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Kashmiri workers pay the price for political changes

Rifat Fareed
November 14, 2019

Attacks against non-local workers have increased in Kashmir since India scrapped the region's special status. Locals fear that the government is planning to establish non-Muslim settlements to alter Kashmir's demography.

India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the India-Pakistan border
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Bakshi

In October, suspected Kashmiri insurgents killed five laborers from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. The attacks against workers from different parts of India have surged since New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status that helped preserve the demography of the Muslim-majority region and ensured special rights to its permanent residents.

Many Kashmiris fear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to revoke their region's autonomy would result in the establishment of non-Muslim and non-Kashmiri settlements in the area, which would eventually turn them into a minority.

Modi ended the special status of the Indian state Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on August 5 this year. Its autonomy and its own constitution, as well as its special rights for permanent residents, most of whom are Muslims, were abolished. Furthermore, the parliament in New Delhi passed a bill to split Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories — J&K and Ladakh — which would be directly administered by New Delhi.

The abolishment of special rights means, among others, that all Indians will have access to jobs in the private sector as well as admission into J&K universities. Previously these spots were reserved for people who were living in the state on May 14, 1954 (the day Article 35A came into effect), as well as those who have lived in the area for 10 years.

The same applies to the acquisition of land and other property by Indians from outside the state.

Kashmiri separatists, especially militant insurgents, have warned New Delhi against any such move. In February, Riyaz Naikoo, the chief of pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen Islamist group, threatened to target non-Kashmiris outsiders if the Indian government tried to change Kashmir's status.

"We are not your enemies, but if you tamper with Article 35 A (which guaranteed the India-controlled Kashmir's special status), we'll deal with you," Naikoo warned Indian authorities.

Read more: Modi’s government strengthens hold on India-administered Kashmir

Kashmir crisis – New era or power grab?

'We have nothing to do with politics'

Each summer, thousands of laborers from different parts of India, come to Kashmir and leave for their home states before the beginning of harsh winter in the region. But after August 5, non-local workers were asked to leave the state immediately.

"We have been coming here for at least over a decade. The locals treated us with respect. We never thought that we would be attacked here," Sadar Sarkar, a worker from West Bengal, told DW.

"I will never come back to Kashmir," Sarkar added.

Most of the attacks on non-local workers have been carried out in the southern part of the India-ruled Kashmir, which is the hub of local insurgents.

Muhammad Akram, who came to work in Kashmir from Patna city, told DW he also fears for his life.

"I am scared of staying here any longer, as most of the people I know have already left. Back home, my family is also worried about the situation,"Akram said, adding that he would think twice before coming back to Kashmir.

Bobby Singh, who works at a salon in Kashmir, complains that non-local workers are unjustly targeted. "We have nothing to do with politics. We just come here to earn money, but now we have become a target," he said.

'Prioritization' of attacks

Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based security analyst, is of the view that Kashmir's Islamist insurgents are sending a message to non-locals that they should not come to work in Kashmir.

"I think the problem will worsen in the coming months, particularly after the end of the winter season. People from other parts of India will start coming to Kashmir to start businesses there and buy properties. The real conflict is yet to start," Bedi told DW.

The analyst warns that militant attacks against non-Kashmiris are likely to intensify next year.

"The recent killings are just a trailer, or a sign of things to follow. There will be a lot of resistance and resentment in Kashmir," he added.

However, Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said that attacks against non-locals are not a new occurrence in Kashmir.

"We must understand that terrorism in Kashmir didn't just start after August 5. It has been ongoing for 30 years. Terrorists have been targeting non-locals for a long time," Sahni told DW.

Sahni said that the heightened security in Kashmir has made it difficult for militants to launch big attacks, and that is why they are now looking for easy targets like non-local workers.

"The militants are prioritizing their attacks," he underlined.