Targeted civilian killings in Kashmir trigger fears of militancy, unease among minorities

Indian security personnel rushing to the site where a man was shot dead by gunmen in downtown Srinagar earlier this month.
Indian security personnel rushing to the site where a man was shot dead by gunmen in downtown Srinagar earlier this month.PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - A spate of targeted civilian killings in Kashmir has sparked fears of militancy across the conflict-torn region, and caused widespread unease among the minority Hindu and Sikh communities.

Unlike attacks in the past decades where Muslims, accounting for 68 per cent of the region's population, had usually been the victims, the attacks this month targeted more minorities than Muslims.

One principal and her teacher, a pharmacist, a street food vendor and a taxi driver were among the seven killed in separate incidents this month.

Four belonged to Hindu or Sikh minorities in the valley, while the other three were Kashmiri Muslims.

The Jammu and Kashmir police said terrorists have killed 28 civilians so far this year. Seven were from the Hindu or Sikh communities, including the four this month.

On Oct 9, a day after Mrs Satinder Kour, 46, the principal of the Government Boys Higher Secondary School, was gunned down by militants with her colleague Deepak Chand, 39, dozens of Sikhs protested in Srinagar city.

Mrs Kour, belonged to the Sikh community that makes up less than 1 per cent of the population in Kashmir.

"Did she have to die, a selfless teacher like her? I am scared for my family now," said Mrs Kour's husband Ramrash Paul Singh.

More than 800 families of Kashmiri-speaking Hindus - known locally as Pandits - are also anxious after Mr Makhan Lal Bindroo, 68, was shot by unidentified men on Oct 5.

Mr Bindroo's family runs a well-known pharmacy in Srinagar, and had chosen to stay in Kashmir even when thousands fled during an armed insurgency in 1990.

Security officials in Kashmir have issued verbal instructions to Hindu and Sikh families not to venture out after dark, and set up barricades and checkpoints near their homes.

The Indian government has also given government employees two weeks leave because they are afraid to go to work.

Mr Sanjay Tickoo, president of solidarity group Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, said that seven out of the 808 families of Kashmiri Pandits have left Kashmir temporarily out of fear, but "if there is even one more killing, you won't find even one Pandit family left in the Kashmir valley".

"No protection from the army or government can make minorities in Kashmir feel safe like the support of the majority community can. Unfortunately, this time, except for a few friends, most of (the Kashmiri Muslims) are silent," he said.

Teachers mourn inside the school campus where suspected militants killed two school teachers on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir on Oct 7, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Since August 2019, when the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special autonomy and split the state into two union territories, members of the Muslim majority believed that "Kashmiri Pandits got some special treatment that we locals didn't", said Mr Tickoo.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi's national government imposed a direct rule over the troubled region eschewing elected state governments, detained senior Kashmiri politicians, expanded military presence and issued policies allowing non-Kashmiris to purchase land there, residents in what was once India's only Muslim-dominated state "felt disempowered and increasingly insecure," said a political observer from Kashmir University who did not want to be named.

"The extraordinary presence of the Indian government in Kashmir has not ended militancy but its overbearing sectarian bias in administration seems to have provoked violent fundamentalist forces," the university professor added, lamenting that innocent civilians were losing "their voices and lives".

The Resistance Front, an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, has claimed responsibility for the killings, alleging that its targets were "agents" of Hindu fundamentalists and government "informers".

The outfit had surfaced with a grenade attack in Oct 2019, two months after the Modi government revoked Kashmir's special autonomy and shut down the Internet for 18 months.

"Right now, the militants have won by creating a rift. But as a society, all communities should come together to beat them," said Mr Tickoo.

An appeal to protect and restore the confidence of minorities was made before Friday prayers at two mosques in downtown Srinagar on Oct 8.