Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir: Fear was evident on the face of 29-year-old Rohit Sah, a street-food vendor from Bihar’s Banka district as he attended to customers in Awantipora town of Pulwama district, 32 km south of J&K capital Srinagar.
Sah’s eyes were focused more on his surroundings than his roadside cart, piled with nandre monje and channa (lotus fritters and chickpeas). A few meters away, a stationary police vehicle monitored public movement.
Sah said he had been anxious about his safety after militants killed four migrant workers in Kashmir in different attacks in a week, taking October’s civilian death toll to 11.
Sah said he earned more here than he could ever hope to back home, had been working in Kashmir for the last eight years and never felt unsafe through unrest and violence. That changed with the latest attack.
“I have packed all my belongings and will leave in the next two days,” said Sah, who was worried about debts he owed and business relationships he had built. “In these eight years, I never felt unsafe here but now I am.” He said he would return only if the situation improved.
Thirty-eight people were killed in Kashmir over the first 20 days of October, including 11 civilians, 17 militants and 10 soldiers. Among the 11 civilians killed, three were Hindus and Sikhs, three Kashmiri Muslims and five were migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), both Muslim and Hindu.
On 17 October, after the killings of two migrant workers—Raja Reshi and Joginder Reshi from Bihar in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district—some 68 km south of Srinagar, hundreds across Kashmir packed their belongings and left for their home states.
We travelled to five Kashmir districts, where fearful migrant workers joining the exodus told of their life-versus-livelihood dilemma.
At Ganjipora village of Kulgam, where on October 17 militants shot two migrant workers who were their friends, Anil Kumar and Santosh (he gave only one name) were busy stuffing their belongings into a taxi.
On the night of the attack, Kumar and Santosh said they huddled in a room they shared with seven others, without eating. The next day, like hundreds of others, they did not go to work, instead making preparations to leave for home.
“I have not had a morsel of food since the killing of my two friends,” said Santosh, visibly frightened. “I had nightmares about the incident throughout last night.”
Migrant workers in Kashmir live in shabby and overcrowded conditions. At Ganjipora, about 100 people lived in a 10-room rented house, sharing a single bathroom outside the house.
“I was terrified,” said Santosh. “I could not gather the courage to come out of my room and walk to the bathroom.”
Migrant workers come to J&K primarily from poorer north Indian states, in particular Bihar and UP, and West Bengal, because—despite unrest and one of India’s highest unemployment rates—the union territory is largely more prosperous and offers many low-paying jobs. Bihar’s annual per capita income, for instance, at about Rs 41,000 is less than half J&K’s Rs 92,000; UP’s is Rs 67,000.
Murder And Unfolding Turmoil
Hours after the latest killings on 17 October, a purported internal memo of the J&K police went viral on social media. It ordered district police officials to gather “all non-local labourers” from within their jurisdictions and take them to the nearest police station, army camps and other protected areas.
The latest rush to leave came a week after militants killed minority Kashmiri Hindu Pandits and Sikhs, prompting many families to flee the Valley.
Of a few hundred (808 by one estimate) Kashmiri Pandit families who stayed back in the 1990s, when thousands fled after hundreds were menaced and murdered, a few left the Valley this October, mostly Kashmir Pandits and Dogras employed in Kashmir under the Prime Minister's package for Kashmiri migrants. In Budgam district’s Sheikhpora village Pandit families left heavily-guarded settlements.
After these attacks on civilians, security forces intensified operations against militants. Hundreds were detained for questioning, and security has been visibly tightened on streets. The J&K police claimed that four militants responsible for four civilian killings in the first week of October had been killed in separate gunfights.
Two militant outfits—The Resistance Front (TRF), which the police said was an offshoot of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, and The Islamic State Wilayah Hind (ISWH), believed to be affiliated of the global Islamic State—have claimed responsibility for the civilian murders. Police said a new militant group, Harkat 313, was plotting to attack government infrastructure, including hydel power plants.
Come spring, thousands of migrant workers from the north Indian states of Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and West Bengal migrate to Kashmir for work. According to official figures, every year around 150,000 to 200,000 workers come to Kashmir, though there may be more.
They call it ‘chota Dubai’ (little Dubai), as the money they earn here is significantly more than their home states.
Migrant workers have been coming to Kashmir for decades and have assimilated themselves in the local culture. They are the steel frame of the Kashmiri economy, making up the major chunk of the Valley’s workforce. Neighbourhoods where these workers usually stay are famously known as ‘Bihari Chowks’.
After the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended Kashmir’s special constitutional status on 5 August 2019, non-local workers migrated en masse in the dead of night, fearing that they would be seen as potential settlers in the region.
‘Kashmir Was Never Like This’
Every morning thousands of migrant labourers’ and skilled workers gather at designated spots in different Kashmiri towns, from where they are hired by contractors and local residents for jobs across the Valley.
They find work in areas such as construction, agriculture and horticulture. Many of them have been working here for decades. Several we spoke to answered in chaste Kashmiri.
Like Sah, 62-year-old Mohamad Hasbul, a labourer from Malda, West Bengal, looked distressed as he sat in front of a shop in Kulgam. The father of seven daughters, Hasbul has been coming to Kashmir “for decades”. This year he was trying to save enough to marry one of his daughters.
“As long as I live, I have to work as a labourer,” said Hasbul in a pessimistic town. “In Bihar we have to pay dowry in lakhs, and if I cannot pay, my daughters will never get married.”
He said he could not understand why migrant workers had been killed.
“Kasheer ousu ne zanh yuth halaat (Kashmir was never like this),” said Hasbul “After decades, I feel Kashmir is changing. I have witnessed many ups and downs here but not as dreadful as this.”
Why 2021 Is Different From 1990
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times, said that the situation in Kashmir was “very treacherous” and “slipping out of hand”. She said tensions had been building for many years, but particularly over the last two years of “repression” and shutting of democratic spaces, since J&K lost its special constitutional status and statehood in August 2019.
“A political vacuum has been created in Kashmir,” said Bhasin. “The media has been completely tamed and gagged. There is institutional collapse of accountability. The natural fall out of this is a lot of bitterness and anger. And that anger would be articulated at some point of time, sometimes in the form of violence.”
Bhasin said the situation now was “completely different” and worse than the 1990s when thousands died after allegedly rigged elections set off years of unrest and death.
“People were caught unaware about what was happening at that time,” said Bhasin. “Now, after 30 years, people have seen various phases of the conflict. People are much more intelligent...and despite knowing (what’s happening) there is a great deal of sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”
Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in Delhi, said the attacks on migrant workers and minority groups were meant to create fear, but the absence of dialogue and political engagement strengthened militants.
“While guns must be fought with guns, the underlying situation must be addressed politically,” said Joshi, the author of two books on Kashmir. “A political process must accompany police actions.”
Those Who Refuse To Leave
While the migrant-worker exodus was apparent, there were some who said they would stay. Among them was Abdul Kalam Azad, 31, from Kolkata.
A carpenter in Pakharpora village of Budgam district, Azad said that over the last decade in Kashmir, he had witnessed violence, protests and other unrest. He was unsurprised by the latest attacks, putting them down to “every day routine” in Kashmir.
“I don’t know who is behind these attacks and why they are doing it, but I have never felt unsafe here,” said Azad. “The villagers told me that you will be safe here. No one will harm you, they said.”
Standing next to Azad was 24-year-old Abdul Talha, who made the same decision, as had about 300 migrant workers in Pakharpora, a village of about 4,100 people.
“Last night, the villagers came to us and offered their houses,” said Talha. “Some said, we will stay with you if you’re feeling unsafe and that response dispelled all of our fears.”
But for many in larger towns, staying was not an option.
“My family is worried for my safety and want me to come back as soon as possible,” said Sah, the Awantipora street-food vendor. “But I have no idea what to do as I have bought stock for my business on credit, and I am not in a position to return their money.”
The lone breadwinner in a family of seven, Sah said he was as worried about his business as he was about his life and that if he left without informing his suppliers, his business relations would be spoiled.
“Leaving Kashmir like this will cost me badly,” said Sah “But I don’t have any other option. It is better to remain hungry with my family than to die in a far-off place.”
(Kaisar Andrabi and Zubair Amin are independent journalists based in Srinagar.)