Guard and gloom—how Kashmiris mourned their ‘piece of heart’

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The gloomy faces at Achan. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Unfazed by online diatribe and demonization, Sanjay Sharma’s Muslim neighbours stood together with his family for tearful farewell.

ACHAN, Pulwama — The pre-spring shower soaking this postcard hamlet is competing with myriad moist eyes. 

The “beloved pandit” consigned to flames some days back has left the villagers haunted and heartbroken. 

As a young boy, they tell tales of tense times, Sanjay stayed put with his parents. The Muslim guardians promised to watch their back. And they did—whenever rage ran rampant in region.

But 33 years later, when bullets suddenly ended that promise, the villagers took turns to lament over their helplessness. They swarm his home with emotions and empathy and created a sense of togetherness in the face of virtual vitriol.

Mourner footfall at Achan. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Some 45 kilometers from Srinagar, the mood in Achan is mournful. The majority is spearheading condemnation as well as condolences. In small groups, they discuss anecdotes about the fallen pandit who was their “son”, “sibling” and “Samaritan”.

“When news of Sanjay’s death spread, the whole village cried in pain,” says Ghulam Mohammad Mir, a sexagenarian griever at the pandit’s house. 

“Those working in orchards, construction sites and institutes left their work midway to reach here. It felt as if the whole village was shaking with sorrow.”

The hamlet housing 300 Muslim families and only one Pandit household shortly saw a massive security apparatus and entourage of politicians arriving for the post-trigger assessment. The village at once turned melancholic over the “murder most foiled”.

The scenes inside slain Sanjay’s residence are plaintive. His widow Sneeta (35) is still crying her heart out, while his orphans—Sakshi (10), Diksha (6) and Aryan (3)—are grieving in silence. One of his daughter’s grief-stricken photos has already become a solidarity mugshot on social media.

Huddled by Kashmiri Muslim women, Sanjay’s ‘battered half’ is being consoled by one and all. For the first two days, most of these women mourners hardly had anything. “Sanjay’s killing sent us in a deep shock,” said a woman in her seventies. “He was our son. His killing has impacted all of us.”

Some of these old women came with walking sticks to share their neighbour’s grief. “Our love towards the family doesn’t let us sit home,” another woman mourner said. “This killing has devastated everyone in Achan.”

Amid these recollections, the periodic silence of the room gets shattered by the widow’s woes: “Paey asem ni mout che atte” (I did not know death was near you). 

Sneeta consoled by a Kashmiri Muslim woman in her Achan home. [FPK Photo /Umar Farooq.]

Sanjay and Sneeta had left home on the morning of February 26, 2023. It was a routine grocery outing for the couple in the local bazar. But barely 100 meters from their home, 40-year-old Sanjay was targeted. “They killed him in front of my eyes,” Sneeta screams in pain. 

With four-bullet wounds on his chest, some local Muslims brought Sanjay to district hospital, Pulwama. The Pandit was declared brought dead. 

To protest Sanjay’s killing, Muslims of Achan staged a protest at Lassipora, Pulwama on the evening of February 26. A day after his killing, in presence of huge armed forces, the locals performed his last rites according to Hindu rituals. Many men were seen crying like children as flames engulfed Sanjay’s pyre.

“It was a personal loss to all of us,” Mir, the elder mourner at Sanjay’s home, continues. “We always worked together in our agricultural fields, helped each other in every possible way. The whole village treated Sanjay as their own family member.”

Inside the room filled with women grievers, a man arrives and hugs woebegone Sneeta. The fear in her eyes prompts him to assure her: “Aess chey na che seet” (Aren’t we together in this). 

The man is Nadeem Ahmad, Sneeta’s neighbour cum sibling. Such assurances get repeated with every new arrival in the room of remembrance.

The villagers recall giving the same assurances to their Kashmiri Pandit neighbours during 1990 when the mass migration began in the valley. With time, the village saw gradual departure of Pandits, leaving only Sharma’s family behind with Muslims.

The farewell. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

“Sanjay was a noble man,” says Mushtaq Bhat, a young villager. “He was working as a Maths teacher in a private school at Litter Pulwama before the local Auqaf Committee recommended his name for an ATM guard in 2014.”

Following his killing now, his widow demands relocation, job security and compensation for her children. The killing has only sparked the sit-in of the protesting pandits demanding relocation from Kashmir. But the Manoj Sinha administration wants them back to their duties and lately decided to hold their salaries for their dragged-on dissent. 

Meanwhile, as police claimed to neutralize Sanjay’s killers in a recent Awantipora gunfight, his is the first targeted killing against minority this year. 

In 2022, three Kashmiri Pandits were killed in total 29 attacks. However, there has been a substantial decline in militant attacks from 417 in 2018 to 229 in 2021.

But beyond the data and din over the killing, Achan is gloomy. Sanjay’s family has lost their “peace of mind”, while the villagers their “piece of heart”.

The last Pandit household is inconsolable, but the resilient Muslim neighbours are leaving no stone unturned to restore the fraught faith.

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