Kashmir: Minority killings increase amid violent demographic tensions

Last week, two Hindu schoolteachers and a pharmacist in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar were killed by militants who claimed their victims were right-wing Hindu nationalists implementing New Delhi’s “occupation designs” for Kashmir.

Their deaths are part of a recent spate of killings, which are being blamed on an Islamist militant insurgency challenging India’s rule in the restive region.

Hindus, also called pandits in Kashmir, are an ethnic minority in the Muslim-majority region. Since India scrapped the region’s semi-autonomous status and changed land use laws in 2019, local Muslims fear Indian authorities are trying to engineer demographic change by encouraging Hindu migration.

A little-known militant outfit, The Resistance Front (TRF), claimed responsibility for the killings last week, saying the victims were espousing a Hindu right-wing agenda.

The teachers were killed for allegedly threatening students who didn’t participate in India’s Independence Day functions on August 15, and for hoisting India’s national flag, a TRF statement said.

Police have said the TRF is a local front for the notorious Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamist militant outfit, whose objectives include merging all of Kashmir with Pakistan.

The slew of killings has instilled fears in thousands of migrants from minority Hindu and Sikh communities. Many are refusing to leave their homes or go to work this week. Others are fleeing Kashmir for safety in India.

Watch video 02:01 How India’s Kashmir region lost its autonomy

What legal changes did India make in Kashmir?

Before August 2019, Kashmir had its own constitution, which provided safeguards on land, jobs, and citizenship rights.

On August 5, 2019, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its semi-autonomous status after India’s federal government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave the state special rights, including its own constitution and flag.

The move also bifurcated India-administered Kashmir into two federally governed union territories: Ladakh and Jammu, and Kashmir.

Soon thereafter, India made controversial legal changes allowing Indian nationals who are not residents of Kashmir to purchase land in the disputed region.

It also granted domicile rights to more than 200,000 nonstate residents after August 2019.

Hindus flee Kashmir after attacks

Fears over laws opening the door to non-Muslim migration seem to have triggered a violent backlash targeting members of minority communities. Local Hindus say these tactics were used in the 1990s to push out Kashmiri pandits.

“Militants killed a few prominent Kashmiri pandits in the 1990s to trigger migration. This ploy worked then, and now they are repeating it,” said a Kashmiri pandit who preferred to withhold her name for fear of reprisal.

“It is like the 1990s all over again, with the same fear and chaos among people. At that time, my parents took me out of Kashmir — and now, I am leaving with my kids,” she told DW.

Scared by the recent spate of killings, the woman, along with her family, left Kashmir for the primarily Hindu region of Jammu on Saturday.

Security forces crack down

Indian security forces have recently detained more than 700 people, mostly young boys, in a sweeping crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir, following the string of militant attacks and targeted killings.

Indian security forces carry out security checks in Srinagar on Monday

DW spoke with the families of several of these detained youth, who said that their children are not involved in any militancy-related activities.

Nevertheless, the killings have drawn sharp condemnation from both pro- and anti-India political parties, along with religious and civil society groups in Kashmir.

Manoj Sinha, the lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir, said security agencies have been given free hand to respond to the attacks.

“The terrorists and those aiding and abetting them will pay for their heinous crimes. Every drop of innocent civilians’ blood will be avenged. We will dismantle the terror ecosystem,” Sinha said.

Indian police officials say those detained in the crackdown include anti-India political activists and “overground workers,” a term Indian authorities use for militant sympathizers.

History of tensions in Kashmir

Kashmir observers have said the recent targeted killings portend a return to the most violent phase of a militant anti-India campaign in Kashmir during the late 1980s and early 90s.

Armed insurgency erupted after New Delhi allegedly rigged 1987 assembly elections in favor of an Indian nationalist coalition of political parties. The Muslim United Front (MUF), a coalition of Islamic parties that many predicted would perform well in the polls, lost the elections.

MUF leader Muhammad Yousuf Shah, who is also known as Syeed Salahuddin, then became head of the so-called Hizbul Mujahideen, an Islamist militant outfit that recruited predominantly locals.

Salahuddin’s election manager, Yasin Malik, went on to lead the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which carried out bomb attacks in the region’s largest city, Srinagar.

The Kashmir Valley sank into a morass of violence, as thousands of local Muslim youth picked up arms against Indian rule, killing people for alleged affiliation with the Indian state.

Watch video 11:28 How India reshaped Kashmir by revoking Article 370

“Political violence in India is intimately tied to a demographic imagination […] In Kashmir, the fear of altering demography after the abrogation of Article 370 has been palpably real,” wrote political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express on October 10. Article 370 of the Indian constitution gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and was revoked in 2019.

Prominent Kashmiri Pandit leader Sanjay Tickoo told DW that conspiracies are being hatched against Kashmir’s Hindu community, claiming they had a role in the abrogation of Article 370.

“It is a blatant lie. Pakistan and separatists are creating the fear of demography change in Kashmir, and the recent killings are its offshoot,” said Tickoo.

He added that the Muslim-majority community must publicly commit to supporting an end to violence.

“Authorities have asked us not to venture out of our homes. But police security is not the remedy,” he said, emphasizing that the majority of the community must first want tensions to end.

“Otherwise, it is difficult to live here,” said Tickoo.