The latest spate of violence claiming the lives of 7 civilians, including four from minority faiths, brought back the ghost of 1990 when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits fled Kashmir fearing violence from anti-India armed groups.
The overcast sky adds to the feeling of insecurity in a residential neighbourhood exclusively meant for Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Pandits, in the Budgam district of Indian-administered Kashmir.
A week ago, it was business as usual for Pandit families living in the Sheikhpura neighbourhood. But panic gripped them as a series of civilian killings shook the Kashmir valley between October 2 and 7 last week.
Out of seven victims, three were Hindus, one was a Sikh woman and the rest were Muslims. With Jammu and Kashmir being a Muslim majority region, the killings of four non-Muslims triggered an intense outrage across India.
As a result, many Pandits in Sheikhpura, most of whom work for the Indian government, have either left or are pondering over leaving Kashmir for the second time in the past 30 years of the conflict. In 1990, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits migrated to different Indian cities as many from their community became targets of various militant groups, according to the Indian government.
"I have a Hindu friend who lives in the (Sheikhpura) colony. She would come to our home for milk. She is now scared. She hasn't come out of her home since yesterday," a local Muslim woman who lived in Sheikhpura, next to the Pandit neighbourhood, told TRT World on the condition of anonymity.
The walled residential compound in Sheikhpura where 290 Pandit families live has become a no-go area for outsiders, especially for Muslims. The Indian government added a layer of security to the compound since last Friday's fatal attack on two school teachers, which left a Sikh woman principal and her Pandit colleague dead on the school premises.
According to eyewitness accounts, masked gunmen entered the school and lined up the staff. After checking ID cards, they separated Muslim teachers from their non-Muslim counterparts, taking the latter aside and shooting them dead.
Reeling from the impact of the killings, the Pandit families in the Sheikhpura compound are weighing two options: either stay back and trust the government, which promised them safety; or leave Kashmir.
Most of these families had returned to the conflict-torn region under a rehabilitation policy announced by then-Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh in 2005. While they are still considered to be displaced, as many of them belonged to different parts of the Kashmir valley before their migration to other Indian states and towns in 1990, their return was seen as part of a broader attempt to encourage other displaced Pandits to return to Kashmir and live alongside Muslims as they did previously.
Shiva (name changed), a Kashmiri Pandit who works at a government-run agricultural department, said that last week's killings had petrified his family.
"My wife had come from Jammu to stay with me for some time. After the attacks, she left early today (October 8, Friday)," he said.
Jammu city, the summer capital of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, has a Hindu majority. A large number of Kashmiri Pandits took shelter in the city after migrating from Kashmir in 1990.
Since his family has been insisting on him leaving Kashmir, he has started packing his clothes and other important possessions.
"I will leave tomorrow," he said.
The victims, the religion
The dim prospect of seeing Kashmiri Pandits leave for the second time has left a significant number of Kashmiri Muslims depressed and dejected. Many of them took to social media, condemning the attacks. The Grand Mufti of Kashmir also denounced the attacks and expressed solidarity with Pandit and Sikh minorities of the region.
“When militarisation is pursued as a state policy to handle a live and lingering conflict rather than seeking conflict resolution, bloodshed and loss of precious human lives is the consequence,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a senior separatist leader in Kashmir.
“No victim is seen through the religious prism,” he added.
Sanjay Tickoo, a local Kashmiri Pandit who runs a nonprofit named Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), told TRT World that Pandits who are currently leaving are the ones who had returned to Kashmir in 2005 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's rehabilitation plan.
"Almost 30 families have left so far," Tickoo said, adding Kashmiri Pandits who did not migrate at the peak of violence in the 1990s continue to live in Kashmir.
Tickoo told Indian media in March this year that at least 3,800 Pandit migrants have returned to Kashmir in the past decade or so and most of them have taken up government jobs. They live in government-owned gated compounds in various districts, however.
Soon after the news of the killings spread across Kashmir, Tikoo's phone hasn't stopped ringing with fellow Pandits calling him in desperation, seeking his advice on what to do next.
"I have now requested some of my friends from the majority (Muslim) community to show support for the Hindu community who are thinking of leaving Kashmir," he said.
In the early 1990s, when the insurgency in Kashmir was raging, at least 70,000 Pandit families fled between 1990 and 1992, according to KPSS. The KPSS has also pegged the number of Kashmiri Pandits killed allegedly by militants between 1990 and 2011 at 399.
For many Pandits living in New Delhi and other parts of India, calling their displacement a migration is an insult to their suffering. They call it an "exodus" and blame Kashmiri Muslims for not standing up to the armed militants who forced them to leave Kashmir.
But for Kashmiri Muslims, the 1990s and the following decades have been equally — if not more — dreadful. The Kashmir conflict has claimed the lives of 47,000 people since 1989, as per the Indian government's estimates. But human rights groups and nonprofits put the death toll, mostly involving Kashmiri Muslims, at twice that amount, and criticise the Indian government over its worsening human rights record in the region, which includes extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and enforced disappearances.
However, the ghost of the 1990s has drawn a massive wedge between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. And in times of social media and 24/7 TV news bulletins, the divide has gotten worse, as Kashmiri Muslims largely believe that they have almost always been scapegoated by Indian media and blamed for helping militant groups in targeting Pandits.
Many Kashmiris argue that the migration in 1990 happened in the dead of night and amidst a harsh winter, when no one in Kashmir felt safe and no one knew who was killing whom. On that fateful night, hundreds of Pandit families were bussed out of Srinagar and dropped in the Jammu city where they ended up living in squalid 'migrant camps'.
'Watching them leave is heartbreaking'
Many pro-India Kashmiri politicians fear that the incidents of targeting minorities would make the life of Kashmiri Muslims equally miserable. While navigating the presence of around 700,000 Indian soldiers, one of Kashmir's firebrand politicians Mehbooba Mufti set the alarm bells ringing, anticipating an iron-fisted response from the Indian government.
A few hours after Mufti gave her statement, the Indian paramilitary soldiers gunned down a Kashmiri Muslim in the Kulgam district. The police said the victim was travelling in a numberless SUV, which sped past a security check post, prompting the armed soldiers to target it with gunfire. While the driver, as per the police, fled from the spot, the lone passenger sitting in the back of the car was hit by bullets, dying on the spot.
The cycle of violence, which has now reached Kashmir's urban areas, gobbling up civilians and minorities, is becoming politically sensitive in light of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) unilateral scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir's nominal autonomy in the fall of 2019.
Back then, the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi justified the highly controversial move, saying it will end "terrorism" in Kashmir and pave the way for the contested region's complete unification with the rest of India.
Divided between India and Pakistan, Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule over the region since 1989. India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, a charge Pakistan denies.
Prior to the removal of Article 370, which gave Kashmir's elected legislators some degree of autonomy with enacting laws, the insurgency was largely confined to the rural areas, especially in the south of Kashmir.
In the recent past, however, attacks on unarmed policemen in urban areas have put the region's security establishment on edge. Many village mayors (sarpanchs) have also resigned from their posts since their election, otherwise projected as one piece of evidence proving Kashmir's return to normalcy following the removal of Article 370.
Pro-India politician Mehbooba Mufti, who was ruling Jammu and Kashmir in an uneasy coalition with the BJP between 2016 and 2018, lashed out at New Delhi for deteriorating security scenario in Kashmir, saying: "The government of India's claims of building 'Naya Kashmir (new Kashmir)' has turned Kashmir into a hellhole."
Omar Abdullah, another pro-India politician who comes from an influential Sheikh family, whose grandfather Sheikh Abdullah became the first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, also spoke critically of the BJP government's Kashmir policy.
"The primary responsibility for security is & will always be the duty of the administration of the day. It can’t be shifted to individuals & political parties to suit political convenience & misplaced loyalties. That said, we all have the responsibility to do what we can to help," said Abdullah, whose grandfather Sheikh Abdullah was jailed by India on the charges of 'treason' in 1953, and by the time of his release Jammu and Kashmir did not have its own prime minister as New Delhi had downgraded the post to a chief ministerial position.
In a region-wide crackdown, the police have so far detained 900 people, as per local accounts. The police also said that it killed two "terrorists," one of whom they said was linked to the latest string of killings.
The police also said that the people they are arresting are linked to a banned religious outfit named Jamaat-e-Islami.
On the other hand, a new armed group named the Resistance Front, which came to public knowledge after the revocation of Article 370, has made a claim of taking responsibility saying they were behind the killings, accusing the targeted individuals of either being the "agents" of India's Hindu nationalist group RSS or police informers.
Justifying the killings of two school teachers, the rebel group said the duo had mounted pressure on students to attend India's independence day celebration on August 15. Although the police confirmed the Resistance Front was behind the killings, the armed group’s statement could not be independently verified.
The targeted killings triggered protests in Srinagar last Friday, when hundreds of Sikhs, including the relatives of Supinder Kaur, the school principal who was shot dead a day earlier, carried her mortal remains on a stretcher and marched on the city’s streets, demanding swift action against the perpetrators of the crime.
Jagmohan Raina, who heads All Party Sikh Coordination Committee (APSCC), an organisation that advocates for the 150,000 Sikhs in the region, said that the killings are a part of "larger propaganda" to cause a rift between Kashmiri Muslims and Sikhs.
“Whosoever has done such a heinous crime is trying to defame Kashmir and people living here. We won’t leave in fear. This is our place and why should we leave it,” he said.
But last week's brutality has opened the old wounds of the 1990s, when Kashmiri Pandits left everything behind for survival. A local Pandit family from the Karan Nagar neighbourhood, wishing to be anonymous, were packing their bags in a hurry when TRT World reached out to them.
One of their Muslim neighbours, Shaista Jan, was trying to console them but she could see the family was firm on leaving Kashmir.
“They have been living here since forever," Jan said. "Watching them leave like this is so heartbreaking."