Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard at a polling station during the last phase of urban local body polls, on the outskirts of Srinagar on October 16, 2018. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard at a polling station during the last phase of urban local body polls, on the outskirts of Srinagar on October 16, 2018. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)

In recently held municipal elections in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, three members of the Kashmiri Pandit community, migrants from the militancy-plagued valley, surprised many by voting for a former militant commander accused of anti-Pandit atrocities.

Accused of several killings of Kashmiri Pandits and of destruction of Pandit properties in the 1990s, Muhammad Farooq Khan, a “reformed militant”, in October this year contested elections in the Tankipora area of the summer capital of Srinagar, on a ticket from the right wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) which also runs the federal government.

Even though Khan lost the Urban Local Body (ULB) polls from Ward 33 to migrant Pandit Nakul Mattoo, who secured 99 votes to Khan’s four, the results threw up some surprises.

Some onlookers believe that what happened in the election was the first time in the history of armed insurgency in the region that “members of the displaced community voted in support of their oppressor.”

The former Islamist militant, who claims to have once remained a “disciple” of Maulana Azhar Masood, the founder and leader of the UN-designated terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, secured three out of his four votes, or 75%, votes from the Hindu community.

Official documents seen by Asia Times reveal that Khan had bagged only four votes, of which three were cast by migrant Kashmiri Pandits by postal ballot. Khan presumably cast his only other vote himself.

In the wake of the call for a boycott by militants and separatists, the overall voter turnout for the ULB polls in Kashmir was below 5%. In the capital of Srinagar, the turnout was even lower.

On November 6, Junaid Azim Mattoo, backed by the separatist-turned-mainstream leader, Sajad Gani Lone’s Peoples Conference, was elected as the mayor of Srinagar.

Pandit vote surprise

According to police records, of all the districts in Kashmir province, Srinagar recorded the largest number of Kashmiri Pandit killings, 82, within two years of the onset of the armed insurgency.

In those days, Khan was affiliated with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which sought independence from both India and Pakistan. Though soundly defeated in the recent poll, Farooq seems satisfied for having won votes from the Pandit community.

The former militant commander, who had crossed over the Line of Control for arms training in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir candidly admitted that he used to be accused of unleashing terror on the Pandit community.

“Let alone allegations of killings, I used to be accused of having destroyed even their homes, but the fact is that as the then top commander, I never ever even slapped anyone. Allah helped me,” Khan told Asia Times during an exclusive interview.

He, however, was quick to add that his not being involved in the killings of Pandits doesn’t mean they were not killed. “How can we ignore that Pandits were killed mercilessly and that is the bitter reality of Kashmir, which makes our heads hang in shame.”

The former commander said Kashmir didn’t do justice to the Pandit community. “If we have Martyrs Graveyard in Eidgah, shouldn’t a Margath (crematorium) also have been there?”

Khan said he has always been in support of the return of the Pandits to their homeland as “Kashmir is incomplete without them.” He, however, said that, had there been no boycott, he would have won the municipal elections.

After his arrest in 1991, Khan claims to have come in contact with Maulana Azhar Masood in Tihar Jail in New Delhi, where he took the Pakistani militant preacher as his teacher.

Upon his release, however, Khan started living a normal life. Besides setting up his business, he established his own humanitarian outfit -Jammu and Kashmir Human Welfare Association- before joining the BJP.

Pandits speak

Surinder Ambardar, a prominent leader of the Pandit community and Member of the Legislative Council in the Jammu and Kashmir Government, is not surprised at Khan bagging votes from the displaced community.

The Pandit leader said that several factors may have contributed in the former militant gaining support. “It cannot be necessarily looked at through (a) political prism. He had paid for his deeds and is a reformed man now. And then (voting) is everyone’s personal choice. He must have used his personal relations because Pandits and Muslims have enjoyed those relations and still do maintain that. Moreover his being a BJP candidate could also be a contributing factor,” Ambardar told Asia Times.

The massacres

During more than 30 years of bloody conflict in Kashmir, in some instances, minority communities were massacred. These include the Sangrampora massacre in which seven persons were killed on the night of March 21-22 in 1997 in Budgam, 23 were killed in Wandhama on January 25, 1998 and 24 murdered in Nadimarg on March 24, 2003.

There are slight contradictions, however, in the official figures pertaining to the total number of killings.

In March 2010, the state government told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that 219 Kashmiri Pandits had been killed by militants since 1989, and not 209, as was previously reported by the state police.
But a year later in 2011, the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS), a Srinagar-based organisation, said at least 399 Pandits had been killed.