On the morning of October 21, dozens of migrant workers marched towards the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar with their belongings packed in worn-out suitcases or simply wrapped in cloth, escorted by a contingent of heavily armed paramilitary troops. They join dozens others, hoping to catch a bus or share a cab to Jammu, from where they travel to their hometowns across north India — much earlier than previous years, when they would leave with the onset of winter.
Work is still available in Kashmir but they fear for their lives. "We are all afraid," said 38-year-old carpenter Santosh, who reluctantly only gave his first name. Santosh has spent nearly a decade working in Srinagar during the summer before returning home to Bihar.
Migrant workers have faced hostilities but rarely been attacked by militant groups. They now, however, find themselves in the militant's crosshair since the removal of Article 370 in August 2019 that opened up fears of a demographic change.
A developmental boost ushering in prosperity and the end of "terrorism" was cited as the reason for the unilateral revocation of Article 370. It was followed by a deceptive calm that initially reinforced New Delhi's claim.
However, this month alone, a dozen civilians — among them members of minority groups and migrant workers — have been killed by militants, mostly in the fortified Srinagar city. On October 6, street food vendor Virender Paswan was shot dead. On October 16, Sageer Ahmad, a carpenter from Uttar Pradesh working in south Kashmir's Pulwama district, and Arvind Kumar, street vendor from Bihar working in Srinagar, were shot dead. On October 17, Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Reshi Dev of Araria in Bihar were killed in the Kulgam district.
The narrative of normalcy has been demolished in a matter of days. This year so far, 22 soldiers of the Indian Army, a dozen police personnel, three paramilitary troops, and about 34 civilians besides more than a hundred militants have been killed.
As Santosh sat in a Jammu bound taxi at the TRC, he wasn't sure when or if he would return to Kashmir. The prospect of returning home to poor wages or no work at all looked brighter than the thought of being shot at in Srinagar.
Police Response: Panic Button
In a statement issued after militants singled out and killed two teachers, a Hindu and a Sikh, inside a school in downtown Srinagar on October 7, the Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar said, "Due to killing of huge number of terrorists of all outfits specially their leaderships, destruction of their support structures and continuous and effective maintenance of law & order, terrorists' handlers across have got frustrated and changed their strategy and started targeting unarmed policemen, innocent civilians, politicians and now innocent civilians from minority communities."
By then, militant outfits, as per the police's own admission, had killed 28 civilians — seven of them non-Muslims. "In all such cases terrorists have been using pistols," Kumar said. The J&K police appealed to the public, especially the minority communities to not panic.
However, the administration itself has seemingly hit the panic button and — according to veteran intelligence officers — further complicating the response. Just hours after three civilians were killed in Srinagar, paramilitary troops opened fire "in self defence" on a civilian vehicle in south Kashmir's Anantnag.
Since then, nearly a thousand civilians across Kashmir were detained in what seems to be a case of authorities groping in the dark for clues. The National Investigation Agency summoned nearly 40 teachers for questioning.
The police have resorted to confining non-locals inside security camps in several parts of Kashmir. A panicked Kumar, the police chief, contradicted himself on the matter: terming it as fake in the local media but confirming the same to the international press.
As the Home Minister Amit Shah is scheduled to visit Kashmir over the weekend, the police in Srinagar wantonly seizing two-wheelers from civilians while paramilitary troops frisking pedestrians — excluding non-locals at some places — in broad daylight has led to anger among Kashmiris.
Fears Of Demographic Change
In August 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir was stripped off its special status under Article 370, fears of a demographic change took hold among the masses. That year, several non-natives were killed by militants.
The fears solidified with, among a slew of unilateral impositions upon J&K, the contentious domicile policy — overturning the provisions of the scrapped Article 35A and granting non-natives residency permit. Lakhs of non-native labourers, government officials, and armed forces personnel are eligible for residency under the present criteria.
The new political dynamic enforced by New Delhi turned non-local civilians into what now the militants — operating under the banners of The Resistance Front (TRF) and the People's Anti-Fascist Front — call India's "settler-colonial" project in Kashmir.
In December 2020, the TRF killed Satpal Nishcal, a Punjabi jeweller based in Srinagar for decades, who had recently acquired a domicile and formally took ownership of his home and shop in Srinagar. Two months later, the TRF claimed to have killed Akash Mehra, who hailed from Jammu but whose family runs a popular vegetarian eatery in Srinagar. The militants also targetted political workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, both Muslim and Hindu.
The attacks intensified after the government launched a controversial programme in September to retrieve properties of Kashmiri Pandits that had allegedly been sold under distress. A prominent Kashmiri Pandit, Makhan Lal Bindroo was killed close to the office of the Srinagar police chief on October 6.
In September, a portal was launched for the Kashmiri Pandits to reclaim their properties that were left behind. This came a month after the J&K administration ordered full implementation of the Immovable Property Act for the Kashmiri Pandits "The portal is the trigger, and [also the] implementation of some of the laws," said Sanjay Tikoo, a Srinagar-based Kashmiri Pandit, among the few who didn't leave the Valley.
The portal's stated goals of retrieving encroached properties was good but Tikoo is concerned over "the way it is being misused by a particular party." In its trial run, the portal received 854 claims by Kashmiri Pandits who had left Kashmir after the eruption of the insurgency in the late 1980s, many sold the properties they had left behind over the years that followed.
With the anniversary of J&K's conditional accession to the Indian Union approaching on October 27, Tikoo said there are apprehensions of more killings.
In a statement widely believed to have been issued by the TRF after the killing of two teachers in Srinagar, asks Kashmiris not to "drag religion in those incidents". The group, that police believes is a shadow of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, added, "Besides that we want to convey our message to all irrespective of any religion whosoever is in or residing in JK should not become a pawn of occupiers dictates nor should they implement occupiers filthy orders just to appease the occupier as these today's targets did."
No Geelani, Missing Leadership
Former intelligence officials warn that a bullish approach by the government and unaddressed fears of demographic change will likely only worsen the situation. A veteran intelligence officer said that the violence was likely to escalate in the absence of the seapratist Hurriyat leadership.
"If Geelani [considered a hardline Hurriyat leader, who passed away on September 1] was around, he would have condemned these killings," he said. "He would have told Pakistan to stop and appealed to the nonlocals to not leave and assured them security. Today there is no separatist to speak this narrative."
The crackdown on pro-freedom leadership, the intelligence veteran noted, had pushed the movement further underground and away from the security agencies' radar. Further, with America mired in the Afghan crisis and its clout over Pakistan receding, he said, New Delhi could no longer rely on the US and had little options but to go for a "course correction".
"The gradual removal of local elements in the administration and the merger of the state cadre with AGMUT and bringing in officers from outside," he said are all "indicators that you are [intent on] changing the demographic."
Since 2019, J&K is being run by a New Delhi appointed Lieutenant Governor, who presides over a bureaucracy and police force largely controlled by non-native officers. The current governor, Manoj Sinha, is a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh. Pointing to the en-masse detentions and frisking of Muslims in Kashmir, the officer said such a move wasn't seen even until the Nadimarg massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits in 2003. "It's a panic reaction," he said.
"The only antidote to anger and extremism is participative democracy and secular narrative," he said. "Restore statehood, scrap the domicile policy, and conduct assembly elections."
Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. He can be reached at @rayan_naqash on Twitter.