Jalandhar/Srinagar: On the afternoon of June 13, Sumi Jaan was seen protesting outside the Anantnag district administration’s office.
The widow of a slain sarpanch, Sumi Jaan’s demand was that her family be given an ex-gratia amount comparable to the Rs 20 lakh given to Congress sarpanch Ajay Pandita Bharti.
Pandita, a 40-year-old Kashmiri Pandit, was killed by militants on June 8.
Sumi Jaan’s husband Syed Rafiq Ahmad was also a Congress sarpanch and lived in the Hakura village in Anantnag district. He was killed, along with an agriculture officer Sheikh Zahoor, in Anantnag during phase two of the ‘Back to Village’ programme in the area, on November 26, 2019.
Eight months after he was killed by militants, Syed Rafiq Ahmad’s family – including his six children – have not received any help from the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory government.
It was only when Pandita’s ex gratia amount was given within a week of his passing that the clamour for similar amounts for the families of other murdered sarpanchs began.
Talking to The Wire, Sumi Jaan said in Kashmiri, “My husband was killed when he was performing his duty. He was actively participating in ‘Back to Village’ programme when he lost his life but the government never gave us anything. Ajay Pandita was also our brother. If his family can be given financial assistance, then why can’t ours? After all, the value of everybody’s blood is same, whether they are Hindu or Muslim. The government does not seem to think so, yet how can we complain against the BJP, when my husband’s own party – Congress – never asked us how we were doing?”
Supporting her claim, J&K Panchayat Conference chairman, Shafiq Mir said that since 2012, as many as 19 sarpanchs have been killed in J&K and none were given any financial assistance by the government.
Interestingly, an old video of Ajay Pandita has also gone viral on social media, where he is seen asking for security for himself in an interview to a local journalist. In the video, Pandita was seen pointing out how Congress sarpanch Syed Mohd Rafiq was killed and stressing how the J&K government should listen to the demand of security and threats to sarpanchs seriously.
Pandita was an influential name in Anantnag. As sarpanch of Lukbawan panchayat halqa, a Muslim dominated village, he enjoyed great popularity in the region. Pandita also used to make documentaries for Doordarshan.
Vijay, his brother, said that Pandita’s killing came as a rude shock to the entire Kashmiri Pandit community, especially since he did not receive any security threats while he was alive. “We have been staying here for last 15 years. Kashmir is our home. We are not going anywhere and will stay here. My brother enjoyed the warmth of not just his own community but that of Muslims too. But there are culprits, who don’t want peace,” he said. Vijay refused to say whether he believed the murder was politically motivated.
Ever since Article 370 was read down in J&K on August 5, 2019, the security cover of many people, including sarpanchs, have been withdrawn. Even sarpanchs who were elected during the 2018 panchayat elections were not given any individual security cover and were made to stay in select hotels of J&K, guarded by security forces 24×7. “Repeated demands to provide security to sarpanchs are never taken seriously by the government, leading to more panic now,” said another sarpanch.
For many fellow Kashmiri Pandits, Ajay Pandita’s political rise in the valley was a big ray of hope. However, his killing brought back the chilling memories of the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from 1989 to 1992.
To a query pertaining to ex-gratia for slain sarpanches, BJP Kashmir spokesperson Altaf Thakur, who is himself a sarpanch from Dadsar in Tral sub district of South Kashmir admitted that ‘equal treatment’ is a must. “BJP believes in equal treatment to all. It has come to my notice and we will take it up with the government. If Rafiq’s wife has held a protest, she should be given the ex-gratia amount,” he said.
Thakur also said that sarpanchs of militant-dominated areas have also been demanding security from the government. “If Ajay Pandita was demanding security, he should have been given security. But it is not possible to give security to everybody, as it is given on the basis of threats. Even recently, we handed over a list of names who need security in militancy-affected areas to the government and provided security cover to some people in Sopore and South Kashmir villages,” he added.
When asked if Ajay Pandita was killed because he was from the minority Kashmiri Pandit community, Altaf Thakur said, “No, I don’t think so. We know how our neighbouring country had been disturbing peace in the valley and misleading youth for a long time, leading to such tragedies.”
Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) president Ghulam Ahmad Mir said losing two promising leaders within a period of eight months is a big blow to Congress in the valley.
“When Syed Rafiq was killed in a militant attack in November 2019, I was under house arrest after the Article 370 move. I was released on May 17 last month. I was not even allowed to meet his family but I remained in touch with them telephonically. Now, Ajay Pandita’s killing has led to panic not just among Kashmiri Pandits but the majority community too. Congress has demanded a judicial probe into Ajay Pandita’s killing, as he had been demanding security from the government but was never given. I cannot recall how many times we had raised the issue of security for sarpanchs but the government didn’t listen. It is sad that BJP is resorting to discriminatory politics and adopting pick and choose policy on such a sensitive issue.”
He also lambasted the then J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik for starting phase one of the ‘Back to Village’ programme and ignoring the feedback from public and security agencies. “Later, J&K Lt. Governor G.C. Murmu also went ahead with phase two of the ‘Back to Village’ programme without examining the ground reality, which led to the killing of Syed Rafiq along with an agriculture officer, Sheikh Zahoor. While Rafiq’s family was ignored, Zahoor was given Rs 33 lakh ex-gratia amount. We have written to Deputy Commissioner Anantnag to provide ex-gratia to Rafiq’s wife too. The government has sought an affidavit, as Rafiq had two wives,” he added.
Mir said that a day before he was killed, Ajay Pandita spoke to him over the phone on how to fill the seat vacated by Syed Rafiq. “I never knew this was going to be our last conversation,” he said.