ANANTNAG, Jammu and Kashmir ― Dwarika Nath Pandita, the father of Ajay Pandita, the 44-year-old village chief who was executed by unidentified gunmen on Monday, said that he heard the shots ring out at five in the evening.
“I heard my daughter screaming,” said Dwarika Pandita, who was moved from the Kashmir Valley to Jammu city by the Jammu and Kashmir Police following the killing on Monday.
“I ran outside and I spotted my son in a pool of blood,” he told HuffPost India over the phone.
In Lukhbawan, Pandit’s ancestral village in Anantnag district, Indian security forces had cordoned off his house on Tuesday, and villagers recalled the grizzly scene from the day before.
Shahid Aslam, the grocer, recalled that he was buying cigarettes and fruits when two men dressed as civilians shot him twice at close range. “He fell down and was in a pool of blood. I ran from the spot and entered a nearby house for help,” he said.
The bullets had ripped through Pandita’s left shoulder and chest, his neighbours said. The father of two daughters was rushed to the district hospital in Anantnag, some 18 kilometers away from Lukhbawan, where doctors declared him dead.
“He was like my son. Humble and friendly. It feels like we lost one of our own,” said Ghulam Mohammad Mugloo, a neighbour. “Last night, our entire family could not sleep. The entire village is mourning his death. This shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
No militant group had claimed responsibility for murdering Pandita at the time this report was published. J&K Police Chief Dilbagh Singh said it was a “targeted killing” carried out by the Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant organisation formed in 1990 with the goal of merging Kashmir with Pakistan.
In conflict-ridden Kashmir, those who engage with the Indian state — party workers, village chiefs and policemen — are hunted by militants and often have strained relations with their fellow Kashmiris.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Anil Sharma, president of the Jammu & Kashmir Panchayat Conference said that 18 village chiefs had been killed in attacks staged by militants, but he did not say since when.
Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were held in 2011 after a gap of 33 years.
Pandita is the second village chief killed by militants since August, last year, when the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and demoted India’s only Muslim majority state to a Union Territory.
Rafiq Shah, a village chief, was killed when militants hurled a grenade and opened fire at a government event in Anantnag on 26 November.
The constant threat to their lives has many village chiefs in Kashmir perennially looking over their shoulder, moving from one location to another, and staying for prolonged periods in safe houses in Srinagar.
These village chiefs, who risk their lives by participating in the grass-root level election, a powerful symbol of Indian democracy, have always criticised the authorities for not providing them with adequate protection.
A pandit and sarpanch
Pandita, who contested the village election as a Congress Party candidate in October, 2018, was a member of the only Kashmiri Pandit family in the Lukhbawan.
Kashmir witnessed an exodus of Pandit families after Muslim militants carried out a campaign of assassinations against them in the early 1990s.
75,000 Kashmiri Pandit families — 3,25,000 people — lived in Kashmir prior to 1989, according to Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti based in Srinagar. Tickoo, who did not leave in the mass migration, estimates there are 808 families — 2,867 people — left in Kashmir.
A survey conducted by his organisation in 2008 found that 399 Kashmiri Pandits were killed after the insurgency erupted in 1990, most of them in the first year. This figure is higher than the official death toll of 219, but lower than the 1,200 figure suggested by Panun Kashmir, an organization of displaced Kashmiri Pandits, which observes Kashmiri Hindu Holocaust Day every year on 19 January.
Pandita’s family migrated to Jammu city for safety, but moved back to Kashmir in 1996, when he joined the Congress Party in his early twenties. They constructed a house in 2006, said Dwarika Pandita, his father. “We were living happily. The villagers used to treat him like their own brother. It was just due to militancy, he was killed,” he said.
Two years after his family returned to Kashmir, Pandita contested the Urban Local Bodies polls as a Congress Party candidate and was elected the sarpanch of three villages, Lukhbhawan, Lirkipora and Mugalpora of Doru constituency, in Anantnag.
His political career was tragically cut short on Monday, said his father, who also described himself as a foot soldier of the Congress Party.
“He always wanted to develop his village. He wanted to uplift this area that has remained under-developed since decades,” he said.
“Recently, he renovated a water channel in the village that is helping in watering the orchards,” said Bashir Ahmad, a villager of Lukhbhawan.
Father claims no security
After winning the 2018 Urban Local Body election, Nath said that his son had requested the Deputy Commissioner of Anantnag Mohammad Younis Malik for security, but there was no response from the government authorities.
“God knows why they didn’t provide him security,” said Dwarika Pandita.
Malik, who now holds a different position in the government, did not respond to HuffPost India’s request for comment. The current Deputy Commissioner in Anantnag, K.K. Sidha, said that no such matter had come to his attention.
Ahmad, the grocer, said that he was used to Pandita sitting at his store and chatting. “He was a secular person. He thought that religion is singular. We called him Nitt Bate (pandit) and the youngsters called him Nitt bhai,” said Ahmad.
Pandita’s family undertook a seven-hour long journey on Monday night and performed the last rites in Jammu city, the next day.
“I cannot explain the pain to you. What worse can be for a father who was carrying his dead son’s body for cremation?” said Dwarika Pandita. “I kept looking at his face and thinking what was his fault?”