Ajay Pandita, a 40-year-old Kashmiri Pandit Sarpanch, was killed in South Kashmir’s Anantnag on Monday evening. As per the reports, Ajay Pandita, a Congress Sarpanch of Lukbawan village in Larkipora was attacked at his orchard at around 6 pm. The episode has triggered massive outrage as Pandita belonged to the minority community of Kashmiri Pandits most of whom had out-migrated in the 90s in the wake of insurgency outbreak.
This is not the first time that any Panchayat heads or a grassroot political worker has been targeted. In November 2019, a Sarpanch and a government officer were killed in Anantnag during an ongoing Back to Village (B2V2) programme. In the past as well, the killing of Panchayat representatives has triggered a series of resignations.
But the killing of Pandita is extraordinary in nature as he belonged to the minority community. Should the killing be seen through the prism of colossal mishandling of Kashmir by the Bharatiya Janata Party-run central government?
From joining hands with People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to ditching the coalition in the middle, to abrogating Article 370 – BJP has come a long way in its attempt to make inroads in Kashmir. While aspersions were cast on the way Article 370 had been abrogated, unilaterally and without consulting the residents of the state, the BJP government had claimed that the move would pave way for the development and peace in Jammu and Kashmir. Two months later, Union Minister Amit Shah underlined that the situation in J&K had improved and not a single bullet had been fired nor a death was reported from Kashmir.
But the reality on ground has been suggesting otherwise. In the last few months, Kashmir has witnessed an unprecedented spike in militancy-related incidents, killing of civilians, policemen and security forces. With the latest killing of the Congress Sarpanch from a minority Kashmiri Pandit community – the chimera of peace and development has ruptured.
Sad state of Panchayat Heads
The apathy of the central government is reflected in the response to the incessant pleas by political workers to provide them security. In September 2019, Amit Shah had assured security to all Panch and Sarpanch of Jammu and Kashmir; yet, it was never provided to them. Hours after Pandita was killed, Congress politician Salman Nizami tweeted that Ajay had pleaded for security and it was denied to him.
In an interview to a local news channel Mercury Times, on December 3, 2019, Pandita can be heard imploring the government to provide him with security. “I ask the UT administration, do they know Ajay [Pandita] Bharti? Have they met the Panch and Sarpanch in Kashmir? We get elected. We get killed. They will say the ground situation is good. When I am not safe, how can I say that others are safe?” Pandita could be heard saying.
Speaking to Newsclick, Nana Jee Wattal, Sarpanch of HALQA Akingam, District Anantnag said, "We have been asking for security for last one year but there is no one to listen and not just security. We are demanding accommodation and timely honorarium but nobody cares." Wattal, a Kashmiri Pandit, is also the General Secretary of Panch Sarpanch Committee.
After the abrogation of Article 370, the situation had become more unsafe for the elected representatives. The central government was, time and again, apprised of the problems faced by the representatives, but they were not provided with the security cover. Panchayat heads were rather pushed into an uneasy spotlight.
The political inertia created by BJP government after abrogation made mainstream parties lose the little relevance they had. The space was then ceded to the Panchayat heads. And with programmes like Back to Village, the government had been using elected panchayat representatives to revive the politics by directly reaching to the grassroots.
The aspiration to establish Panchyati Raj in Jammu and Kashmir was stalled owing to militant threats and hostility from the local population and the elected representatives were found holed up in the hotels rooms in Srinagar. As per reports by The Print in November 2019, many Panchayat heads had been residing in around 26 hotels in Srinagar.
“How can Panchayat heads work when there are militant threats and the government doesn’t even care to provide them security? They have taken the risk, but the government’s indifferent attitude makes them regret at times,” said a close relative of an elected representative.
Fear among Kashmiri Pandits
Undoubtedly, the episode has triggered fear among Kashmiri Pandits to whom the killing is reminiscent of the 90s. “In the 90s, it started with a political killing of Tika Lal Taploo and then the world knows what happened. I was sipping tea, when I heard about the news. It shook me from inside. It is a black day for us,” said a Kashmiri Pandit in his early 70s, requesting anonymity.
There has been a massive outrage on social media after the killing. From Kashmiri Pandit youth to those who witnessed the insurgency in the 90s, everyone is questioning how safe a Pandit is in Kashmir.
“We will always remain Indians. Does that mean we can’t live in Kashmir? Kashmir is our homeland,” asked another young man in his early 20s. In response, many Kashmiri Muslims have apologised for the incident to the Pandits while insisting that it was a political killing and not communal.
Since BJP came to power, it has banked on Kashmiri Pandits to justify its policies in Kashmir to the rest of India and the world. The hostilities have hardened between the two communities since then.
The unconditional support by majority of Kashmiri Pandits to BJP has to do with the lost sense of belonging and longing to return home. “Kashmiri Pandits were known to be old Congress supporters. As they became disillusioned with Congress, the loyalties shifted to BJP with a hope of returning home someday,” said a Kashmiri Pandit.
While the latest killing has triggered old memories and fear among Kashmiri Pandits, it has also ruptured the tall claims of BJP that everything will be hunky-dory in Kashmir after abrogating Article 370.
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