It was the morning of 14th September 1989 when a professional colleague namely Pandit Tika Lal Taploo, a well-known advocate and senior BJP leader, was assassinated by the militants, at a point blank range outside his residence while he was proceeding for his daily routine of vakalat. Several bullets were pumped in his body and he succumbed there and then. The news of his assassination spread like wild fire throughout the city of Srinagar and in particular in the Habbakadal Assembly constituency from where he has been contesting elections unsuccessfully. He was a very well-known social activist and a lawyer in his constituency and had developed a personal rapport among all the sections of voters, despite being one of the most consistent and ardent RSS/BJP leader. Hearing this sad news, I could sense through my political intuition the likely fall out of such brutal killing of a prominent Kashmiri, a member of the community.
The ostensible reason given by the JKLF, the outfit behind the said killing, that that Pandit Taploo was perceived as a vocal man against the on-going militancy who had condemned the killing of a national conference local leader namely, Mohd. Yusuf Halwai, who was his neighbor and a voter in Habbakadal constituency couple of days before his assassination. Having grasped the political fallout, I immediately went in the chambers of the then Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah and requested him that the assassination of Taploo deserves wide spread condemnation by all the political elements and the majority community so that the militants get a message that the peace loving Kashmiris are against any violence of the JKLF. My request was immediately accepted and Dr. Farooq Abdullah summoned top leaders of his party and advised them to participate in large numbers in the funeral of late Mr. Taploo and he himself condemned the killing in the most severe and hard hitting language.
Thereafter, we the members of the Kashmiri Pandit community, mobilized our rank and file and sat on a dharna (protest ) in the heart of the city at Habbakadal Chowk. People of prominence like Pt. H.L. Jattoo, late B.K. Handoo, late A.N. Vaishnavi, late Amar Nath Ganjoo and hundreds of social and community activists joined us in the protest. I also contacted the High Court Bar Association office bearers who unanimously resolved to condemn the brutal killing of their colleague late Tika Lal Taploo. The lawyers decided to join the funeral procession to pay their last respect and homage to the departed colleague.
In the afternoon of 14th September, the mortal remains of this illustrious son of the soil, late Shri Taploo, were taken in a huge procession through the lanes and by lanes of Habbakadal constituency to the Karan Nagar cremation ground where thousands of people gathered to bid good bye to Pandit Taploo.
During this process, I was accompanied by couple of my friends and supporters and one of the supporters, as we were near Karan Nagar, whispered in my ear that one of the known JKLF activist and militant was roaming around and he caught hold of him to tell him that the next in the killing target is your colleague Ashok Bhan who has been on our radar for quite some time and after eliminating him, nobody on earth can stop us (militants) from doing whatever we are doing. He further told him that ours is a struggle for liberation of Kashmir valley from the colonial rule of India and all the sections of people of Kashmir, minus the Kashmiri Pandits are, and will be, part of our liberation struggle. My friend got terribly scared for me and followed me like a shadow thereafter.
Next day morning, on 15th September, one of my colleagues, who is deceased now, Comrade Bhushan Lal Bhat, advocate, knocked at my door at 5 in the morning. I was surprised to see him that early and that too on the pretext of making a phone call abroad from my phone to his relation. He came in but did not call anybody. Instead he sat with me for two hours discussing the situation at that time, more specifically in the aftermath of Taploo’s killing. At the end of our two hour long conversation, he categorically asked me: Ashok, this is right time that you plan to move out of the Kashmir valley.
The third person, Mr. Ghulam Mohammad, who was friendly to one of the communist leaders of Kashmir, met me during the day and advised me to be conscious in my movements because I was on the radar of militants’ killing.
These three inputs made me more and more introspective but my prominence as lawyer, as social activist and also as a powerful office bearer of a political party, did not bother me much and I relentlessly went on crusading against the mayhem sought to be created by the militants least realizing that a concerted plan has been formulated and is being executed to ethnically cleanse the Kashmiri Pandits and also kill the nationalist Muslim activists. By and by, I approached the administration for my protection and the advice I received was to shift my residence from my down-town location to some secure area, the advice which I never heeded to.
On 15th September, LK Advani, President of the BJP and Kedar Nath Sahni addressed the condolence gathering at Sheetal Nath, Srinagar in the midst of 10,000 strong crowd and condemned the assassination of Taploo and termed it as a murder of democracy. They assured the gathering that the Kashmiris, in general, and Kashmiri Pandits in particular, will be protected by the Indian State, the State Government.
As the situation was unfolding, other prominent Kashmiri Pandits were getting brutally killed. A former judge, Pandit Neelkanth Ganjoo was killed in broad day light in Hari Singh High Street while returning from his court work as an advocate. His body lied on the road for some time because a diktat was issued by the JKLF not to move it and people did not move it out of scare and followed the diktat. Some of us from the court rushed to the spot and gathered few more, along with the local police, to remove the dead body. The JKLF had meticulously executed this murder scripted by ISI and their spokesman later officially acknowledged that the killing was done to avenge the judge’s role in the death sentence of JKLF founder Maqbool Butt.
Meanwhile, the killings of prominent Muslim activists and political leaders also started and those nationalist Muslims and political leaders who condemned such brutal terror attacks of innocent citizens were done to death in more gruesome manner. One of the prominent national leader, Mir Mustafa of Lassjan became another victim of such brutality.
I was practicing in High Court of Kashmir and on one occasion was sitting in the room of Advocate General, late Shri Altaf Ahmad. From one corner of the High Court a group of militants indiscriminately fired at the CRPF personnel guarding the High Court. There was no casualty and the militants left through the small by lanes conveniently. It was a very scary situation in the High Court. Both the Divisional Commissioner and the DG Police arrived and gave a very hazy explanation to the Chief Justice, the Advocate General and the lawyers present, including me. The civil administration and the local police seem to be confused and clueless because by that time the political leadership which could guide the administration had gone into a sullen mode.
The Kashmiri pandit community as a whole became forsaken, insecure and vulnerable. The nefarious designs of the militants started gaining legitimacy in certain sections of Kashmiri, maybe to start with out of scare but as the time went by, it appeared that it was out of anger against India for the reasons unexplained so far by those sections of Kashmiris. The shadow of guns started looming large over the valley and the State Government started abandoning its responsibility towards the citizens so much so the Chief Minister started shuttling between Srinagar and Delhi and Delhi-London leaving the State to the mercy of the most incompetent bureaucracy.
After having refused to leave my residence at the asking of state administration, one fine evening in November 1989, a highly placed police officer called me up and said that the threat against my life and that of my family has become very serious and severe. He confided that two of the arrested terrorists have specifically named me as their next target. Having listened to the officer, I went home and discussed the matter with my wife and she got frightened but said that how can we plan to go out of Kashmir just like that? I was trying to gain time but things so happened that I was being shadowed for three days by militants. I do not know whether they were gun wielding or not but they did scare me a lot. Finally, they called my home on phone to tell my wife that in case they did not succeed to kill me in another couple of days, they will definitely kidnap my small kids.
On this, I spoke to the top central government official and requested him that I wish to leave the Valley now. He asked me how about my belongings—the house and other valuable material? I categorically told him that I do not mind losing everything but that I did not want to get killed or my family being harmed. He was very nice and I asked him for providing a security officer to accompany us at least up to Banihal. He made the arrangement and I left with my two small kids and wife in a Gypsy Car and a security officer up to Banihal and reached Jammu the next evening I wanted to convey the top official, as he was the ear and eyes of Indian State in Kashmir that if a person of my standing and eminence is being hounded out of the Valley ,what is the guarantee that other members of my community will be secure. I wanted to sensitize the Indian State about the magnitude of the threat perceptions and the conspiracy being hatched by Pakistan and militants in Kashmir.
Pakistan, ISI and the militants resorted to “Killing one and scaring a thousand” tactics for execution of the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir Pandits. Today, as a tribute to be paid to the martyrdoms of Taploo, Ganjoo, Sarla, Premi, Prem Nath Bhat, LassaKaul, Mir Mustafa, Abdul Sattar Ranjoor, Molana Syed Masoodi, Mirwaiz Molana Farooq Sb, Mohammad Yusuf Halwai, Ghulam Nabi Kolour and other innocent and prominent Muslims killed by militants, and all those who were brutally killed including infants, women, children—young and old – I personally salute all the martyrs who laid their precious life for the soil of Kashmir. With my heart bleeding and tears rolling down, I appeal to all the Kashmiri Pandits and the Muslims of the Valley to stay united and save Kashmir from further mayhem, death and destruction. Enough blood is spilt on the soil of Kashmir, now is the time to stand for peace and plural co existence to defeat the designs of terrorism once for all.
(Author is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court & Chairman, Kashmir Strategy & Policy Group. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org)