The killing of Rahul Bhat, a Revenue Department employee in Kashmir’s Chandoora area of Budgam district, Thursday has not only come as a setback to the Centre and Union Territory government’s plans for return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, but also their oft-repeated claim of improved situation there.
Nearly a dozen Kashmiri Pandits, including three government employees, have been killed by militants since the Central government in August 2019 moved to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and abrogated Article 370, which guaranteed special status to the erstwhile state.
Even migrant Pandits attribute the spate of targeted killings to the rhetoric created by mainstream politicians, including the BJP. A leader of the Pandit community, King C Bharti, based in Jammu but active in the Valley, said: “Though none of them has anything to do with politics, the rhetoric by some, especially pro-government politicians, that they have broken the backbone of militancy makes them sacrificial goats. Militants target them in order to make their presence felt.”
Another Kashmiri Pandit leader said that the shrill rhetoric also causes the majority Muslim population in the Valley to rally, citing “atrocities” against the community in Kashmir and elsewhere, leaving minorities even more insecure.
Around 6,000 migrant Kashmiri Pandits are estimated to be posted in different places in the Valley under a 2008 Prime Minister job package, many of them living there with their families. Bhat’s killing has reignited questions about the “futility” of these low-paying, high-risk jobs.
“We are being posted there in the name of jobs, only to get killed, and that too for peanuts,’’ said a Pandit government employee, who wished not to be named.
He said those appointed as part of the PM’s package were not even considered at par with those picked via the UT’s service selection board and, hence, got a consolidated salary of Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 only for the first two years.
In case they die in a militant attack, rules do not even provide for a government job to next of kin as compensation. Except for Deepak Chand, whose next of kin was provided a job last year, others killed have so far got just Rs 1 lakh as ex-gratia, a government official belonging to the migrant community said.
Now the government has assured that they will provide employment to the next of kin of the deceased, said Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Ashok Pandita, the nodal agency looking after the issues of migrant Kashmiri Pandits. “Otherwise, provisions of SRO 43 which provide for employment to the next of kin of an employee killed on duty do not apply, as the migrant employees are appointed under the PM package against supernumerary posts which end with one’s death,” he said.
With most of the migrant Pandit employees posted in the Valley living in private rented accommodation, many say at least Rs 8,000 per month goes just into rent. Besides, at the time of appointment, they have to give an undertaking that they will not seek transfer to any other place except the Valley.
“If the government is so serious about our welfare, it should delink the employment package from the issue of our return and rehabilitation in the Valley,” a Kashmiri Pandit said. “The UT government keeps posting us to vulnerable places, despite requests… The administration’s attitude, coupled with the killings, has brought us to a point where we are thinking of returning to Jammu.”
After a government schoolteacher, Deepak Chand, was killed in October 2021, a large number of migrant employees had in fact returned from the Valley to Jammu. Later, many rejoined duty on the promise of full security.
Chand, though not a Pandit, was a migrant. The other Pandits killed have been a prominent businessman, shop employees and elected panchs and sarpanchs, who had gone to the Valley to contest rural local body polls, leaving their families in Jammu.
Zafar Choudhary, a noted journalist and political analyst, says the ground situation in Kashmir is complex and the government needs to open its eyes to this. Claims of peace based on one good tourist season were misplaced and many more factors would determine this, he said.
A Kashmiri Pandit leader said the foremost need was for re-establishment of a feeling of brotherhood between the majority and minority communities in the Valley. However, both still look at each other with suspicion. The leader hoped that the government would fix responsibility and ensure some heads roll to restore confidence among Kashmiri Pandit employees.