Kashmir migrant workers flee amid rise in suspected rebel attacks

Oct 19, 2021 | Kashmir Coverage (General News)

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Panic has gripped migrant workers in Indian-administered Kashmir after four of them were shot dead in two days, as anti-India rebels theaten more such attacks, forcing thousands to flee the region.

Kashmiri rebels have been fighting for decades, demanding an independent state or merger with neighbouring Pakistan, which also claims the Himalayan region in its entirety. 

On Sunday evening, two non-local workers – identified as Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Resi Dev, both residents of the eastern state of Bihar – were shot dead when suspected rebels fired at them indiscriminately after barging into their rented accommodation near Ganjipora village in the southern district of Kulgam. A third worker was wounded in the incident.

A day before that, a Hindu street vendor in Srinagar’s Eidgah locality and a Muslim carpenter in Pulwama district were killed in a similar fashion.

This month alone, at least 11 civilians, including five non-local workers shot dead by suspected rebels, have been killed in the heavily militarised region.

The killings are part of a recent surge in violence in the region, which has seen at least 33 deaths since early October, including 13 rebels and nine members of the Indian security forces.

Exodus of migrant workers

Amid mounting attacks, hundreds of migrant workers have been shifted to Indian military camps or other protected buildings.

Construction worker Ram, 45, from West Bengal who goes by his first name, says he, along with a dozen co-workers, has been shifted to a secure building by the police.

“Last evening, I got a call from the police station asking me to come along with my other workers. Then we were taken to some protected building,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ram, who has been working in Indian-administered Kashmir for the past 15 years, said while the non-local workers are in fear, he had bigger worries.

“People owe me money and I need to go out and ask them for it … I have to pay school fee of my children. It will only be possible once I get all my hard-earned money.”

Meanwhile, the targeted killings of non-local workers have triggered an exodus, forcing thousands of them to pack their belongings and leave for their home states.

Indian migrant workers wait inside a railway station to board trains on the outskirts of Srinagar [Danish Ismail/Reuters]

A worker at an apple orchard in the region’s Shopian district, who did not want to be identified, told Al Jazeera he left the region along with dozens of others in three buses on Monday.

“We have nothing to do with politics. We just came here to earn. We don’t know why we are being targeted,” he said during his journey back home.

While local officials are trying to assuage the fears of non-local workers and have advised them not to venture out of their safe accommodations, a growing sense of uncertainty is palpable.

Muhammad from Bihar’s capital Patna has been working in Indian-administered Kashmir as a tailor for the past 25 years. He says he has never witnessed such a fearful situation.

“I am not leaving because people have always made me feel safe,” he told Al Jazeera.

Government estimates say about 400,000 migrant workers come to Kashmir every year, seeking work as masons, carpenters, tailors and bricklayers. Before the onset of the region’s brutal winter, most of them leave for their home states, while a few stay back.

A local official told Al Jazeera the workers were being shifted to secure locations protected by special forces as “it is impossible to provide security to everyone”.

“Many live in far-off areas and other districts, so we are trying to ensure everyone is safe,” he said.

Non-locals ‘enemy of Kashmir struggle’

Officials say a little-known rebel group, The Resistance Front (TRF) – believed to be an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba – is behind most of the recent killings of civilians.

TRF has threatened more attacks on the region’s non-locals, saying they are part of “New Delhi’s design to change the demography of the Muslim-majority region”.

“… Once again we want to make it crystal clear that outsider domicile holders, stooges and collaborators, whosoever religion he or she follows, is the enemy of Kashmir struggle and won’t be spared,” said a statement released by the group on October 7.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify the authenticity of the TRF statement. 

The situation in Indian-administered Kashmir worsened two years ago when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped the region’s limited autonomy, imposed a months-long security clampdown, arrested hundreds of Kashmiris, and introduced laws that threaten to alter the demography of the country’s only Muslim-majority region.

The scrapping of Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian constitution, which banned non-locals from other states from permanently settling or buying land in Kashmir, aroused fears among the residents that the government would take away their lands and livelihoods.

The federal government justified its far-reaching changes, saying it was necessary to fight an armed rebellion and introduce more jobs and economic prosperity in the region.

But the locals say the moves have only worsened the security situation in the restive region.

A deadly year

The year 2021 has been one of the deadliest for the non-locals and religious minorities in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Since January, at least 32 civilians, including activists belonging to pro-India political parties, have been killed in the region, according to official figures.

Six people killed this year belonged to minority communities.

In January, a Hindu goldsmith was shot dead by suspected rebels outside a jewellery shop he had been running for 40 years in the main city of Srinagar.

Two weeks later, the owner of a famous local eatery was shot multiple times at his restaurant.

In June, suspected rebels killed a Kashmiri Hindu politician belonging to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kulgam village.

The recent spate of killings started with the killing of a well-known Hindu pharmacist at his shop in the heart of Srinagar on October 5. The same evening, a non-local street vendor from Bihar was shot dead in the same city.

The murders intensified the counterinsurgency operations by the police and paramilitary forces in the region, resulting in the killings of 13 rebels in nine gun battles in a week, the region’s Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said on Saturday.

Hundreds of people have also been detained on unspecified charges following the attacks.

‘Prelude to creation of settlements’

Ajai Sahni, a security expert based in New Delhi, said there is nothing extraordinary about the cycle of violence in the disputed region, though he conceded that “civilian fatalities have gone up slightly”.

“What has motivated this is something that can only be defined unless specific information from the individuals who are responsible are picked up and interrogated,” he told Al Jazeera.

“You have this happening every year or two years. Then there is a brief period when terrorist activities freeze and it is usually connected to a small group which becomes hyperactive. Then that group is neutralised and we return to what can be considered as normal levels of violence.”

But Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a local political analyst, told Al Jazeera that in the current situation, “it is difficult to ascertain the causes of any particular incident”.

“There are rumours of varying agents, one is that it may be a reaction to the settlement of outsiders. There is another one – that it may be a prelude to the creation of settlements rather than a justification for that. So all sorts of things are going on.”

Rifat Fareed | Al Jazeera