KASHMIR—Makhan Lal Bindroo, a 62-year-old Hindu Pandit, was working at a prominent pharmacy he ran for decades in Kashmir’s Srinagar region when he was shot four times in cold blood. Two days later, Siddharth, his 41-year-old son, stood pale-faced among several mourners at Bindroo’s residence. His last memory of his father is at the hospital, looking down at his bloodied body, which was riddled with bullet wounds on the neck and head.
Bindroo’s murder, which took place in the evening of Oct. 5, is part of a series of targeted killings by militants fighting against India’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir. In the past week alone, the attacks have left at least seven people dead, four of whom are from religious minorities. “The incident has shaken us all,” Siddharth told The Daily Beast. “My father was loved and respected by the masses. We never expected this.”
When asked about the motives behind the recent killings, experts who spoke with The Daily Beast pointed a finger at policies introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of India’s Hindu nationalist government.
In 2019, Modi abrogated the decades-old limited autonomy of Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan, turning it into a federal enclave and clamping down on separatist resistance efforts. Since then, the Modi government has implemented several proposals—including changes to laws around land holdings and residency status—encouraging Hindus to resettle in Kashmir, which many view as a demographic threat to India’s only Muslim-dominated region.
In November 2019, India’s consul-general in New York was captured on camera speaking to a private audience on the reforms executed by the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir, explicitly citing Israeli settlements as a source of inspiration. “We already have a model in the world,” he said. “If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it.”
Now, militants appear to have taken advantage of these developments to justify the targeting of non-Muslim citizens like Bindroo, citing concerns that the government is working to push Hindus in, and Muslims out.
Meanwhile, the government has continued its campaign of encouraging migration to Kashmir as the violence spirals. According to Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandits’ collective, about 1,100 Indians have returned to Kashmir since the 2019 abrogation so far, with many taking up jobs under the prime minister’s rehabilitation package for returning citizens. In September, the government announced plans to build a transit camp to re-assimilate over 300 Pandit migrants in the Valley.
At his father’s memorial, which took place in the family’s garden, Siddharth embraced one mourner after another, many of whom are Muslim. “We never thought something like this would happen,” Siddharth told mourners. “Anybody who has done it is a person with no conscience. The motive behind it is to gain headlines.”
News of Bindroo’s killing sparked widespread outrage from different sections of Kashmiri society. Citizens took to social media, recalling their memories with Bindroo and his pharmacy. Suneem Khan, a Kashmiri tweeted: “... lot of emotions of a Kashmiri have come to be attached with this name, Bindroo… [he was] mercilessly murdered today. Mercilessly!”
For many Kashmiris, the recent attacks brought back to mind the hideous memories of the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1987, after New Delhi rigged local elections and installed a ‘puppet government,’ an armed insurgency erupted in the region, calling for either Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan or all-out independence. Militant outfits engaged in killing sprees, targeting anyone they suspected of being an “Indian spy” or “political collaborator,” especially non-Muslim minorities like Pandits, prompting a mass exodus in 1990. According to a Kashmiri Pandits’ collective, 145,00o Pandits left the region and nearly 400 have been killed since the insurgency broke out.
The mass exodus of Kashmir’s Pandits coincided with right-wing efforts to intensify an agenda of Hindu supremacy in India. Since then, Modi’s BJP party has continued to weaponize the plight of displaced Pandits, successfully advocating for the repeal of Kashmir’s limited autonomy in order to ensure the return of Pandits to the Valley. In rally after rally, Modi’s allies would offer their sympathies to Pandits while demonizing Kashmiri Muslims, a political strategy which seems to have fueled extremist actors like The Resistance Front (TRF), a militant group that took responsibility for the recent spate of killings targeting non-Muslim Kashmiris.
The group, which emerged after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy, alleged on social media that Bindroo “held seminars and secret meetings involving Kashmiris, especially youth, in the name of health activities,” at the behest of the Indian right. TRF also claimed the killings of two non-Muslim teachers in a school raid on Oct. 7, two days after Bindroo was fatally shot.
Not everyone is buying into the polarization rhetoric spewed by both the government and the militants. Outside of Bindroo’s residence, a sign of Om, a spiritual symbol of Hinduism, is fixed on the front door. In the Muslim household adjacent to his, a marble plate with an inscription that reads “Masha’Allah” (what God has willed) hangs from the wall. The houses are now divided by a tent of mourners in the Bindroo family’s garden. “We have been cheated [by the militants] for our right to exist with the Muslim brothers. We want to live in harmony with them,” said Siddharth.
Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, urged his community: “Don’t allow [a] repeat of the early ’90s… I believe these attacks are aimed to drive a wedge between the communities and to push them out of Kashmir,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Hardly 10 meters away from Bindroo’s neighborhood residence is the home of Satpal Nischal, another Hindu businessman who was killed by militants in January this year. “The killing scared our family but my father said he won’t stop going to his shop,” Siddharth recalled. “Leaving Kashmir was not even a question.”
When thousands of Pandit families left Kashmir during the 1990 exodus, the Bindroos stayed back. “We are a part of Kashmir,” Bindroo told Siddharth at the time. Siddharth said that his family has lived through several civilian uprisings and government crackdowns, “but we never felt threatened.”
A Srinagar-based political analyst told The Daily Beast that the recent spike in violence was inevitable. “It’s no longer rocket science for anyone that the developments from the last two years will ultimately have its fall-out,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of a reprisal from the government.
“The civilian killings never stopped,” he added, citing widespread human rights abuses by Indian forces and militant groups alike. “If we see it from a ‘demographic change’ perspective, then it becomes a sensitive issue… If this situation continues, it will escalate into something very difficult to control.”
Besides civilians, the militant groups have also attacked local political leaders, including members of the BJP. After last week’s mayhem in Kashmir, the state has beefed up its deployment of security officials, reportedly detaining hundreds of Muslims across the region.
Many fear another crackdown is coming. Mehbooba Mufti, Jammu and Kashmir’s last chief minister, told reporters outside of Bindroo’s residence last week that “the government will try to hide its failures by resorting to tough security measures in Srinagar and elsewhere.”
So far, it appears Mufti’s prediction is spot-on. On the evening of Oct. 7, when the two schoolteachers were killed, government forces shot dead a Muslim civilian at a checkpoint in southern Kashmir. The police said in a statement that the vehicle had “failed to stop” despite warnings.