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Kashmiri Pandits Migrant Camp on Edge as Targeted Killings Rise

Anees Zargar |
Sheikhpora residents hired under the PM jobs package fear for their lives despite staying in a secured area.

Sheikhpora: An eerie calm prevails at the Sheikhpora secured settlement, Budgam, about 12 km from Srinagar, which houses more than 300 families from the minority community. The sound of gunshots from a nearby training centre for security forces often pierces the unusual silence. A few residents walk with seemingly low spirits while several others look visibly angry. 

The walled colony is manned by dozens of security personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the paramilitary many of whom stand guard next to a placard that reads, ‘Stop Innocent Killings. Justice for Rahul Bhat’. Bhat (35), employed with the Tehsildar office at Chadoora, Budgam, was shot dead by two militants from a close range on May 12.


The Sheikhpora migrant camp, Budgam, for Kashmiri Pandits.

Since then, the Pandits, many of whom had returned to the Valley in the last decade under a special government rehabilitation programme, are worried about their safety. 

There are seven other migrant colonies for Pandits recruited under the PM employment package in 2010. Sheikhpora was among the first such colonies in which flats, according to reports, were allotted in 2008. Around 4,000 employees mostly with their families stay in these transit camps plus another 1,000 staying in rented accommodation. Besides, there are about 900 families, according to the Kashmiri Pandit Sanghash Samiti (KPSS), who never left the Valley.

The fear of being targeted by militants is visible on the face of a 38-year-old resident of the camp. “Many have left already and others will do too. I am experiencing the same fear I did 30 years ago,” he tells Newsclick without revealing his name due to the fear of being targeted. “Those who haven’t left yet are waiting for exit letters or are negotiating online classes for their children enrolled in local schools.”

In the wake of the targeted killing of Hindus, especially that of Bhat, the Pandits have been demanding a relocation outside the Valley. The community protested the killing of a Hindu teacher Rajni Bala (36) in Kulgam two days ago with the employees threatening a mass migration despite assurances from the administration. 

The community has accused the lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha-led administration of “failing” to protect them. In a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the KPSS sought his intervention and stated that the lives of religious minorities are at stake due to the “unethical and callous approach” of Union Territory administration and the Centre.

All the concerned officers/officials be summoned to explain which sort of policy and mechanism they have derived since 08.06.2020, when Shri Ajay Pandita (Bharti) was killed in Anantnag District,” the letter read. 

Sheikhpora residents say that it has become difficult to stay back as the situation continues to deteriorate. Many, including KPSS president Sanjay Tickoo, believe that several factors like the abrogation of Article 370, the scrapping of Article 35A, “propaganda” by Bollywood movies, especially The Kashmir Files and the attacks on minorities have also dampened the spirits of the majority community.

Tickoo, among a few hundred Pandits who did not migrate when militants started killing members of his community the early 1990s, stays in his own residence unlike those living in government migrant camps. 

Sheikhpora residents are also coordinating with Pandits staying in other migrant camps to keep them updated of the latest developments. Even as the camp is under high security, the residents still have to move out to buy milk or to withdraw cash from ATMs.

Relatives of the Pandits staying at Sheikhpora are worried about their safety. “I used to talk with my folks twice or thrice a week but now they call me every hour. They ask me to leave as soon as possible,” says a resident who has not joined work since Bhat’s killing.

The spate of targeted killings began in October last year and escalated in March after a brief lull in winter. So far 19 such killings, including, at least, of one Pandit, members of the minority community, panchayat members, policemen and a social media influencer, have been reported this year. In the last week, at least, a school teacher, a bank manager and a non-local labourer were gunned down by militants.

Union home minister Amit Shah convened a high-level security review meeting on J&K in New Delhi on Friday that was attended by national security adviser Ajit Doval, Army chief General Manoj Pande, the chiefs of the Intelligence Bureau and RAW and Sinha.

Politicians, including former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, argue that the Centre have been projecting a false picture of normalcy in the restive region.

Mayhem! Two more civilians shot at in Budgam. Total breakdown of law and order. Will the govt still parrot the narrative of normalcy or has it internalised its own propaganda. Condolences with Dilkhush’s family and praying for speedy recovery to the other. Has peace been ‘established’?,” Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) tweeted while condemning the death of a labourer Dilkush, from Bihar.

The targeted killings have increased at a time when the region is witnessing a record tourist rush, especially in Pahalgam and Srinagar. The security establishment has stepped up measures, including CCTV surveillance, deploying more troops ahead of the annual Amarnath Yatra and increasing counter-insurgency operations. According to the police, 27 militants were killed in May alone. 

There is, however, a concern that the killings will likely hit businesses further. Farooq Amin, secretary general, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, says such incidents have impacted the local economy at a time when it was showing signs of recovery after a long disruption caused by back-to-back lockdowns since 2019. “As Kashmir’s economy is intricately linked with the non-migrant workforce in the region, the targeted killing can further hit the economy,” he says.

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