Civilians have remained the main collateral damage of the three decades of turmoil. Amid restoration of peace claims when a series of selective killings took place last week, the insecurity returned as the main debate, Tahir Bhat reports
On Thursday, October 7, late afternoon when an ambulance drove a white shrouded corpse to her home near the bund in Srinagar’s Aloochibagh, those mourning were not the relatives of Supinder Kour alone. The young principal at the Government Higher Secondary School, Sangam (Eidgah) had evolved with a reputation of her own that defied the faith barriers. Kour, mother of teenagers, Jasleen, 13, and Jasjit, 6, was a godmother to many.
Wife of an equally gentle and kind-hearted banker, R P Singh, Kour was different. Safina Bano, one of the melancholic mourners, told reporters that Kour was a “big-hearted lady”, who would distribute part of her salary among many children from underprivileged classes to study. These included Bano’s children too. “She did not deserve to die like this, no one should be killed like this,” an emotional Bano cried.
At a distance in the lawns of the home that Kour and Singh built, brick by brick, over the years, was an inconsolable Showkat Ahmad Dar, her neighbour. Crying over the killing of his “foster sister”, Dar, a laboratory technician, said she would spend a lot of her hard-earned money on raising a Muslim orphan girl. In her earlier posting at Chanpora, Dar said she would contribute Rs 20000 for the well-being of the girl, who was rendered destitute after her aunt was married.
Separated by a few yards, Dars’ and Singhs’ were more than neighbours. “Every morning when she would leave for her school,” Dar said, “Kour would knock at their door to tell them that she has left.” They would share their tensions and happiness and the Singh couple would go for a morning walk with Dar, daily.
A lecturer, Kour was heading the Higher Secondary School. On a fateful morning, her colleagues said, three youth barged into the school and checked the identity of the staff. Two non-Muslims – Kour and Chand, were separated and taken out. Then there were bullets shots triggering panic within and outside the school premises. Locals and teachers came to the spot only to see two dead bodies only after the police reached the spot.
People who saw the two bodies said, unlike Kour, the body of Deepak Chand was dripping blood. A Kashmiri Pandit, whose family lives in Patoli area of Jammu, had moved to Jammu with his wife, Sangeeta and their 3-year old daughter, only last week and returned to resume his duties. He had been teaching in Kashmir for around four years.
Scenes at Kour’s residence were not very different from the mass mourning that Kashmir witnessed at the Indira Nagar home of Makhan Lal Bindroo, 62, who was killed by two assailants on October 5, at his reputed pharmacy that also has various consulting chambers for doctors. A very well respected pharmacist, Bindroo had decided against the migration when in the 1990s, most of the Kashmiri Pandits left for Jammu, Delhi and elsewhere. In the last more than 30 years, Makhan Lal would work almost 16 hours a day.
“At one point in time, when the supplies of certain drugs would get scarce, he would fly on expensive costs to Delhi and get it for the people,” Dr Sidharth, his diabetes specialist son, told reporters. “His killing was mourned by all across the religions and that is what Kashmiriyat is all about.” People close to the family said he actually insisted his son leave his lucrative job in Medanta and fly home to work in Srinagar, a suggestion that his son could not resist.
The swelling number of mourners at Bindroos’ Indra Nagar home was perhaps the first after the December 1992 assassination of Harday Nath Wanchoo when Kashmir closed for three days. (The same day when Babr Masjid was demolished.)
Bindroos’ have been running a pharmacy for more than sixty years when his father Dr Rakeshwar Nath Bindroo, started it after migrating to Srinagar from Baramulla. The business was upgraded by his son into a little urban chain. His main shop near the Iqbal Park, Bindroo’s Health Zone, was so popular that it had emerged as a landmark (SMC now wants a road stretch to be dedicated to his name). The widely mourned killing also saw everybody from Kashmir’s political class ensure they meet the family and share the grief, publicly.
Now survived by the widow, Kiran, son, Sidharth and a daughter Shradha, the family is not scared to flee Kashmir.
The spate of killings including two Kashmiri Pandits, a Sikh teacher and a non-local street vendor, has an impact on the ground. The government and the political class have asked the minority community not to give in and repeat the 1990 migration. But in certain sections, some of the migrants who had returned in the last few years after their wards were given government jobs under a special package are frightened. Some of them have applied for leave and wish to stay home for the time being. Hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits have returned and reached Jammu.
This, however, may not be the case with Sikhs, a microscopic community that is scattered across Kashmir. They are, however, seeking answers to why Kour, a teacher, was singled out and assassinated. On October 8, they took Kour’s coffin from Aloochibagh and moved in an impressive funeral procession with two halts and symbolic protests, and finally cremated the young teacher. All along, they were shouting slogans seeking the murderers.
Businessman and Sikh leader, Jagmohan Singh Raina does see a conspiracy behind the Sikh teacher’s murder. He said some elements are trying to give the killing a “communal colour” and disrupt the age-old harmony.
Seniors in the community said there have been a series of bids to attack the Muslim Sikh harmony in Kashmir and for that, a number of leaders were specially flown to Srinagar last time. “We are trying our level best that we do not fall into the trap,” one elder said. “This is not in anybody’s interest but some vested interests are trying to give it a try.”
Raina, in a statement, asked the majority community to intervene and ensure the safety of the minority community. He asked his community members to also be careful in ensuring their individual security, especially the employees.
A Naka Killing
In three days, six civilians were killed – five by unknown gunmen, suspected to be militants, and one by the CRPF for allegedly not halting at a naka while moving towards Qazigund on October 7, evening. This was a mysterious killing given the details with which the story emerged.
Initially, the slain young man was identified as Yasir Ali, a resident of Jajar Kotli in Nagrota’s outskirts. When the cops went to his home, they found the truck driver in Ramban and the local village head saying that he had lost his wallet along with his I-card somewhere.
“The killing of Yasir Ali is the direct result of the heightened state of alert and justification for use of force,” the People’s Alliance on Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) said after a quick meeting. “Harassment of innocent civilians and the killings like Yasir Ali will only serve to worsen the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The administration must do everything possible to ensure that shoot at sight policy is not adopted by the Security Forces.”
It was two days later that his actual identity got revealed. He was identified as Parvez Ahmad, 28, a resident of Rajkang Larnoo in the Kokernag area. Zakir Ahmad, his brother-in-law, told reporters that Parvez was working in the fields when he got a phone call from Qazigund asking him to drive a vehicle for two months. He accepted the offer and went on duty the same day. In the same night, police came to their village and informed them about his killing.
His family comprising his wife, two kids – she is expecting to be a mother again next month, and aged parents, the family is lving under a tent and would be migrating to Jammu with their herds in winter. What makes the story different is the family alleged that the cops got his body early morning and buried him without permitting them to be part of the funeral. They even alleged that they were neither permitted to see his body nor allowed to give it a funeral bath. Zakir said they had been told that another person who was in the vehicle – said to be lacking the number plates, has been arrested.
In Srinagar, Mehbooba Mufti alleged that she was put under house arrest and prevented from visiting the Kokernag family. “GOI wants us to selectively condemn killings,” she wrote on Twitter. “They are outraged only in cases where hate politics can be lapped up to polarise people.”
On the day, Bindroo was killed in Srinagar, the “unknown gunmen” had killed two others – Mohammad Shafi Lone, a taxi driver in a Bandipore village; and Virender Paswan, a Baghalpor resident, working in Kashmir with most of his relatives.
When Shafi was shot at in a paddy field at Shahgund village, he had made a call to his father, Habibullah informing him about two bullets he received. After driving in a car, they took some time in locating him. Intelligent, Shafi has put the cell phone torch on. He was breathing and talking when he was retrieved. As they were driving him to the nearest hospital in Sumbal, around 12 km away, Shafi told his family about the four persons who took him away and eventually shot him. “All of them are locals and were known to him. They are all Sumo taxi drivers,” Habibullah has said, insisting his election as the Taxi Stand president was the real crisis. He had lost most of his blood and by the time they brought him into the hospital, he was already dead. Police said they have killed the militant who executed the operation and all others who were part of the conspiracy have been arrested.
Virender Paswan’s elder brother, Milendar and his nephew Vikas, both painters, are scared. Paswans’ have been earning their livelihood in Kashmir for the last many years. Will they continue to work here, nobody knows.
The Modus Operandi
In Kashmir, civilian killings have been a routine for the last more than 30 years. The statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) said that in 2021, so far 28 civilian killings have taken place. These include four Kashmiri Pandits, a Sikh and 2 non-local Hindus, both labourers.
“I assure you that we have given free hand to the security agencies to eliminate the enemies of humanity, and soon the terrorists and those aiding and abetting them will pay for their heinous crimes,” Lt Governor Manoj Sinha said in a statement. “I want to assure the people of Jammu and Kashmir that terrorists’ nefarious plan to destabilize the process of peace, development and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir will never succeed. Every drop of innocent civilians’ blood will be avenged.” He added: “I want to assure the people that we will completely demolish their terror ecosystem.”
His government, Sinha told a news channel, does not believe in buying peace but rather establishing it. “Ek ek aansu ki bund ki hisab liya jayega…” the LG said. “It is clear that these are selective killing, but we have given full freedom to our security forces.” He said the killings will be avenged even if it would mean getting them “from pataal”.
Offering an explanation of what is happening on the ground, IGP Kashmir, Vijay Kumar said that after the security grid killed a number of militants and their leaders and destroyed their support structure, their “frustrated handlers” changed the strategy and started targeting unarmed cops, civilians, politicians and now the minority community, including a woman. He said these targeted killings are carried out by pistol carrying “newly recruited” or OGWs. Kumar said they have leads and they are working on them.
The police chief, Dilbagh Singh, sees “communal rift” as the motive. “This is an attempt to defame local Muslims of Kashmir,” Singh said. “It is a conspiracy to target those who have come here for earning bread and butter. It is a conspiracy to damage the age-old tradition of communal harmony and brotherhood in Kashmir.” He said Pakistan is keen to keep Kashmir “disturbed”.
The killings have led to a serious political debate at the local and national levels. Since BJP has been asserting that the abrogation of Article 370 has led to the restoration of peace in Kashmir, everybody is asking why the killings have taken place?
“Such things have not happened since the 1990s. There is no doubt it (terrorism) is escalating… this is worrisome for us all. The centre must see why this is happening… is there any policy leading to this?” Dr Farooq Abdullah told a TV host. “When they say (Article) 370 is removed and everything is hunky-dory… Is this hunky-dory? I want to ask Home Minister (Amit Shah). I have friends in the minority communities and they are scared… political leaders are scared they will be the next target. For god’s sake, India must wake up.”
“It is a failure of ‘double engine’ government. I fear that after these incidents, they will get an excuse to put more restrictions on Kashmir,” Mehbooba Mufti told media after visiting Bindroos’. She said they are tired of condemnations over the killings. “Kashmir is under suppression for the last two and a half years – people are being sacked from jobs, businessmen are being raided, in the name of containing and these incidents will pave way for further suppression of Kashmir.”
Earlier, Syed Altaf Bukhari of the Apni Party raised some points of significance in talking to the reporters. “My head hangs in shame. I do not know how to face the family of Bindroo..,” he told reporters as Bindroo was being readied for cremation. “If you ask me, we need to ponder on this: Has our ground intelligence, human intelligence failed or is the enemy sharper and more organised than us?”
Bukhari said there was a “lack of communication between a common man and the administration”, which needs to be restored. “I will be honest my workers feel suffocated, my leaders feel suffocated because they are not allowed free movement…..but if political workers are not allowed to work for people, the whole gamut of democracy looks a farce,” Bukhari said. “It seems there are forces inimical to peace within the administration also who are becoming roadblocks in a free flow of communications between a common man and our workers.”
Sajad Lone sounded angrier and acidic. “A very humble unsolicited advice to the state administration,” Lone wrote on Twitter. “Please be careful. Get off your high horse. Talk to people who have been around for decades. Seems we (a)r(e) in for some challenging times. I can c (see) a tipping point. Try to evade it. Every passing day will get challenging.”
PAGD that met last week cautioned against pushing Kashmir to a 1990-like situation. “The current situation prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir is the result of the failure of the policies of the government that have brought Jammu and Kashmir to this point. Whether it was demonetization or removal of Article 370, these decisions were sold to the country as a solution to the problems of militancy and alienation in Kashmir,” PAGD said. “Today it has been shown that without any doubt that neither demonetization nor the removal of Article 370 has contributed to improving the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, some recent decisions of the Jammu and Kashmir administration have only served to heighten differences between the communities that otherwise were living peacefully amongst each other. The onus to create a conducive security environment lies with the Government of India.”
They reminded the Prime Minister of his Dil Ki Doori ore Dili Say Doori and wanted him to take note of things. “Unfortunately, nothing has been done in this regard since that meeting. Arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force continue to be the norm in Jammu and Kashmir,” the PAGD said. Referring to the killing of Yasir Ali, a Jajar Kotli resident, PAGD said: “The administration must do everything possible to ensure that shoot at sight policy is not adopted by the security forces.”
On October 8, evening, there was an encounter in civil lines Srinagar in which a militant was killed. Police said they recovered an I-card identifying him as Aqib Bashir Kumar of Trenz Shopian, a recruit of Lashkar. On October 9, there was an encounter in city outskirts but in this case, the militants fled.
Lt Governor Manoj Sinha had almost foretold these things when he talked to Rajat Sharma on October 7: “Kal shaam ya parso subah jab aap see dubara baat hogi… tab aapko yeh jaanke prasanata hogi ki Jammu Kashmir mei, logo ki suraksha ki drashti se prabhavi kadam uthaye gaye hain….”