Hundreds of minority Hindus have fled Indian-administered Kashmir, and many more are preparing to leave, after a new wave of targeted killings stoked tensions in the disputed Himalayan region.
This week alone, three Hindus were killed by militants in Kashmir, including a teacher and migrant workers, sparking mass protests and the biggest 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 leave in the coming days.”
Many Hindu families have said they are waiting to get school leaving certificates for their children and then leave as soon as possible. “Fear increases with each new murder,” Tickoo said. “Minorities face the worst situation in Kashmir.”
On Thursday morning, suspected rebels killed Vijay Kumar, a Rajasthan state bank manager in the southern district of Kulgam. CCTV footage showed a masked man entering Kumar’s office and shooting him with a pistol.
Later that evening, two Hindu migrant workers were shot dead in Budgam by two masked gunmen. One of them, identified as Dilkhush from Bihar, died of his injuries on the way to hospital.
Two days earlier, Rajni Bala, a Hindu schoolteacher, had been killed by suspected militants, also in Kulgam. On May 12, Rahul Bhat, a Hindu, was killed when assailants burst into his office and shot him.
At least 19 civilians have been killed this year in similar targeted attacks in the region, including minority Hindus, government workers and a woman known for her Instagram videos.
Police blamed Pakistani-backed militant groups for the killings. Kashmir has been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947. While the two countries control the region in part, they both claim it in its entirety, and since the 1980s Indian-controlled Kashmir was rocked by a violent militant insurgency loyal to Pakistan.
After the series of attacks, Hindus say they were driven out of the area. These include Kashmiri Hindus, commonly known as Pandits, 65,000 of whom first fled the valley in a mass exodus in the 1990s, when a violent pro-Pakistani insurgency broke out in the region and they started being targeted.
By 2010, a few thousand Hindus from Kashmir had returned to the Muslim-majority region, lured by a government rehabilitation policy that offered jobs and kept homes for around 4,000 people. But in recent weeks those who have returned have protested the killings and demanded more security. Hindu employees have refrained from their duties, urging the government to relocate them to safer locations.
“We are in a situation similar to that of the 1990s,” said Pyarai Lal, 65, who lives in Sheikhpora Budgam, in one of the seven guarded houses intended for Hindus. “My son is a teacher and he hasn’t attended his homework for the past two weeks. We are even afraid to leave our house. Who knows when a gunman will attack?”
Lal moved to the southern town of Jammu 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 preparing to leave again. “It looks like the situation will get worse and we will be leaving for Jammu soon,” Lal said.
Authorities promised employees they would be posted to safer locations, and police said they were stepping up security by stepping up counterinsurgency operations, surveillance and the use of drones.
But many Kashmiri pundits have accused the authorities of barring them from leaving and say police and paramilitary forces were deployed at their government’s doorsteps and provided accommodation to arrest them.
“It looks like the government is waiting to get us all killed,” said Rinku Bhat, a Kashmiri pandit. “Or they’re trying to show a false normal by forcibly holding us in a place where every minute is dangerous for us.”
On Wednesday, the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Simiti, an organization that monitors the region’s minority community, wrote a letter to the region’s chief justice in which he was concerned for their safety and accused the government of gambling with their lives in preventing them from resettling, seeking judicial intervention.
The targeted attacks on Hindus pose a major 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, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah held a high-level review meeting on the security situation in the region, but no government statement was made on the matter.
In 2019, Modi unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and imposed a military crackdown under the guise of greater security for Kashmir. The government introduced a series of laws allowing non-locals to buy property in the area, hoping to entice Hindus to settle in the state, a move many locals feared was the attempt of Delhi to bring about demographic changes in the Muslim-majority region.
Many see the abolition of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019, as well as the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist policies, which have led to increased attacks on Muslims in India, as a driver of the growing rise in violence in Kashmir.
“Kashmir Muslims feel that their religion and their identity are in danger and [the attacks] definitely seems in reaction to that,” Tickoo said.