A Bloody Migration

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Desperate apple growers and the manufactures invested lot of time and resource to get the workforce back to work. Then a series of attacks pushed the situation back to square one. The worst came last week when five West Bengal residents were shot dead when 27 European lawmakers were in Kashmir, reports Shams Irfan

The spot in Kulgam where 5 non-locals were recently killed. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The spot in Kulgam where 5 non-locals were recently killed. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

On the evening of October 29, a group of unidentified gunmen barged into a rented accommodation in Kulgam’s Katruso village, and marched out six non-local labourers.

They were taken to an isolated alley nearby, lined up against a wall, and then shot indiscriminately. Five of them died on the spot. They were identified as Mursaleen Sheikh, Qamarudin Sheikh, Rafiq Sheikh, Nizamudin Sheikh and Rafique-ul-Sheikh. They all hailed from same Sagardigi village in Murshidabad, West Bengal.

The sixth labourer Jahiruddin Sheikh survived with injuries to tell the story to his wife back home. Jahiruddin had come to Kashmir two months back to work as labourer during the on-going apple harvest season.

The attack is sixth in a row since October 14, in which 11 non-locals were killed across Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama and Anantnag districts. The Kulgam attack happened on the day when a select group of right-wing European Union Parliament members were visiting Kashmir.

“In a most unfortunate incident in Kashmir yesterday, five innocent labourers were brutally killed in a pre-planned manner,” West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Benerjee tweeted. “We are totally shocked! Presently, there are no political activities in Kashmir and entire law and order is with the Government of India. We, therefore, demand a strong investigation.”

Benerjee, who rushed to Murshidabad to meet the families of the victims, quickly deputed Additional Director General of Police in South Bengal to find out about the incident.

However, the first one to reach out to the families of the victim was West Bengal’s Congress leader in the Lok Sabha and Murshidabad MP, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.  He slammed the BJP-led government for the “worsening” situation in Kashmir.

“The situation in the Valley is becoming worse with every passing day. It is going out of our hands because of the wrong policies of the central government, which is only busy trying to hide the real situation,” Chowdhury told media after meeting the family members of the victims at Sagardighi. “The government is not allowing an all-party delegation to visit the Valley but allowing European Union delegation.”

CPI (M) Central Committee member Sujan Chakraborty said the Modi government is answerable for the deaths of the labourers in Kulgam, Kashmir.

Senior Trinamool Congress leader and state minister Arup Roy too blamed the BJP-led central government for its failure to control the situation in the Valley.

Roy told reporters that the “recent incidents of violence after the abrogation of Article 370 are a proof that the situation has worsened and not improved as promised by the Modi government.”

Reports appearing in the media suggest, a day after the attack, the army had asked the local imam to make announcement that all males above the age of 12 should reach the army’s garrison in Chawalgam area of Kulgam. However, later the villagers were questioned in the village about the incident. So far no eyewitnesses have come forward. The only source of the first- hand information about the killings is Jahiruddin’s testimony.

Dead bodies of the 5 deceased. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Dead bodies of the 5 deceased. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

He told his family that one gunman entered their rented accommodation and asked them to come downstairs. Three other unidentified gunmen waited outside. All six labourers were then taken to an isolated alley and fired indiscriminately. Jahiruddin survived with four bullets in his body as his colleagues fell over him one-after-another after being shot.

IMPACT

As the news of Kulgam attack spread in Kashmir, a number of non-local labourers, who had come back after a lot of convincing by the natives, once again started to pack their bags and leave.

“It was difficult to convince them in the first place to come back,” said Ahmad, a fruit grower from Shopian who managed to get just three of his permanent labourers back from Uttar Pardesh. “But after these back-to-back attacks, I am not sure if they will stay. They are already asking to leave.”

In normal harvest season, Ahmad used to take his labourers along with him to his orchards located in different parts of Shopian. But doing so is not possible now for Ahmad. These labourers are confined to a small orchard adjacent to his home. “I cannot risk their lives by taking them out,” said Ahmad. “I don’t even let them go to the market nowadays as threat is now real.”

For last few weeks, as the increased movement of vehicles in towns and some villages created an impression of normalcy, a small number of non-local workers returned to Kashmir hoping to find work. Given the labour crisis in Kashmir, these labourers immediately got hired. “There is an acute shortage of labourers in apple producing areas,” said Sahil, a middle-aged apple grower from Shopian. “Given the quantity of apples still to be picked, it is not possible to manage it locally without the outside labour.”

Sahil has five labourers working at his orchard in Shopian’s main town. He keeps a close watch on them since the first attack took place. “Letting them go is even more risky than keeping them here,” said Sahil.

Last week, a wealthy apple-trader and grower from Shopian outskirts tried to lure Sahil’s labourers to work in his orchards.  “He offered them more than double of what I am paying them,” said Sahil with a smile on his face. What worked to Sahil’s advantage was that the apple trader’s orchards are located in a militancy-prone village.

On October 16, two non-local apple traders were attacked by unidentified gunmen in Trenz village of Shopain. While one of the traders died on the spot, the second one survived with bullet injuries. Their truck was set on fire. These Punjab based traders had come to purchase giraan (C-Grade apples that fall on their own). “These villages are virtually no-go areas for outside labourers,” said Sahil.

But it was not only Kulgam-Shopian-Pulwama apple-belt that saw gunmen attacking non-local traders and labourers. In Kanilwan area Bijbehara, suspected militants shot dead a truck driver from Kathua and set his vehicle on fire.

After the killing of truck driver, there was a brief exchange of fire between suspected militants and government forces who had reached the spot. The exchange left one local Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant dead. His body was retrieved from the spot the next morning. He was identified as Aijaz Ahmad Malik, a resident of Dardsun in Kralpora, Kupwara.

This attack has shut the only make-shift fruit market that was functional from a closed cafeteria premises. “There were half a dozen non-local labourers working in villages adjacent to this make-shift market before the attack,” said a local resident who wished not to be named. “They helped with the packing and loading of fruit. But now all of them have left.”

The fear can be gauged from the fact that non-locals workers find it hard to find accommodations for rent now.

Abdul Hameed, 65, a retired teacher from Pulwama spent a major part of his life’s earning in construction of a commercial complex of shops and rooms. He knew that the ongoing construction boom attracts lots of non-local labourers to Kashmir, who need accommodations on rent. “All ten rooms were taken within the first week of completion. Such was the demand,” said Hameed. “I was earning good amount of money without much efforts.”

All tenets putting up at Hameed’s commercial building left on August 2, after Government of India issued an advisory for Amarnath pilgrims and tourists asking them to leave Kashmir immediately. “In the first week of October, some of them came back,” said Hameed. “I rented them rooms without thinking much as I knew them for last few years now.”

Locals being frisked by the armed forces in Kulgam. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Locals being frisked by the armed forces in Kulgam. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

But after the killing of a non-local labourer of Pulwama’s Nehama village on October 16, Hameed asked them to leave for sake of his own and their safety. “I didn’t want to put their or my life in danger so I asked them to leave,” said Hameed plainly.

Hameed has resolved not to rent rooms to non-locals unless things are back to normal. “It is better to rent them to locals and live in peace then rent them to non-locals and live in fear,” said Hameed.

In Industrial Estate Khunmoh, Srinagar, Muzaffar, a young entrepreneur is keeping his fingers crossed since the killings in Kulgam. “I somehow had managed to get my labourers back from Kolkata that this attack happened,” said Muzaffar, who owns a plaster of Paris manufacturing unit.

Muzaffar cannot shut his plant for the second time as it takes lots of raw material, money and efforts to start the furnace and maintain its temperature. “I cannot simply switch on and off my unit like others. It means loss of over 2 lakh rupees instantly if I shut it like this,” said Muzaffar.

But despite his assurances that Khunmoh is a relatively safe area, his workers are asking to leave. “They are really disturbed by the news of killings in Kulgam,” said Muzaffar. “I can understand their fear, but I am helpless without them.”

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