Inside the Exodus of Indian Migrants From Kashmir
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Modi’s government says the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status will better integrate it with India, but Indians are leaving in droves.
By Yashraj Sharma
It’s 8 pm and the streets of Srinagar — the capital of Indian Kashmir — are desolate, with one of the strictest curfews the region has seen. But at the tourist reception center in the heart of the city, rows of migrant workers from other parts of India sleep on any patch of ground available, waiting for the morning buses to ferry them out of Kashmir.
That’s not how it was supposed to be. When India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced last Monday that New Delhi was stripping the state of Jammu and Kashmir of a special status that gave it greater autonomy, the government argued it would help to better integrate the troubled region with the rest of the country. Shah — who is also Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s de facto deputy — told parliament that scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave Kashmir special rights, would help the federal government serve the region’s people better. Shah also declared the bifurcation of the state into two federally governed regions.
But the moves haven’t only inflamed Kashmiri sentiment to an extent that has required India to snap all telecommunication networks there and send 35,000 additional soldiers to a region that is already among the world’s most militarized. The former princely state had joined India in 1947 on the condition that it would enjoy special autonomy. Contrary to Shah’s assertion, the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status is also seeding a new divide between the region and the rest of India: in the form of an exodus of migrant, non-Kashmiri workers.
Since the decision, Kashmir seems like a big state where everyone is mourning.
Mohammad Riyaz, a migrant worker now fleeing Kashmir.
Census figures show that an estimated 600,000 Indian, non-Kashmiri migrant workers call the state their home, many for more than a decade. But thousands among them have fled or are fleeing since Shah’s announcements, amid fears of reprisal attacks in Kashmir. Those worries are driven by an increased anti-India sentiment and are being fanned by panic spread through government advisories to tourists to leave the former state immediately.
By Wednesday, more than a thousand SUV cabs, 140 vans and numerous trucks had carried nonlocals out of the Kashmir valley. At the tourist reception center, 300 migrants are sprawled in the dirt, including 46-year-old Mohammad Riyaz from Bijnor in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
“Since the decision, Kashmir seems like a big state where everyone is mourning,” says Riyaz. “[The] situation here is going to get worse than during Emergency [a period in the mid-1970s when India suspended civil liberties nationally]. This is a fight for their rights.”
Riyaz has worked as a construction laborer in Srinagar for the past 22 years. Yet on Monday morning, when he and 18 other friends walked out of their shared accommodation to find daily-wage work, they encountered a curfew. Army personnel on the streets told them to go back home. “After that, Kashmiris came to our house and asked us to leave,” he says. He packed his clothes — leaving utensils, furniture and everything else at their residence in Srinagar — and reached the tourist reception center to rush back to Bijnor.
This exodus threatens Kashmir’s labor economy. The region has witnessed large-scale migration of youth — especially men — to other parts of India over the past two decades, drawn there by government incentives for Kashmiri students, and the threat of continuous violence and a lack of opportunities in Kashmir. From carpentry and construction to tailoring and plumbing, the region has come to rely on migrant workers — mostly from other north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Bihar — who receive better wages in Kashmir. So much so that Srinagar has street crossings popularly known as Bihari Chowks, because that’s where migrant workers gather each morning waiting for work.
These migrant workers have also long served as a crucial bridge between Kashmir and the rest of the country. Now, that link too risks being severed.
Javed Ahmad, a cab driver based in Srinagar, says that he has tried to convince migrants not to leave and argues they’re being scared by the Indian government. A day before Shah declared Kashmir’s changed status, the government had asked all tourists and pilgrims — though not migrant workers, explicitly — to leave the state. “No one is listening,” he says. “Ask them if any Kashmiri has ever touched them. It is the hate they want to spread against Kashmiris.”
But whatever the reasons — whether instances like the one Riyaz faced with Kashmiris asking him to leave, or government advisories — the fear is real. Karan Kumar, a carpenter from Punjab, has also packed up what he could. “I’ll never come back here,” he says, adding that he was leaving possessions worth nearly $200 — more than the average monthly income in Kashmir. “But my life is more valuable than that.”
Kumar is upset with the Modi government for ignoring poorer migrant workers like him and Riyaz — while worrying only about the security of tourists and pilgrims. “They brought so many military personnel in airplanes, couldn’t they have lifted us back on the way?” he asks. “Modi thought of nothing else but Kashmir’s land.”
He cites instances of Kashmiris he knows who have helped migrants who wanted to leave by assisting them with money for their bus fare, for instance. Kumar insists most Kashmiris he knows are caring, but the tension in the air is difficult to ignore. Even ambulances are being asked to change routes for “security reasons” — forcing them to divert from the shortest route possible. And while there have been no cases so far of violence by Kashmiris against non-Kashmiris since Shah’s announcement, there’s no guarantee terrorist outfits — many of them backed by Pakistan — won’t target outsiders. Kumar has seen past summers that were tense in Kashmir, but this time is different, he says. “What did we do?” asks Kumar. “What is the fault of workers? Did we remove the special status? This place — Kashmir — has become hell.”
Ironically, the very steps taken by Modi and Shah to curb protests in Kashmir are also hurting migrant workers. At 11 pm on Aug. 4, the government snapped all mobile internet connections in the region, followed by cable television. By midnight, even landline connections were suspended. Like tens of thousands of Kashmiris away from their families, Riyaz worries about his family in Uttar Pradesh, whom he hasn’t been able to speak with for several days now.
Just over a mile away from the tourist reception center in the desolate lanes of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s city center, Amanat Ali, 27, checks his phone every moment, looking for a network. The 27-year-old from Uttar Pradesh has visited Kashmir each summer for the past 12 years for work, and is a tailor by profession. His wife just gave birth to their daughter, but he hasn’t been able to see even a photo on the phone. “I haven’t seen her face,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kumar says he doesn’t understand who has “won” through the Indian government’s decisions. “But we, the laborers and the poor, have lost,” he says. “We don’t care about India, Pakistan or freedom — we care about employment, and Modi has snatched that.”
Read more: The man driving Modi’s Kashmir power grab.
- Yashraj Sharma, OZY Author Contact Yashraj Sharma