Srinagar: Kashmir’s leading Pandit activist still lives in as most Kashmiris once lived, in a traditional house made of mud in the narrow, serpentine alleys in the old city, one of the last Pandits left in an area that his community abandoned three decades ago.
With time, the rundown walls of the house have come to bear a stark resemblance with Sanjay Tickoo’s thoughtful face, somewhat worn but warm.
“These walls are home,” said Tickoo, 57. “They might not be fashionable in Kashmir anymore, but this is where my solace lies.”
A former manager in the sales department of a private company, Tickoo, 57, and the last remaining Pandits of Kashmir confront fear and anxiety as minorities again become targets of the region’s long-running conflict.
Tickoo is the head of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS)—a body of Kashmiri Hindus, commonly known as Pandits, who did not flee the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s, when an armed insurrection caused more than 60,000 Pandits to migrate to Jammu, Delhi and other parts of the country.
On 13 June, the KPSS put out a tweet that caught public attention. “#CITEZENS (sic) OF INDIA PLEASE SAVE RESIDENT KASHMIRI PANDITS/HINDUS IN THE VALLEY AS SOMETHING FISHY IS GOING TO HAPPEN AGAINST US.”
In an interview with Article 14, Tickoo said the tweet was meant to draw the attention of Indians to their insecure situation after a series of assassinations of Pandits, migrants and others, at a time when the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government was claiming that the situation in the union territory was better than ever, with thousands of tourists arriving and development projects underway.
“The government is lying that everything is hunky dory in Kashmir,” said Tickoo, who said the fear of death resurfaced after 5 August 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the revocation of Article 370, which granted limited autonomy to the restive region.
Tickoo said Pandits now felt a fear they last experienced in the 1990s, when hundreds of community members were killed. The first figure came from the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police in May 2008, saying that 209 Kashmiri Pandits have been killed since 1989. In 2021, the J&K police put the figure at 89. However, Tickoo said 803 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the 1990s.
However, 808 families living in 272 villages of Kashmir did not migrate and continued living within Muslim communities undisturbed. When Article 370 was revoked, said Tickoo, he was afraid h e might be attacked by locals angry at the union government.
“The day special status was revoked, I put all the documents of my family in a box and kept it in a Muslim neighbour’s house because we were afraid we might be attacked by the public,” said Tickoo. “But fortunately that didn’t happen.”
What did happen was that the assassinations restarted. Four Kashmiri Pandits were among 15 Hindus killed by militants between the abrogation of Article 370 and June 2022.
The first of such killings took place in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, where Ajay Pandita alias Bharti, a 40-year-old Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch was shot dead by militants on 8 June 2020.
A year later, on 2 June 2021, another Kashmiri Pandit, Rakesh Pandita, was shot dead by militants in south Kashmir’s Tral town. Pandita was the municipal chairman of Tral in Pulwama district and was affiliated with the BJP.
The killing that gained the most public attention and outrage was the assasination of prominent Kashmiri Pandit pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo at his shop in Srinagar on 5 October 2021.
It was then that Tickoo was moved out of his home by the J&K police to a safer place before returning to be guarded by three security officers, as closed-circuit television cameras were installed outside his house.
What hurt him when returned, he said, was the silence of those he had known for decades.
“Not a single person from this area, even my neighbours, bothered to see me and inquire about my wellbeing,” said Tickoo.
The killings continued when militants shot dead Deepak Chand, a hindu teacher from Jammu, along with Supinder Kour, a Sikh school principal, inside a government school in Srinagar on 7 October 2021. That month was the deadliest month in 2021, with over 13 civilians shot dead, including Kashmiri Pandits, migrant labourers and other locals.
The second round of killings was in May 2022, when militants shot dead Kashmiri Pandit clerk Rahul Bhat, inside a tehsil office where he worked in the town of Chadoor in central Kashmir's Budgam district.
Bhat was given his job under the Prime Minister’s special employment package for migrants, announced in 2011 by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as part of a long-term rehabilitation plan for Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley in the early 1990s.
Bhat’s killing sparked largescale protests by Pandit government employees in the Kashmir Valley, which is 68.31% Muslim. They blocked the road in Srinagar and demanded relocation to safer places outside the Valley, a demand that the government refused to accept. On 20 June, the J&K government locked-up protestors, as it had before, inside a refugee colony where they lived, so they could not protest on the streets.
Edited excerpts from the interview with Tickoo, who talks about what changed after the revocation of Article 370 and what life is like for the remaining Kashmiri Pandits after the latest killings:
On 13 June, you put out a tweet appealing to citizens of the country to help and save Kashmiri Pandits. Can you explain why you made this appeal?
Yes, we have specific inputs that more killings will happen in southern parts of Kashmir, and the numbers may be huge. It could be more than that. People from our community received phone calls from the police to be more cautious, and they aren’t allowing them to come out of their homes. We had similar inputs last year as well, and we sought an appointment with lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha but there was no response. You witnessed pharmacist Makhan Lal Bindroo being shot dead in broad daylight in Srinagar on 5 October 2021. The militants then shot dead Deepak Chand, a hindu teacher, along with Supinder Kour, a Sikh school principal, inside a government school in the city of Srinagar. Apart from them, many non-local labourers were killed in a series of targeted attacks—all of which created a sense of insecurity among the minority community living in Kashmir. The targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits didn’t stop there. They are happening in 2022 as well, and we don’t know what will happen in future. We want people to know what is happening with us. That is why we put out this tweet so that before anything big happens, the people of our country should know it.
The government is lying that everything is hunky dory in Kashmir and that tourists are coming in huge numbers. But the ground situation is different. People are living under the shadow of guns.
What kind of fear have Kashmiri Pandits been living under?
We have been having sleepless nights for the past few months.The apprehension of getting killed is always present. Our families aren’t safe and the situation is the same in the 1990s.
This fear resurfaced in August 2019 when Article 370 was abrogated by the central government. The day special status was revoked, I put all the documents of my family in a box and kept it in a Muslim neighbour’s house because we had apprehensions that we might be attacked by the public, but fortunately it didn’t happen. Since 5 August, our community has been living in fear, which wasn't there for the last two decades. Everything was going fine.
Are you saying that revocation of Article 370 made things more dangerous for Kashmiri Pandits? Many Pandit associations supported the move.
To some extent—yes. But that doesn’t mean you will blame the whole community. You can’t judge the whole community because of fringe elements. If you do, then you are a fool. No doubt that some of the people from our community celebrated the revocation of special status but you can’t blame everyone. We have also suffered just like the majority community. You need to understand that there are fringe elements in every society.
The 808 families who decided not to migrate in the 1990s are here because of the majority community. It is because of their support that we were still living here, but things have changed. We are being treated differently. The gap between the two communities has widened so much that it is very difficult to bridge.
What did you think of the abrogation of Article 370?
See, this was on their (BJP’s) agenda for decades, and they did it when they came into majority. Now the majority community has this apprehension that the BJP will change the demography (of the Valley). I believe that is a myth because they can’t do that.
Why do you say that?
The population of Muslims in the union territory is 85.67 lakh (8.5 million or 68.31%, according to the 2011 census). Would you kill them to make demographic change? No, you can’t do that, nor can you bring one crore settlers to undo the majority.
You met Home Minister Amit Shah soon after the 2021 killings. What were the demands? Were they addressed?
We had only one demand and that was to move 808 families outside the Valley, so that we could live peacefully, but that (demand) wasn’t addressed. He (Shah) raised a question and asked how many Kashmiri Pandits had been killed after August 2019. He said over 30 non-local labourers had been killed and a number of Kashmir Muslims had also been killed, while only a few Pandits had been killed. We understood that he was playing the numbers game, and we left immediately.
You accuse the BJP government of using the Pandits as cannon fodder for their own electoral benefits.
Isn’t that a fact? Since the 1990s we have been used. They (BJP) have been in power for the last eight years. Has anything changed for Kashmiri Pandits? In fact, things are getting worse. They failed to rehabilitate migrant Pandits . The transit camps that were constructed for Pandits were provided by the UPA government. They are just promoting tourism in Kashmir and portraying that everything is fine, which is not true.
You say Pandits wanted to leave the Valley but the government was not allowing them. What do you think, why didn’t they?
See, when the killings happened, we were scared. Our people who are living in seven transit camps tried to flee to safer places but the administration locked the gates of the camps and did not allow anyone to leave. But many families left then and people are still leaving. There are over 1,039 individuals living in these transit camps; over 50% have left and moved to safer places outside Kashmir. Apart from them, a number of non-local labourers left Kashmir soon after the killings.
You didn't migrate when militancy was at its peak in the 1990s and thousands of Pandits left. Why do you want to leave now?
There is a limit to everything. When the limits are being crossed, what are the options? The administration didn’t address our issues, and we felt that we are being used to their own political benefits. The economic conditions of our community are deteriorating. We don’t live a normal life here, so why should we become scapegoats for a particular political party, which has always used Kashmiri Pandits. That is why we want to leave now and live an honourable life.
Do you regret now leaving the valley in the 1990s?
Yes, not only me but all the 808 families who are living here. You need to understand that when a society turns against you then you can’t live in the same society. You feel suffocated. Their (Muslims) silence on our suffering is killing us inside. We want their healing touch.
In the wake of the recent targeted killings, you had sought the High Court's intervention. What made you approach the court?
See, when the system fails to address your issues and nobody is listening, what is the option for you? That is why we approached the Court and sought a probe into the killings. We made a representation to the chief justice of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh High court and informed them that the government is not allowing them (migrant Pandits) to leave the Valley. In the petition, we submitted that the union territory administration and the central government have failed to secure the life of religious minorities staying in Kashmir Valley. We sought immediate arrest of those officers and officials responsible for security lapses and an SIT (special investigation team) be constituted and submit its report within a stipulated time, monitored by the high court. We also appealed to the court to ask the government to explain the policies and mechanism they have formulated to safeguard minorities in the Valley. We are happy that the honourable chief justice has accepted our representation as a public interest litigation (PIL). The matter will be listed before a division bench after the summer vacation. The killings will continue until there is no accountability. The bureaucrats must be held accountable.
Have the people from the majority community reached out to you after the recent killings?
Unfortunately, they (Muslims) are silent. I don't know why. I am trying to find out. Let me tell you about my area. There are around 60 Muslim families here. They were good to us. We used to have a good interaction, but everything changed when I was shifted by the J&K police to a safer place in October 2021 after the first round of killings. I was in the hit list of militants, and there were strong inputs that they would kill me. So, I was shifted. But when things settled down, I came back home. I was provided with three personal security officers by the J&K police and we installed closed-circuit televisions around our house. But to my surprise not a single person from this area, even my neighbours, didn’t bother to see me and inquire about my well being.
They have socially boycotted me. Nobody is talking to us. What happened suddenly? This is killing me inside more than what has happened. This is mental torture, when your own neighbour is not talking to you.
You see my daughter in other room is teaching at least a dozen Muslim students. All are our neighbours. The parents just pick-up and drop their kids outside our house—there is no interaction now.
This wasn’t happening before 2019. We used to talk, share our grief but everything changed.
What is the role of the J&K political parties in all this?
They are responsible for the mess. They misused their position and didn’t work as per the wishes of the people. They were also aware about the revocation of Article 370, but they saved their own skin. To be frank enough they didn’t make a common Kashmiri an Indian. They portrayed Kashmir Pandits as Intelligence Bureau (IB) agents and Muslims as Pakistanis. They didn’t take a stand for the people.
You also claimed that the movie The Kashmir Files has made Kashmiri Pandits unsafe in the Valley. How?
Yes, there are a number of scenes that were wrongly portrayed. All Kashmiri Muslims were shown as extremists and jihadists. The way the massacre of Hindus was shown in the movie was wrong. It never happened. It definitely provoked the Muslim community, and let me tell you it has created a wide rift between the two communities.
What do you think is the best way forward?
You have to reach out to the youth of Kashmir and all the religious places in the Valley and make them aware about what is right and what is wrong. Everyone has to chip-in to condemn the killings, otherwise this place will become worse than Syria.
How has your life been over the last 30 years living in Kashmir?
Honestly, everything was going fine till 2019, after 2003 when 24 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the Nadimarg massacre. Since 2019, life seems to be hell. We are socially cut off. There has been no social interaction since then. I am on the hit list of militants. I have learned a lot of lessons over these years.
(Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)