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SOURCE: INDIA TODAY

Four Hindus have been shot dead in Kashmir within a year. Among them, two had returned to the valley with political affiliations. On 8 June 2020, Ajay Pandita ‘Bharti’ was gunned down in Anantnag, leaving behind his old parents, wife and two young daughters. A year later, Rakesh Pandita, survived by a son and wife, was killed in Tral.

Children of the deceased, now connected by the same grief, met in a rare moment of solidarity. Both, below 20 years of age, were facing a sudden and irreparable loss. Sheen, the elder daughter of Bharti, offered support to 17-year-old Paras, Pandita’s son. Seated at the latter’s home, on a hot afternoon in Jammu, they discussed the loss of their fathers and concern for widowed mothers.

Sheen means snow in Kashmiri, but her temperament is bold and fiery.

“My father loved Kashmir and its people, irrespective of religion. But he was targeted as a message to intimidate Pandits, to not return and not become a political voice. But I will not live in fear, I will not be deterred by the terrorists, just like my father wanted,” she said.

Despite the setback, the family has repeatedly visited their house in Anantnag since the tragedy.

Sheen chose to meet Paras because she was familiar with “the difficulty to cope with such a huge loss”. Though strangers, both confronted a similar quiet.

The meeting, where Sheen and Paras shared uncertainties about the future, lasted half an hour. Finances were the top concern.

“I told him not to feel burdened by the deluge of sudden responsibilities. I had to mature immediately, take care of my mother and ailing grandparents. I was worried about my educational prospects. Financial constraints came up often during our conversation. I reminded him not to feel the pressure, and that with time things do get better,” said Sheen.

Paras, confirming the meeting over the phone, spoke in a choked voice clearly overwhelmed by the sudden loss.

“When my father was alive and enquired about further studies, I would delay any conversation saying graduation time is still some time away. Now, I do not know what the future holds. My father is dead and my mother is not in the best health due to distress,” said the 12th science student.

Paras aims to become an engineer, a profession most commonly sought among Pandit children. For now, however, he is coming to terms with his biggest loss.

Ground situation

After the abrogation of Article 370, minority Hindus in Kashmir were hopeful that Pakistan’s dominance would be extinguished. They believed the government might bring peace and possibly break terror infrastructure.

Two years since 2019, the confidence is shaking and they fear the worst.

“When the radicals cannot confront the Government or Army, who do they turn their anger to? Us. They target innocent Pandits, to spread fear. Since August 2019, nothing has improved for the ones staying back in the valley,” said one activist based in the valley.

In January 2021, Satpal Nischal, a businessman, was killed by unidentified terrorists days after he bought a house under new domicile rules. Originally from Punjab, he had lived in Kashmir for 70 years.

In February, 25-year-old Akash Mehra succumbed to injuries after he was shot in the chest, outside family-owned Krishna Dhaba, a popular eatery, in Srinagar.

The official version for each killing is different. Possible business rivalry to personal enmity to terror angle. Impact, however, is the same- a minority community left feeling intimidated, hesitant to speak their views.

“Some people justified Pandita’s killing stating he was affiliated with BJP. But, my father was not. He kept asking for security but was denied despite a threat perception. Political leaning is not the only reason here, the agenda is clear,” added Sheen.

Rakesh Pandita, unlike Bharti, had security men deployed for his safety. One day he decided to leave PSOs behind and drove for a personal visit outside of the city and was killed. The investigation is on, as per the police.

Sheen’s grandfather is a retired pensioner, bracing responsibilities of teenagers.

“My son died a year ago and we are still unaware about who killed him. People are outraged for few days, then move on. The former LG provided financial assistance at the time, but can a family sustain itself without a regular income? I will do what I can to take care of the girls, but should the government not help in the long term too?”

The population of Kashmiri Hindus stands at less than 3 percent in the Kashmir valley. In a conflict zone, with cross-border terror outfits still active, every killing shatters the confidence of probable safety.

“As long as we keep a low profile and not question separatist voices, we are safe. If one of us even slightly mentions divergent opinions, attempts are made to silence us. Intimidation begins with taunts locally, then threats and then killing,” said a writer based in Srinagar, on condition of anonymity.