Lying in a bed at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, Zahoor ud Din recounted the ordeal he had just been through. On the night of October 29, he and five other workers had been in their rented room above a hardware shop in Katrasoo, a village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. That was when a gunman barged in.

“He abused us and told all of us to go downstairs,” said Zahoor ud Din. “When we went outside, we saw there were three more gunmen. They made us walk towards a spot in a lane. There, they lined all of us up and started firing. One by one, I saw bodies falling down in front of me. I don’t know how I survived.”

All six had been migrant workers from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. They were killed about 200 metres away from their rented room. On October 30, traces of blood were still mingled with water on the ground there. Looming over the spot was a bullet-pierced wall.

According to the police, the five workers killed on October 29 were Mursaleen Sheikh, Qamar ud Din Sheikh, Rafeeq Sheikh, Najam ud din Sheikh and Rafiq ul Sheikh.

According to a police official in Katrasoo village, a seventh worker who lived in the rented room had stepped out to get food from a local family. “His life was saved because he wasn’t there when the gunmen came for them,” he added.

Pools of blood near the spot where five migrant workers were killed on October 29.

‘A problem for Kashmir’

The Katrasoo shooting was the seventh and most deadly attack on migrant workers since August 5, when the Centre announced it was going to revoke special status for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, split the state into two Union Territories and scrap Article 35A, which gave the state government the power to define state subjects and grant them certain rights.

Six of these attacks have taken place on and after October 14. Eleven people have been killed and four injured so far. The attacks have been spread out over the four districts of South Kashmir that have become the epicentre of militancy in the Valley. A labourer from another state was also shot and injured in Sopore in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district in early September.

The police and army say militant groups are responsible for the killings. One police official said the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s largest local militant group, was suspected to be behind the Katrasoo attack.

“After August 5, a series of posters appeared across Kashmir,” explained a police official in South Kashmir who did not want to be identified. “They spoke explicitly about not renting places to non-local labourers or giving them any work. First of all, these non-local labourers are easy targets. Secondly, it has a multiplier effect when it comes to fear among the non-locals. The idea is to strike fear among non-locals who might have thought that Kashmir is now free and peaceful since Article 370 has been revoked. Militants want to send a message that Kashmir is not normal.”

Militant groups started spreading anti-migrant sentiments last year, when Articles 370 and 35A were being challenged in the Supreme Court. In February, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo issued a warning on an audio clip circulated on social media: “I also want to tell those people who have come here from different Indian states as labourers and businessmen that if India tampers with Article 35A, you should leave Kashmir then and there.”

“Never think of returning,” Naikoo continued. “Afterwards, if any Indian is seen in Kashmir, he will be responsible for his fate, whether he is a Hindu or a Muslim. We are not your enemies but if Article 35A is tampered with, you’ll become a problem for Kashmir.”

Local residents of the Valley, however, are not certain that militant groups are responsible for the killings. They point out that no militant group has taken responsibility for the killings. They also point out that this is the first time non-local workers have been targeted since 1989, when militancy spread in Kashmir.

The apartment above the hardware store in Kulgam's Katrasoo village.

Shots in the dark

In Katrasoo village, many local residents say they knew nothing about the events of October 29 until much later. Mohammad Yusuf Nengroo remembers the call for Isha (night) prayers had already sounded when he was shutting his grocery shop. For months now, he has only opened his shop for a few hours in the evening, in keeping with the Valley-wide shutdown to protest against the government’s August 5 announcement.

As he started for home, Nengroo said, he heard a burst of gunfire – the rented room where the labourers lived is not far from his shop. Frightened, he fled to a neighbouring village instead of going home.

Javid Ahmad, who owns a mobile phone shop, was yet to close for the day when the shots rang out. “Several shops were open in the market at that time,” said Ahmad. “I had the light on inside my shop. So a person from the street could see me but I couldn’t see who was moving on the street. As soon as I heard gunshots, I pulled down the shutter of my shop and rushed home.”

The belongings of the Bengali migrant workers lie scattered on the floor of their rented room.

Leaving Kashmir

Katrasoo village is now emptied of migrant workers. The seventh resident of the room above the hardware shop had fled soon after the attack. Two other migrant workers from Bengal, Sader Sarkar and Bakker Sheikh, lived in a room nearby. On the morning of October 30, they were preparing to leave.

“We were all going to leave for Bengal today,” said Sarkar, his eyes welling up. They were collecting their dues from a local resident when the shooting took place. “Since it was dark, they asked us to stay with them,” Sarkar said.

Like their hosts, they only found out about the killings the next day. Sarkar learnt that five men, including his nephew, had been killed when he got on the phone with his wife in Murshidabad on the morning of October 30.

She had called Shabir Ahmad, a farmer Sarkar worked for, the night before. “I don’t have a phone so my wife had called Shabir Bhai during the night to ask about me,” explained Sarkar. “When I went to Shabir Bhai’s house in the morning, I called her. She told me that five labourers have been killed. She was relieved when she heard my voice.”

“We have been coming here for the last 10 years,” he said. “The locals have never bothered us. They have always treated us with respect and love.”

In the aftermath of the attack, at least some of the local residents have rallied around the surviving migrant workers. On the morning of October 30, they were being sheltered in Shabir Ahmad’s house.

Abdul Majeed Wani, a supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said he understood the pain of migrant workers. “I am a communist and I know about the trials of a labourer,” he said. “When they came to Shabir’s house in the morning, the were wearing lungis. We gave them pherans and woolen trousers, so that they look like Kashmiris.”

Wani had also taken upon himself the task of collecting the money owed to Sarkar and Bakker Sheikh. “It’s their right,” Wani said. “I went to everyone in the village who owed them money. It amounted to Rs 15,000. Once I collected it, I handed it over to them.”

Around 10 am on October 30, police deployed at Katrasoo village directed local residents to drop Sarkar and Bakker Sheikh to the Kulgam police station. “We want to go home, we’ll never come back to Kashmir now,” said Bakker Sheikh.

A crackdown

Meanwhile, on the morning of October 30, Katroosa village seemed to have travelled back in time to the early 1990s, when large military crackdowns were a part of life in the Valley.

Announcements were being made on a mosque loudspeaker – all the men in the village were to gather on the grounds of a local mosque. Soon, men both young and old had moved from the mosque to the main square.

A crackdown had been planned by the army the night before, explained Abdul Salam Bhat, the numberdar, or village head. On October 29, army officials had summoned him to the spot where the dead bodies were lying. “There were many other local residents there,” he said. “It was us who put the bodies in an ambulance.” His next task was to gather all the men from the village and take them to the local army camp the next morning, Bhat claimed. “I was asked to make announcements on the loudspeaker,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, when the men gathered in the village square, the army changed its plan. “Now, they have asked shopkeepers who have a shop in the main square to stay back,” said Bhat. “They have also asked men from houses around the main square to go to the army camp with their mobile phones.” Nengroo and Javid Ahmad were among the shopkeepers called for questioning.

At least six people had been picked up by the army on the night of October 29, local residents said. “We were sleeping when the army knocked on our door,” said Iqbal Rashid Bhat, a school teacher. “They asked for my father and told him to step outside with his mobile phone. He hasn’t been released yet,” His father, Abdul Rashid Bhat, is a government employee.

Men gather at Katroosa village as the army launches a crackdown on October 30.

‘Kashmir has changed’

Every summer, migrant workers pour into Jammu and Kashmir from states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal. According to government estimates, there are about three lakh non-local workers in the Valley in summer. Economist Nisar Ali thinks the number may be higher.

“My estimate is that there are around 8 lakh to 1 million migrant workers in Jammu and Kashmir during peak season,” he said. “Kashmir is a labour-shortage economy. From cutting paddy to doing almost every semi-skilled or unskilled job, we are importing labour.”

The economic forces of supply and demand had continued to work even during the recent years of violence. “There’s a demand for labour at a place and there’s supply from outside. The higher the demand for labour, the higher the wages,” Ali explained.

In October, as the cold sets in and construction work stops in the Valley, migrant workers start moving out. This year, another factor is forcing them out of Kashmir – fear. Even though the attacks have taken place mostly in South Kashmir, fear has spread among migrant workers across the Valley.

In Srinagar’s Hawal locality, a barber from Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district is worried about his safety. “Nobody has threatened me but when you hear what’s happening, you feel afraid,” said the barber, who only identified himself as “Khan”. “My family also tells me repeatedly to return home. Ever since these incidents happened, Kashmir doesn’t look the same. It has changed.”

Hawal, on the peripheries of Srinagar’s old city, is often called “Bihari chowk” because of the number of migrant workers who rent houses there. These days, however, Hawal looks deserted.

Khan is one of the few non-local inhabitants who remain but it is getting harder to stay. “There’s no work,” he said. “I can’t open my shop because there’s a shutdown and I have to pay rent for my shop and room. How can I pay that when I don’t work? As of now, I don’t think Kashmir will have peace.”

Honey Kumar, a truck driver from Haryana’s Mewat district, is also thinking of home. But he cannot go back with an empty truck. “I pay Rs 55,000 every month for the bank loan for my vehicle,” he said. “I can only make that money when I take a truckload of apples from here. If I go without any load, it will be a huge loss.”

Kumar usually transports apples from South Kashmir’s Shopian district to different parts of India. He has been travelling to Kashmir for several years now but says he has never been in such a “terrifying” situation. According to him, the attacks on truck drivers ferrying apples were spurred by the government’s decision to buy apples directly from producers and traders in the Valley after August 5.

Shutdowns and posters ordering that fruit markets remain closed had taken a toll on the apple trade. But the government scheme had further endangered truck drivers from outside the Valley, Kumar felt. “Ever since the government started getting into apple, truck drivers have been attacked,” he said. “I don’t think these attacks have anything to do with Article 370.”

Three truck drivers and an apple trader were killed in Shopian district in the middle of harvest season. The authorities have already shifted all on-local truck drivers to safer locations.

The exodus of migrant workers could take a toll on the local economy. “Whatever is happening is very unfortunate,” warned Ali. “The net result is that all government and private works in Kashmir have been at a standstill for three months because there’s no labour. They were the labour force which handled all these projects.” He speculated that lower wages in their home states would eventually push migrant workers back to Kashmir.

For the administration, the winter brings some relief. “Next spring, when the season for migrant workers picks up again, will be a challenge,” said a police officer in South Kashmir.

Mourners in Murshidabad district. Credit: PTI