I am quite amused by the term “Bihari” which has turned almost generic for every individual who comes down to Kashmir from the rest of India to work in Kashmir (work ranging between skilled to unskilled). No matter what the origins of a person are, if he or she is down here looking for work, way beyond a wheatish complexion, dressed in what could well be described as “ragged clothing” by “our standards”, treading the streets of Kashmir in peculiar ling strides wearing worn-out plastic or rubber slippers, the person is a “Bihari”. Now, regardless of the fact that whether the person is hailing from Chattisgarh, other parts of Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh or for that matter any other territory of India, the person is a “Bihari”. Thus the term “Bihari” turns generic. And we Kashmiris have a certain attitude towards “Biharis” – we tend to dislike them, utterly. These “Bihari” people work for us – they are masons, painters, carpenters, plumbers, labourers and what not and they are in all entirety woven into the socio-economic fabric of the Valley.
Of recent a particular spate of disgust has risen to the fore in Kashmir against “Biharis”. Some of us are of the opinion that these people should be flushed out of the Valley. I have also eventuated upon some “intellectual gibberish” about “Biharis” being planted in Kashmir as a part of agenda focused on the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiris, and here I beg to differ even though I do not underestimate the likeliness of the influx of the “Bihari” qaum into Kashmir as being part of some high-fetched elitist political agenda. I won’t call it my hindsight but quantitative optimism it is for sure.
How actually did the influx of “Bihari” people start? Who allowed them in and how actually did they manage to earn a living and thereof style a life in Kashmir despite the unabated violence? These are questions which demand coherent and reasonable answers. Since, if today we are vouching for the influx of “Biharis” being part of a political agenda or amounting some way or the other to “ethnic cleansing” (the later always sounding far-fetched), it is pertinent that we introspect the actual phenomenon demonstrating the influx of a foreign population into Kashmir valley.
Amidst the exchange of fire between militants and the security forces; while grenade blasts were more common than drizzles in Kashmir; while people were getting killed every here and there almost every day, I witnessed people from outside the state flowing down into Kashmir looking for work. These people, very dark complexioned found what they were looking for, work that is. Initially there were only labourers, people who would do menial tasks for a hundred odd rupees but as time passed by a skilled class of workers worked their way into Kashmir. The fact that these skilled workers found work in Kashmir is a phenomenon in itself. The particular set of skilled and semi-skilled workers who floated into Kashmir found work which we had abandoned. Previously in time we had very good painters, carpenters, masons and all but slowly this generation of skilled workers began to fade as they surrendered their “talent” to a peculiar appetite for “fantastic” lifestyles. Our skilled class sent their children to schools and started working over the prospectus of government jobs for their children starting with “petty” and dreaming of the “elite”. This particular section of the society wanted a “decent” living and with the passage of time they surrendered their position in the society to an alien class of workers who had come from Indian states.
I remember a few years ago I needed to get an electric iron repaired. I asked almost everywhere in my locality and the adjoin areas for a person who could fix it but found none. To my utter surprise, all the shops which used to repair electronics had metamorphosed into upholstery, shoes and garments shops. I asked around for a few people known to me who used to run such shops and the replies I got all pointed in one direction, government jobs. “His son is a government employee now and he (son) did not like the sight of his father repairing petty electrical appliances,” was one such reply and if translated into Kashmiri the “comment” is found to be loaded with a mix of traditional lethargy of words and intended puns. This is the case with almost every other skilled craft except handicrafts where the “Biharis” are perhaps making inroads while we are in a deviant pursuit of government jobs. Nowadays there are only “Bihari” painters, “Bihari” masons, “Bihari carpenters, “Bihari” labourers, “Bihari” electricians, “Bihari” gardeners and lest I forget to mention “Bihari” barbers (even though almost none of the barbers working in Kashmir are from Bihar but their complexion and attire earns them the distinguished “decree”). Most “Bihari” skilled workers are all-in-ones. Be it painting, masonry or anything else, they seem to handle it all. These all-in-ones sure know how to earn their living and hooked together they work like ants while we doze off like Polar Bears.
Whereupon can we transfix the blame? Isn’t it more than obvious that we ourselves let the foreigners in and surrendered our very craft and talent to them? Today if you spit, as they say in Kashmiri, it lands on a “Bihari”. Does this aphorism earn its tributes owing to some alien conspiracy or our own misdoings? Even if the influx of “Biharis” into Kashmir be treated as a secretive plot of an oppressive confederacy, their settling down here sure should be attributed to us.
Epilogue: Around a decade ago, I recall, almost every evening me and a handful of my friends used to gather up on a particular street in our locality. The street was a steep slope up leading to a thickly populated area where residents offered rooms on hire to outsiders. These outsiders were mostly “Biharis” working in Kashmir. Since it was evening time, “Bihari” workers living on rent in the area would be found returning from a hard day’s toil and they would walk in hoards. Whenever a lone “Bihari” would pass by my friends would call them up, verbally abuse them and most often beat them up for no reason at all. I would be a mere spectator and somehow, despite my leanings, stand witness to this harassment. After the beating up and all my friends would return and settle down eating snacks and gulping down soft drinks. This phenomenon always amazed me but I could never fathom the depths of its piquant notes.