Srinagar: A large part of the non-local workforce has left Kashmir as the recent incidents of targeted killings of two Hindu vendors from Bihar and a Muslim carpenter from Uttar Pradesh created an atmosphere of fear and dread in the Valley.
Also, the number of clashes between the security forces and militant groups has significantly increased, leaving at least 13 ultras and nine Army soldiers dead in the past week alone.
This together with widespread police crackdown on activists and sympathisers of separatist groups, alleged former stone-pelters, suspected over ground workers (OWGs) of militant outfits and other 'undesirable elements' and 'potential troublemakers' and even some social media users has created a fear psychosis.
The authorities insist that the crackdown is part of the investigation "to break the chain of attacks."
Ravinder Kumar, a carpenter from Bihar, heading an eight-to-12-strong workforce including his younger brother and an uncle who come to the Valley every summer for the past two decades, left for home on Sunday morning. "We had decided to leave by this time as Diwali is approaching and we want to celebrate it with our families back home. The local people have been very good to us, but it is true that all of us are filled with fear after the killing of two non-local street vendors and a carpenter," he said.
Marble mason Azad Ahmed and false ceiling worker Ravichandran — both from Bihar — come to the Valley in March and return by mid-November. "I have decided to leave early. I think I must leave the moment the work is complete. It may take two or three more days," said Ravichandran.
Seasonal labourers in their tens of thousands from the north and eastern states particularly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, turn to Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in summer to work mainly at construction sites. They are hired also by the farmer families to work in paddy fields and apple orchards.
With the onset of winter, the majority of these labourers and other workforce return to their homes or move to other places outside the Valley. While in the Valley to earn comparatively better wages they have occasionally faced threats from militant outfits and some have fallen prey to human error as well as incidents of violence blamed on the separatists by the authorities.
Ironically, the last time they were, along with tourists, forced to quit the Valley en masse was by the government, citing security concerns but as part of its gameplan for the abrogation of Article 370.
Post-abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution which guaranteed special status to J&K and special privileges including rights on land, properties, government jobs and admissions in professional colleges to permanent residents of the erstwhile state, many people see in these outsiders potential future "usurpers" of their rights and "occupiers" of their land and properties.
Vast sections of J&K's population is seething with anger over the Centre introducing new laws and amending existing ones since August 5, 2019, particularly the land laws, making all Indian citizens eligible to own immovable properties in what is now called the Union Territory of J&K.
Mainstream parties other than the BJP have held protests in Srinagar and Jammu, asserting such moves go against the interests of the erstwhile state and its people. Some of these and separatist Hurriyat Conference have alleged that stripping J&K of its special status and splitting it into two Union territories and subsequent moves at changing laws and administrative arrangements are aimed at changing the demography of the Muslim-majority region. The government effort to reclaim some of the properties of migrant Kashmiri Pandits too has become a source of irritation for a section of residents.
A vast majority of Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindus fled the Valley to escape violence in 1990, leaving behind their immovable properties. While many of them later sold these to local Muslims, hundreds of Pandits’ residential houses were either destroyed in acts of arson, violence and floods and other natural disasters or remain abandoned, most in dilapidated condition. Some of the properties have been forcibly occupied by land mafia and other unscrupulous elements.
The land mafia had been very active in this. While the DCs and revenue authorities of almost all the ten districts of the Valley have received complaints against the alleged illegal occupiers of land and houses, some Pandits have pleaded before the officials to declare sale deeds they entered with local Muslims as "done in distress".
Several buyers have, on the other hand, complained that they are being harassed by the authorities is understandable though they had purchased the properties of Pandits and other Hindus and some Sikhs who left the Valley during the depths of militancy at market rates and after completing legal formalities.
Some Kashmir watchers see the targeted killings in the backdrop of this state of apprehension and mistrust. However, the police have sought to dispel the notion that Hindus and Sikhs are the prime target of militants.
They said that out of 30 civilians killed by gunmen so far this year, eight were non-Muslims including five locals and three outsiders whereas the rest of the victims were Kashmiri Muslims. Inspector General of Police (Kashmir range), Vijay Kumar, said, "It is not possible for us to give protection to one and all, but yes, those who are vulnerable will be protected."