Two more civilians gunned down in Kashmir as fears of resurgent militancy grow

Two more civilians gunned down in Kashmir as fears of resurgent militancy grow

Two migrant labourers were shot dead by suspected militants in yet another targeted killing in India’s restive Jammu and Kashmir, adding to concerns of instability in the region. So far 11 civilians, mostly non-Muslims and non-locals, have been murdered in October.

On Sunday, unidentified gunmen entered the rented accommodation of labourers in the Wanpoh area of Kashmir’s Kulgam district and opened fire, killing two people on the spot. One person was injured.

The workers were identified as Raja Reshi and Joginder Reshi, both from the eastern state of Bihar. “They were shot six times by the terrorists. I don’t know how many gunmen were there as I was inside the room,” a witness told India Today.

The latest attack came just a day after a hawker from Bihar and a carpenter from the state of Uttar Pradesh were shot dead in Kashmir.

On 7 October, a school principal and a teacher, from the minority Sikh and Hindu communities respectively, were shot dead in Srinagar. Two days before that, on 5 October, three civilians — a prominent Kashmiri Pandit pharmacist, a taxi driver and a street food vendor — were shot dead in Srinagar and Bandipora district. A further two civilians were killed on 2 October.

The director general of police in Jammu and Kashmir, Dilbagh Singh, said earlier this month that the killings were an attempt to damage the region’s stability. “Killing innocent civilians, including teachers, is a move to attack and damage the age-old tradition of communal harmony and brotherhood in Kashmir,” Mr Singh said on 7 October.

Of the 11 victims, five have been identified as migrant labourers, a fact that has triggered an exodus of migrant workers from the valley. More than 50,000 migrant labourers, mostly from the eastern parts of India, are estimated to be working in Kashmir.

The targeted killings of minorities in the Muslim-majority region has led to a rise in fear among the upper-caste Hindus, known as Pandits, residing in the valley.

“After the initial deaths, we thought normalcy will return, but now we are witnessing a massacre,” a prominent Kashmiri Pandit activist told The Independent.

“Mere assurances from the government and former leaders is of no use, unless the government acts on it. I keep getting panicked calls from Pandit families. Nobody is listening to our pleas. We were hoping mosques will demonstrate their responsibilities towards reassuring faith in minorities, but most of them have not. The government too has done nothing.”

The activist said that they would leave the valley if the government provides an area for resettlement, hinting at a repeat of the 1990 exodus of the community, when at least 100,000 Kashmiri Pandits emigrated out of Kashmir as an armed and violent insurgency began.

A similar spree of killings was recorded in March 2000, when unknown attackers shot dead more than 35 Sikhs in a village in Anantnag district. In 2003, over 20 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in a remote village in Pulwama district.

The latest spate of killings are “a reaction to the Indian government’s settlement policy”, said author and professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain.

Mr Hussain was referring to the federal government’s move in 2020 to notify new land laws for Jammu and Kashmir, making it possible for any Indian citizen to buy land in the region. This right was earlier reserved only for locals.

“There are two widely speculated possibilities: Either the attacks are created [by militants] as a pretext [in the wake of] the settlement policy, or the situation will be used to create a separate settlement for migrants,” Mr Hussain said.

In the aftermath of the attacks last week, over 900 people with affiliation to banned organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat were detained by the local police.

Mainstream politicians from Jammu and Kashmir have also condemned the killings. But so far, neither the prime minister nor the interior minister of India have commented.

Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah said the killings were a “conspiracy” to “defame Kashmiris”.

Mehbooba Mufti, another former chief minister, said she did not have the words to condemn the attacks.

United Liberation Front, a group affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, has claimed responsibility for the attack in Kulgam. In a statement circulated on social media, the outfit claimed that the attack was carried out as a reprisal to the “lynching of 200 Muslims only in Bihar” by “Hindutva forces”.

Earlier, another group called The Resistance Front had claimed responsibility for some of the killings.

Jammu and Kashmir, which is believed to be the world’s most militarised zone, has witnessed numerous sporadic incidents of militant attacks over the last two decades. The region is at the heart of a decades-old dispute between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the Kashmir region as theirs, but control only parts of it.

The region was India’s only Muslim-majority state until prime minister Narendra Modi’s government in 2019 revoked the semi-autonomous special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and split the state into two federally-administered territories.

Relations between India and Pakistan were at their worst after the abrogation of the region’s semi-autonomous status, which was vehemently opposed by Islamabad.

Following a months-long communication blackout in 2019, the Indian government announced that normalcy has returned to the bifurcated state. Yet according to a report by a leading local human rights group, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 162 people including civilians, security forces and militants were killed within the first three months of the 2019 move.