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Choudhary Gund (Shopian, J&K): Sunita Bhat was burning dry twigs and leaves shed by the walnut trees outside her home at noon on on Saturday, October 15, when a labourer came looking for ‘baardaan’, a Kashmiri term for the stock of wooden or cardboard boxes which are used for packaging apples.
As she spoke with the labourer, a loud bang rattled the calm in Choudhary Gund village of south Kashmir’s Shopian district. Sunita, a Kashmiri Pandit, assumed that a gas cylinder had exploded in the neighbourhood, “My heart skipped a beat when a woman started screaming,” she said.
“As I moved towards the sound, I saw Babloo ji lying on the road. He was writhing like a live fish in a frying pan. The road was smeared by blood and shreds of human flesh,” Sunita, a 37-year-old homemaker, said.
‘Babloo ji’ is her brother-in-law, 43-year-old Puran Krishen Bhat. His nickname was lovingly used by both Muslims and Pandits living in this village.
Krishen had fled to Jammu after a Kashmiri Pandit became a victim of targeted killing in the adjoining Chotigam village in August this year. A fortnight ago, Sunita said, Krishen returned to harvest the apple crop in his orchard. His 13-year-old daughter had pleaded with him to not return to Kashmir. “He told her that he was safe among his Muslim neighbours and there was nothing to worry about. He felt that he had to buy the baardaan and also arrange for labourers to harvest the apples,” said Sunita.
On Saturday morning, the day of the harvest, Krishen visited a bank in the area. He was returning on a bike along with his cousin, Sunil Kumar Bhat, who dropped him outside his home. Minutes later, the gunshot Sunita heard rang out.
When Sunita rushed out, she saw Krishen’s nephew Ankit Bhat, struggling to make his grievously wounded uncle sit up on his bike. “I ran barefoot and shouted for help like a mad woman. I screamed ’save my brother, someone take him to hospital’ which caught the attention of the neighbours,” Sunita said.
Neighbours rushed to the spot and helped Ankit take his uncle to a hospital on his bike. Doctors declared Krishen was brought dead. He is the seventh Kashmiri Pandit to have been gunned down in targeted killings in Kashmir in the past two years.
Later in the evening, a lesser known militant outfit, Kashmiri Freedom Fighters, claimed responsibility for the attack. Deputy Inspector General of Police, Sujit Kumar, who is in charge of the south Kashmir range, said that the initial probe points to the involvement of single attacker, although some reports indicated that two bike-borne assailants were involved in the cold-blooded murder.
As news of the death spread, a pall of gloom descended on the village of Choudhary Gund, nestled in Shopian’s dense apple orchards. It has a population of 317 people, according to the Census 2011, nearly half of whom are illiterate. Like Krishen, most of the male villagers are farmers who depend on their small apple orchards for sustenance.
The eruption of armed insurgency in Kashmir in the early 1990s led to the exodus of Pandits, the minority Hindu community, from Kashmir. However, Choudhary Gund is among a handful of villages where Pandits stayed back, despite the grave risk. According to locals, seven Kashmiri Pandits families live in the village.
Until the killing of a Kashmiri Pandit in the adjoining Chotigam village, Krishen had been living in his own house – which he built recently next to his ancestral house. However, Sweety, his wife, and their two minor children moved to Jammu in 2016 when the killing of a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, triggered a wave of protests which closed educational institutions across Kashmir for nearly six months.
The couple did not want the situation in Kashmir to ruin the education of their children, Sunita said.
Krishen’s tragic killing has escalated fear and tensions among the remaining Pandit community members of this village. “Whether it was celebrations or mourning, Pandits and Muslims have stood by each other. This village has never seen such bloodbath,” Nazir Ahmad, an electrician who lives in the village, told The Wire.
Along with grief, the killing has sent shockwaves across Shopian. Residents are seeking answers as to how the attacker managed to escape from the village, the road to which passes through a highly garrisoned army camp. Besides, security guards were also reportedly deployed for the protection of Kashmiri Pandit families living in the village following an uptick in targeted killings in Kashmir. “We are probing if any lapses have taken place. If any negligence is found, strict action will be taken,” DIG Kumar said.
The Muslim neighbours of Krishen rue that his killing will widen the fissures that have been caused by a spate of targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits over the past few years. The killings, they fear, may also dent the communal harmony that existed between the two communities.
The Kashmir Collective Guftgoo, a non-political civil society group of Muslims and non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits have released a statement condemning Krishen’s gruesome murder and calling for “the perpetrators of this dastardly act be brought to justice.”
“The sacred relation between Pandits and Muslims of our village will cease to exist very soon. Who killed Babloo ji and why he was killed, we don’t know. We can’t blame one person or the other. What I do know is that he didn’t understand politics. He was a simple villager and a farmer like me,” said a visibly angry Farooq Ahmad Wagay, a close friend of Krishen.
More than a dozen Muslim neighbours gathered in a dimly lit room on Saturday evening to comfort Sunita. One Muslim woman prepared tea for the visitors. Sunita recounted how, when her husband visited Jammu last week, Kishen had handed him a box of apples and some cash for his wife and two kids.
Shocked by the turn of events and the memory of a man dying in pain in front of her eyes, Sunita said that the attackers should have taken pity on Krishen for the sake of his two minor children. “Which book decrees the cold-blooded murders of innocent people? We are dead already. Let them kill all of us,” she said, in visible anger.
Sunita said that the Muslims and Pandits of Choudhary Gund lived like “one community” during more than three decades of turmoil in Kashmir. “They never made us aware of the fact that we belong to a different religion. When one of our relatives died recently, my sister from Jammu couldn’t come to deliver condolences. But our Muslim neighbours stood with us and comforted us. We don’t have many relatives here. We share a deeper bond with Muslims than our blood relations,” Sunita said.
Officials said the body of Krishen was handed to his family and taken to Jammu for last rites after medico-legal formalities were completed on Saturday evening. Recalling the last moments of Krishen before he was taken to the hospital, Sunita said: “His eyeballs were rolling as if they were searching for his family. Perhaps he would have wanted to see his children before dying. Perhaps he wanted to tell them that he was going to leave them forever. I can never forget his face. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”