Dozens of Kashmiri Pandits sit on the main road linking Budgam district with Srinagar. Sanjay Koul carries a banner that reads “Justice for Rahul Bhat”.
Rahul was shot dead by terrorists on Thursday. He was Sanjay’s next-door neighbour at Sheikhpora migrant quarters.
Sanjay saw Rahul outside his house on Thursday morning when he left for work. They greeted each other and asked about their well-being.
Sanjay says with sadness in his voice, “I am seeking justice for Rahul. I am asking his wife to be given a government job and the government should bear the expenses of the education of his child. This is what our life is.”
Sanjay says these killings are different from the earlier killings. “These are targeted killings. Rahul has been killed because he was a Kashmiri Pandit. This didn’t happen earlier,” says Sanjay, raising his voice.
Sanjay has been in Kashmir since 2010, the year he was appointed as a government teacher. He has worked at different government schools across Kashmir. Rahul was appointed in 2012 and was posted in the Revenue Department.
On Thursday, 35-year-old Rahul was in his office building when he was killed. The attack inside the office sparked fear among the employees of the minority Kashmiri Pandit community working across Kashmir and raised questions about their safety.
Jammu and Kashmir Police said in a tweet, “Terrorists fired upon one employee namely Shri Rahul Bhat from the minority community in Tehsildar office Chadoora, Budgam. He has been shifted to hospital. The injured was immediately brought to SMHS Hospital [in] Srinagar for treatment, where he succumbed to his injuries.”
Unfazed by tear-gas shelling that police subjected Kashmiri Pandits to, they say the government needs to settle their issue. Sanjay is one among those who says he never felt threatened while working in the Valley. But he has not been sure of his life for the past two years.
Sanjay says Kashmiri Pandits are living in horror every day since the killings of two teachers and Bindroo Sahab – Makhan Lal Bindroo – last year.
On October 5, 2021, militants killed well-known chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo at his shop in Srinagar’s high-security zone of the Iqbal Park area. This was followed by the killing of a non-local roadside Bhelpuri vendor in Lalbazar of Srinagar. A day later, terrorists shot dead Deepak Chand, a school principal, and a female teacher named Satinder Kour inside a school in Eidgah, Srinagar. The terrorists isolated the two of them after checking their identity cards.
Sanjay says, “Rahul was killed in his office that has security around it. I am a teacher. I feel I can be killed anytime at any place. The feeling of insecurity and the constant threat has made our lives miserable.”
The crowd around Sanjay raises slogans seeking justice for Rahul Pandit. The protesters are shouting slogans against the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, Jammu and Kashmir Police, and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The police had confined protesters to the main road at Sheikpora, blocking the road from all sides with concertina wire. The police also fired tear-gas shells when protesters tried to march towards the Airport Road.
There are many voices within the community. They are angry, tired, and hopeless. They feel betrayed.
Sanjay says, “My mother calls me every day to ask if I am fine. I have two children aged six and eight at my home. I always fear if something happens to me, what would be their fate?”
He says the government has given assurances to them after every killing but that is it.
“And we have no alternative but to carry on with our jobs till another of our colleagues is killed,” says Sanjay.
He and his colleagues say the trend has changed over the past two years. He says, “In 2016 in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, we didn’t feel insecure. But now we can’t live in this place.”
Others join Sanjay as he speaks, saying the government should move them back to Jammu and other places so that they can work there. They said the government cannot make them hostage to conditions under which they have been appointed through the Prime Minister’s package.
“We have faced a lot, we have suffered a lot, and we don’t want our children and our parents to lose us,” says one of the Kashmiri Pandits who works as an engineer.
“The situation in Kashmir is getting out of control. They must deport us to Jammu and other parts of the country. Today, we came out as we cannot bear it anymore,” says a youth who was carrying a banner that read “I need to be able to tell my children that I didn’t stay silent”.
The employees, who are in the 20-45 age group, say the government after every incident would tell them to go back to their work.
“How can it be business as usual after every killing? I feel terrified. I feel I can get killed. I have anxiety attacks. My family calls me every day. My mother calls me after every two hours. She shouts: where are you and whether you are fine,” says the Kashmiri Pandit engineer.
A young Kashmiri Pandit leader of All Kashmir Pandit PM Package Employment Coordination Committee says the government has put a condition with the package that “whatever happens, we cannot leave Kashmir”.
He says, “This condition should go and we should be deported to different places other than the Valley. There is no safety here. You might argue there is normalcy as the tourists are coming in hordes but we are saying we are not safe.”
In 2009, the Government of India under the then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released the Prime Minister’s package for the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri migrants in the Valley. It is under this package that jobs are given to Pandits.
The Pandit leader says there are around 5,000 employees under the package in different parts of the Valley. Besides this, there are also 4,000 other regular Kashmiri Pandit employees at different places.
Some of the Pandits say they will go for mass resignation. “We have been stabbed. We are being stabbed in the front,” he added.
The killing of Rahul has brought thousands of minority members to the roads, questioning the government's claim of peace in the Valley.
They have been protesting overnight against the targeted killings of their community members by militants. At the same time, they say there is a disconnect between local administration and central government.
A Kashmiri Pandit says, "The LG administration is lying to the central government about the situation in Kashmir. It's worse than the 1990s. The local administration is misleading the country by tourists’ arrivals to Kashmir and it brands it as normalcy but the reality is that everyone including the majority of Muslims feel unsafe here."
Others at the scene agree and start raising slogans.