Indian Kashmir losing migrant workers as militants find new target
A rash of killings by separatist militants targeting outsiders in India's Kashmir has persuaded growing numbers of migrant workers to stay away, rather than risk working in road gangs, building sites, hotels and apple orchards in the restive region.
On Tuesday, militants barged into a house in southern Kashmir, marched out six men who had come to work in the orchards and paddy fields, lined them up and shot them.
Five died, a sixth, who the gunmen had left for dead, survived to tell the tale that has fanned fears of further attacks on outsiders.Migrant workers are a soft target for militants and during the past few weeks 11 have been killed, including the victims of this latest atrocity.
Vikas Kumar Bharti, a gaunt faced 18-year-old from northern India, has had enough of living with danger. His month-long contract building a multi-storey car park in central Srinagar, Kasmir's main city, has another 20 days to run.
“After that, I will leave,” said Bharti, a white headband wrapped over his forehead and Hindu prayer beads strung round his neck. The anxious phone calls from his family had become unbearable. He was going home to Uttar Pradesh state.
The separatist insurgency in Kashmir began three decades ago, but the latest flare up in violence followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision in August to take away the autonomy previously afforded India's only Muslim majority state.
The real Kashmir
Poets call it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Analysts consider it to be one of the most dangerous areas in the world. But what is Kashmir in reality? By Onkar Singh Janoti
Multicultural: Kashmir is well-known for its cultural and linguistic diversity. The Kashmir Valley has a Muslim majority. Hindus are predominant in Jammu while Ladakh is primarily Buddhist. But interminable violence has damaged the very fabric of society
Saffron: Kashmir is also famous for its saffron. India is the third largest exporter of saffron following Iran and Spain
'Switzerland of the East': Kashmir boasts some of the world's most beautiful flowering meadows and snow-capped peaks. Many people call it "The Switzerland of the East". On average, Jammu and Kashmir have welcomed over 1 million tourists in recent years
Under a blanket of snow: Kashmir wears pure white in winter. Many areas are perfect for winter sports but lack infrastructure. Islamist violence remains the biggest challenge
Rivers: the Himalayan part of Kashmir is the source of fresh water for more than 20 rivers, among which the Indus, Neelum and Ravi are the biggest. All these rivers flow from India into Pakistan
Wood: Kashmir is also famous for its wood, the Kashmir willow. Experts believe that it is the best wood for making a cricket bat. Kashmiri wood is also used for building boats
Sufism: Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, reached Kashmir in the 16th century. The Sufi tradition is associated with religious harmony. Many of the saints held dear by Kashmiris were Sufi monks. Sufi singers such as Abida Parveen are popular to this day
Kashmir on the silver screen: Kashmir used to be the most popular location of the Indian film industry during the 1980s. It was a golden era for Kashmir. However, the valley has witnessed violence on an almost daily basis ever since. These days, only one or two films are shot on location in Kashmir every year
Fighting in the clouds: the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on 1948 and experts see little hope of a solution in the foreseeable future. Both countries spend lots of resources on their half of the divided territory, with their respective armies squared off on what some view as the highest battlefield in the world, the Siachen glacier (5,753m)
His Hindu nationalist government wants to open up the region to other Indians and spur economic development by lifting restrictions on property ownership and reservations on government jobs and college places.
But for the government to have any chance of succeeding, it will have to remove the growing sense of insecurity among Indians who have risked coming to Kashmir to make a living.
"The terrorists and their patrons in Pakistan are hell-bent on preventing a return to normalcy. These were poor labourers who were targeted on Tuesday night in the most merciless manner," said a top security official in New Delhi involved in the counter-insurgency campaign.
Pakistan has long denied India's accusations that it gives material support to militants in Kashmir. But three decades of violence have taken 40,000 lives there, according to government estimates. Human rights groups say the number could be more than double.
Even before the latest bout of unrest, there had been a massive fall in the numbers of migrants working in Kashmir, as many had been scared off by clashes between the Indian and Pakistani forces along the border in the weeks after a Kashmiri villager recruited by a Pakistani-based militant group made a deadly suicide attack on a paramilitary convoy in February.
In August, the government estimated that the number of migrants in Kashmir - mostly from northern and eastern India - had fallen to around 200,000 from 500,000 last year.
Much of Kashmir’s economy is dependent on outside labour, who do everything from farming and construction work to running barbershops and snack stalls.
On Thursday, Jammu and Kashmir was made a federal territory, governed from New Delhi. The high altitude, thinly populated, Buddhist dominated region of Ladakh, was split off from Jammu and Kashmir and also made into a separate federal territory.
Despite the heavy deployment of paramilitary forces, some small protests broke out in Srinagar over the loss of statehood following the administrative shake-up.
Mohammed Sagheer left his village in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, to become a labourer in Srinagar. He has worked there during previous bouts of unrest, including in 2016, when anti-India protesters fought running battles with security forces in the streets.
“Even then, things weren't this bad,” he said. Back then, non-Kashmiris weren't targeted and phone connections weren't suspended, unlike during the recent security crackdown.
Sagheer earns around $225 a month, about 25% more than he'd get back home, but as much as his wife and two kids need the extra money, the risks could be getting too great.
His wife has read the news and she wants him to come home.
“Maybe I will leave for good,” Sagheer said. (Reuters)