In Kashmir, non-local labourers choose life over livelihood as militants warn of dire consequences

Fear is visible on the face of Mani Lal Baswan, a 55-year-old non-local labourer who would work as a chickpeas seller in Srinagar. Baswan hadn’t slept all night after he heard the killing of two more non-local labourers, who were shot dead in the evening hours in Kulgam.

“We are scared like hell. I was packing my stuff all night. My family is repeatedly calling me and asking me to leave this place as soon as possible. We are leaving because we could also be killed,” he said.

On 17 October, two labourers from Bihar, were shot dead in Kulgam — 68 kilometres from Srinagar. The victims, who were shot dead have been identified as Raja Reshi and Joginder Reshi, and the injured labourer is identified as Chun Chun Reshi, who is also from Bihar.

The string of attacks has started after the government forces in Kashmir have intensified the operations against the militants in the valley. The Jammu and Kashmir police claimed that four militants responsible for four civilian killings in the first week of October have been killed in these nine encounters.

The incident on Sunday was the third attack on non-locals in Kashmir in two days. A street vendor from Bihar was previously killed in the Eidgah area of Srinagar on Saturday evening. The same day, a carpenter, Sageer Ahmad, from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh was killed at Litter in Pulwama district.

At least 12 people have been killed in targeted killings since past 15 days in Kashmir, in different places in Srinagar.

The killings have spread panic among non-local labourers, at the time when most of them would work in apple orchards and as construction workers in the valley.

Abrar, a 27-year-old from Uttar Pradesh, who right now stays in Rohmoo village of Pulwama, in rented accommodation said that the situation for him is also scary.

“I have been coming here for the past three years, never ever have I felt so unsafe,” he said, “the treatment of Kashmiris has always been good towards us. Don’t know who is targeting us,” Abrar said.

He hasn’t yet thought of leaving. Abrar, however, said that he has stopped roaming around during evening hours now. He earns Rs 500 a day as a labourer which, he says, was a good amount of money for him to save for his poor family.

“We have four brothers and two sisters. My other brother also earns, but we feed our siblings and earn for their education. We cannot earn this much money in Uttar Pradesh,” he said.

On Monday, non-local labourers in hundreds headed for the railway station at Nowgam in Srinagar with their frugal belongings in buses and Tata Sumos from different parts of Kashmir to board trains for their hometowns in different parts of the country.

Baswan, a lone bread earner for his family, was waiting for his train. He said that he has been coming to Kashmir for the past 25 years for labour but never faced such horror before.

“I would earn more here. I have been to Rajasthan and Mumbai but Kashmir’s environment is feasible to work for long hours,” he said.

Baswan said that he has two daughters to marry off and leaving like this has snatched his livelihood for now.

“Life is more precious. Our people from Bihar have been killed. What had they done,” said Mitesh Kumar, 20-year-old, who worked with Baswan as a gram seller.

After the abrogation of Article 370, the government has been saying that the engagement of the labourers in different industrial units in Kashmir have solved the problems of labourers who needed livelihood.

Every year 3-4 lakh labourers from outside Jammu and Kashmir travel to the Valley for work.

The Jammu and Kashmir administration recently said that 41,000 labourers, the majority of whom are migrants, were engaged in nearly 4,800 industrial units in organised and unorganised sectors opened after the pandemic across the Union Territory.

An advisory by police made rounds on social media after the two labourers were shot dead on 17 October. It stated: “All non local labourers in your respective jurisdictions be brought to nearest police/ CAPF/ Army establishments/ camps just now. Matter is most urgent.”

Although the police said that it was fake and there was no such advisory, Reuters has quoted Vijay Kumar, IG Police, saying that he had instructed his officers to move workers to safer places. The IGP, however, didn’t respond to queries to confirm the same.

The killing was condemned by former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, besides other political leaders from the valley.

The PDP chief tweeted, “There are no words strong enough to condemn the repeated barbaric attacks on innocent civilians. My heart goes out to their families because they leave the comforts of their homes to earn a dignified livelihood. Terribly sad.”

BJP spokesperson in Kashmir Altaf Thakur also condemned the killing.

“The gruesome murder of non-locals is nothing but inhuman, and reveals the frustration of militants, which amounts to genocide,” said Thakur.

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