The targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits have instilled fear among the Hindu minority in the disputed territory.
The heartbreaking scenes of the 1990s-mass migration of Kashmir's minority Hindus — who are locally known as Pandits — replayed again earlier this month after several thousands of them escaped from the region amid a spate of targeted civilian killings.
Rahul Bhat was five when his family migrated from Budgam district of Kashmir to camps in Jammu, the southern half of the region, after an anti-India insurgency erupted in Kashmir in 1989.
As the region plunged into chaos with the increasing levels of violence, Bhat's family was one of the thousands of Kashmiri Pandit families that fled after militants killed a few prominent community members.
In 2011, Bhat returned to Kashmir after living in exile for nearly two decades, as New Delhi announced a special package of jobs and housing for the Pandits to lure them back to their roots.
He lived at Sheikhpora, one of the six heavily guarded transit camps for the accommodation of returning Pandits in Kashmir, along with 350 other families.
About 6,000 Kashmiri Pandits were employed under the resettlement scheme, which was seen as a confidence-building measure to bring back the region's Hindus to their homes.
On May 12 this year, two armed militants entered Bhat's office in Budgam district and shot him dead.
Why are Kashmiri Pandits fleeing so soon after resettlement?
The militants behind the killing are believed to be The Resistance Front (TRF), an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Toiba, which threatens to kill anyone, particularly outsiders, who aids New Delhi’s plan to change the demography of the region.
It has threatened to kill all non-Kashmiris who move into the region to settle, calling them agents of the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist BJP.
Bhat's killing triggered a wave of protests by the Kashmiri Pandit employees, who have not attended their duties in the wake of the attack.
"Life and family are more important than our jobs. Until the government relocates us to safer locations outside Kashmir, we won't join our duties," Vikas Hangloo told DW.
Kashmiris have long accused Modi's government of trying to alter the territory's demography by encouraging Hindu migration to the disputed Muslim-majority region.
Their fears grew after New Delhi abrogated the region’s limited autonomy in August 2019, and in October 2020 introduced new land laws, causing consternation among locals.
Militant groups weaponised local fears of "demographic change" and targeted religious minorities, pro-India Muslims and migrant workers from outside the region.
Bhat is among 19 civilians, mostly Muslims, killed in targeted attacks by the militants so far in 2022.
Targeted civilian killings trigger panic among Hindus?
The majority of the Kashmiri Pandits, who were employed under the government's special recruitment drive of 2009, have left Kashmir fearing attacks from the militants.
Even the around 800 families that stayed back in the 1990s and lived through the armed insurgency are contemplating leaving the region because of the increasing violence.
For the past four years, Kashmir has been without an elected government and is being ruled by New Delhi-appointed Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha.
It has created a political vacuum in the region, rendering the civil society defunct and common people voiceless, Sanjay Tickoo, president of Kashmir Pandits Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS), told DW.
The targeted killings of civilians, particularly minority members, started in October last year when armed militants killed noted Kashmiri chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo in Srinagar, the first killing of a non-migrant Kashmiri Pandit since 2003.
Since then Tickoo has not moved out of his home at the Barbarshah locality in Srinagar, saying police told him his life is under threat from militants.
"Common people are living under fear in Kashmir. The Muslim community would often join us to raise our grievances but now they fear the government will arrest them for it. There is no one to go to," he said.
"Earlier, we were feeling safe here but now there is an atmosphere of unprecedented fear in Kashmir," said Ashwani Sadhu, who left Kashmir after Bhat's killing.
"We don't know who to talk to in Kashmir now. Earlier, separatist leaders were the go-to people for Kashmiri Pandits in such situations but now there is no one," Sadhu said.
Inspector-General of Police Vijay Kumar says they have killed 118 militants, including 32 foreign fighters, so far this year. Last year, only 55 militants were killed in the same period, indicating a major spike in violence this year.
Akanksha Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit teacher, said: "Kashmir is no more safe for anyone. Our family is planning to leave now."
The 35-year-old says the targeted civilian killings by "unknown gunmen have created an unprecedented sense of insecurity and fear" among the community members.
"Earlier, we could distinguish between a militant and a civilian. Now, the militancy has become faceless and you don't know who will be the killer and who the savior," she said.
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Why did Pandits migrate from Kashmir in 1990?
Most of Kashmir’s estimated 200,000 Pandits fled the region in the 1990s when an armed rebellion against Indian rule began.
On August 21, 1989, a pro-India Muslim politician, Muhammed Yusuf Halwai, was the first to be killed in a targeted attack by the armed militants in Kashmir.
It followed with the killing of Tika Lal Taploo, a Kashmiri Pandit who was the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) president of the region, on September 14, 1989.
On November 4, 1989, the armed militants of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a local militant outfit calling for the independence of the region from India, killed a retired judge, Neelkanth Ganjoo, who had given the death sentence to Maqbool Butt, one of the founding members of the JKLF.
The killing of the prominent Kashmiri Pandits triggered panic among the minority community.
On January 19, 1990, they started migrating en masse from the conflict-torn region to different parts of India. The day is now observed by the Kashmiri Hindu communities as "Exodus Day."
In March 2010, the region's then government said in the legislative assembly that 219 Kashmiri Pandits were killed by militants from 1989 to 2004.
The fresh spate of targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits has provided a major setback to their rehabilitation in Kashmir.
Militants who have the support of a large proportion of local Muslims say New Delhi is changing the Muslim character of Kashmir by settling Hindus there.
Last month, Bhat became the latest victim of the campaign of militants, who say outsiders are not welcome in Kashmir.