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Targeted killings of migrant workers in Kashmir spark fear of another killing spree

These are early indications of a possible killing spree of non-local workers, irrespective of their religious affiliation, in the militant-infested Pulwama district, which accommodates the largest number of non-local migratory workers in Kashmir.

By Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
New Update


With tens of thousands of the migratory workers returning to the valley as usual for the season's labour, unidentified gunmen, widely believed to be separatist terrorists, have carried out armed attacks on them at two places in the south Kashmir district of Pulwama. These seem to be similar to the strikes in October 2021.

On Saturday, 19 March, Mohammad Akram, a carpenter from Bijnor UP, was fired upon late in the evening at Arihal. Police reached the spot and rushed the injured non-local worker to a hospital in Srinagar.

On Monday, 21 March, one Biswajit of Bihar, reportedly a golgappa vendor, became the target of an identical attack at Ganguwa, on the outskirts of the Pulwama town. He, too, was evacuated and rushed to the same hospital in Srinagar.

Doctors treating the injured duo maintained that both the non-local workers were out of danger. However, a local civilian, Tajamul Mohiuddin Dar, who was attacked by unidentified terrorists at his home in Gotapora Budgam around the shootout in Pulwama, succumbed to injuries before reaching a hospital. Later J&K Police personnel, Aamir Hussain, died in a terror attack at Zoonimar Soura in Srinagar on Tuesday.

These are the early indications of a possible killing spree of the non-local workers, irrespective of their religious affiliation, in the militant-infested Pulwama district, which accommodates the largest number of non-local migratory workers in Kashmir. Hamid Haamid, a journalist and resident of Pulwama, puts the numbers of such workers in his district between 40,000 and 60,000. Pulwama's total resident population is currently 5.60 lakhs.

"Since the year 2000, we see them everywhere. Every household in Pulwama and its contiguous districts of Shopian and Kulgam hires them for different jobs. Most of them are masons, carpenters, plumbers and barbers. A large number of them work at brick kilns, stone-crushers and hot-mix macadam plants. Many of them are hired for different agriculture and horticulture jobs like seedling plantation, harvesting of paddy and apple crops besides grading and packing of fresh fruits. Some of them have learnt cooking of local cuisine. Some are street hawkers and vendors. They stay here for eight months every year. They do everything," Haamid explained.

"The advantages are mutual. In Bihar, UP, and other states they earn rupees 200-300 per day. Their daily earnings here are around rupees 500-700 for unskilled and rupees 700-900 for skilled labour. Local non-skilled and skilled workers charge us much more. So everybody prefers a non-local," Haamid added. He narrated how the non-local workers - Hindus and Muslims - were living together and they had become like permanent family members for many of the residents. "Religion and political ideologies are absolutely no issues here".

"My cousin maintains the accounts of about 30 such migrant workers for free. They all hand over their earnings to him. He deposits the same in their respective bank accounts. Both have been trusting each other for over a decade now," Haamid added further. In all, over 1,50,000 non-local workers are estimated to be present in the south Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag. Over 200,000 more work in central and north Kashmir.

publive-image A migrant worker in Kashmir | Photo courtesy: Naseer Ahmed

The Jammu and Kashmir Government's Labour Commissioner, Abdul Rashid Awar, estimates the total number of the migratory non-local workers around 300,000. "It is a totally unorganised sector with no system of registration or regulation. This informal sector is completely unregulated. So, we don't have their actual details. When the pandemic erupted in March 2020, we were asked to send them back and we eventually facilitated the transportation of 48,000 workers. However, that was just the beginning of the season. Many of them were yet to arrive, and many of them didn't go back," War said.

It is interesting to note that the biggest concentration of non-local workers is in south Kashmir, which is a stronghold of the separatist militancy. It was here that terror attacks occurred on some non-local labourers and transporters after the partial abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. Hordes of the workers left, but still, most of them stayed back for the apple harvesting season.

Notwithstanding frequent militant threats, some killings in grenade attacks and firing and the separatists' statements calling for a boycott of the 'foreign workforce', the primary stakeholders, who engage the workers, have no issues. "Even the militants' own families use them every year, and they have become indispensable as the local people shy away from these chores and the locals charge double the wages," Assadullah Mir of Shopian said.

The most horrific incident of the outsiders' involvement took place on 27 June, 2007, when two non-local workers, each from West Bengal and Rajasthan, along with two local youths, ambushed, raped and killed a 13-year-old girl student on the way to her home at Batpora Langate in north Kashmir. The accused have been lately convicted after years of investigation and prosecution.

There were calls for a 'social boycott' of the non-local workers, but those days Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Chief Minister, and the valley was passing through a long spell of peace. "If such an incident happens today, dozens of the outsiders will be killed," Farooq Ahmad Bhat, a government school teacher, said.

In recent times only one incident of murder by a non-local worker has taken place in Kashmir. On 16 December 2021, Mala (85) of Lal Bazar, Srinagar, was attacked with a knife by her non-local servant, who was later arrested.

Even the terrorist attacks on the brick kiln workers, which were a routine two decades ago, have vanished. Just a couple of incidents were reported from Pulwama after years in 2019. The people in south Kashmir still remember when 40 non-local labourers were massacred on 1 August 2000, at three brick kilns at Mir Bazar Qazigund, Mir Nowgam Acchabal and Pogal Paristan across the Pir Panjal mountain. In another firing incident on the same day, 32 pilgrims and tourists were left dead and dozens more injured at Pahalgam, the base camp of the annual Amarnath Yatra.

publive-image A photo from the scene of crime during the October 2021 killings | Photo courtesy: Naseer Ahmed

Some incidents of October 2021, and now two more in Pulwama, are no match to the apocalyptic spell of terrorism witnessed by Kashmir for about two decades. However, each such incident brings back traumatic reminiscences of the year 2000. The three massacres of the resident Kashmiri Pandits and the two massacres of the Sikhs took place during those worst years of bloodshed from 1997 to 2003.

Seven Pandits were shot dead at Sangrampora Budgam on 21 March, 1997; 25 Pandits were gunned down at Wandhama Ganderbal on 25 January 1998; 24 Pandits were massacred at Nadimarg Pulwama on 23 March 2003; 35 Sikhs were killed at Chittisinghpura Anantnag on 20 March 2000; and, 6 Sikhs were shot dead at Mehjoor Nagar Srinagar on 3 February 2001.

Non-local workers, irrespective of their religious affiliation, and the resident religious minorities have been a potential target of the militants several times since 1990. Still, their faith in the local coexistence has not shattered, and those settled in Kashmir have not fled in panic after 2003. There is evidence of strong bondage and trust between the resident Muslims and Hindus in every area.

There are instances when 99% of Muslim voters elected Pandits as their representatives in the Panchayati Raj Institutions and Urban Local Bodies. Even in the militant hub of Pulwama town, Muslims elected a Pandit as councillor of their ward in 2005, just two years after the massacre at Nadimarg.

"Most of our teachers were erudite Pandits. They were masters even in Persian and Arabic. They taught us Kareema and Quran," said Mohammad Ismael, a retired government officer. "Kashmir can't be seen selectively and exclusively in the mirror of these terrorist killings. It's far beyond. We have a rich history and legacy of plural existence and cultural ethos which cannot be obliterated by guns and grenades. But usually, everybody is scared of the gun, and people are helpless as the state has failed to protect the lives of its citizens".

In October 2021, however, the whisper of condemnation grew louder in the valley as groups of youths came out with protests, marches and candlelight tributes to the slain civilians. Their first protestation was seen when terrorists gunned down Akash Mehra, son of the famous Krishna Dhaba owner Ramesh Mehra, near Durganag Mandir at Sonwar on 17 February, 2021.

publive-image Two Migrant workers in fear and mourning after the October 2021 killings | Photo courtesy: Naseer Ahmed

On 2 October, 2021, unidentified terrorists shot dead Abdul Majid Guru, a local gym trainer, at Karan Nagar and Mohammad Shafi Dar, an employee of the Power Development Department, at Sheikh Dawood Colony Batmaloo, Srinagar. On 5 October, famous chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo, a permanent resident Kashmiri Pandit, was gunned down at his pharmacy in Srinagar. On the same day, a golgappa vendor from Bihar, Virender Paswan, was shot dead at Alamgari Bazar Hawal and Mohammad Shafi Lone, president of a commercial drivers union, was killed at Shahgund, Hajan in Bandipora district.

Paswan's killing, in particular, spread a wave of terror when an ISIS-linked propaganda site released a video of the attack on the vendor, captured on a bodycam. A number of banners, including that of The Resistant Front (TRF), believed to be a front for three formidable jihadist groups, have been claiming responsibility for such attacks on the soft targets, alleging that they were working for the Indian security and intelligence agencies. These claims have few takers in the valley, even as conspiracy theories have been in circulation from the day of the outbreak of militancy in 1989.

publive-image Migrant labourers in Kashmir | Photo courtesy: Naseer Ahmed

After the killings on October 5, two days later, terrorists shot dead Supinder Kour, a local Sikh lady teacher and the Principal of Government Higher Secondary School Sangam, Iddgah, along with her colleague teacher Deepak Chand, a resident of Janipura, Jammu. On 16 October, a golgappa vendor Arvind Kumar Shah from Banka Bihar and carpenter Sagir from Saharanpur UP, were shot dead at Iddgah Srinagar and Litter Pulwama, respectively.

On 17 October, terrorists shot dead two workers from Bihar, Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Reshi Dev, and left their associate Chun Chun Reshi Dev critically wounded at Karan Ganjipora, Wanpoh, in Kulgam district.

The Probe had caught up with Dinesh Mandal, a hawker from Bihar who was fleeing Kashmir after the October 2021 killings.

Dinesh Mandal from Bihar was among nearly 2,000 non-local workers who packed up in panic and left for their hometowns weeks short of their usual return time. He told The Probe that he had seen violence in the valley, but never in the last 40 years had he seen such killing of innocent civilians.

“The situation is getting worse. They killed a golgappa vendor. They killed a labourer. We are hawkers. Where do we keep our stalls? By evening they will come and shoot at us. What do we do? Our family members are all calling us back. Since the last 40 years, I have been living in Kashmir. I came here in 1980. Earlier also there were many incidents, but they would never kill labourers. They would never do anything to hawkers, but now they kill hawkers, and they kill labourers,” he said.

The Probe had caught up with Satish Kumar, another migrant worker from Bihar who left Kashmir after the October 2021 killings.

Satish Kumar of Bihar was among more than a dozen of the non-local workers who, while speaking to The Probe in October 2021, was completely petrified. "The situation is bad that is why I am leaving. What will I do here? It is natural to feel scared. When people are being killed, won't it scare us? Earlier, the rift used to be between the terrorists and the Police, but now they are targeting the people. They are killing the common man. This is the reason I am leaving, and these incidents are rising. Yesterday also there was a killing. That is why I thought about leaving this place. At least I can go back to my village and safely sit inside my house. I can't stay here and invite death," said Satish Kumar.

publive-image Migrant workers who fled Kashmir following the October 2021 killings | Photo courtesy: Naseer Ahmed

Many migrants who left the valley following the October killings have not returned. In October, the Probe had caught up with Chandrapal, who decided to leave Kashmir after the brutal killings. "We are leaving because we don't know what the problem is. Migrant people are being killed, especially the Hindus," he said fearfully.

Another non-local worker Rajender Kumar said: "We are going home because we are frightened. What is happening right now has never happened before with labourers. That is why we are leaving. The biggest fear is that they enter our premises and kill us at midnight. That's why we are extremely frightened to stay here. It is not right to stay here now. That is why we are going back".

"First, when they killed the golgappa vendor, we were not much disturbed. We didn't worry. We thought they might have killed him unintentionally. But then they killed another person at Eidgah (in Srinagar), then another one in Kulgam. That got us tremendously scared. It is not right to stay here now. That's why we are leaving. We do not have anything to sustain us. We think if somehow we reach our home, we can at least survive," he added.

Like after every civilian killing in the past, the police, through the years, continue to maintain that they are trying their best to maintain law and order, but it is difficult to give protection to individual soft targets like migrant labourers and hawkers. Officers in Pulwama, Kulgam and Srinagar said that they were doing their best to gain control over the situation even as 'sporadic incidents' would remain a possibility for some years.

Among the number of highly scared and traumatised migratory workers we had spoken to earlier, very few wanted to return to Kashmir for the next season. However, some of them have returned as the Assembly elections in UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab have ended, and the Coronavirus pandemic cases have dipped from the highest of 6,600 a day in January to the minimum of 5 per day in March 2022 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Senior officials from Corps Commander, DP Pandey, to Director General of Police, Dilbag Singh, and IGP Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, are optimistic of the best trade and tourist season in Kashmir this year. According to them, the total number of the armed terrorists is between 80 and 100, and their handlers continue to influence impressionable minds through social media.

All the businesses and developmental activities that had been suspended after changes in J&K's constitutional status in August 2019, followed by Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020, are now back on the rails. High-speed internet is functional, and all educational institutions have opened for routine academic activity. But the recent targeted killings of migrant labourers once again has spread fear and panic amongst the workers. They are hoping that these incidents don’t spark off another killing spree like the one they had witnessed in October last year.


Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict - after the 1990 Kashmir conflict - for the national and international media.