Desperate to flee attacks, Kashmir Hindus say officials are locking exits


The return of Hindu minorities to Kashmir, two decades after an exodus in the face of militant attacks and threats, is being held up by the Indian government as an illustration of how it is bringing normality to the troubled Himalaya region.

But Kashmiri Hindus say their lives have become anything but normal after an increasing influx of targeted killings — and they’re desperate for it, again.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, they say, is preventing thousands of Hindus from fleeing their residential colonies in Kashmir. Hindus are demanding that authorities lift the blockades and let them leave after three murders this week: a teacher shot outside her school, a bank manager shot on his desk and a worker killed on Thursday night while working at a brick kiln.

“Our demand is to move us to any place other than Kashmir, to any corner of India,” said TN Pandita, a father of two who works as a clerk at the local court in Baramulla district.

“This morning we tried to get out, but we were not allowed to leave physically,” Pandita said on Thursday. “Our camp is locked and the central police are stationed outside.”

Modi’s government has invested in projecting the Muslim-majority region as a stable, integrated part of India after it dissolved the region’s elected government and revoked the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir in 2019 to to bring it under the direct rule of New Delhi.

Stripping the region of its special status had long been a goal of Hindu nationalists in India. Under the immediate rule that followed, suppression has suppressed more and more dissenting voices.

Kashmir has been a point of contention between India and Pakistan since the end of British rule in 1947. In the late 1980s, a separatist movement in Kashmir, receiving support and training in Pakistan, carried out attacks on the Hindus in the region, known for as Pandits, op. A mass migration of tens of thousands of Hindu families – perhaps as many as 300,000 people in all – followed. Only a few hundred Hindu families remained.

Just over a decade ago, when the security situation in the valley improved under a heavy Indian military presence, the government encouraged Kashmiri Hindus to return by offering them incentives, including government jobs and payments for buying or rebuilding houses. Thousands of Hindus accepted the offer and settled in half a dozen residential colonies in Kashmir called transit camps.

But Hindu organizations and local residents of Kashmir say there has been another wave of targeted killings in the past two years, in apparent retaliation for Mr Modi’s decision to revoke the region’s semi-autonomous status. Modi also sought to reduce requirements for Hindus to take local jobs and buy real estate, which the militants and others cite as an effort to reform the region’s demographics.

About 200 families living outside the camps, or who managed to get out, have left the valley in the past three days, local Hindu leaders say.

“We used to get all the support from the local population. But all of a sudden, from the past two and a half years, the scenario has completely changed,” said Ankaj Tickoo, a 31-year-old engineer at the energy department in Srinagar district.

“What happened to my parents in the 1990s,” he added, “is happening to us now.”

Sandeep Raina, 38, who works for the same agency in the Anantnag district, said he had received calls from the officer in charge of four police stations discouraging him from visiting the scene in their area.

“We have not been going to the office since the murder of Rahul Bhatt – that was 21 days ago, and more killings have taken place since then,” he said, referring to an official who was shot in his office. “I am concerned for the safety of my family. I cannot send my child to school.”

In a letter to India’s chief justice on Wednesday, Sangarsh Simiti, a Kashmiri Pandit organization, accused the government of “playing with the lives of the religious minorities in the Kashmir Valley” and asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The organization said more than a dozen targeted attacks, some of them fatal, had been registered against Hindus since 2020, and many more against Muslims perceived as supporting the government. It also describes how authorities are now preventing Kashmiri Hindus from moving to safer areas.

“The government blocked the roads, used electric power to barricade the walls of the transit camps, the main doors of the transit camps are closed from the outside with locks,” the organization said in its letter to the court.

Videos posted by Hindu residents of the Mattan camp, in the Anantnag district, showed a tense situation during a protest as local officials urged residents to stay. The officials said they would increase security measures and allow residents to work closer to home.

The Kashmiri Hindus told local officials it was too late for such measures. Some of them chanted, “What do we want? A right to live!” and “The only solution: move! Move!”

Ranjan Jotshi, 48, a protest leader who works at the local social security branch, said he was part of a delegation visiting the region’s governor for a meeting, and the police chief had told those in attendance it would take three years. take to rid the region of the remaining militants.

Hours after the meeting with local officials at the Mattan camp, as panic mounted over the bank manager’s murder, security forces barricaded the camp’s exit with vehicles to prevent families from leaving.

“Don’t force Kashmiri Pandits to pelt you with stones,” can be seen in a video in which he tells police, referring to an act that local Muslim youths from Kashmir sometimes resort to against the heavy security forces in the region.

“We want to leave at all costs,” says Mr. Jotshi. “We don’t want to die here.”

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