“We did not migrate in the ’90s,” said Anil Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit who lives in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. “We have no idea why we were attacked. [It] has scared us.”

Days earlier, on April 4, two militants had barged into the chemist’s shop run by Bhat’s brother, Bal Krishan, and shot him point blank. While Krishan recovers from his injuries in hospital, his family is in shock. They are one of only two Kashmiri Pandit families still living in Chotigam village. The others left in the 1990s, when the community was targeted by militants, forcing large-scale migration out of the Valley.

Now, the fear is back as migrant workers and minorities are attacked in Kashmir. Since March 19, there have been at least six attacks, five of them against non-local labourers. Apart from the attack on Krishan, there were five incidents targeting migrant workers in South Kashmir. Over the past week, the attacks have picked up pace.

On March 19, militants shot at and injured a carpenter from Uttar Pradesh in Arihal village of Pulwama district. On April 3, a truck driver and his associate from Punjab’s Pathankot district were also targeted in the Nowpora Litter area of Pulwama district, leaving both of them injured. On the afternoon of April 4, two labourers from Bihar were shot at and injured by militants in Lajoora village in Pulwama district. They were transporting stones in a deserted area of the village when the gunmen struck. Then on April 7, Sonu Kumar, a truck driver, also from Pathankot, was shot at in Yader village in Pulwama. Kumar was rushed to a hospital, where his condition is said to be stable.

None of the attacks have been fatal so far and no militant group has claimed responsibility for them so far. But they have brought back memories of a string of deadly incidents in September and October last year, where religious minorities and migrant workers were targeted.

Those attacks took place towards the end of the harvest season, as migrant workers were starting to leave the Valley for winter. But the new spate of incidents have occurred just as migrants were streaming back into the Valley, anticipating a full season of work. For many, this year’s season has ended abruptly.

‘Many have fled’

After the shooting in Lajoora, most migrant workers have left, fearing for their lives. “Around 50-60 outsider labourers fled the village and decided to go home after the incident,” said Manoj Patel, a 40-year-old labourer from Bihar’s Bettiah city.

Patel is among the handful of migrant workers who decided to stay back. “I have been coming here for more than 20 years,” he explained. “There’s fear but local people here are nice to us. I don’t feel I should leave.”

Patel has three children back home; his wife and parents have been trying to make him return. “But I tell them that the overall environment here is safe and they shouldn’t worry,” he said.

He was 15 when he travelled to Kashmir for the first time in search of work. He has returned every March since then. With the onset of winter in November, he heads back home. “I come here for two reasons,” he said. “The wages are good and the weather is pleasant for work.”

Local farmers also depend on this flow of labour. “If we don’t have migrant workers, none of our work will be done,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a resident of Lajoora. “Where will we find labourers if they aren’t here?”

Manoj Patel (right) is one of the few migrant workers who have not left Lajoora village after the attack. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar.

Shot in their sleep

In Litter village, Junaid Ahmad’s family takes turns to visit Surinder Singh, currently referred to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. Ahmad’s father is a poultry dealer. He owns the farm where Singh was taking a consignment of poultry when he was attacked by militants.

On April 3, Singh and his helper, Dheeraj Dutt, had just unloaded the poultry at Ahmad’s father’s farm. As was their custom, they were going to get a few hours of sleep before they made their way back to Punjab.

According to Ahmad, they last saw Singh and Dutt in a clearing near a stream. “After clearing his bill, we went home,” said Ahmad. “He [Singh] said that he would wait for the convoy to pass on the highway so that there was no traffic on his way back.” Army convoys routinely travel through the highway connecting Srinagar and Jammu, often causing traffic jams.

After some time, Ahmad recalled, they got a call from a local brick kiln owner – he had heard shots. “We rushed to the spot and saw both of them bleeding,” said Ahmad. “We immediately rushed them to the hospital.”

Ahmad only found out what happened after Dutt gave his statement to the police. “Dutt said that they both had gone to sleep in the truck and had lowered the window to let some air in,” said Ahmad. “While they were dosing, a man climbed up the door of the truck and shot both of them. Then he fled in a cream-coloured car.”

Singh has been delivering poultry to the Ahmad’s farm for two decades. “This is the first time such an incident has taken place with us,” Ahmad said.

Singh was referred to Srinagar for advanced treatment, Dutt was hospitalised in Pulwama. While Dutt has recovered and is likely to go home in a few days, Ahmad said, Singh is still recuperating. “He has a bullet in the left side of his chest,” he said. “We have been attending to him since he was referred here. His wife is also here but we want to be with him. It’s about humanity.”

Security measures

Attacks on religious minorities and migrant workers gained pace after 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370. Special protections on land and jobs guaranteed to permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir were also lifted. In Kashmir, it triggered fears that the government would settle non-local populations there to change the demography of the Muslim-majority Valley.

Soon after the legislative changes, a new militant group called The Resistance Front surfaced in Kashmir. They claimed to be an “indigenous” group fighting against the “occupational Indian regime”. According to police officials, they are an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Resistance Front has claimed responsibility for most of the killings of minorities post August 2019.

On April 6, the ministry of home affairs informed Rajya Sabha that as many as 14 Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus were killed in Kashmir Valley after Article 370 was read down by Parliament in August 2019.

After the latest spate of attacks, the Jammu and Kashmir police have introduced new measures to thwart attacks on “soft targets” like migrant workers and Kashmiri Pandits. On April 6, Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, said security forces have increased night-patrolling in villages where migrant workers and Kashmiri Pandits live.

According to Kumar, the attacks were a response to anti-militancy operations gathering pace. “Sixty six terrorists have been killed in four months from December to March and it included Jaish-e-Mohammad’s and LeT’s several commanders and out of frustration now they are targeting soft targets,” Kumar told reporters in Srinagar.

A senior police officer, speaking off the record, said the attacks were aimed at disrupting “normalcy” in the region. “We have seen lakhs of tourists visiting the Valley and then there’s a huge thrust of investment in Kashmir,” he said. “We will be having Amarnath Yatra for the first time since 2019. This doesn’t go well with the plans of our enemy.”

According to him, this was a “momentary spike in violence”, and it would not be long before security forces could “neutralise the threat”.

Meanwhile, district administrations have asked for the installation of “good quality” closed-circuit television cameras around markets, shops and other busy places across Kashmir. The authorities have directed that the cameras should have a clear picture of the entry and exit points of establishments. “Ensure that the CCTV system installed is in working condition at all times, 24 x7 even when the establishment is closed,” said a circular issued by Anantnag district administration on April 6.

Another security official in South Kashmir said they were also collecting data about the migrant workers and minorities in the district, including where they lived and rented rooms. “We are trying our best to build confidence among them and convince them that they are safe here,” he said. “We have also provided security to some of them.”