Around 6 pm on June 8, Ajay Pandita was sitting on the shop front of a local grocer’s when two men walked up to him and shot him twice. “He was a regular visitor at my shop and would spend hours chatting with others,” said Shahid Aslam, who owns the grocery store in the sleepy village of Lukhbhawan in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

“I had stepped inside my house and my brother was at the shop,” said Aslam. “Apart from Pandita and my brother, there was another local boy at my shop at the time. My brother said two men on foot walked up to Pandita and fired two bullets at him. While the shooters ran away, my brother and the other boy rushed inside our house for safety. Some moments later, we came out and found Pandita lying in a pool of blood.”

According to a police statement, Pandita was shot at by “terrorists” and was rushed to a hospital, where he died of his injuries. On June 9, Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbag Singh said Pandita’s assassination was a “targeted killing” by the Hizbul Mujahideen. The two eyewitnesses to the killing had been questioned and their mobile phones seized for a few days, said Aslam.

Pandita was in his forties, a Kashmiri Pandit sarpanch affiliated with the Congress. In 2018, he had won panchayat elections in the predominantly Muslim Lukhbhawan ward. His death marks the first Kashmiri Pandit killing in the Valley in years. It has shaken Lukhbhawan, the village where he had lived among Muslim friends and neighbours for years.

Shahid Aslam's grocery shop, where Ajay Pandita was shot on June 8.

Flight and return

Like the majority of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, the Panditas of Lukhbhawan had migrated to Jammu in 1990, when militant groups targeted members of the community. But the family returned to Kashmir in 1996.

“Ajay had returned with a mission to end hostilities between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits, revive Kashmiriyat and Sufism in Kashmir valley,” said his father, 72-year-old Dwarikanath Pandita, a retired employee of the Jammu and Kashmir education department, speaking on the phone from Jammu. “In 1996, we didn’t return to our village but lived in a government colony in Khanabal, Anantnag.”

Khanabal is an area on the outskirts of Anantnag town, which is also the district headquarters. Over the years, most of the Pandita family lived in various quarters around the periphery of the town, including a two-room house in Mattan.

“But Ajay lived with his uncle in the village [Lukhbhawan],” said Dwarikanath Pandita. “In 1999, I was transferred to Ladakh and Ajay stayed on with my brother Omkar Nath Pandita, who had adopted him, in the village.”

Most Kashmiri Pandits who fled in the 1990s did not return. But the Pandita’s were able to return because of the support of their Muslim friends and neighbours, Dwarikanath Pandita said. “When my brother and son wished to live in the village, a Muslim family gave them their own home to live in 1999,” he said. “It was the support of local people which helped us settle down in our village.”

Before they migrated in 1990, the family had lived in their ancestral home near a spring in Lukhbhawan. In 2008, they finally decided to build a new house in the orchard they owned in the village. “When we were constructing the plinth for the house, some of the neighbours objected, saying we did not own the pathway leading up to it,” recalled Dwarikanath Pandita. “I could easily have asked the administration to intervene but I didn’t deem it right. Eventually, when we put our case before the common people of the village, they supported us.”

The Pandita family moved into their new house in 2013. Theirs was the only Pandit family in the locality but they never felt there was a threat to their lives, according to Dwarikanath Pandita. “This is why even our villagers and neighbours are still puzzled about what happened to Ajay,” he said. “It’s as if they lost their own son. They are feeling the same pain which I am feeling.”

But Pandita is not able to mourn his son in their home village. After Ajay Pandita was shot, his family was escorted out of the village by the police and shifted to Jammu. He was cremated there.

“The police told us it might not be safe for us to be in the village,” said Dwarikanath Pandita. “That’s why we went to Jammu. Besides, Ajay’s mother and brother were in Jammu already.”

Ajay Pandita's house in Lukhbhawan village.

‘Nitti Bhai has been killed’

Few houses in Lukhbhawan village, including the house where the Panditas lived, have a proper fence. No gate or wall sections off the house from neighbouring properties.

“They never felt any need to erect walls or a gate because they always felt safe,” said Shokhi Jan, a neighbour. Her garden is adjacent to the Panditas’ orchard.

Jan remembers the evening Pandita was shot. “I was tending to my vegetable garden,” she began. “His [Pandita’s] wife was on the terrace of her house and we were chatting. Then some shots rang out. We thought it was a tyre blast. But when I went out towards the road to see what had happened, my son came rushing towards me and said, Mummy, Nitti Bhai mourukh.” Mother, Nitti Bhai has been killed.

Jan said she did not break the news to Pandita’s family immediately. “I told his wife that Nitti Bhai has been injured in an accident – I couldn’t break the news of his death to her directly,” she recounted.

Pandita’s death came as a shock to the whole village. “During winters, his family moves to Jammu,” Jan said. “Last winter, he didn’t go to Jammu. Nitti Bhai was alone at home the entire winter. He would roam around the village freely and visit our house. He was like a brother to me. We are still mourning his loss. Believe me, we have been unable to eat properly ever since his death. What if he was from a different religion? Wasn’t he our neighbor?”

Neighbours remember Pandita as a gentle person, who paid close attention to the everyday problems of the village. Apart from his duties as sarpanch and orchard owner, Pandita had another job – as a television actor in Kashmiri serials on DD Kashir.

The good relations between his son and their neighbours helped win him votes, according to Dwarikanath Pandita. Pandita won the 2018 panchayat elections over a relative who was fighting on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.

“You know people don’t vote in Kashmir but it was the Muslims of around four villages who asked to him contest and assured him that they would make him win,” said Dwarikanath Pandita. “And they did make him win. Ajay was someone who always wanted to help his villagers. He was clean-hearted.”

Dwarikanath Pandita now longs for home. “I don’t want to burn in this sweltering heat of Jammu,” he said. If it was not possible to return to their village, he felt, the government should arrange to have them live near the village until it was safe to go back. But his granddaughters will not settle for such an arrangement. “Ajay’s daughters are telling me that we should live at the same house where their father sacrificed his life – they want to go home,” he said.

On June 8, he had left their home in Lukhbhawan in the care of their neighbours. “We are looking after their house and the keys of their house are with us,” said Mohammad Yusuf, neighbour to the Panditas. “We even brought their cow to our house and took care of her. It’s like my own house.”

In Jammu, Dwarikanath Pandita was also not worried about his orchards. “Ajay’s Muslim brothers and Muslim sisters are there,” he said. “They are taking care of it. They saw him as their son.”

Pandita's orchards in Lukhbhawan village, left in the care of neighbours.

Killed for being a sarpanch?

Pandita’s killing is also a reminder of the violence directed at panches and sarpanches in Kashmir, who took part in local body elections despite threats from militant groups.

In November last year, a sarpanch and a government official on an outreach programme in Anantnag were killed in a militant attack. “After that killing, he [Pandita] did seem a bit worried and left for Jammu for a few days,” recalled Yusuf. “You might have seen a viral video in which he’s demanding security for sarpanches and panches in Kashmir. It’s from those days.”

After Pandita was killed, Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir accused the government of not providing the sarpanch with security because he belonged to the opposition party.

Days after Pandita’s killing, an unverified video went viral on social media. It appeared to show militants forcing a sarpanch from North Kashmir’s Sopore area to resign from her post. While the sarpanch did not file a complaint, the Sopore police have registered a case.

Hundreds of panches and sarpanches, especially from the troubled districts of South Kashmir, are quartered in government accommodations and avoid going back to their villages. Pandita had not opted for any such arrangement. “He was never afraid and would roam around freely – there was no fear,” said his father.