“Only solution, relocation”, “We want justice”, and “Hindus will not become the sacrificial lamb in Kashmir”. Such slogans reverberate from protest sites in the city of Jammu following targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) in Kashmir Valley.
For the past seven months, hundreds of Pandits have been using non-violent action to communicate their demands for security to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir administration. The protestors hold placards asking a direct question to the ‘silent’ administration: “What are you going to tell my family if I will be killed?”
It's been three decades since Kashmiri Pandits, a small minority community, were violently driven out of Kashmir Valley. Successive government attempts to bring them back culminated in the roll-out of the Prime Minister’s Development Package in the financial year 2008-2009. It provides housing, employment, and transit accommodation to migrants who return to the Valley.
The Package extended employment to 6,000 eligible candidates by creating various supernumerary posts in government departments. Only around 4,000 posts have been filled, of which around 2,000 went to women.
Suman returned to Kashmir Valley in 2010 through the Package. She took her daughter with her but left her 3-month-old son with her mother in Jammu. “It was not an easy decision to live a separated life, leaving my son far away from me. But to be back in my hometown was a dream come true”, she says.
However, turmoil, shutdowns and street violence traumatised Suman’s daughter, who had to return to Jammu. “I lived alone in the migrant transit camps set up by the government,” Suman says. “In spite of the situation, I felt safe with my office colleagues and locals.” But her sense of safety was cut short when targeted killings began.
Targeted killings in Kashmir
Around 14 people belonging to Jammu and Kashmir’s minority communities were killed between August 2019 and March 2022. On 7 October 2021, Supinder Kaur, Principal of a Higher Secondary School, and Deepak Chand, a teacher, were both killed inside school premises, igniting protests and condemnation by civil society. Three days earlier, three more civilians had been killed, including a well-known chemist M. L. Bindroo.
“It was very scary. We thought that the government will take action and things will normalise. But the killings continued,” Suman says. The ‘floodgates of terror’ truly opened when another teacher was killed at a school, and Rahul Baht, a Pandit employed as a clerk through the Package, was killed in his office in May 2022.
“It was frightening to think that while I could be sitting in my chair, terrorists could come and shoot me point blank,” Suman says.
The targeted killings aggravated the vulnerability of the community and ignited large-scale protests by Kashmiri Pandits employed under the Package. Sit-ins started simultaneously in all transit migrant camps across the Valley. All employees boycotted going to their offices and demanded to be relocated to safer zones in Jammu.
Instead, to stop them from demonstrating outside the camps, the administration locked the camp gates from outside. This triggered the second exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from Valley.
“My father Ajay Pandita was killed on June 8, 2020, in his orchard. He had gone back to his village to rebuild our life in Kashmir. After his murder, going back and joining as an employee in my home district was traumatic. But I needed the job as my father was the only earning member in the family”, 21-year-old Sheen explains, distraught.
“Why are they killing us? We haven’t harmed anyone. Not even hit anyone with a stone. We are a peaceful community and fighting for our rights peacefully,” Sheen says. “I cannot go back under the circumstances, because no-one wants to be killed for nothing.”
When another Kashmiri Pandit – Puran Bhat, a farmer – was killed in South Kashmir while protests were ongoing in October 2022, the community became even more stressed. The family had not moved out from their village.
“Our employment under the Package became a ‘caged employment’,” says Yogesh Pandita, one of the core committee members of the All-Migrant Employees Association (AMEAK), spearheading the non-violent action for Pandits’ ‘right to life’.
Camping together within the premises of Jammu’s Relief Commissioner office, AMEAK members plan, strategise and mobilise protests.
Braving the heat wave of summer in Jammu to icy winds in freezing winter, the protesters comprise of men, women, and even their elderly parents. They have one demand: to be relocated to Jammu-based departments until the security situation improves in Kashmir Valley. And they campaign in imaginative ways.
Following Gandhian non-violent action, they choose strategic places for sit-ins, hold marches, and candlelit vigils, tie black ribbons on arms, drawing media attention to their cause by marching barefoot on the streets. They hold meetings in different camps with parents and community leaders, and have approached courts.
Raksha Bandhan: Brother and sister
Women play a critical role as frontline protestors to raise awareness and support. They have invoked Raksha Bandhan, a traditional festival that celebrates the bond between brother and sister, as symbolic references for their protection and security. To make their efforts inclusive, they recently held a candle march in solidarity for seven civilians, all Dogra Hindus (second-largest ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir), killed in a village in Rajouri, a border district about 75 km from Jammu.
“Our protests are not just for secure jobs or residencies. It is now a movement to dismantle the ecosystem that nurtures the current hybrid terrorism. It’s a non-violent call for the government to roll back its flawed policies that have failed to secure the lives of the people. [The] government has to understand that it has to now make a choice between life or rehabilitation”, says Yogesh.
Meanwhile, the government stopped their salaries in September 2022. “Our ajeevika (livelihood) was stopped to put pressure on us to resume our duties in Valley”, says Preeti, a teacher whose daughter in Jammu begs her not to return to work in South Kasmir. “For us and our families, saving our lives is more important.”
Malti*, however, had no option but to surrender to the government’s arm-twisting and return to her teaching job. Her father is battling cancer, so the family needs money for his treatment. In Kashmir, Malti stays within a temple complex in a security zone, and her nearby school is guarded by high-rise walls.
While Malti’s life is caged, her family in Jammu keeps worrying about her safety in Kashmir. Caught between flawed policies, terror, and politics, Malti is forced to witness to the geo-political apathy towards this traumatic crisis.
The history of non-violent struggles tells us that people power has shaken mighty powers. Will the nonviolent movement led by Kashmiri Pandits have the power to broker peace and justice?
*Name changed for security