Hundreds of minority Hindus have fled from Indian-administered Kashmir, and many more are preparing to leave, after a fresh spate of targeted killings stoked tensions in the disputed Himalayan region.
Three Hindus have been killed by militants in Kashmir this week alone, including a teacher and migrant workers, prompting mass protests and the largest exodus of Hindu families from the Muslim-majority region in two decades.
Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit activist, said: “Some 3,500 people have left and more will be leaving in coming days.”
Many Hindu families said they were waiting to get discharge certificates for their children from schools and then would leave as soon as possible. “Fear is increasing with each new killing,” said Tickoo. “The minorities are facing the worst situation in Kashmir.”
On Thursday morning, suspected rebels killed Vijay Kumar, a bank manager from Rajasthan state, in southern Kulgam district. CCTV footage showed a masked man walking into Kumar’s office and firing a pistol at him.
Later in the evening, two Hindu migrant workers were shot at in Budgam by two masked gunmen. One among them, identified as Dilkhush from Bihar, died from his injuries on the way to the hospital.
Two days before that, Rajni Bala, a Hindu school teacher, was killed by suspected militants, also in Kulgam. On 12 May, Rahul Bhat, a Hindu man, was killed when assailants barged into his office and fired bullets at him.
At least 19 civilians have been killed this year in similar targeted attacks in the region, including minority Hindus, government employees and a woman who was known for her Instagram videos.
Police have blamed Pakistan-backed militant groups for the killings. Kashmir has been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947. While both countries control the region in parts, they both lay claim over it in its entirety, and since the 1980s, Indian-controlled Kashmir has been rocked by a violent militant insurgency loyal to Pakistan.
After the string of attacks, Hindus say they being driven out of the region. These include Kashmiri Hindus, commonly referred to as Pandits, 65,000 of whom first fled from the valley in a mass exodus in the 1990s, when a violent pro-Pakistan insurgency broke out in the region and they began to be targeted.
By 2010, a few thousand Kashmiri Hindus had returned to the Muslim-majority region, enticed by a government rehabilitation policy that provided jobs and guarded accommodation to about 4,000 people. But in recent weeks, those who returned have been protesting against the killings and demanding more security. Hindu employees have been abstaining from their duties, urging the government to relocate them to safer locations.
“We are in a 1990s-like situation,” said Pyarai Lal, 65, who lives in Sheikhpora Budgam, in one of the seven guarded housing facilities provided to Hindus. “My son is a teacher and he has not attended his duty for the last two weeks. We are afraid to even leave our home. Who knows when a gunman will attack?”
Lal shifted to southern Jammu city in 1987 with his family and returned in 2010 after the government gave his son a teaching job. But now, he and his family are again preparing to leave. “It seems the situation is going to get worse and we are going to leave soon to Jammu,” said Lal.
Authorities have promised the employees they will be posted to safer locations, and police made assurances they were increasing security by intensifying counter-insurgency operations, surveillance and using drones.
But many Kashmiri Pandits have accused authorities of barring them from leaving and allege that police and paramilitary forces have been deployed at the gates of their government provided accommodations to stop them.
“It seems the government is waiting to get us all killed,” said Rinku Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit. “Or they are trying to show false normalcy by forcibly holding us at a place where every minute is unsafe for us.”
On Wednesday, the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Simiti, an organisation that tracks the minority community in the region, wrote a letter to the region’s chief justice raising concern for their safety and accused the government of playing with their lives by preventing them from relocation, seeking high court intervention.
The targeted attacks against Hindus pose a great political challenge to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, which has made repeated promises to look after the interests of Kashmiri Pandits. On Friday, India’s home minister, Amit Shah, held a high-level review meeting on the security situation in the region, but no government statement has been made on the issue.
In 2019, Modi unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, and enforced a military crackdown under the guise of greater security for Kashmir. The government introduced a slew of laws allowing non-locals to buy property in the region, in the hope of enticing Hindus to settle in the state, a move many locals feared was Delhi’s attempt to bring about demographic changes in the Muslim-majority region.
Many see the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019, as well as Hindu nationalist policies of the Modi government, which have driven an increase in attacks against Muslims in India, as a driving force behind the growing surge of violence in Kashmir.
“Kashmiri Muslims feel their religion and identity is in the danger and [the attacks] definitely seems in reaction to that,” said Tickoo.