Safe Environs

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Unlike Delhi and other metropolis, Kashmir didn’t witness much of the exodus of the seasonal non-local workforce. This is perhaps because the host population has traditionally been extending essential supplies to all its guests in every abnormality, irrespective of caste, creed and faith, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

A community initiative bust distributing relief to the non-local workforce that was stranded in Srinagar because of the lockdown that was enforced to contain the Coronavirus. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

As the Coronavirus lockdown continues in India, with hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers in Delhi and other places set on long journeys to their homes on foot, the non-locals in Kashmir have no such worries. Lockdown is time for them to take rest. This is because their needs are taken good care of by the local charities, NGOs and mohalla committees.

On a balmy April afternoon, Muhammad Niyaz, 50, a carpenter, who came to Kashmir a decade ago from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is basking on the veranda of a huge house in Srinagar’s downtown, where he lives as a tenant.

Niyaz, a lanky man, with brown skin and salt and pepper beard is smoking beedi, the hand-rolled cigarette.

“These are tough days especially for a labourer in any part of the world, as the prospects of work are drying up,” says Niyaz.

He recollects his days in Kashmir during tough times when lockdowns were imposed for months, and how Kashmiris never let him or his family down.

“What I like about Kashmir is the people who are strangers to me enquire about us and our needs in tough times and extend help,” he asserted.

In September 2014, when floods forced everyone out of their houses and take refuge in community halls in downtown, Niyaz was worried for his family and himself as they had nowhere to go. But he was not abandoned by his neighbours. They brought him to a community hall where they ate and lived together with many others left hapless by nature’s fury.

The stranded seasonal labour in Srinagar lined up for getting rations and other basic things from a community initiative operating in Alamgiri Bazaar in Old Srinagar city. They are restricted to their rented spaces after the lockdown jammed life. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“There were people who arranged a sleeping mattress to quilts. They would serve tea and lunch and enquire if we needed money,” he says. “I was moved by the community service and humane approach of people around me who didn’t consider us a pariah or abandoned us to our fate”.

Even during times when lockdowns rendered them workless and without money Niyaz never felt a need to leave Kashmir. “My neighbours always enquired about me and at times helped.”

“It never occurred to me (that) I will leave Kashmir but after August 5, 2019, I had to,” says Niyaz who left Kashmir at the time along with his family in the wee hours of the morning when Kashmiris were preparing for a long shutdown and were cut off from the rest of the world.

Niyaz like many other non-locals left Kashmir because of overwhelming fear created by state advisories and the reports that at many places, non-locals were being forced to leave Kashmir by police on the orders of the central government. “They said it was for our safety but we didn’t understand how because we have never felt unsafe in Kashmir.”

“We saw non-locals rushing out of Kashmir, some walking miles to reach bus-stops and gathered like flies around Tourist Reception Centre (TRC), to leave Kashmir,” says Niyaz. “I had my daughter’s engagement as well as daughter in-law’s delivery and we didn’t want to miss any of it”.

Niyaz went home without informing his neighbours.

“It had taken my neighbours by surprise when they saw our rooms locked”, says Niyaz, who came back to unlock his rooms in December along with his sons. “I am happy my neighbours are as they were, unchanged”.

His landlord had kept his belongings as they were in his room all these months. “These days he often drops in to enquire if we need anything,” Niyaz says.

The lockdown threw life haywire as all the economic activities came to a grinding halt. In Aalmgiri Bazaar that has a huge cluster of seasonal labour, the locality started offering rations and basic necessities. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur.

Manjeet Singh, 60, lived in Punjab and came to Kashmir more than three decades ago in 1983 to sell garments. With a white beard, hair tied to a bun, and roaming with his radio on, Singh is loved in his neighbourhood for his social etiquettes and language that he uses to address people.

“He doesn’t speak in Punjabi. He speaks like Muslims which in a way creates a sense of belonging and intimacy with him,” says one of the locals about Singh. “Aslam-u-Alaikum, Bismillah, Insha-Allah, Alhamdulillah, Allah Ka Shukr,” these and many other words that greet anyone who approaches Singh whenever he leaves for work on his old scooter.

His rented one room has his garments stuffed till roof. The walls are lined with pictures of his deities.

“I was just attending a call from Muslim sister from Nawa Kadal who always enquires if I have money, rice, cooking oil and other essentials.”

Singh showed a sky-blue bucket with Kashmiri rice in it. There are also bottles of cooking oil, and wheat that his customers have forced upon him to accept during tough times.

“I was looking for milk in the morning but as every shop was closed I was helpless. Seeing me desperate one of the customers in Khanyar took me to his home and forced me to have tea and even gave the packets of milk that they had for themselves for free,” Singh said. “I was embarrassed when they gave me my money they owed,” says Singh.

At the peak of initial restrictions when labour force was rushing home at other places, they were actually on way to Kashmir. KL Image by Malik Kaiser

He is also conscious of maintaining social distance these days and remains confined to his rented accommodation in Srinagar’s downtown.

“My customers call on my phone, not for work but to enquire if I need anything,” says Singh.

Recollecting tough times in Kashmir Singh says he never left Kashmir even after August 5, 2019.

“Why should I have abandoned Kashmiris? I told my son and wife that I have grown up here amidst these people and I am not coming back,” he said.

Narrating one of his experiences during 2014 floods, Singh says he at that time was putting up as a tenant in Jawahar Nagar. Like many others left helpless, he was hunting for a safer place amidst swirling waters. The rising water couldn’t diminish his hope for survival. He along with his another Sikh friend took refuge in a mosque. “I was among Muslims. I was never abandoned,” he says proudly. “Even during 2016, 2019 as I stayed in Kashmir my landlord, customers and neighbours would see if I needed anything”.

Muhammad Nadeem, 30, a barber came to Kashmir after 2014 floods from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. He owns a saloon now employing five from his state. Unlike many locals, he didn’t leave Kashmir even post-August 5, 2019.

“What would I do at home?  My business is here and I am accustomed to this place and it gives me peace unlike home where I may grow restless and can’t put up for a long,” says Nadeem.

During August last and after that when almost all skilled non-local barbers left, Nadeem was one of those who stayed back.

Seasonal labour in Shopian camped in a government building ready for the dinner. Photo: Internet

His shop remained closed but he rented an old dilapidated house in downtown and converted it into the shop. People would wait for hours for their turn.

“I didn’t leave because many families are dependent on me. My workers also didn’t let me down despite the fear that had engulfed non-locals at that time. We were a handful who chose to stay,” says Nadeem.

“People from other parts of Srinagar would come, early in the morning and the work continued till late into the evening,” says Nadeem who was also fearful that miscreants may lob petrol bomb as he was the only non-local working “But it were the locals who made me stay and assured me of my safety”.

“The people never made me feel like a stranger or a non-local. I received more than 10 calls since morning from Kashmiris enquiring if I need anything. I even joked to one of them that I am running out of essentials but unexpectedly he turned up with help,” he added.

Besides, Nadeem said this philanthropic approach is not confined to just his neighbourhood. “Many of my friends and relatives working in other parts of Kashmir receive the same treatment from Kashmiris,” he says.

Ashiq Ahmed, a member of the local Jamia Masjid’s Bait-ul-mal, says that non-locals in the vicinity are helped irrespective of religion. “We help them too,” he says.

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These movements are not city-centric. In Shopian, a young law student, Owais Khan was joined by hundreds of volunteers in helping the underprivileged, poor including non-locals.

Initially, contributing from their own pockets, they created an association of like-minded on social media and mobilized volunteers, donors and then started working.

“Even though we got no support from administration, people donated,” Khan said. “Now, we want to register an NGO in the future so that we could expand our work.”

The group served lunch and dinner to the non-local labourers putting up in the Boys Higher Secondary School building. They had been herded to the premises by the administration. Khan said they provided them with blankets and other essential of daily use. “We see them as ours because they spend most of the year with us, in our orchards, homes, fields,” Khan said. “We didn’t abandon them in 20014 floods.”

Post Script

Official estimation by the Jammu and Kashmir Labour Department is that there are 56 to 58000 non-local labour force stranded in Jammu and Kashmir. Non-official estimates put it many times more.

About Author

A Mass Communication and Journalism postgraduate from the University of Kashmir, Khalid is a writer by choice and a journalist by chance.

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