On Sunday evening, a 29-year-old Muslim construction worker from West Bengal was cooking dinner in his rented room in Central Kashmir when his phone rang. It was a police official, asking him and other migrant workers living with him to leave their rented rooms and report at the police station.

“We pleaded with them – let us have our dinner first – but they told us to go as quickly as we could,” he said. Along with the 16 other migrant workers living in the building, he made his way to the local police station. There, he saw other migrant labourers being herded into government vehicles.

“From the police station, we were taken to the security forces camp where they have kept us,” said the young construction worker over the telephone. “There are around 600-700 of us here.”

Not long before he was summoned to the police station on October 17, gunmen had burst into the rented rooms of Bihari labourers in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. They had opened fire, killing two men – Raja Reshi Dev and Joginder Reshi Dev. Chun Chun Reshi Dev, the third resident, was also injured in the attack.

This was the fourth attack on migrant workers in Kashmir this month. On October 5, a panipuri seller from Bihar was shot dead in Srinagar. On October 16, militants struck again, killing a golgappa seller from Bihar in Srinagar and a carpenter from Uttar Pradesh in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

The Resistance Front, which the police say is an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has claimed most of the attacks on civilians this month. The Islamic State Wilayah Hind, believed to be affiliated to the global Islamic State, has also claimed two Srinagar attacks on non-local workers.

The order that wasn’t

The Kulgam killings on October 17 set off a fresh wave of panic and confusion. Hours after the killings, a purported internal memo of the Jammu and Kashmir police went viral on social media. It directed the district police officials to gather “all non-local labourers” in areas within their jurisdiction and take them to the “nearest police stations… and army camps”.

Soon afterwards, Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police in Kashmir, announced on Twitter that the order was fake. But he also told Reuters that he had directed his officers to “shift the vulnerable urgently”.

Either way, within hours of the killings, many non-local labourers across the Valley were hurriedly being shifted from rented rooms to safer locations.

This reporter saw over 20 migrant workers living in a rented building in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district being bundled into a government bus on Sunday evening. It set off for the local police station, escorted by two police vehicles.

In North Kashmir’s Sopore town, many migrant workers were reportedly sheltered in a government school after they were evacuated on Sunday evening.

However, police officials have also said it is not possible to accommodate all migrant labourers in secure locations. According to government estimates, nearly 1.5 lakh migrant workers flock to Jammu and Kashmir every year. Other estimates suggest the number is much higher, around three to four lakh.

As of Monday morning, many migrant workers had rushed to the Srinagar airport and the Nowgam railway station, desperate to leave the Valley. Others loaded their meagre belongings into shared taxis in Srinagar.

‘I want to stay’

Back in the armed forces camp in Central Kashmir, the 29-year-old construction worker and his colleagues were hungry. “We haven’t had a morsel of food since our lunch on Sunday afternoon,” he said on the phone on Monday morning. “They aren’t providing us anything. All they say is that something will be done for us in an hour or so, but nothing happens.”

While many migrants are panicking, he said he was not scared. “They should let us go to our rooms, and then resume work,” said the construction worker, who has been travelling to the Valley for work for 12 years. “I don’t feel like leaving. I want to stay.”

Still, he is wondering what led to the current situation. “We have no idea what will happen to us,” he said. “They are talking about making arrangements for us but there are none. We feel caged. We have never been picked up like this before.”

Migrant workers walk towards a taxi stand in Srinagar. Picture credit: Umer Asif

‘Should we go to work or not?’

Many of those who have not been taken to secure locations, however, are anxious. A 28-year-old carpenter from Punjab said his Kashmiri employer had told him to “check with his people” about the course of action.

“After hearing that non-local workers have been asked to go to police stations, he’s worried,” the carpenter said. “He says, what if anything happens to us and the police blame him for not informing them?”

For now, the carpenter and another colleague are staying back. While they have rented accommodation, they had moved in with the family they work with even before the attacks started. They feel relatively safe here.

They have worked out a tentative working arrangement with their employer. “I told him we will stay inside and do our work,” he explained. “We promised him that we won’t go out. There’s still a lot of work pending here.”

Many other migrant workers are confused about what to do next. A Punjabi carpenter living in rented rooms in the outskirts of Srinagar said no one from the police or administration had approached them as of Monday morning.

“We are preparing to leave for work,” said the 60-year-old. But then a note of doubt crept into his voice. “Please tell us, should we go or not?”