Fear and recoil in Kashmir

The spate of killings began on July 8, with the brutal murder of Sheikh Waseem Bari, the former district president of BJP Bandipora, along with his father Bashir Ahmed and brother Umer Sultan.

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It has been over a fortnight that Abdul Ahad has been holed up in a hotel in Gulmarg under high sec-urity. Married just a year ago, the 35-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker is worried about his family, his elderly parents and wife, back home in Baramulla in north Kashmir. He and several other BJP workers were moved to Gulmarg in July after a targeted attack by militants earlier in the month. Five BJP members have been killed in the past month in north, south and central Kashmir. Abdul Hameed Najar, the district president of the Budgam Other Backward Class Morcha, was only the latest to fall prey to terrorists’ bullets when he succumbed to his injuries on August 10, a day after he was fired at while out on a morning walk. Four days earlier, Sajad Ahmad Khanday, the BJP sarpanch of Vessu village in Kulgam in south Kashmir, was killed. Another BJP panch, Arif Ahmad Shah, was critically wounded in a militant attack in the Akhran area of Kulgam on August 4.

The spate of killings began on July 8, with the brutal murder of Sheikh Waseem Bari, the former district president of BJP Bandipora, along with his father Bashir Ahmed and brother Umer Sultan. They were killed at their shop outside their home, which was just a few metres away from the local police station, and despite a security detail of 10 PSOs (personal security officers). A day later, posters asking for the resignations of BJP functionaries appeared all over town. Following the targeted attacks, 17 BJP workers have resigned in the past one month, eight in the 24 hours since Najar was killed. The resignations have been public, accompanied often with photographs and circulated on social media.

The attacks and threats led the gov-ernment to shift political workers like Ahad to secured accommodations. “I was called to the police station concerned and shifted to Gulmarg on July 26,” says Ahad, who had signed up as a BJP member in 2012 when the party did not have any political presence in Kashmir. “I had never felt threatened. That changed when Waseem Bari was killed in a highly fortified zone and despite security. Since then, I had been returning home before dusk and trying to stay off markets. No place is safe now, it’s a red zone everywhere.”

The police have also placed strict restrictions on the movement of these BJP functionaries. They are not allowed to visit their families. On the morning of August 6, Khanday breached protocol to go home without informing the authorities at the mig-rant camp where he was put up in his village. The police believe it gave militants the opportunity to fire at him just outside his house.

However, living away from family and under strict restrictions is making the BJP functionaries restive. BJP leader Tariq Ahmad was distressed that he had to spend Eid-ul-Azha away from his wife and two children. It feels like they are in jail, the workers say, unaware perhaps of the irony of the entire non-BJP top leadership being incarcerated for the past one year. Some of these men, therefore, have demanded family accommodation in their respective hometowns, in government facilities, with security cover.

The targeted attacks have struck fear in the hearts of BJP workers and panchayat members, some of whom have publicly announced their resignations and circulated their photographs. “I have small children,” says Abdul Aziz, who joined the BJP just a year ago and was the district vice-president of the ST Morcha in Ganderbal. “They would cry and not eat food after hearing about the deaths of my colleagues. I had no secure accommodation or security. My life was under threat. I, therefore, resigned before the media.” In his resignation letter and passport photo circulated on WhatsApp, he said he had no ‘concern’ or ‘contact’ with the BJP.

In the Valley itself, the attacks on BJP workers cut short the series of events scheduled from August 5 to 20 to commemorate the first anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370. These included virtual meetings and paying tribute to social and political workers killed by militants in the past three decades of armed militancy. All that the BJP could manage under strict restrictions and thick security cover was hoisting the tricolour at public squares in towns on August 5.

For the moment, the attacks have forced the party to focus on the safety of its cadre. With 750,000 workers that the BJP claims to have in Kashmir, the party realises it will be difficult to provide security cover and accommodation to all. Hence the option of keeping their functionaries in secured accommodation. The J&K BJP has asked the party brass in New Delhi to provide secure accommodation in all district headquarters. According to J&K BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur, the proposal has been more or less accepted and accommodation will be provided to party functionaries on priority as per the threat assessment. “Safe zones will be created in districts, where political workers will be provided accommodation in buildings and hotels on rent,” says Thakur.

Where does this leave the party’s plans for political mobilisation on the ground? Thakur insists that only the ‘opportunists’ have resigned, others are committed to continuing the political work. To this end, the Centre has also effected a change of guard at the top. On August 6, bureaucrat G.C. Murmu was replaced as the lieutenant governor of J&K by Manoj Sinha, a politician of standing who came close to becoming the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. A three-time MP, and a former minister of state for railways and communications, Sinha is expected to revive political activity in J&K, which has effectively been in abeyance since August 5, 2019. But for that, the gov-ernment will first need to build a conducive environment and tackle militancy rather than provide fortified accommodation to political workers. “The permanent solution can only be the elimination of militants responsible for the killing and triggering of fear among political workers,” says a political leader who did not wish to be named.

J&K government spokesperson Rohit Kansal was unavailable for comment, but Sinha showed he meant business when in his condolence message for the slain BJP workers, he called their killing a heinous act aimed at spreading fear, and vowed to bring the accused to justice. “There can be no justification for such attacks,” he said. “Society does not have any space for perpetrators of violence, and those involved in this cowardly act shall be brought to justice.” The new LG’s brief is clear: to end militancy and bring stability to the region so that the political process can be restarted and development work begin in J&K. “Achieving all this along with accelerated development will be our aim, our mission,” Sinha said at his first media interaction after taking over as LG.

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