On June 8, 2020, militants shot dead Ajay Pandita, a Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch, in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
Three days later, the Jammu and Kashmir government announced a compensation of Rs 20 lakh for Pandita’s family, comprising his parents, wife and two daughters.
Eventually, his elder daughter was also given a lower-level Class IV government job. Pandita was affiliated with the Congress party.
On June 2, 2021, a Bharatiya Janata Party councilor Rakesh Pandita was shot dead by militants in south Kashmir’s volatile area of Tral. While Pandita had been assigned guards for his security, he had not taken them along on the day of the attack.
Ten days after Pandita’s killing, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha visited the family. He paid his condolences and announced an ex-gratia amount of Rs 40 lakh to the family members of the victim.
Ajay and Rakesh were not the only elected grassroots leaders to have been gunned down by the militants over the years.
In Kashmir, local elected panchayat representatives have for long been soft targets of militants, who view them as part of New Delhi’s design to tighten its control in the region.
According to estimates by the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, a representative body of elected panchayat leaders in Kashmir, more than two dozen panchs or sarpanchs have been killed by militants in the last 10 years. Most of them are Kashmiri Muslims.
Owing to the threats to their lives, many of these elected village-level leaders are put up in secure government accommodations, far from their native villages and homes.
Sameer Ahmad Bhat, a 45-year-old elected panchayat representative without any party affiliations, was not among them.
On the evening of March 9, 2022, Bhat was at his home in Srinagar’s Khonmoh area when two teenagers walked into his compound, wanting to see him – a common enough occurrence for Bhat, who was a friendly community representative.
As soon as Bhat came out of his house, he was shot at by one of the young men. He succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.
Less than a month after Bhat’s killing, 61-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Bangroo of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district met a similar fate.
On April 15 last year, Bangroo was shot dead by suspected militants in an orchard outside his home in Goshbugh area of Pattan. An independent sarpanch, Bangroo worked as a caretaker of an orchard to make ends meet. He is survived by his two sons and two daughters.
What was common to these tragedies was that they all involved panchayat representatives. The difference was in what followed – the response of the Jammu and Kashmir administration.
Unlike the families of Ajay Pandita and Rakesh Pandita, Bhat’s and Bangroo’s family did not get any ex-gratia relief or a job from the government.
“The tehsildar visited our home at the time of the incident,” said Sameer Ahmad Bhat’s father, Abdul Rashid Bhat. “After that, I saw no one from the government.”
He tried to contact the authorities. “I visited the Srinagar deputy commissioner’s office twice but I was not granted an audience,” said Bhat. “I gave up.”
A Srinagar district administration official, who did not want to be identifie, said the relief was not disbursed as Bhat’s family has not been able to produce a succession certificate, a document to certify the successor of a dead person who had not left behind a will. “The treasury officer will not entertain them without a succession certificate,” said the official.
Bangroo’s family is in a similar predicament. “We only got Rs 25,000 from the Baramulla district administration at the time of the incident in order to perform his funeral rites etc.,” said Masrat Ahmad, Bangroo’s eldest son.
Nearly a year after the incident, Bangroo’s family is still chasing ex-gratia relief.
“Our case is under process. We have been asked to produce a succession certificate,” said Masrat Ahmad, Bangroo’s son.
The family has been trying to get that document from the district court in Baramulla since January.
Marred by decades of violence, thousands of civilians have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989, when an armed uprising, backed by Pakistan, erupted in Kashmir Valley against Indian rule. In the last 34 years, civilians have died in bomb blasts, encounters, targeted assassinations, massacres, torture, protests and fake encounters.
The local as well as the Central government provides monetary compensation to families of the civilians killed in militancy-related violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
In December 2019, G Kishan Reddy, who was at the time the minister of state in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said that an ex-gratia amount of Rs 1 lakh is paid to the next of kin of civilians killed in militant violence by the Union territory administration under the existing scheme.
He also informed the Parliament that an amount of Rs 5 lakh is given by the Central government under a policy of central assistance to civilian victims of terrorist or communal or left-wing extremist violence, or in case of cross-border firing and blasts on Indian territory caused by mines or improvised explosive devices.
In September 2022, months after Bangroo’s killing, the Jammu and Kashmir administration announced a special ex-gratia relief of Rs 25 lakh for the next of kin of elected members of panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies who lost their lives in a militancy-related incident. This, the government said, would apply retrospectively from November 27, 2020.
But questions are being raised about the varying amounts of compensation given to families.
For example, Shafiq Mir, the chairman of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, alleged that the government has been largely indifferent to the plight of panchayat leaders killed or injured in militant violence. “The families of these leaders have not got any special compensation, or anything except the Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia relief,” he said. “Only the families of a few panchayat leaders were compensated decently. They were given relief under a special package and got more money.”
Mir said that the group is likely to raise the issue of unequal compensation with the government after Eid. “Why did some get a decent compensation, when others got only Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia? That’s the question we will be raising before the government soon,” he said.
Looking back at more than 10 cases of civilian killings in the last three years, it would seem that the concerns about the government’s compensation mechanism are not without reason.
Not only is there a difference in the amount of compensation given to different victims, the government’s promptness in the disbursal of compensation to some victims is in sharp contrast to the delay in giving assistance to many other victims’ families. Some of them are still waiting for some kind of help from the government.
Mir, the chairman of the forum for panchayat leaders, claimed that except the families of the two Kashmiri Pandit elected representatives killed by militants, no one has got the compensation of Rs 25 lakh under the special ex-gratia scheme.
A senior official from Jammu and Kashmir’s rural development department, who requested not to be identified, denied Mir’s claims.
“Many victim families of elected panchayat leaders have been compensated under the scheme,” he said. “But we concede that there are some cases where the compensation has not been processed as mandatory formalities for the disbursal of the relief amount are pending.”
Ajay Pandita’s family also denied having received the ex-gratia relief of Rs 25 lakh under the scheme.
Scroll sent a detailed questionnaire regarding the cases investigated in this report to the office of Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha. This article will be updated once there is a response from the government.
What explains the variations in compensation?
“The basic compensation is always as per the guidelines of the scheme,” said a senior Jammu and Kashmir government official, who also asked not be identified. “Any amount in addition to the one prescribed under the scheme is actually an executive decision.”
In order to make his point clearer, the senior official gave an example. “Let’s say someone dies in an accident. The government has kept a fixed policy for such victims and it will be followed in giving a relief amount to the affected,” he said. “But sometimes the government can announce a higher amount of compensation for victims of a specific accident.”
Similarly, the government can also choose to appoint a family member to a job at its discretion.
A stark difference
On June 23, 2021, suspected militants shot 31-year-old Umer Nazir Bhat outside his mobile accessories shop in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal area.
According to Jammu and Kashmir police, the killing was carried out by The Resistance Front, which the police believes is a rebranded version of the Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Umer Bhat had opened his shop only eight or nine months before his killing. Originally a resident of Srinagar’s Kailash Pora area, Umer Bhat, the eldest of three siblings, lived with his family on rent in uptown Srinagar.
After the killing, no compensation or help was offered by the Jammu and Kashmir government to the family. Not even the Rs 1 lakh they are entitled to under the government’s scheme.
“Around six months after the incident, my mother even went to the deputy commissioner Srinagar’s office to enquire about the compensation,” said Bilal Nazir, Umer Bhat’s younger brother who works as a marketing agent with a private company. “Even the officials were surprised that we had not received a single rupee from the government.”
The family was also entitled to an additional Rs 5 lakh compensation under the central government scheme, which they have not received.
Nazir says they are following up the case with the authorities. However, nearly two years after he lost his brother in a militant attack, there has not been much progress. “I have heard that the families of those who were killed after my brother have already been compensated,” he said.
Despite repeated attempts, Srinagar deputy commissioner did not respond to text messages and calls from Scroll about the delayed compensation.
How the government responded to another civilian killing by militants a little over a year later is a striking contrast.
On August 16, 2022, Sunil Kumar Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit farmer, was gunned down by suspected militants in an orchard in south Kashmir’s Shopian district. The militants also shot at and injured Bhat’s cousin Pertimber Nath Bhat.
While an obscure militant outfit, Kashmir Freedom Fighters, claimed responsibility for the attack, investigation by the Jammu and Kashmir police zeroed in on the role of a local militant. “During the initial investigation, the involvement of an active terrorist, Adil Ahmad Wani, surfaced,” the police said in a statement after the incident.
A father of four daughters, Sunil Bhat was among the few Kashmiri Pandits who had decided to stay back in the Valley despite the mass migration of the community in the early 1990s following targeted killings by the militants.
Six months after his killing, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha appointed Sunil Bhat’s wife to a government job on February 25.
“The Lt Governor assured all possible assistance from the UT administration to the family of the martyred civilian,” a press release issued by Jammu and Kashmir government’s department of information and public relations on February 25 read.
Besides, the family also got a total compensation of Rs 8 lakh – Rs 5 lakh from the lieutenant governor and Rs 3 lakh from the district administration, a relative of the family told Scroll.
However, in a response to queries sent by Scroll, the office of the Shopian deputy commissioner said that only an amount of Rs 1 lakh was given to Sunil Kumar Bhat’s family.
‘I didn’t get anything’
On October 5, 2021, 26-year-old Mohammad Shafi Lone, a cab driver, was shot by suspected militants not too far from his home in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
In an injured condition, he managed to call his family who tracked him down and took him to the hospital. Lone did not survive.
Police said Lone was killed by militants affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Within a week after Lone’s killing, security forces gunned down a local militant in an encounter in Bandipora who was allegedly behind the killing.
After his killing, 67-year-old Habibullah Lone, his father, was told that the family would be given a compensation of Rs 1 lakh by the government. But nearly a year and a half after the incident, the family is yet to receive it.
“It’s too less but we haven’t even got that,” said Habibullah Lone, a farmer. “I don’t want it for myself. His wife gave birth to his son after his death. I want his future to be secure. The government should ensure that his education is taken care of and that he gets a government job when he grows up.”
Lone’s family was also entitled to Rs 5 lakh compensation under the central scheme, which they did not get.
Habibullah Lone is bitter about how the government has compensated the family members of other civilians killed by militants. “If my son was killed by militants like many other civilians, why is his life worth only Rs 1 lakh?” Lone asked.
He added: “Not only did the government give other families compensation, some of them got jobs as well. I got nothing.”
A senior official in Bandipora, who did not wish to be identified, confirmed to Scroll that the family’s compensation is under process.
“Actually, some differences have arisen between the victim’s wife and her in-laws,” the official said. “We tried to counsel both sides to solve the issue amicably.”
He, however, confirmed that the family will be given an amount of Rs 1 lakh ex-gratia only. “The case has been submitted to higher authorities for approval,” he added.
‘We will provide every assistance’
In comparison, the family members of the murdered television artist Amreen Bhat have fared better.
Amreen Bhat, a 30-year-old actor and social media content creator, was shot dead inside her home in Hushroo village of Central Kashmir’s Budgam district on May 25, last year. A police statement blamed the killing on “three terrorists of proscribed terror outfit LeT”, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The family received a compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the Union territory administration weeks after her killing.
Days after Amreen Bhat’s killing, Lieutenant Governor Sinha visited her house to pay his condolences. “The administration will provide every possible assistance and support to the family,” Sinha had said in a tweet on May 29, 2022.
Raziya Bano, Amreen Bhat’s elder sister, said the artist was the one who took care of her father. “After her killing, my father has lost his support,” Bano said. “He’s suffering from asthma and needs continuous medical treatment. The government should provide him a monthly allowance for his health expenses,” she said.
A district administration official in Budgam told Scroll that they would look into the demand of the family. “We will send a team to the family and ascertain under which scheme we can provide some help to the father,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified.
The question of a job
In May 2022, a Kashmiri Pandit government employee Rahul Bhat was shot dead after suspected militants barged into his office in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. A migrant who had fled Kashmir during the onset of militancy in early 1990s, Rahul Bhat had returned to Kashmir in 2011 after he got a government job under the prime minister’s rehabilitation scheme for Kashmiri Pandits.
A week after the killing, Rahul Bhat’s wife was appointed to a government higher secondary school, Nowabad, Jammu “on compassionate grounds”.
The government also provided financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh to Rahul Bhat’s family.
A similar proactiveness was not visible when Mohammad Shafi Dar, an employee with the Jammu and Kashmir government’s power development department, was assassinated by militants in Srinagar on October 2, 2021.
“We only got a compensation of Rs 2 lakh-2.5 lakh from the Srinagar district administration,” said a relative of Dar, asking not to be identified. “Nothing in addition to that.”
Under the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Rehabilitation Assistance Scheme 2022’, a dependent family member of a government employee who dies while in service or dies as a result of militancy-related action, is entitled to either a compassionate appointment to the government service or a lump sum compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
Dar was divorced and did not have children, but he is survived by his brother and sisters. “The authorities did not tell us if any of his dependants are eligible for a job,” the relative added. “Neither did we hear of any further compensation.”
In some cases, however, the government has been more than forthcoming in providing compensation and jobs to the families of victims of militant violence.
Take the case of Rajouri’s Dhangri killings on January 1 in which seven civilians, including two children, were killed in a militant attack.
A day after the attack, the Jammu and Kashmir government announced an ex-gratia relief of Rs 10 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased, and also promised a government job to the affected families.
The lack of uniformity in compensating the victims of violence is evident in cases of civilians who lost their lives during operations by the security forces in the last few years.
Take the case of the Amshipora fake encounter in which the Indian army claimed to have shot three militants in a gunfight in July 2020.
Following a police investigation into the encounter, it was revealed that the three alleged militants were in fact labourers from Jammu’s Rajouri district who had come to south Kashmir’s Shopian district in search of work. The trio, all related to each other, were killed in a staged gunfight by the army and later dubbed as militants.
In October 2020, Lieutenant Governor Sinha personally visited the families of the victims to convey the assurance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that they would get justice.
Mohammad Yousuf, the father of one of three victims of the fake encounter, said the government gave a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to each victim’s family.
“LG Manoj Sinha also promised jobs to all the three families when he visited our home,” said Yousuf.
More than two years have passed since then, but the families are still waiting for the formal appointment letters.
“I must have spent more than Rs 1 lakh rupees on making trips to government offices in Jammu to seek an update about the job,” Yousuf said. “My late son’s wife still lives with me. I don’t want a job for myself but her.”
In comparison, the family members of 20-year-old Shoaib Mohammad Ganie of south Kashmir’s Shopian district have been fortunate. “The government has provided a job to my other son and he has already joined duty,” explained Ghulam Mohammad Ganie.
His son was killed on May 15 last year. While Jammu and Kashmir police said Ganie was killed “during the exchange of fire between terrorists and joint team of forces” in a “brief chance encounter”, the family and eyewitnesses had contested the police claim and accused the security forces of shooting him dead.
Besides the government job, Ganie, an owner of orchards, said the officials had also promised him Rs 2 lakh compensation for his son’s killing. “But I was given only Rs 50,000. Despite my repeated pleas, there’s no word on when or if I will get the rest of the amount,” he added.
According to the Shopian deputy commissioner’s office, however, Rs 1 lakh has already been disbursed to Ganie’s family.