Rahul Bhat was five in 1990, when his family migrated from Central Kashmir’s Budgam district to Jammu. Meenakshi Bhat, who later became his wife, was three when her family left South Kashmir’s Kulgam district for Jammu that same year. Both belonged to Kashmiri Pandit families, fleeing as militant groups targeted the community.

They grew up in exile. But Rahul returned to Kashmir in 2011 after he got a government job under the prime minister’s rehabilitation scheme for Kashmiri Pandits. He took up residence in Budgam’s Sheikhpora, in one of the heavily secured migrant camps set up to house employees like him.

After they got married in 2013, Meenakshi moved to Sheikhpora with him. Two years later, they had a daughter, whom they enrolled in a school in Kashmir.

Meenakshi said that even though the migrant quarters meant they were sequestered from the local community, they did not face any hostility for close to a decade. “He was really comfortable living in Kashmir, more than in Jammu” she said, referring to her husband. “Everyone knew him.”

Then in October last year, Kashmir saw a series of killings, many of them targeting migrants and religious minorities in the Valley. On October 5, militants had shot dead Makhan Lal Bindroo, a well-known Kashmiri Pandit pharmacist in Srinagar, as he sat in his shop. On October 7, when militants killed two school teachers – a Hindu and a Sikh – panic spread among Kashmiri Pandits in the migrant camps.

The Bhats had spent a month in Jammu after that but went back to Kashmir. “He said nobody would hurt him because he was working for the good of people,” Meenakshi said.

He would be proved tragically wrong. On May 12, two militants entered Rahul’s office at the revenue department in Budgam and shot him dead as he sat in his chair.

He is among 19 people who died in targeted killings in Kashmir this year. While many of them were Kashmiri Muslims, killed because they worked in the administration, migrant workers and minorities were targeted once again.

Rahul’s killing set off a wave of protests among Kashmiri Pandits who had taken government jobs and gone to live in the migrant camps. Over a month after his death, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits living in these camps have not gone back to work, demanding that they be transferred to the relative safety of Jammu.

Last week, Jammu saw renewed protests as Kashmiri Pandits continued to press for their demands. Many have fled the migrant camps over the last month, although estimates vary. According to Kashmiri Pandit representatives from the camps, about 4,000 have left. Other reports suggest the figure may be in the hundreds.

Many who have fled the Valley over last month say they will not go back.

Certainly, for the Bhats, Rahul’s killing closes the door to return. “How will I go back? I still remember all the places we would go to together,” sobbed Meenakshi, back in the family’s apartment in Jammu. “I will never set foot in Kashmir again.”

Meenakshi Bhat and her daughter. Photo : Safwat Zargar

Point of no return

Rahul’s father, Bittaji Bhat, who retired as a sub-inspector in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, feels the same. He had left Kashmir in January 1990, around the time thousands of other Kashmiri Pandit families fled. “Luckily, I got posted in Jammu [when] the situation was bad in the Valley. I fled with my family to Jammu,” he recalled.

The hot Jammu plains did not feel like home at first. “We lived in a single 10x10 feet room,” he recalled. “Would you believe it, we didn’t even have a fan? Despite that, we survived and made a life for ourselves.”

Bittaji visited the Valley on work, usually staying in police accommodation. When Rahul moved into the migrant quarters in 2011, it became a second address. “Our ancestral home in Sangrampora in Budgam, is in ruins,” said Bittaji. “Whenever I visited Kashmir, I would stay with my son. I spent all of last summer in Kashmir with him.”

“In a way, my son started the process of returning to Kashmir,” he continued. “That process has been derailed now.”

Handing out domicile certificates

Rahul’s killing is part of a trend that has gained pace after Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Along with those legislative changes, the Centre also repealed Article 35A, which guaranteed protections on land and jobs for those considered native to – or “permanent residents” of – Jammu and Kashmir.

The new Union Territory administration replaced “permanent residents” with “domiciles”, a much broader category which includes people who have lived in Jammu and Kashmir for a certain number of years.

In the Valley, the removal of special protections under Article 35A had given rise to widespread fears that the government would try to settle outside populations there to change the demography of Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Meenakshi said she sensed the move was unpopular in Kashmir. She had also warned her husband, who worked in the revenue department, which handed out domicile certificates.

“My husband was the most qualified in his office and as a result he would often be given additional work,” added Bhat. “From dealing with domiciles to settling property disputes between migrant Kashmiri Pandits and local residents, he had a range of tasks. I cautioned him to be careful. He would reply that he was just doing his job.”

Militant groups weaponised local fears of “demographic change” as they targeted religious minorities and migrant workers from outside Jammu and Kashmir. Many of these attacks were claimed by a new group calling itself The Resistance Front. While the police say the group is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, it claims to be an “indigenous resistance” which aims to “flush out the occupational Indian regime”.

While police claim that they have gunned down the militants responsible for Rahul’s killing, Meenakshi is convinced they need to investigate the possible role of insiders in the office. “Unless militants were tipped off by someone about his presence in the office, they couldn’t have done it,” she said.

For Bittaji Bhat, his son's apartment at the transit camp in Budgam, had become a second address. Photo: Safwat Zargar

Seeking transfers

Kashmiri Pandits employed in the Valley under the rehabilitation scheme, launched by the Congress government in 2008, have often left for the relative safety of Jammu when tensions spiked in the Kashmir Valley. Most still have families and homes in Jammu.

When Kashmir erupted in mass protest after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016, many Kashmiri Pandits in the migrant camps left for Jammu for a while. When the Bindroo and the two school teachers were killed last October, many left the Valley again. Like the Bhats, most returned when there was a lull in targeted killings.

This time, however, many say they will not return even if the killings stop. “I don’t care about my job. All I care about is my safety,” said a 38-year-old Kashmiri Pandit teacher employed under the rehabilitation scheme who did not want to be named.

Her fears grew worse after Rajni Bala, a government school teacher from Jammu posted in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district, was killed on May 31. About a week before she died, she had asked to be transferred to Jammu.

“Ever since Rajni Bala’s killing, my heart sinks at the thought of going to school. Every stranger scares me,” said the Kashmiri Pandit teacher.

For weeks after Rahul’s killing, she had protested in Kashmir. Last week, she moved back to her parents’ house in Jammu, where they live in government accommodation for displaced Kashmiri Pandits.

“I am not going back to duty,” she said. “I will stay in Jammu and protest until our demands of relocation to Jammu are met.”

The Union Territory administration has tried to assuage the fears of Kashmiri Pandits living in migrant camps in the Valley.

It promised to transfer them to “safe locations” as well as promotions and other benefits. These measures do not seem to have cut any ice with the community.

“Issues like promotion and transfer were always there,” said Vimal Raina, a representative of the migrant Kashmiri Pandit employees who were camping in Jammu last week. “They needed to be addressed long ago. It’s ironic that the government woke up to them now. But they need to understand that we are demanding our safety first. If I am not safe in the first place and my life is in danger even in your office, how does promotion assuage my fear?”

A changed Kashmir

In his apartment in Jammu, Bittaji mused on a changed Kashmir. “If somebody falls down on the road here [in Jammu] nobody will pick him up but Kashmir was a place where scores of people would come to help a stranger,” he said.

But the way his son was killed – shot dead as he sat in his office – has shaken that belief. “It seems humanity has gone mad in Kashmir,” he said. “What can we say about the current times? Never mind religious identity, is anyone safe in Kashmir?”

Meenakshi said if they had any warning of the tragedy that awaited them, they would have left Kashmir immediately. “Even if they had injured him or handicapped him, I would have taken care of him all my life. At least, he would have been with me,” she said.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has given Meenakshi a job and compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the family. It has also promised to take care of his daughter’s education. “It’s the middle of the year and we are trying hard to get her admitted at a local school in Jammu,” said Bittaji. “Her life is here now.”