“Hundred percent of my friends are Kashmiri Muslim,” said the 29-year-old who lives in the densely packed downtown area of Srinagar. Theirs is in the only Kashmiri Pandit family in the locality.

He lives with his mother and sister in their ancestral home in downtown Srinagar, one of the few Kashmiri Pandit families who stayed back after the 1990s, when targeted killings forced a mass migration of the community. “It’s impossible to live here alone without the support of the majority. We always felt safe here,” he explained.

That may have changed over the last few weeks. Since October 2, nine civilians have been shot dead by militants. Six belonged to minorities in the Valley – two were Kashmiri Pandit, two were Hindu migrant workers from Bihar, one was a Muslim migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh and one a Sikh school teacher. While three Kashmiri Muslims have also been killed by militants, there is panic in the Valley that religious minorities are being singled out.

Over the last few years, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits employed by the government had been accommodated in transit camps in the Valley. About 1,500 such employees are believed to have fled to their homes in Jammu. Of the 808 Kashmiri Pandit families who stayed back after the 1990s, seven have left the Valley.

Those that remain are fearful and cut off from the local community. There is a sense of siege in the transit camps, whose inhabitants are locked up inside and guarded by security forces. Outsiders, including the press, are not allowed to enter. Some prominent members of the local Kashmiri Pandit community have also been whisked away to fortified locations.

The 29-year-old in downtown Srinagar said they had not got security but ever since the killings, they had laid low and stayed indoors. “Fear is inevitable – as a minority that is natural,” he said. “But we don’t feel like leaving.”

Over the last few weeks, he said, friends and neighbours had reached out. “I have got messages and calls from Kashmiri Muslims saying that I don’t need to worry and they are there for me,” he said. While the messages have helped, there is a sense of disappointment. “I would have felt more assured and safer if, say, a group of local Kashmiri Muslim elders or neighbours had visited us in person,” he said.

The well-known pharmacy run by Makhan Lal Bindroo, closed after he was shot dead. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

It is a sentiment echoed by many religious minorities in the Valley, barricaded in after the killings. Separatists and pro-India leaders, trade bodies and civil society groups from the majority community have condemned the attacks, but popular and vocal protests against the killings are missing, minorities feel.

“I have good faith in the majority and that’s why we expected Kashmir’s intellectual class to come out and protest very strongly,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, chairman of the All Parties Sikh Coordination Committee, a body representing the 80,000-odd Sikhs who live in the Valley. “Whenever there’s been an uprising in Kashmir, Sikh kids have been at the forefront of these processions. Even though a lot of Muslims participated in the funeral of the Sikh victim, we feel that prominent people in society did not come forward. That’s our grievance.”

Yet Kashmir has not seen widespread public protests for over two years now, since the Centre stripped the region of special status under Article 370 and split the former state into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019. The restrictions, arrests and communications blackout imposed at the time had muffled all dissent. Observers in the Valley say that the government clampdown that persisted since then has erased the space for public protests.

Two sermons and an appeal

During sermons before Friday prayers on October 8, two mosques in Srinagar appealed to worshippers to protect minority communities in their neighbourhood.

Sanjay Tikoo, a prominent face in the local Kashmiri Pandit community, said he had initially been heartened by the sermons and posted appeals on social media, asking other mosques to follow suit. So far, he said, the appeals have not got much of a response.

For Tikoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti and has been shifted to a secure location, the last fortnight has been an unsettling time. For decades, he had been fighting for Kashmiri Pandits who stayed back in the Valley to be given the same benefits as those who fled. This struggle was possible because of the support of Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley, Tikoo feels.

Over the years, the solidarity between communities in Kashmir had been a point of pride with Tikoo. “I would often brag about this to Pandits outside the valley that even if 90s happened, we are still in Kashmir,” he said. But he was shaken by what he called the “silent mode” of the majority in the Valley.

“I was seriously expecting that Kashmir will shut down against Bindroo’s killing but I was shocked when nothing of that sort happened,” said Tikoo. ML Bindroo, the Kashmiri Pandit owner of a well-known chain of pharmacies in Srinagar, had been shot dead on October 5. In the past, shops in Kashmir would shut down en masse as a gesture of public protest. While Bindroo’s death had created ripples of shock in the Valley, shops remained open.

Sanjay Tickoo. Picture credit: Umer asif

‘We are in a war zone’

But a 75-year-old Kashmiri Pandit who lives in a rural area in Central Kashmir felt it was unreasonable to expect public protests in a region under siege.

“Is a Kashmiri Muslim himself so safe that he will give me confidence and support? What’s the guarantee that he cannot be killed?” he asked. “The reality is that we are living in a war zone and anyone among us could be killed. Two countries are fighting a war here and anyone among us can be crushed.”

He moved to the posh residential colony from downtown Srinagar over three decades ago. Since his wife died and his only daughter was married off, he has lived alone, the only Kashmiri Pandit in the colony. But he is stoic in the midst of the recent panic. “I believe that every soul has to taste death,” said the retired government employee. “Even if I escape here and there, it will find me. So why should I be afraid?”

He says he has never wanted to leave Kashmir, despite years of violence and militancy, and does not need public assurances of solidarity. “People know my temperament – if someone even thinks of showing solidarity to me, I will turn my face away,” he said. “It’s unwanted and unwarranted. I am in safe hands here.”

No space for protest

Many Kashmiri Muslims echo his claim – that public protests are not possible in a place under siege. The crackdown post August 5, 2019, had created a crippling sense of fear, many feel.

“If the expectation is a shutdown call then Pandit killings are not the only thing Kashmiris should have observed a shutdown against,” said Ahmad, a local businessman who gave only his second name. “Over the last two years, Kashmiris have been facing repeated assaults on their identity and rights but nobody is able to say anything because of fear. It’s because there’s a sense of defeat among the majority community.”

He pointed to the clampdown after the death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arguably the most popular separatist leader of the Hurriyat. The ailing, aged leader had died on September 1, after 13 years of almost continuous house arrest. Before Kashmiris could pour out on the streets, the authorities snapped all phone and internet connections and imposed restrictions on movement.

Geelani’s family alleged that the security forces took the leader’s body by force and buried him in the dead of the night, preempting the possibility of a funeral that could turn into a more widespread public protest. The family alleged even they were not allowed to participate in the funeral. When restrictions were lifted after a few days, no public mourning or protests broke the quiet in the Valley.

“If Kashmiris didn’t even have the courage to mourn their beloved leader, how could they find strength to protest against the killings of ordinary civilians?” asked Ahmed.

After the region lost autonomy and statehood, the space for political articulation has shrunk. Separatist politics has been outlawed, with most of the leadership behind bars or under house arrest. The local press has been censored, with journalists facing police action for reporting on human rights violations. Many argue that anti-terror laws have been invoked indiscriminately.

There were no protests after hundreds were rounded up and arbitrarily detained. There were no protests when civilian after civilian was killed over the last two years, whether it was by militants or security forces. When Parvez Ahmed Khan, a civilian, was gunned down by paramilitary personnel after he failed to stop at a checkpost on October 7, that death was also greeted with silence.

After Khan was killed, his family alleged they were forced to bury him hastily at night and their phones were confiscated so that they could not take pictures of his body. Earlier that same day, Supinder Kour, a Sikh government school teacher, had been shot dead by militants. The government allowed a large funeral procession to march towards the Civil Secretariat in the heart of Srinagar a day later.

Tikoo felt all deaths should have drawn protest, no matter what community the victims belonged to. “All civilian killings at the hands of combatants – be it militants or armed forces – should be condemned,” he said. “That’s something we as Kashmiri society needs to think about.”

But a political scientist based in Srinagar felt the government would not allow widespread protest against minority killings now. “The state won’t allow that because it serves them two purposes,” he explained. “First, to show that Kashmiri Muslims are not bothered about Kashmiri Pandits. Second, and more importantly, if they [government] allow such activities, they know that it won’t remain confined to these killings but rather the whole situation.”

Olive branches

Quiet olive branches have been offered in the last couple of weeks. Soon after the killings, a civil society body called Group of Concerned Citizens asked for “a time- bound judicial probe” into them. The group, which consists of local academics, businessmen, lawyers, scientists, former judges and civil servants, also assured full support “to efforts, made at any level, for creating and nurturing an atmosphere of amity between different communities living in the Valley.”

Raina said he received a call from Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a Hurriyat leader and the cleric of Srinagar’s Jama Masjid, as well as traders and other prominent Kashmiri Muslims, “expressing their solidarity and promising me their support”.

Tikoo also acknowledged that, at the local level, there had been individual efforts by Kashmiri Muslims. “The youth have a very vibrant friend circle these days,” he said. “They have got a lot of solidarity within those circles but we expect mass support. I want Kashmiri Muslims in droves to visit my home and tell me I am safe.”