Achan, Pulwama: Mohammad Maqbool initially confused the sound of gunshots with the short-circuiting of naked electric wires running close to the building. As he set about to find out what had gone wrong, a commotion built up in the street as a woman’s desperate cries for help soaked the morning air in panic and gloom.
“Sanjay was lying in a pool of blood on the road while Sunita was holding him, screaming madly. We got a vehicle and immediately shifted him to a hospital where doctors later said that he had passed away,” Maqbool, a private bank security guard, said.
At around 10 am on Sunday, February 26, Sanjay Kumar Sharma, 45, a Kashmiri Pandit, was, according to his family, on the way to a hospital with his wife, Sunita Sharma, when unknown gunmen opened fire at him from a close range, hitting his chest and leaving him lethally wounded.
Deputy Inspector General of Police, South Kashmir, Rayees Muhammad Bhat said that the attack was carried out by terrorists and they will be “tracked down soon”.
“We are investigating the case swiftly. We will track down the terrorists involved in the killing and neutralise them soon,” he said.
The shooting took place barely 50 metres from Sanjay’s home in Achan village of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The two-storey house has been provided with round-the-clock security by the J&K administration following a string of targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits over the last more than two years.
A J&K police man, who is among a small group of five police personnel deployed at the house for security reasons since last year, said that the sound of gunshots put them on alert. “We closed the gate and took positions in case the attackers tried to get into the house. Our duty is to protect the house. We are not tasked to protect the family when they go out of the house,” the policeman said, requesting anonymity.
Sanjay’s is the lone Kashmiri Pandit family who had stayed back in Achan when the armed insurgency broke out in the Valley.
The family includes four brothers, Bhushan Sharma and Ashok Sharma, both of whom are farmers and live in a joint family. The youngest brother, Deep Sharma, works in the J&K police and is believed to have made plans to settle in Jammu while Sanjay was working as a security guard at a bank ATM in the village.
Bhushan, the eldest brother, said that in the aftermath of a spate of targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits, the management of the bank had asked Sanjay to stay at home, although he continued to draw his wages. “Given our family’s poor financial status, he was also allotted a home (under the Government of India’s Indira Awas Yojana) last year which is still undergoing construction,” Bhushan told The Wire, standing at the main door to their double storied home.
“In his lifetime, he never harmed anyone, which is what makes his killing even more painful. What was his fault?,” he asked. As Bhushan spoke, a less-than-two-feet tall girl, with a small red bindi on her forehead, appeared on the door, holding the little finger of his left hand.
With wondering eyes, the three-year old, the youngest child of Sanjay, looked around at a sea of sad people comprising relatives and members of Kashmiri Pandit community, their Muslim neighbours, security personnel and officials milling around in the compound of her house, oblivious to the presence of the lifeless body of her father on a cot barely ten metres away.
Besides the cot, Sunita, Sanjay’s inconsolable wife, is held back by two Muslim women from the neighbourhood when she tries to pull out her hair, unable to come to terms with the shocking death of her husband. Behind them, there are more than three dozen, grief-stricken Muslim women who have come to share the grief of the family.
Sunita is issuing desperate pleas for her husband to “wake up”, “I will sacrifice my life for you, my Sanju. Please wake up. Who will take care of our kids? Why did you leave me alone?” Sunita breaks into a dirge, as her husband’s lifeless body refuses to move. “Please ask him to stand up and talk to me. He isn’t listening to me,” she cries, as Muslim women with moist eyes ask her to show patience.
As Achan’s lone Hindu family waits for Deep, their youngest son who is posted in Jammu, to reach home, Muslim neighbours have shown up in strength to make arrangements for the last rites. Amid a brief shower, a group of youngsters set up a large tarpaulin sheet to protect the compound where the body of Sanjay waits for his brother before embarking on the final journey.
“No one in the village had expected such an unfortunate incident. Whether a Hindu dies or a Muslim, it is the murder of humanity. We request everyone to put an end to these killings. It would be better if they kill us all,” Mohammad Muzaffar Wani, a resident of Pulwama said.
“This terrorism should end,” added another Muslim villager who could not me identified immediately, “Let Kashmiris live with peace. Everyday people are dying due to heart attacks in Kashmir because we hear about these terrorising incidents. This tyranny should end. There should be peace. Humans should be saved. Enough bloodshed has taken place.”
The killing of Sanjay is the first targeted attack on Kashmiri Pandits this year and it is likely to aggravate the climate of anxiety and fear prevailing among the minority Hindu community of Kashmir following a spate of targeted killings since 2020.
Last year in December, the Union government said that nine Kashmiri Pandits have been killed since 2020 in the Valley, one of whom belonged to the Kashmiri Rajput community. Nearly two dozen members of minority communities have been killed in Kashmir since 2020, according to official data. Of these, at least 14 people, including three Kashmiri Pandits, were killed last year.
The Resistance Front, a militant outfit which was recently banned under the anti-terror law, has claimed responsibility for most of the killings with a number of militants allegedly involved in these attacks gunned down by security forces. However, no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack in Achan village.
J&K’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and some Kashmiri political leaders condemned the attack in Achan. “Strongly condemn the dastardly terror attack on Sanjay Kumar Sharma in Pulwama,” Sinha said, adding that his administration was standing with the bereaved family.
“My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family. The administration has given a free hand to the security forces to deal with the terrorists and we will continue to combat such acts of terrorism firmly and decisively,” Sinha said in a statement.
While Sinha’s administration has promised to conduct a swift probe into the killing and bring the perpetrators to justice, the assurances have failed to restore the sense of security in the victim’s family.
Bhushan, the brother of Sanjay, said that his family was not safe in the village any longer, “Today it was his turn. Tomorrow it will be mine. Our problem has no solution. We should not live here, that is it. As long as we do, these killings will continue to take place, security or no security,” he said.