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By: Vijay K. Sazawal

The recent tragedy of targeted killings in Kashmir began in the late 1980’s with the uprising that was organized by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. After the 1996 State elections, the local administration reached out to pro-Pakistani players in the valley for an accommodation in order to provide some semblance of peace and order in the valley. The State agreed to bypass the merit-based selection process to fill up open government job postings, and many jobs were taken up by pro-Azadi supporters. By early 2000’s, Ali Shah Geelani had emerged as the undisputed leader of the pro-Pakistan resistance movement, and created his own organization called the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Jammu Kashmir (TEHJK) in 2004.  Mr. Geelani appeared to have the authority to command anyone in the valley bureaucracy, and no one would dare challenge his orders, including his frequent calls for “hartals” resulting in immense loss to the business community and creating severe inconvenience to the public. Within a few years, the nexus between the government bureaucracy and hardcore terrorists led by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) began to grow, claiming its first prominent victim – a journalist – in 2018, but that nexus would not be uncovered until 2021.On 1st January 2021, a local Hindu goldsmith, Satpal Nischal, was a victim of targeted killing in the valley.  A LeT/ISI linked local terror outfit named “The Resistance Front” (TKF) claimed responsibility for the heinous act, attributing his killing to having received a Domicile Certificate.

It was not until 17th July 2021 that Satpal’s murder conspiracy was exposed by the Police with the arrest of Sofi Akbar, Secretary of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC). Akbar and his cohorts had created a website where they would expose targets who would subsequently be killed by LeT/ISI recruits using handguns. A new class of terrorists, called the “Over Ground Workers” (OGW) was born, and in this case this particular group of OGW’s had fingered Shujaat Bukhari (journalist) killed in June 2018, Babar Qadri (advocate) killed in September 2020, and finally Satpal Nischal (goldsmith businessman)killed on the New Year’s Day 2021. The message was clear. The targeted killings were facilitated by an anti-national official, on public payroll, working in the valley.

The hunt for the OGW’s, however, is complicated by the inter-agency rivalries as was evident during the Hyderpora encounter that took place on 14th-15th November 2021, where various police and security officials initially gave conflicting statements, and the civil society, with support from some politicians, tried their best to debunk the facts on the ground. The facts in this case, as borne subsequently by an exhaustive investigation which was made public on 28th December 2021, were that a building owner had surreptitiously rented out a portion of his building in Hyderpora locality to a prominent dentist, who in turn hosted a Pakistani illegal and a local assistant, with the Pakistani committing various terrorist acts in the valley. Hyderpora encounter is a clear example of how “street narratives” can be shaped by unscrupulous politicians with the active support of civil society. While the traditional nexus between politicians and the Police is absent in a Union Territory (UT), the effectiveness of the police force is somewhat degraded in the valley by a lack of full support from lower ranks to the non-local IPS cadre in-charge of the districts. The UT security upgrade requires a new policing architecture.

Mr. Geelani had many serious faults, but he did not see Kashmiri Pandits as enemy targets. I know of incidents where he saved the lives of Kashmiri Pandits when Kashmir was burning. Credible sources have also told me that the State Government sought and received Geelani’s blessings for the PM Relief Package for Pandits before it was announced publicly in 2008. Interestingly, the period from 2003, when Syed Ali Geelani took over as the supreme resistance leader, to until his seclusion due to failing health in 2019 (16 years), not a single Kashmiri Pandit was a victim of target killings. The new phase of targeted killing of Pandits began with the assassination of Mr. Ajay Pandita, a Sarpanch from the Anantnag district, on 8th June 2020, in the same month that Mr. Geelani removed himself from politics all together. He died nearly 14 months later.

On the other hand, the valley politicians and bureaucracy thwarted all attempts to ensure speedy return and rehabilitation of migrant Pandits under the PM package. By employing bureaucratic inertia(“red tape”) and disingenuous means to slow the process of filling up posts sanctioned for migrants, by creating excruciating delays in constructing transit room tenements in the valley, and by the anemic pace of recovery of illegally occupied Pandit properties, the bureaucrat-politician nexus ensured little progress towards the return of Pandits to the valley. In this regard, nothing has changed since the State has become a UT, proving that valley bureaucrats still hold full control and authority over the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits.

After the death of Mr. Geelani, the local political dynasties, namely, Abdullah’s, Mufti’s, andLone’s, have struggled to fill the “resistance leadership” vacuum created by Geelani’s demise. In the meantime, targeted killings are on the rise – Kashmiri Muslim army personnel on leave with their families, unfortunate non-local Hindu migrants scrapping for a few rupees as “pani puri” sellers, Kashmiri Pandits, and even Kashmiri Muslim men and women – no one is safe from targeted killings anymore. New Tanzeems have mushroomed that allow OGW’s to operate with impunity, as is evident from a lack of any culpability in the targeted killing of a government employee, Pandit Rahul Bhat, in his Tehsil office, on 12th May 2022.

A noted journalist of the valley, Ahmad Ali Fayyaz, has highlighted specific examples of administrative lapses in the Education Department leading to targeted killings of teachers, Supinder Kaur and Deepak Chand, in the Eidgah area of Srinagar on 7th October 2021, and of Rajni Bala in Kulgam on 31st May 2022, and yet no official has been disciplined so far.

The Lt. Governor of the Union Territoryhas spoken about dismantling terror eco-system in the valley. He has emphasized the need for various security agencies to coordinate their work more efficiently. Similarly, the defense minister in a recent visit to the UT blamed the present security situation to a “foreign conspiracy.” All of this may be true, but the UT Government must put in place an intensive security program to search, seek, expose, and arrest OGW’s and their nefarious connections within the local bureaucracy. The activities undertaken by the Government so far are too few and too small.

The future of minorities in Kashmir will remain uncertain until there is a sea change in the mind-set within certain vested elements within the local bureaucracy. It should be noted, however, that most local bureaucrats are loyal citizens of India, and the few that are sympathetic to anti-nationals are unfortunately tolerated in the system out of fear for personal safety by the rest. At the other end, if the political class keeps harping on worn-out messages, then things will not change for the better either. The return of the old political class, even in a UT, is fraught with danger for minorities in the valley. And any reversion of the UT to a State, without having successfully broken the OGW-bureaucrat nexus, will spell doom for the minorities.

We hope that Kashmiri Pandits will return back to the valley some day with dignity and in safety. It will need a combination of soft and hard power to bring a compelling change in the situation in Kashmir. But more importantly, it needs tough decisions of the same significance that the Indian Parliament took on 5th and 6th August 2019. Why the Modi Government did not take the next logical step of announcing the return policy for Kashmiri Pandits on the 7th August 2019 is a mystery. Perhaps we may know the answer some day.

Dr. Vijay Sazawal (www.KashmirForum.org), a Srinagar born and raised native, is an eminent nuclear policy analyst living in Washington who advised the U.S. Government on the Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement. Diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks have disclosed that he was also an advisor to the U.S. Government on the Kashmir issue. He is an active community leader in the Kashmiri diaspora.  Views are his personal.

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