Left ‘Insecure’, Pandit Sarpanch’s Assassination Widely Mourned  

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SRINAGAR: Monday evening, several gunshots were heard in Lukbawan village of Larkipora in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Moments later, panic spread in the entire area- a local Sarpanch was shot dead.

Ajay Pandita, alias Bharti

Identified as Ajay Pandita, alias Bharti, he was reportedly attacked in his orchard at his ancestral village. Severely injured in his shoulder and face, he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors declared him brought dead. His killing was a shock to the entire area. As per the local sources, people thronged the residence of Pandita to console the family.

Post attack, the police, and the army launched a search operation to nab the assailants.

The killing was confirmed by police on twitter. “Today at about 1800hrs some unknown #terrorists fired upon one #Congress Sarpanch identified as Ajay Pandit at #Lokbawan #Anantnag who later on #succumbed to his injuries at the hospital. #Police is on the spot. Further details shall follow,” tweeted Kashmir Zone Police.

A day after the killing, Pandita’s body was carried to Jammu by his family including his father, wife, sister, two daughters and some Muslim neighbours. He was later cremated at Shakti Nagar crematorium. The killing did not deter the daughter. While speaking to various Delhi based TV channels, his teenage daughter was firm that the tragedy wouldn’t stop her or the family from living in Kashmir.

The Journey 

A 40-year-old Kashmiri Pandit, Ajay was a Sarpanch (headman) of Lukbawan village of Larkipora. As per the local sources, his family had migrated from south Kashmir to Jammu in the early 90s. Later, after two years, the family returned to their roots. But as per the reports, he was one of the few to return to his village six years after the migration. Ajay’s father, Dwarika Nath Pandita used to be a teacher at the higher secondary school.

Part of the congress party, he successfully contested the panchayat polls in October 2018 and defeated BJP backed candidate. As said by Congress leadership, “When Pandita expressed his desire to contest the sarpanch election, the entire village stood in his support.”

Reportedly, Pandita got “51 votes, almost all from Muslims.”

The panchayat elections were held in the erstwhile state of J&K in 2018 and a total of 27,281 panches and sarpanches were elected. There are 12,776 vacant sarpanch and panch seats in J&K.

Earlier, Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were held in 2011 after a gap of 33 years.

The Condemnations 

The killing of Pandita was condemned by a diverse section of society. Sharing the grief, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Pandita sacrificed his life for the democratic process. “My condolences to the family and friends of Ajay Pandita, who sacrificed his life for the democratic process in Kashmir. We stand with you in this time of grief. Violence will never win,” Gandhi tweeted.

Union minister Jitendra Singh said the attack is a desperate attempt to defeat the process of grassroots democracy. “It is a desperate attempt by anti-national elements to defeat the process of grassroots democracy, which is sought to be established in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time at the instance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

The former chief minister and National Conference’s vice president Omar Abdullah also condemned the attack on a grassroots political worker. “Very sorry to hear about the killing of sarpanch Ajay Pandita in Anantnag earlier this afternoon. I unequivocally condemn this terror attack on a grassroots political worker & pray that his soul rests in peace,” he tweeted.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter Iltija Mufti who is handling her mother’s social media account tweeted a double-barrelled attack that targeted the government also.

“Condolences to the family. Shrinking political space in Kashmir has made party workers all the more vulnerable. They are stuck between punitive actions of a vindictive government & militants on the other end,” she tweeted.

Congress chief of J&K, Ghulam Ahmad Mir termed the killing as ‘loss’. The loss of Shri Ajay Bharti (Sarpanch) will be felt by us in the Congress party. My thoughts and prayers are with his family in their time of grief. May his soul rest in peace,” Mir tweeted.

Congress Protests In Jammu Against The Killing Sarpanch Ajay Pandita

In Jammu, a candlelight march was taken out to protest the killing. However, a local Congress leader slammed BJP top leadership for not speaking against the killing. “No word came from PM Narendra Modi or HM Amir Shah,” he said.

The Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora (GKPD) has also condemned the assassination of Pandita and asked for an inquiry to find why there was a lapse in providing security to him when he had requested so based on the threat perceptions. The GKPD in collaboration with several Kashmiri Pandit organisations across the globe organised a webinar on Tuesday to protest and condemn the killing of the Sarpanch.

The Claim

Mourning the death, his father said that Pandita worked for common people and was brave. “The terrorists fired on him from the back as they feared him,” he said. A relative of Pandita alleged that he had asked for security cover but no security was provided to him.

The family of slain Sarpanch, as reported by The Hindu said that he had been seeking police protection but his requests were not acted upon by the local police.

Echoing the view of the family, Congress chief Mir said, “Ajay had no security cover.” He also demanded a judicial probe. While talking to reporters, Mir said Congress party appealed to provide police protection to Pandita. “The villagers said no one will contest against him and he won the elections. For the past seven-eight months, he had been saying that since he is the lone member from the minority community in the area he has sought police security. The party also appealed to provide police protection to him. Had he got police protection, this incident wouldn’t have occurred,” he told reporters in Jammu.

Another Congress leader, Salman Nizami slammed the BJP government for not providing the security to the slain Sarpanch. In a series of tweets, he talked about the lackadaisical approach of the government.

“Ajay Pandita was my colleague, last time we spoke on EID. A true congress soldier & great admirer of Rahul Gandhi. He had been pleading for security. Yet BJP govt denied. BJP is morally responsible for his death. RIP Ajay!, he tweeted.

“Congress Sarpanch Ajay Bharti had been pleading for security. Yet BJP Govt denied him security. This when the BJP-RSS miss no opportunity to exploit the Kashmiri Pandit issue. What hypocrites. They are morally responsible for Ajay’s death!,” Nizami wrote in another tweet.

Pandita’s Plea

Ajay in his lifetime had requested for ensuring the safety of elected representatives. As reported by The Hindu, quoting his interview of December 2019 to Mercury Times, a Jammu based news channel, Pandita said that locals, especially the Muslim brethren, took a lot of risks to come and vote for him during the panchayat elections, but the administration had failed him. He also raised concerns over the safety of sarpanches after the killing of sarpanch Syed Rafiq Ahmed and government employee Sheikh Zahoor at Hakura-Badasgam village of Anantnag on November 28, 2019. “The Central government makes tall claims about panch and sarpanches on TV; they shoot from our shoulders… I am an elected person but I am helpless… I want to ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah… cant they see this? The UT administration never met the sarpanches, do they know who Ajay Bharti is? When I am not safe, how can I say my people are safe…The administration treats us untouchables,” he had said in the interview.

 Police Chief Says

As reported by The Hindu, Police chief Dilbagh Singh feigned ignorance about requests of Pandita or the claims of the family. “Not aware of the request,” he was quoted by the newspaper.

However, Singh said it was a “targeted killing”. Ajay, DGP Singh said was targeted for two reasons- “being part of the democratic process and a member of the minority community.” Singh told Delhi based newspaper they have identified the two local Hizb-ul- Mujahideen militants who killed Pandita.

“The terrorists have done this deliberately. He was targeted because he was part of the government machinery and democratic process and a member of the minority community has been killed after many years. …it shows the communal mindset of our neighbour,” Singh was quoted to have said.

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