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An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard along a street ahead of the visit of India's Home Minister Amit Shah, in Srinagar on Oct. 22, 2021.TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

As a Kashmiri, Sanjay Tickoo has seen it all: decades of insurgency, Indian army-led counter-terrorism operations, civilian killings and endless curfews. Life has rarely been at ease in the scenic, disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir in the northern tip of the Indian subcontinent that is administered by three countries: India, Pakistan and China.

But not once in the past three decades, he said, had he felt the kind of fear he experienced over the past four weeks, when a spate of targeted killings were carried out largely against non-locals and minority communities. It prompted security forces to whisk Mr. Tickoo away from his home in Srinagar, the summer capital of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, to an undisclosed safe house.

Mr. Tickoo heads Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organization that represents the rights of the Kashmiri Pandits, a small Hindu community in Kashmir that has been targeted time and again by terrorists who want the region to be Islamicized and become one with Pakistan.

The deadly violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir last month has claimed 39 lives, including 12 civilians, shrouding the Kashmir valley in fear and insecurity. (The other fatalities were army casualties and militants.) It is the latest wave of unrest in a bucolic, fertile region that has long been a pawn between powerful forces. As fearful citizens leave the region, the remaining inhabitants fear worse is still to come.

Since partition in 1947, when the British carved a Muslim country, coined Pakistan, out of the northwestern part of India, the two neighbouring nations have been in conflict. Kashmir was claimed in full by both (with China also asserting control over parts), and three wars have been fought over it since. India’s current Hindu nationalist government holds Pakistan responsible for continuing to sponsor terrorism in Kashmir in order to gain full control of the region.

Recent killings in the area have targeted migrant workers from India, as well as non-Muslim citizens including a Sikh and a Hindu school teacher. Officials said the targeted killings were carried out by The Resistance Front, reportedly a new offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamist terrorist organization. India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, said China and Pakistan are triggering a proxy war against India to disrupt peace in the valley; the Indian army plans to bring the situation under control, he said.

In major crackdowns carried out in the past month, the Indian army claimed to have killed several rebels. As counterterrorism operations got underway, security forces corralled hundreds of migrant workers into police- and army-protection camps. Police also asked religious minorities to stay home from their jobs.

The spate of killings triggered widespread anger across the country, with demands for the majority community of Muslims in Kashmir to publicly voice their protest against the attacks. A few Srinagar mosques condemned the killings and called on the public to protect minorities. Soon after the string of attacks, though, Kashmiri Sikhs, Kashmiri Pandits and migrant workers began to leave the valley in thousands, many fleeing to the Hindu-dominated city of Jammu, others crowding buses and trains to go back to their home states.

For Kashmiri Pandits, though, the events of the past few weeks have evoked the wrenching mass exodus of the 1990s, when about 70 per cent of the total population of Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave the state after attacks by Islamist terrorists destroyed their homes and places of worship. Mr. Tickoo’s organization estimates 302 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in 1990, and about 650 in total by 2009.

About 800 Kashmiri Pandit families remain in the valley. One such family is that of Shikha (the Globe is not using her surname due to concerns for her security). A day after the targeted killings began, Shikha began a fearful five-hour journey from Jammu to a village near Srinagar, where her grandparents live, whom she hadn’t met since the pandemic began.

“My family kept telling me to turn back, but I thought: This is what the terrorists want, to induce fear. It’s my home, nobody should stop me from going there.” She describes arriving in her grandparents’ village with her child, and feeling a “quiet fear.” “I was scared for my toddler, whom I had taken to meet my grandparents for the first time. But we had to leave within 12 hours as we didn’t know what would happen next.” Her grandparents are among a handful of Kashmiri Pandits in the village, surrounded by Muslim families with whom they share such a deep bond and bonhomie that they never felt the need to leave Kashmir. “When I asked my grandparents to come to Jammu with me, they said they felt protected in their village, and if they had to die, it would be in their home.” Shikha is not certain if she can ever return.

Many believe the recent upheaval has its roots in the reversal of a “special status” designation that the Indian government bestowed on the region in 1949, which allowed it to have its own laws and constitution. In 2019, Kashmir was stripped of this designation; the government claimed that this measure was necessary to free the region of terrorism and economic stagnation. A military lockdown, combined with a communication blackout, followed, lasting for months.

Under the new policies introduced in 2020, non-Kashmiris were now able to obtain permanent residency and property in the region, which, according to local political leaders, created fear among many Muslims that they would see their power wane as the demographic shifted to include more non-Muslims.

In a bid to address growing tensions, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah visited Kashmir last week and extended “friendship” to the youth to seek their cooperation to strengthen “democracy” in the region. He said the government was creating half a million more jobs, a better education system and a new industrial policy with robust investment. But his visit sparked anger among locals when police detained over 700 Kashmiri youths ahead of his visit, citing security concerns.

“The more stringent the state response to terrorism, the more fertile the area becomes for militants to operate. When civilians are rounded up and booked, you end up alienating them and building resentment, which is what the militants want,” observed Javaid Trali, co-founder of JK Policy Institute in Srinagar. He believes all Kashmiris should be involved in the decision-making processes that shape the region.

The violence has come at a time when Kashmir was beginning to return to a sense of normality. The valley saw a bumper tourist season this summer, the iconic Dal lake in Srinagar city filling up with the traditional shikara boats, the region’s pristine meadows dotted with travellers from across the country. The government had, over the last decade, activated rehabilitation programs for exiled Kashmiris, with more resettlement plans in the offing. Business, too, was looking up, and many exiled Kashmiris were planning to rebuild their homes and work here. The recent conflict, though, has put a pause on these plans. One Kashmiri Pandit businessman who moved back to his ancestral home in Srinagar a few years ago, and to whom the Globe is granting anonymity because of concerns for his security, now sees little point in staying on.

“I was offered security but I didn’t want a guard outside my house because then you stand out more. We were seeing a peaceful Kashmir after a long time with the lowest rate of violence and a record number of tourists. But after these attacks, I realized this is not the kind of place where I want to raise a family,” he said. He is now looking to shift his business elsewhere.

“Minorities like Kashmiri Pandits,” said Mr. Tickoo from his undisclosed location, “are soft targets” to create unrest in Kashmir.

He pointed out that the terrorists have changed their strategy, by attacking migrant labourers this time. “If the migrant labour leaves, there will be a labour crisis here,” he said. “Despite our demands for better security and jobs for over 30 years, the government has not bothered to listen to the concerns of minority communities.”

Utpal Kaul, a Delhi-based historian and international co-ordinator of Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora, explained what he believes is the motive behind the selective killings. “When there is some peace prevailing, with new projects and investments, Pakistan wants to show to the world there is anarchy in Kashmir,” he said.

“Kashmir needs a new narrative by politicians and civil society without playing into the hands of separatist sentiments,” he added.

By all accounts, there are no easy solutions in a complicated region like Kashmir. “The situation is challenging,” said Mr. Trali of the JK Policy Institute. “Everyone is living in fear — whether they are Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh.”

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