Ramresh Paul Singh learnt of his wife’s death through an image forwarded to him on WhatsApp on October 7. It showed a woman in a floral blue kameez, her face fallen to one side as she lay on the ground, her eyes half closed.

“I had never expected something like that to happen to ordinary people like us. I am still in shock” said Singh, a bank employee. His wife, Supinder Kour, a Kashmiri Sikh like him, had been principal of a government school in Srinagar’s Eidgah area.

Another image circulated that same morning showed a man lying in a pool of blood, his body slumped against a wall, a mobile phone still in his hand. He was Deepak Chand, a Kashmiri Hindu, who taught at the same school in Srinagar.

That October morning, two militants had barged into the school, singled out the two non-Muslim teachers and shot them dead.

Two days earlier, militants had shot dead three other civilians in Srinagar. They included ML Bindroo, a Kashmiri Pandit who owned a pharmacy chain in Srinagar and was among the few from the community who had not left the Valley when militancy spread in the 1990s. Virender Paswan, a panipuri seller from Bihar, had also been shot dead the same day.

Civilian killings, both by militants and security forces, are not new to the Valley. According to official figures, 40 civilians were killed in Jammu and Kashmir in 2017 and 39 in 2018. In 2019, the year Delhi stripped the former state of autonomy under Article 370 and split it into two Union Territories, minorities and migrant workers in the Valley started coming under attack from militant groups. Thirty six civilians were killed that year, while the toll in 2020 stood at 33.

According to official figures, 38 civilians lost their lives in violence in 2021, mostly killed by militants. At least nine belonged to minorities in the Valley and migrant workers from outside the region, killed in a spate of violence that gathered pace from October.

The killings have brought new anxieties to ethnic and religious minorities in the Valley. But they have also changed Kashmir in other ways. Hard lines have been drawn – by militant groups, which seem to have changed their avowed politics, and by security forces, which have carried out a series of controversial operations and cracked down on dissent against them. Ordinary life in the Valley, meanwhile, is besieged by a new sense of insecurity.

Relatives of Supinder Kour mourn at her funeral. Picture credit: Danish Ismail/ Reuters

End of ‘moral politics’?

A militant group calling itself The Resistance Front – the Kashmir police believed they are a rebranded version of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba – claimed responsibility for most of the minority killings since October.

The group accused its victims of being “agents” of the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh, government “collaborators” and part of Delhi’s alleged design to orchestrate “demographic change” in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir.

Whatever their rationalisations, the selection of civilian victims for their ethnicity marked a departure from the tacit norms that governed Kashmir’s militancy. Over the last decade or so, militant groups had claimed to follow a “moral politics”, as one political scientist in Srinagar observed.

“The general trend in Kashmir’s militancy was that they chose not to go after certain sections of people,” he elaborated. “They would ideally target combatants or someone they accused of being an informer. But what we witnessed in 2021 was contrary to that.”

Many in the Valley, many agree with the assessment. “Sikhs in Kashmir have been killed before this episode – they were in the police, army or some other force,” pointed out Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Kashmiri Sikh leader in Srinagar. “But this was the first time a woman from the community was targeted. It’s something we have never seen before.”

The Resistance Front surfaced soon after the sweeping legislative changes of August 5, 2019. It claimed to be mounting an “indigenous resistance” to the government and its alleged agenda of “demographic change”.

Barely two months after Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy, militant groups started attacking migrant workers – killing five Muslim migrant workers in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. By the end of 2020, militants had already expanded their target from migrant workers to local religious minorities.

Three men killed in Hyderpora in November. Their families reject police claims that they were militants or helping militants.

A public crackdown

Srinagar, which had been the main site of civilian killings in October, became the scene of a different form of bloodshed soon afterwards. The killings had brought on a highly publicised security crackdown, with the police claiming to have gunned down most of the militants involved. Srinagar saw three very public, very controversial operations followed in November.

First, on November 15, a gunfight apparently broke out in a building in the affluent Hyderpora locality of Srinagar. The next morning, the police announced four men had been killed overnight, including a foreign militant who went by the name of Haider, a local militant called Amir Ahmad Magray, doctor-turned-businessman Mudasir Gul, who was accused of being a “terror associate”, and Altaf Ahmad Bhat, who owned the building and was allegedly sheltering militants. All four were hastily buried in a North Kashmir graveyard far away from the city.

The families of all three local men rejected the police version, hit the streets in protest and demanded the bodies. After days of public outrage, the bodies of Bhat and Gul were exhumed and handed over to the families. The police also set up a special investigation team to probe allegations that civilians had been used as “human shields” in an alleged fake encounter.

Over a month later, the team has announced its findings – and given security forces a clean chit. Citizens criticising the findings could be prosecuted, the police have warned.

Second, a brief shootout near the busy Rambagh flyover in Srinagar left three militants of The Resistance Front dead on November 24. The police claimed they were killed in retaliatory fire as they tried to flee in the car they were driving.

Eye-witnesses claimed the three men were unarmed and had not tried to shoot at the police. They also claim the police made no effort to arrest the militants. The shootout triggered spontaneous protests in the area – an unusual occurrence in Kashmir after the repression that followed the legislative changes of 2019.

But protests broke out again on December 13, after yet another shootout in Rangreth, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The police claim a “chance encounter” had led to the killing of two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. Videos of women chanting pro-freedom slogans near the spot went viral on social media.

A day later, the police booked a woman and her daughter for rioting, unlawful assembly and causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means. They were released on bail after a few days.

The Hyderpora incident follows a pattern that has been established over the course of the year – alleged gunfights where families deny those killed were militants or non-combatants linked to militant groups, parents demanding the bodies of sons killed in these incidents, police crackdowns on protests that break out in the aftermath.

By the end of 2021, a new term became part of the security discourse in the Valley: “hybrid terrorists”. This was a term coined by security forces to describe youth who were killed in alleged gunfights but had no record of militancy. Police officials claimed that was because they did not go underground or announce they had joined militant groups, unlike their predecessors. That was why their families were not aware that they had taken up arms, officials claimed.

Security forces patrol Srinagar on September 2, soon after the death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Picture credit: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP

City under siege

For many residents of Srinagar, 2021 has brought on a sense of siege similar to what they remember from the volatile 1990s, the heyday of the militancy.

“The city had become more or less peaceful over the years and violence was confined to rural areas,” remarked a doctor in Srinagar, who did not want to be identified. “Now, gunfights, shootouts and attacks are common in Srinagar. It’s scary.”

The civilian killings of October have led to heightened patrolling and surveillance of ordinary residents. Soon after the killings, the ministry of home affairs rushed 5,000 additional paramilitary troops to Kashmir, 3,000 of whom were deployed in Srinagar district alone. Civilians passing through Lal Chowk and other areas in the heart of the city had to submit to multiple checks and frisking.

“The way they lined civilians in Lal Chowk and paraded them, it looked like we are back to the 90s,” said the doctor. In that troubled decade, security crackdowns entailed Valley residents being paraded on the street while a masked informer inside a police vehicle identified militants or people who helped militant groups.

Apart from the periodic internet shutdowns that have become routine in the Valley now, there were some unusual security measures. For days leading up to Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Kashmir, the police confiscated hundreds of two-wheelers.

Surveillance and crackdowns have gradually been scaled up over the course of the year. On August 5, the second anniversary of the massive legislative changes of 2019, shops in Srinagar were shut in protest. Such shutdowns, or hartals, are an old means of protest in the Valley. But this time, security forces tried to break open the locks of closed shops in Lal Chowk.

Curbs were put in place to stop public mourning when veteran separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani died in his home in September. While Geelani was buried by security forces in the middle of the night, mobile internet connections were also snapped. An 18-year-old student said he was frisked and his phone was checked anyway.

“I was part of a WhatsApp group in which someone had sent an old video of Geelani sahab,” he said. “I explained to the policeman that I had not downloaded it, someone else had sent it. He didn’t listen. He slapped me three or four times. I consider myself lucky that he allowed me to go after a few slaps. He could have killed me.”

After the Hyderpora and Rambagh incidents, these fears have increased among ordinary residents of Srinagar. The doctor, for instance, worries about his two children.

“As a parent, I ask myself sometimes, am I raising and schooling my children to be killed in some shootout or encounter?” he sighed.