Targeted killings began soon after the Article 370 repeal on August 5, 2019

Targeted attacks on members of the minority community and non-natives have emerged as the new security dilemma for the Jammu and Kashmir administration and the Centre. Observers opine that the attacks are a consequence of the fears of demographic change due to the repeal of Article 370 that barred outsiders from settling in Kashmir.

The growing sense of disempowerment after Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood and came under direct Central rule has fanned such fears. Jammu and Kashmir has been under Central rule since June 2018, and changes announced by the Centre in the Union territory, including the new domicile law, have also fanned such fears.

Targeted killings began soon after the Article 370 repeal on August 5, 2019. A new militant group, The Resistance Front (TRF)—which police believes is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in disguise—has claimed most attacks apart from Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

The first incident of targeted killings happened a month after Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood and came under direct Central rule. Five Muslims from West Bengal were shot dead by militants in south Kashmir.

In January 2020, jeweller Satpal Nischal was shot dead at his shop at Sariaballa in Srinagar, weeks after he was certified as a domicile of Jammu and Kashmir. The TRF in a statement called Nischal an “RSS agent” who was part of the “settler-colonial project”.

The Nischals had migrated from Pakistani Punjab to Indian Punjab in 1947 and then moved to Kashmir in the 1980s and opened a jewellery shop in Srinagar. Two months later, Aakash Mehra, son of the owner of a popular eatery in Srinagar, was also shot dead. The Mehras hail from Jammu. In October last year, M.L. Bindroo, a Kashmiri Pandit and owner of the prominent Bindroo Pharmacy at Haftchinar, Iqbal Park, in Srinagar was shot dead at his shop. His killing prompted outrage from politicians and civil society.

The TRF had called Bindroo “an RSS agent”. Hours later, a non-native Golgappa seller from Bihar was fired at at Lal Bazar in Srinagar. The next day, Supinder Kour, principal of Government Higher Secondary School, Sangam in Srinagar’s Eidgah area, and her colleague, Deepak Chand, were shot dead in the school.

Kour, a Sikh, was a resident of Srinagar’s Aloochi Bagh area, and Chand was a resident of Jammu. The security forces rounded up many for questioning, but the attacks continued. More attacks on non-natives left another four non-local workers dead in the same month. Kashmir attracts more than 4 lakh migrant labourers and skilled labourers from Punjab, UP, West Bengal and Bihar. Most leave before the onset of winter.

On April 4, Bal Krishan, a Kashmiri Pandit, was killed by suspected militants near his home in Choutigam Shopian. More targeted attacks left another three non-native labourers injured.

On May 12, Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit employed under the Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation Package announced by the Congress-led UPA government for migrant Kashmiri Pandits, was shot dead at the Tehsil office at Chadoor in Budgam. His killing created panic among migrant Kashmir Pandits working in Kashmir.

In March 2021, in a written reply to a question in Parliament, the Ministry of Home Affairs had stated that out of 6,000 sanctioned posts, nearly 3,800 migrant candidates have returned to Kashmir over the past few years to take up government jobs under the PM's package. After the abrogation of Article 370, 520 migrant candidates returned to Kashmir to take up such jobs, it said. The J&K administration has set up secure residential camps for migrant employees, but many have rented private accommodation as the government has not been able to accommodate all.

Bhat’s killing sparked fierce protests by migrant employees. The government tried to calm the situation by announcing a slew of measures for migrant employees like postings at secure locations and said issues related to promotions and preparation of seniority lists were to be addressed within three weeks.

The government also directed the deputy commissioner and senior superintendent of police (SSPs) to carry out the assessment of accommodation for migrant employees. The assurances didn't impress the agitating migrant Kashmir Pandit employees, who were demanding relocation .To prevent the migrant employees from fleeing Kashmir, the J&K government ordered the deployment of police outside the migrant employees' camps.

However, fearing for their lives, many fled from Kashmir. More have decided to leave Kashmir after the killing of Rajni Bala, a female teacher from Samba in Jammu, on May 31 at Kulgam in south Kashmir and Vijay Kumar, manager of Ellaquai Dehati Bank from Rajasthan, three days later in the same district. Kumar was from Rajasthan. Hours after his killing, two brick kiln labourers were shot at in central Kashmir's Budgam. One of them succumbed to the injuries in the hospital. The targeted attacks have not only rattled the minority community and non-natives but also the government.

Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting with NSA Ajit Doval and the RAW chief to discuss the situation in Kashmir. The Centre has decided to advance the deployment of the remaining 200 of the 350 companies of paramilitary forces for the security of Amarnath Yatra starting June 30 for 43 days. Targeted killings have not only been restricted to migrant employees and non-natives, but also J&K policemen and political workers.

Recently, video artist Ambreen Bhat dead was shot dead in her house at Budgam. Her family has no idea why she was targeted. Security forces, especially the police, are grappling with this new challenge in Kashmir. Identifying such militant operatives is proving difficult. Pistols are used for such killings and they are easier to obtain, unlike AK-47 rifles. Observers believe that the BJP's policy to marginalise the separatist leadership—like the Hurriyat Conference—and mainstream politicians has left it alone to face the flak. The Centre leaned on both opposite camps in trying times.