

But life has been hard for those who moved to Kashmir in the years since, despite assurances from authorities in Delhi. Most live in cramped government quarters under heavy security. But that hasn’t stopped the killings, many of which have happened at workplaces.

A software engineer who moved to Kashmir in 2015 to take a government job said he had been looking to buy land to build his dream house. Now, he cannot wait to get out. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing that he could be a target.

The government has “failed to protect our lives,” said the 36-year-old father of two, who is packing up to leave if the government doesn’t move his family to safety.

Civilian killings have been on the rise since last year, and the victims include local Kashmiri Muslims and migrant workers from other parts of India. Many think the violence has its roots in India’s controversial decision to revoke Kashmir’s semiautonomous status in 2019 — a necessary step, it said, to end violence and corruption.

What followed instead was a crackdown. India flew in additional security forces, detained dozens of people and cut lines of communication. Local elections have not been held since, and India has been accused of human rights violations.

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

“2019 was presented as a panacea. Once we do this, everything will be fixed. That has clearly not happened,” said Ankur Datta, a sociologist at South Asian University in Delhi and author of a book on the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits.

The community is “caught in a political no man’s land” with an uncertain future, he said. “It’s a tragic situation for a people with a tragic history.”

Dozens of families left the region in October after the killing of a prominent Pandit businessman who ran a pharmacy. Among them was Sunny Raina, 32, a government engineer in Kokernag.

“We came back as the government assured our safety,” Raina said. “But nothing has changed here.”

Bhat, the teacher, has decided to quit his government job if authorities try to keep his family in Kashmir by force.

“What kind of life is this if we are not free?” he asked, choking up. “It feels like we have been jailed.”

Masih reported from Chennai.