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India

Shopian Village’s Last Surviving Pandit Families, Their Struggle Between Death & Homeland

As told by an elderly local, the village had just 23 houses – 17 Muslims and 6 Pandits – but when violence took over in the 1990s, most of the Pandits left except for the two families of Jankinath and Sunil.

Kashmiri Pandit
Mourners at the house of Sunil Kumar.(Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

At Shopian’s Chotigam village, local Muslim women are busy cleaning a Pandit family’s raw rice bags. They are doing it on the veranda of the second floor while there is a hue and cry on the first. An unattended woman is wailing by the house’s entrance. Her phone is constantly ringing. She picks it up and struggles to shout but she is unable to. Her throat is too exhausted, she has been crying for too long.

There also are four young girls – two pairs of identical twins. They are barely getting a sense of what is happening. As everyone wails, they seem to try and calm everyone down, unaware that their own father Sunil Kumar Bhat has been killed and his brother, their uncle, Pintu Kumar is grievously injured.

Shopian Kashmiri Pandit
Wife of Sunil Kumar wailing on the veranda of her house in Chotigam. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

The Chotigam village is 38 kilometers from Anantnag town in South Kashmir and falls on the outskirts of the militant hotbed – Shopian. Almost in every village here, militant activities have been rife and at Chotigam, in just 134 days, this has been the second attack on one of the two last surviving Kashmiri Pandit families here. Others have left. The village has tens of deserted houses.

As told by an elderly local, the village had just 23 houses – 17 Muslims and 6 Pandits – but when violence took over in the 1990s, most of the Pandits left except for the two families of Jankinath and Sunil.

A view of the Chotigam village (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

Jankinath, head of one of the families refused to leave despite his children’s insistence. They were left with no option but to stay with their father. The other family of Sunil and his two more brothers Pintu and Roshan Lal also stayed. Their elder brother Avtar Bhat left.

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“Everything was fine for thirty years. Leave alone killing, we never even had a verbal scuffle with anyone here,” Lal told India Ahead at Chotigam.

This is reiterated by the locals as well. Their neighbor, Mohammad Yousuf Nengroo calls the brothers “most content and indifferent to any provocations”.

“We Muslims at times do fight with each other in the village, but we never had even a verbal argument with them. People often desist from letting cattle of others intrude on their properties but both Sunil and Pintu would never say a word. Even when they were killed, there were other locals who were grazing their cattle in their orchards,” Nengroo added.

The police meanwhile have picked up many people from the village who were present near the place where the incident occured. Sunil had reportedly engaged labourers in his orchard and the militants had arrived from the nearby orchards, locals told.

“What we heard was that they asked the local Muslims to stay away and chose the two Hindu brothers,” a local said. A security official said most apparently a rifle was used to fire.

Shopian
Apple orchard where Sunil was killed. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

Though the veracity of this has not been established, many say steel bullets were fired onto them, which have been banned globally. Militants in the valley have earlier as well used steel-coated Chinese bullets triggering the security agencies to ramp up their bullet-proofing given steel’s high penetration power.

While many say the slain have been killed for their religious identity, few also say before the 2000s, there was a bit of enmity among few people against them.

“Their grandfather owned a lot of land here, in fact, most of it. Then there was a ‘land to tiller’ settlement by the J&K Government which bifurcated the possession of this land. A part of it went to the actual owner of the land while the rest half was awarded to the one who used to till it. The ones who tilled the land of the Bhats were also locally powerful and did not return their land to Bhats. It was later through a Sharia Board that he struggled and got his property back. This had back then rattled those who took over their land,” local wishing anonymity said.

Janakinath whose son was injured in a grievous militant attack back in April was also kidnapped by the militants back in the nineties. According to him, it was on January 31, 1993, that he was taken to an unspecified location.

“Someone from the village had told them (militants) that I worked for the army. They, however, inquired and found nothing of that sort. They released me then. The one who had informed them was severely beaten by them later. They told him that we (militants) could have killed him and that he had little children,” said Jankinath. He added that he had always been an “open critic” of whatever wrong was done by the militants in the 1990s.

But Jankinath did not leave Kashmir. “Most of our relatives who had left for Jammu insisted we come too but we did not. Bal Krishan is our sole earner now. We have a few cows and we sell their milk too to sustain ourselves,” Anil Bhat his son had told India Ahead.

Anil Bhat Shopian
Anil Bhat, brother of Bal Krishan. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

Bal Krishan is Anil’s brother. On April 4, 2022, two men arrived on a motorcycle, wearing pherans, unusual in that weather. One of them stepped down and entered the medical shop run by Bal Krishan Bhat as the other turned around the motorcycle.

There were four loud shots and the pheran-wearing man came out, tucked a pistol into his belt, took the pillion seat on the motorcycle, and vanished.

“He came out walking. The entire body was drenched in blood. He was shot twice in the chest and in his arm. He was shouting for help,” said Anil Bhat, the brother of Bal Krishan Bhat.

Meanwhile, at Chotigam on Tuesday police zeroed in on the witnesses and since the belt is locally known for militant attacks, it came to light that the accused was a local militant from an allied village Kutpora.

On 16th August at about 11:00 A.M two terrorists shot and killed Sunil Kumar Bhat S/O Sri Ji Bhat and injured his cousin Pertimber Nath S/O Arjun Nath Bhat at his orchard in Chotigam, Shopian, police said. They added during the initial investigation, the involvement of an active terrorist, Adil Ahmad Wani S/O Mohd Khalil Wani R/O Kutpora surfaced.

“Meanwhile, input was received by Police and security forces regarding the presence of accused Adil Wani at his ancestral house at Kutpora. On this information police, 34 RR, and 178 Bn CRPF launched a CASO in the area at the wee hours on 17th August,” police said in a statement.

Bal Krishan shopian
Bal Krishan holding a baby after he returned recently to attend Sunil’s funeral. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

“During the search, a terrorist lobbed a grenade on the search party which was retaliated by a search party. However, terrorists escaped taking the benefit of darkness. Later, the security forces found a hideout in the house on the rooftop where arms and ammunition (one AK rifle along with a magazine and one pistol were found in the hideout),” police said.

It added that under a terrorist act, a separate FIR was registered on 17th August 2022. Three people were arrested for harboring terrorists. These largely included the immediate family of the accused militant. The property where the police said, a hideout was found was also reportedly attached.

Back at Chotigam, the family is incomplete horror. There are local villagers who are taking their care, from cleaning the house to aiding them in household chores. People from the Pandit community are very scarce there. It is mostly local Muslims.

But their stay in Kashmir looks highly unlikely. Bal Krishan who was shot in April had left Kashmir soon after he recovered from a Srinagar hospital. Though they do not hold anything against the locals and neither is there any fear from their neighbors but the alien men who appear suddenly with a gun is a constant nightmare.

Though villagers are making every possible effort to make them feel comfortable but they say, they too feel helpless when any such attack takes place.

“Whenever there is a sound of firing, we honestly don’t have any courage to go and confront the shooters or try reaching out the spot immediately. They don’t have any empathy for us. They can shoot us too,” Nengroo said.

Shopian
Local Muslims helping the family. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

Another local said villagers are already in a lot of fear, there is a double-edged sword we face, they say. “Our phones are randomly taken and checked. Even a WhatsApp news forward having a militant’s photo in it can land us in trouble,” said a man in his twenties. He added that the government was trying to do its best to keep these Pandits safe but this is limited to their own accommodations.

After an attack on Bal Krishan, the government sent some security personnel who oversaw their security. The forces had occupied an empty Pandit house and were stationed just adjacent to both the families.

“This was of no use really. They have their orchards and rice fields. They have to go and work there. The security won’t follow them everywhere,” a local said adding this was “no Jihad but a laanat (curse)”.

He says that Pintu does not know that his brother is dead. “They pumped five bullets into Sunil’s chest. How can they even sleep at night after orphaning his four daughters?” he said.

“It has been four months. No one listened to us. We have been left here to die. The divisional commissioner and the district magistrate are responsible for this murder. Do we not have to live here?” Anil Bhat, deceased Pandit’s neighbor told while grieving over the attack.

“After the attack on my brother, I approached the District Magistrate multiple times,” said Anil, adding that he also met the Divisional Commissioner. However, he was told that they were not in a position to address his concerns.

“We made a mistake by staying even after one attack. A mistake deliberately repeated is not a mistake. If we stay again, this will be a suicide,” Anil said.

“This village was like a home. Everyone here was like a member of one family. It has been over 33 years since they did not leave this village. They were most humble. Most people put fences to their orchards, their orchards were open to all,” Nengroo added.

Ahmed, head of the local Auqaf said, “We have been together forever. When Bal Krishan got married, it was our daughters and wives who were handling the wedding. Though we desist (from singing at weddings) yet our women sang there in jubilance. In both grief and happiness, we were one.”

Shopian
Abdullah’s wife pleading the policemen on duty for his release. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

At Chotigam, another local woman had come to visit them despite her elderly husband being detained for questioning in the same case as he was grazing his animals there when the attack took place.

She pleads with every policeman outside their house to use their good offices to get her husband, Mohammad Abdullah released. “He is deaf and a simpleton,” she says. Wiping her tears, she enters and tries to console wife of Sunil who also hugs her and cries.

Avtar Bhat, the eldest brother is barely speaking. Bal Krishan has returned but only to leave back soon and apparently never come back.

Avtar Bhat grieving as mourners arrive. (Photo Credit: India Ahead Network/ Umar Sofi)

Everyone Muslim friend and neighbor coming to see the family leaves with an expressionless face. Avtar breaks down every time someone bids him adieu. For most, it looks like the last meeting.