Angry Kashmiri Pandits held noisy demonstrations at several places in Jammu and Kashmir on Friday and were met with force by the police which used teargas and lathi-charge to disperse them, a day after a government employee from their community Rahul Bhat was killed by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in his office in the valley.
Raising slogans against Lt Governor Manoj Sinha and the administration, the demonstrators, mostly government employees posted in the troubled valley and their kin, demanded that they be provided adequate security or be transferred to Jammu. According to many reports, over 350 employees in the valley submitted their resignation to LG Sinha as they didn’t feel safe.
A rattled administration pleaded with the demonstrators to call off their protests and announced that the Lt Governor had set up an SIT to probe the killing of Bhat in the Tehsil office at Chadoora in Budgam district. Security forces claimed that the two terrorists involved in the killing were gunned down by them on Friday in an encounter in Brar in the Aragam area of Bandipora district in north Kashmir.
The Sheikhpora camp, located in Budgam of central Kashmir, where Bhat had been provided accommodation along with other government employees, was the epicentre of the protests with people marching towards the airport road to block it before they were intercepted by the police.
A heavy posse of police personnel stopped the protesters after appeals requesting them to disperse failed to yield any result, leading to clashes during which the security forces had to resort to lathi-charge and firing teargas shells. There were no reports of any injury but some purported pictures of people allegedly wounded during the police action circulated on social media.
The demonstrators then staged a sit-in and raised slogans against the Jammu and Kashmir administration and demanded that Lt Governor Manoj Sinha should come and assure them about their safety. However, the Lt Governor was in Sopore attending a function at that time.
The protestors were carrying placards that read, “I need to be able to tell my children that I did not stay silent”, and also displayed the wounds that they had received during the lathi charge. They also claimed that four of their men had been detained by the police. However, there was no official confirmation for this.
Later in the evening, it was claimed by protesters that the gates of the Sheikhopora Migrant Colony were locked from the outside by police allegedly to prevent them from coming out.
In a 35-second video circulating on the social media, dozens of Kashmiri Pandit protestors can be seen assembled around a photograph of the deceased at the main gate of the colony with an equal number of police personnel on the other side of the gate that has been blocked.
“We were removed from the dharna by the DIG (central Kashmir) on the assurance that the Lieutenant Governor will come to see us. However, the assurance has been breached … the LG has not come. Now they have locked us inside but for how long will they cage us,” said one of the protestors.
The LG’s office tweeted that the Lt Governor had met the relatives of Bhat and “assured justice to the family”
Bhat, 35, was shot dead by two Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists at his Tehsil office in Chadoora of Budgam district on Thursday.
The protests were held at Baramulla, Kupwara (North Kashmir), Vessu, Mattan, Qazigund (South Kashmir), and various parts of Jammu including the Jagti camp, where Kashmiri pandit migrants have been provided concrete accommodation since 2007.
In Jammu, the funeral of Bhat witnessed unruly scenes as the BJP leaders including its J-K unit president Ravinder Raina had to face the ire of mourners. They were heckled and roughed up and police had to intervene when they visited the cremation ground in Jammu.
Hundreds of protestors blocked roads and burnt tyres at Muthi, Hazuribagh and Buntalab in Jammu. They raised slogans against Sinha and the BJP and demanded that Kashmiri Pandits be relocated from the valley.
Residents of Muthi camp led by its president Anil Bhan took out a rally and blocked a road for hours. “The BJP is ruling this Union Territory through the LG and every failure on the part of LG is theirs. How long will we receive coffins from our homeland? Our boys and girls joined the services in Kashmir in national interest and to serve Kashmir,” Bhan said.
“Home Minister Amit Shah claimed in parliament about the start of a rehabilitation plan. Since then, dozens of Hindus were killed and four temples suffered damage. Our boys and girls who are serving the people of Kashmir are in fear and terror. Is this the rehabilitation plan?” Jagti camp leader Sunil Kumar asked. As the protests continued during the day, it was announced in the evening that the Lt Governor had set up an SIT to probe the killing of Bhat and his wife would be given a government job.
“A decision has been taken to constitute special investigative team to probe all the aspects of the despicable terror attack. The SHO of the concerned police station has also been attached,” Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha tweeted.
He also said that the administration will bear the educational expenses of his daughter.
Mainstream political parties of the union territory reacted angrily to the handling of protests with former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti appealing to the majority community to ensure that Kashmiri Pandits are safe. She even went on to say that local religious leaders should in their Friday sermons press for the need of maintaining brotherhood in the Valley.
Mufti claimed that she had been placed under house arrest to stop her from visiting Budgam to express solidarity with the protesting Kashmiri Pandits. “Wanted to visit Budgam to express my solidarity with Kashmiri Pandits protesting against GOIs failure to protect them. Have been put under house arrest as the fact that Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits empathise with each other’s pain doesn’t fit into their vicious communal narrative,” the PDP chief said.
Police officials, however, refused to comment on Mufti’s claim. Later, in a video message, Mufti urged the majority community in the valley to stand by the minorities. “We need to give a message to the whole country of J-K’s brotherhood and its history that we are a secular state and a united people so that the government does not get a chance to defame Muslims,” Mufti said.
National Conference (NC) vice-president Omar Abdullah said it was shameful that legitimate and justified protests are met with a heavy-handed response.
“This is not new for the people of Kashmir because when all the administration has is a hammer every problem resembles a nail. If the LG’s Govt can’t protect KPs they have a right to protest,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Tourism is not normalcy; it’s a barometer of economic activity. Normalcy is the absence of fear, the absence of terror, the inability of militants to strike at will, the presence of democratic rule & by any yardstick you choose to use, Kashmir is far from normal today,” Abdullah said.
Condemning the killing of a policeman in Pulwama on Friday, the NC leader said targeted killings were continuing unabated in the valley. “Rahul in his office yesterday, Riyaz Ahmad Thoker, an SPO with J&K police, in his own home today. Targeted killings continue unabated. I can’t condemn this killing strongly enough. May Allah grant Riyaz place in Jannat,” he said.
Bhat was cremated on Friday in Jammu amid protests by members of the Kashmiri Pandit community. His wife and daughter, who were staying with him at Sheikhpora migrant colony in Budgam, accompanied the body as it arrived in Jammu from Kashmir.
His brother Sunny lit the pyre at the Buntalab cremation ground as chants of “long live Rahul Bhat” rent the air. The community members, including Rahul Bhat’s family, accused the BJP-led government at the Centre of making young Kashmiri Hindus “cannon fodder” in the name of rehabilitation of the community. They also said the incident has shattered their dream of resettling permanently in the valley.