What Ajay Pandita's killing tells us about post-August 5 Kashmir
Bharti was among the very few Kashmiri Pandits who had returned to the Valley after fleeing to Jammu in 1990 following the outbreak of armed separatist movement in 1989. He was welcomed back in his village and resumed his life. In 2019 he won the Panchayat elections, despite being the lone Pandit in the village. His return was a shining example to Pandits that they could indeed return and settle back into their ancestral villages.
Not long ago, in an interview to a local media outlet, slain Congress sarpanch Ajay Pandita Bharti spoke of a threat to his and his colleagues' lives.
"We will die, they will say circumstances on ground are good. Where? When an elected sarpanch... when I am not safe, how can I say everyone is safe?” he had said. “Not only am I scared… even the ordinary citizen is scared."
Bharti was among the very few Kashmiri Pandits who had returned to the Valley after fleeing to Jammu in 1990 following the outbreak of armed separatist movement in 1989. He was welcomed back in his village and resumed his life. In 2019 he won the Panchayat elections, despite being the lone Pandit in the village. His return was a shining example to Pandits that they could indeed return and settle back into their ancestral villages. However, his murder is less a rejection of this prospect and more a reflection of the drastic deterioration in the situation in recent months.
The militancy has witnessed a renewed spike since April. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal run by the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, an autonomous, non-governmental, non-profit society set up in 1997, since January 2020 to May 30, 86 militants, 29 security personnel and 10 civilians have been killed in Kashmir in 52 incidents of violence. There has been more violence this month. Fourteen militants died in three encounters over four days from June 6.
In comparison, the data compiled by the SATP shows 53 killings in January, February and March comprising 41 militants, six security personnel and 5 civilians, and over five months from August 2019 to December 31, there were just 52 killings comprising 28 militants, four security personnel and 20 civilians.
The militancy, anyway, has been on an upward trend over the last five years with 175 killings of militants, civilians and security forces in 2015, 267 in 2017, 357 in 2017 and 452 in 2018 which turned out to be the most violent year in a decade. In 2019, with 283 killings, the violence subsided after the Kashmir Valley was placed under lockdown in August that was followed by the onset of winter, which is when militancy normally declines.
This new escalation has followed the revocation of Article 370 that granted Jammu and Kashmir its autonomous character. It has come amidst the issuance of the new domicile law that grants citizenship to anyone who has been a resident for 15 years. For the central government employees in the region, the period is just 10 years and for the non-local students, it is even lower, at seven years.
On May 18, the Jammu and Kashmir administration notified the rules for fast-tracking the process. The Tehsildar, the revenue official, who has to grant the certificate has to do so within 15 days, failing which he will be slapped with a penalty of Rs 50,000 to be taken from his own salary. What is more, even permanent residents have to apply for the certificate to be considered domiciles.
This has created deep anxiety about an impending demographic change among the people. In September last year, militants successively killed three non-local apple traders in the orchards of South Kashmir. This temporarily threatened the export of apples, a Rs 6500 crore industry which employs, directly and indirectly, three million people.
Responding to the domicile law, The Resistance Front, a new militant outfit alleged to be a proxy for Lashkar-i-Toiba, has said it will consider every new settler in the Valley an RSS agent.
This has created a fraught situation with militants in search of targets to send signals to what they consider potential settlers. However, in the TRF's statement owning responsibility for the killing of Bharti, he was called a "political stooge" and "collaborator who stood alongside India". There is no mention of his being a Pandit, a conspicuous omission to pass off the killing as unrelated to his religious identity. But as the situation goes in Kashmir, it was no regular killing. This is the first time after around seventeen years that a Pandit has been killed in the Valley, and it doesn't seem to have been triggered by Bharti's political affiliation as a member of the Congress party.
Following the nullification of Article 370, Kashmir has become a witch's brew of a deep sense of alienation and anxiety about identity, and the new domicile law has only deepened this feeling. This is resulting in a renewed fancy for militancy amongst the youth. This is more pronounced in the absence of a space for political and social dissent. This has, in turn, created conditions that are conducive to deeper violence. Infiltration is also believed to have increased in the recent past, bringing trained, battle-hardened militants to the scene. Bharti's killing is the product of this unfolding situation.