SRINAGAR, India -- The Kashmiri Hindu activist was listening to religious hymns on his cellphone when he was interrupted by a tragic WhatsApp message. It brought news of a fatal shooting of a prominent chemist from his community, just a few miles from the activist’s home in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Sanjay Tickoo, 54, anxiously bolted the gate of his house and gathered his family in the dining room. His phone kept buzzing with calls from frightened minority community members.
Within two hours of the killing of Makhan Lal Bindroo on Oct. 5, assailants shot and killed another Hindu man, a street vendor from India’s eastern state of Bihar, and in a separate shooting a native Muslim taxi driver. Two days later, two teachers - one Hindu and one Sikh - were shot inside a school on the outskirts of Srinagar.
The killings led to widespread unease, particularly among the region’s religious minority Hindus, locally known as Pandits, an estimated 200,000 of whom fled Kashmir after an anti-India rebellion erupted in 1989.
Tickoo, who like the chemist and some 800 other Pandit families had chosen to stay behind to live with their Muslim neighbors, and other prominent Hindus were swiftly relocated to secured accommodations. He was later moved to a fortified Hindu temple guarded by paramilitary soldiers in downtown Srinagar, the urban heartland of anti-India sentiment.
“I have seen death and destruction from close quarters. But I have never felt as insecure, as fearful all my life,” Tickoo said. “The killings spread panic faster than the virus.”
The chemist Bindroo’s killing was the first in 18 years of a local Hindu from this tiny community, whose people chose not to migrate from the strife-torn region. Fearing more such attacks, authorities offered leave to nearly 4,000 Hindu employees who had returned to the region after 2010 as part of a government resettlement plan that provided them jobs and housing.
Tickoo again chose to stay, but nearly 1,800 Hindu employees left the Kashmir Valley after the killings. It brought back memories of the 1990s, which saw the flight of most local Hindus to the region’s Jammu plains and to other parts of Hindu-majority India amid a spate of killings that targeted the community.
The killings seem to have “triggered memory that resonates with earlier history and mass displacement of Pandits,” said Ankur Datta, who studied Pandit migrant camps for his doctoral research and now teaches anthropology at South Asian University in New Delhi.
The killings were widely condemned by both pro- and anti-India Kashmiri politicians. In a sweeping crackdown, government forces questioned over 1,000 people in an attempt to stem more violence. Police blamed rebel group The Resistance Front, or TRF, for the killings. The region’s top police officer Dilbag Singh described the attacks as a “conspiracy to create terror and communal rift.”
In a statement on social media, TRF claimed the group was targeting those working for Indian authorities and was not picking targets based on faith. The rebel group’s statement could not be independently verified.
Despite the ongoing crackdown, the targeted killings have continued.
Assailants again shot and killed four migrant workers - three Hindus from the eastern Bihar state and a Muslim from the northern Uttar Pradesh state - in three separate attacks on Saturday and Sunday, increasing the death toll in targeted killings to 32 this year. The slain included 21 local Muslims, four local Hindus and a local Sikh, along with five non-local Hindus and one non-local Muslim, according to police records.
Siddiq Wahid, a historian and former vice chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir, said the recent killings gained attention only in the context of sectarian concerns, even as people of all religions were killed, and noted that the subsequent debate has focused on statistics rather than the loss of lives.
“The first distorts and the second overlooks tragedy. Both represent a deep loss for Kashmir,” Wahid said.
In Kashmir, Hindus lived mostly peacefully alongside Muslims for centuries in villages and towns as landowners, farmers and government officials across the Himalayan region. A war in 1947 between India and Pakistan left Kashmir divided between the two countries as they gained independence from Britain. Within a decade, however, divisions emerged as many Muslims began to mistrust Indian rule and demanded the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
When Kashmir turned into a battleground in the late 1980s, attacks and threats by militants led to the departure of most Kashmiri Hindus, who identified with India’s rule over the region, many believing that the rebellion was also aimed at wiping them out. It reduced the Pandits to a tiny minority.
Most of the region’s Muslims, long resentful of Indian rule, deny that Hindus were systematically targeted, and say India moved them out in order to cast Kashmir’s freedom struggle as Islamic extremism.
These tensions were renewed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and as the Indian government pursued a plan to house returning migrant Kashmiri Hindus in new townships.
Muslim leaders described such plans as a conspiracy to create communal division by separating the region’s population along religious lines, particularly after India stripped the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019 and removed inherited protections on land and jobs amid a monthslong lockdown and a communication blockade.
Authorities have since passed many new laws, which critics and Kashmiris fear could change the region’s demographics.
These fears became more pronounced in early September when authorities launched an online portal for migrant Hindus to register complaints of distress sales and encroachments onto their properties, an overwhelming majority of which have changed hands in the last three decades. According to official figures, 700 complaints were received in the first three weeks.
Thousands of Muslim families who bought properties from Hindus were left angered. Authorities even asked some Muslim families to vacate the properties.
“The online portal seems to be a major trigger for the killings,” said Tickoo, the activist.
Among the region’s minorities, Sikhs have lived relatively at ease with their Muslim neighbors and have emerged as the largest minority after the Hindu migration. But they too have faced targeted killings.
After the killing of 46-year-old Supinder Kour, a Sikh school principal, hundreds of angry community members carried her body in Srinagar and raised religious slogans while demanding justice. Some Muslim residents joined them.
“We don’t know who the killers are. Even if I knew, do you think I can talk freely?” said Sikh leader Jagmohan Singh Raina. “We are caught between two guns: the guns from the state and the non-state.”
Raina said no Sikh fled after Kour’s killing but maintained that his community was shaken. He said while the state was “provoking and punishing” the region’s majority Muslims through new laws, the minorities were being “manipulated for politics.”
Tickoo and Raina said the killings were “ominous signs″ for Kashmir. They asserted in similar comments that India’s changes two years ago “wounded all of us living on the ground.”
“And the wound,” Raina said, “has become a cancer now.”
Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at twitter.com/hussain—aijaz