On the morning of August 9 morning, suspected militants opened fire on Abdul Hamid Najar, a Bharatiya Janata Party worker, in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Critically injured, Najar was shifted to a hospital in Srinagar. He died a day later.
Najar’s killing happened just days after Sajad Ahmad Khanday, a sarpanch and a member of the BJP, was shot dead in Vessu, part of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Khanday was attacked on August 6, a day after Jammu and Kashmir completed one year as a Union Territory without special status. Videos of BJP workers in Kashmir celebrating the anniversary were circulated widely on social media.
According to a police statement, Khanday was also attacked by militants. He died of his injuries in hospital. Like other panchayat leaders in the districts of South Kashmir, where local militancy is widespread, Khanday had been moved to a secure location before the August 5 anniversary.
“The said Sarpanch was accommodated in a secure migrant camp in Vesu but today he went to his house without informing police,” the police statement added.
On August 4, just two days before Khanday was killed, militants shot at another BJP sarpanch in Akhran village, also part of Kulgam district. Arif Ahmad, who was shot by men who barged into his house, remains in a Srinagar hospital.
Over the past month, there have been at least four attacks on BJP workers and leaders. It started with the killing of Sheikh Wasim Bari, a senior BJP leader in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, who was gunned down along with his father and brother on July 8.
Each killing has been followed by a spate of resignations from the BJP in Kashmir.
Leaving the party ranks
“Since yesterday, around eight party workers from the district have submitted resignations,” Aga Syed Mohsin, Budgam district president of the BJP, told Scroll.in on August 10.
Party workers at village level were left to fend for themselves without security, he explained. With the recent attacks, their vulnerabilities were revealed, which had led to resignations. “We joined the party to carry out development,” said Mohsin. “I have been a social worker for 18 years and I thought being affiliated to a party would help me carry out more work for the public good. I have never made any controversial speech or spoken against anyone.”
On August 9, the resignation letters of four BJP workers went viral on social media. Earlier in the month, there were resignations in South Kashmir. Most hesitate to name the fear that made them resign.
Take the video posted by a BJP sarpanch in South Kashmir on August 6. “I am resigning from the post of sarpanch,” he says on camera. “There is nothing in it for me. I have children, and no wife or parents. Who will take care of them? I have not earned a penny from being a sarpanch. I have small children; I don’t want to die.”
Rafiq Bhat, BJP general secretary in the Dooru assembly constituency of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, also cited “personal reasons” for resigning from the party. “I want to focus on my business,” he said. “I have been thinking of quitting for a long time because it’s tough to balance my party work with my business. Besides, there’s an unwanted risk to life.”
Soon after Bari’s killing in July, at least four BJP members from North Kashmir’s Baramulla and Kupwara districts had quit the party. Around the same time, Lashkar-Taiba militants released a video threatening BJP workers. A week after Bari and his relatives were shot, militants abducted a BJP leader who is also the vice president of the municipal committee in Watergam, part of the Sopore area of Baramulla district. He was rescued by the police a day later. Over the last few days, more resignations have followed in Budgam and Ganderbal.
Close to a month after Bari’s killing, BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur confirmed at 11 members had resigned. Anecdotal accounts suggest the actual number might be higher.
The fear has spread to panchayat members who do not belong to the BJP as well. “We have nothing to do with the BJP but people consider us political leaders,” said a sarpanch from Anantnag district’s Achabal area. He said he was not affiliated to a party but would resign if the situation did not change soon. “We are ordinary people. We acknowledge that the police can’t provide security to each one of us but they should think of an arrangement for us.”
He felt that if the government increased the salaries of panchayat leaders, they could take care of their own security. “If we get a monthly salary of around Rs 30,000, we can find lodgings at a safe location and settle our families there,” he said. “We can then manage village works from there. We put our lives at stake and see what we get.”
Under the current arrangement, a panch, who represents a village ward, is paid Rs 1,000 a month. A sarpanch, who heads a cluster of wards, gets Rs 2,500 a month for their duties.
Nearly two weeks after the Bandipora killings, the Jammu and Kashmir administration approved an insurance cover of Rs 25 lakh for all elected panchayat and urban local body members in case of militancy-related death.
Since the BJP dissolved Kashmir’s legislative assembly and split the former state into two Union Territories, it has offered “grassroot democracy”, or a strong panchayat system, as an alternative. The initiative started in 2018, soon after Jammu and Kashmir was placed under governor’s rules. The panchayat and municipal elections were held that year, with most candidates holed up in heavily secured hotels in Srinagar, far from their villages and wards. Many still remain there.
In 2019, while Kashmir was still under restrictions to curb protests against the revocation of special status and statehood, the government held block development council elections. These councils form the second rung of Kashmir’s three-tier panchayat system. Once again, most candidates were barricaded in quarters provided by the government.
According to Mohsin, around 50 BJP workers from Budgam district are camping in private hotels in Srinagar. “But things are only getting difficult – it looks like there might be more resignations in the offing,” he worried.
The BJP leadership in Srinagar has now appealed to the Jammu and Kashmir police to draft a new security plan for party members. “At each district headquarter, one building should be kept for BJP leaders and the workers where all security arrangements should be kept in place,” said BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur in a statement issued on August 10. “The safe accommodation at district headquarters should have accommodation for at least 50 to 60 people. They should be provided with food and other basic facilities there as well.” He also urged BJP members to not venture out without security clearance.
In a separate statement paying tribute to Najar, Thakur suggested the continued targeting of BJP workers in Kashmir was part of a “sinister design.”
Thakur blamed Pakistan for impeding the revival of political processes in Kashmir and asked the lieutenant governor for a probe into the killing of BJP workers in the Valley. “Is it only Pak sponsored terrorists or some more who may be interested in neutralizing the challenge posed by BJP?” he asked in the statement.
Anger after August 5
Residents of the Valley say the decisions of August 5, 2019, taken by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, made the BJP extremely unpopular there.
“The BJP was never welcome in Kashmir but after August 5, they are looked through a different lens altogether,” said a political science student in Srinagar who did not want to be named. “And these workers are the most vulnerable and easily exposed members of that party. That’s why they are the targets.”
After August 5, 2019, almost the entire leadership of pro-India Kashmiri parties, such as the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, was rounded up and jailed. That froze all party activity apart from those favoured by the BJP.
Despite vigorous campaigning, the BJP has never won a seat in the Kashmir Valley. After August 5 last year, it has made a concerted effort to increase its presence there. Some local leaders claim to have recruited thousands to party ranks. But resentments against the party still run high.
“Kashmiris hold the BJP directly responsible for the August 5 decision and the way things are going, it’s going to be tough for the BJP to find a foothold in the region now,” said the political science student. “They can only make their presence felt through might and that is what is happening.”