“Who will ensure our safety?”: Kashmiri Pandit employees ask government | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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“Who will ensure our safety?”: Kashmiri Pandit employees ask government

May 18, 2022 03:57 PM IST

The killing of Rahul Bhat inside the tehsil office in Budgam’s Chadoora on May 12 has left Kashmiri Pandits fearing for their lives, with many refusing to return to work. 

He is not willing to disclose his name or even mention the name of the place where he is currently stationed. He is a Kashmiri Pandit posted in the Valley and is willing to give up his job and leave, to save his life. A child’s voice is audible in the background, but he is not willing to talk about his family either. The only constant in his life right now are the incessant calls he gets from his parents, based in Jammu.

Kashmiri pandit employees hold placards during a protest demanding justice over the killing of Rahul Bhat in Srinagar. (PTI) PREMIUM
Kashmiri pandit employees hold placards during a protest demanding justice over the killing of Rahul Bhat in Srinagar. (PTI)

He is one of the 6,000 Kashmiri Pandits who were given jobs under a Prime Minister Rehabilitation package – announced in 2009 — to enable members of the minority community to return to the Valley after the mass migration in the early 1990s.

The killing of Rahul Bhat inside the tehsil office in Budgam’s Chadoora on May 12 has left Kashmiri Pandits fearing for their lives. Bhat was killed inside the government office. “The militants knew exactly which room to find him in,” a security official revealed. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s lieutenant governor (LG) Manoj Sinha, while announcing the setting up of a Special Investigations Team (SIT) to probe the killing, acknowledged that the attack was a targeted one.

Protests have rocked the Valley since Bhat’s killing and employees have refused to resume work. They are on a dharna at various places and have been sending “mass resignations” to the LG’s office and to the home ministry in Delhi.

A killing, the protests

The brazen daylight killing of a member of a Kashmiri Pandit, inside a government office, has caught the administration off guard. Ironically, the ongoing protests since May 12 are the only protests the Valley has seen since August 2019, when J&K’s special status was altered and the erstwhile state was cleaved into two Union Territories.

Anger among the Pandits mounted after the administration tried to break up a protest by lobbing teargas shells. The LG has also been forced to announce a separate enquiry into the tear gassing incident.

Sinha has now announced that all employees will be posted at secure places in district and tehsil headquarters, but representatives of the employees say that that is just not possible.

Sandeep Kumar, a founding member of the Prime Minister’s Employee Coordination Committee, a teacher himself, has not gone to school since May 12. He stays in a rented house in Anantnag, in South Kashmir, and use to travel 30 km to reach the school.

“How will my safety or that of other employees be ensured?” he asks. “How will the administration ensure my wife’s safety? She has to go out for groceries,” he adds.

Ranjan Zotshi, the committee’s convenor has several questions of the administration, but none of them have been answered. An employee with the social welfare department, Zotshi has to make several field trips, to meet senior citizens, pensioners and victims of militancy. “How can someone like me be posted at a district or tehsil headquarter? Who will take charge of my security? Who will accompany my wife to the market or my child, to school? Let’s not forget that Bhat was killed within a Tehsil office. The government is using Pandits to showcase a sense of normalcy. Actually, it is just making sacrificial lambs out of us,” he says.

A set of demands

All 6,000 employees and their families face a similar predicament. The committee is now insisting on two demands. It wants the administration to revoke the bond all employees were forced to sign before they got jobs. The bond clearly says that they will have to serve in the Valley till they retire or they can be terminated from service. The second demand is that be posted anywhere in any part of the country, except in the Valley.

“I have become a bonded labourer. I was forced to sign the bond because the job lay at the heart of our survival, but now our survival itself has become a question mark. We are not willing to be killed.”

According to Kumar, the agitation – which started after Bhat’s killing – will continue for another five days, after which they will be forced to leave the Valley. “We will continue sending in our resignations and then take a decision of moving out of the Valley. It is practically impossible for the administration to move us to district headquarters and secure us,’’ he insists.

According to the committee, 50% of the employees have put their signatures to the mass resignations and more will follow. The District Commissioner, Budgam, however tweeted to say that his office had not received any resignations.

Security is a real issue. While some employees are housed in the half dozen transit camps, a majority are scattered all over the Valley and have rented homes. According to Kumar, only 20% are in transit camps. “I will definitely leave. Teachers don’t have headquarters. What about schools in rural areas? What happens to those teachers and their families?’’ he asks.

An atmosphere of insecurity

Over the last one year, Kashmiri Pandits and migrant workers have been singled out and killed.

In October last year, a Sikh school teacher and ML Bindroo, a well-known pharmacist was gunned down, leading to a fear psychosis amongst member of the minority communities. HT had, in October, reported on how militants were being given specific names and being asked to target non-Muslim residents. At the time, the administration had been able to secure some individuals whose names appeared in intelligence intercepts. Migrant workers from Bihar and UP too had left the Valley in panic.

Fear has once again gripped members of the minority community. The employees have now dug in their heels, and are pressing for their demands to be met.

The political narrative has, in fact, shifted with Bhat’s killing. Kumar says the BJP, which praised the controversial movie, Kashmir Files, for highlighting how the Pandits had to flee the Valley in the early 90s, now doesn’t know what to do. “What is the BJP doing now? Is it okay for us to be soft targets?” he asks.

A BJP delegation met the LG after Bhat’s killing and Sinha promised to post the employees at safer places but the employees are not convinced. Kashmir’s mainstream leaders too are speaking up and adding to the political narrative. Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) President Mehbooba Mufti, who described Pandits as being “part of our body” said no member was attacked either during her tenure or that of National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, in 2010.

The fact is that the threat is real. “The fear of a demographic change is spurring targeted killings,” said a security official, who did not want to be identified. Pandits and migrant labour are soft targets.

Securing each one is an uphill task.

What will the employees ultimately decide? They are caught between the need for a salary and the desire to survive. The next five days may or may not provide an answer to what clearly is a very difficult predicament.

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