Rashmi Singh - Migrant Workers in the Kashmir Valley

This paper was researched and written by Rashmi Singh as part of AMAN's ongoing research on informal labourers. The paper was presented at the Ninth International Conference of the Association for Indian Labour Historians in Delhi. AMAN has just posted it on its website http://www.amanpanchayat.org/

In 2007, following the brutal rape and murder of a fourteen year old school girl, Tabinda Gani, spontaneous protests erupted in Langate demanding justice. Tabinda's body had grave marks of struggle and the horrifying method with which the crime was committed led to a lot of anger and demand for death sentence for the perpetrators. The case however is still dragging on and has been largely forgotten by the media. Recently in November Syed Ali Shah Geelani reminded the public how the confusion deliberately created by police has kept the judgement pending. The state government however, [with its reputation for delaying speedy trial of rape cases in Kashmir unsoiled], has not missed the opportunity to rename the state award for bravery of children as 'Tabinda Gani State Award of Bravery for Children'

The rape was allegedly committed by two Kashmiri men from Langate, one carpenter from Uttar Pradesh and a fourth, a cobbler from Rajasthan. The immediate consequence of the protest was the involvement of some Kashmiri leaders including Geelani who asked outside workers to leave the state. The Hizbul-Mujahideen also gave a week's time for workers to leave Kashmir. These statements were retracted a day later, when public criticism followed, with organizations giving a clarification that only 'criminal elements' were asked to exit. The consequence of this was that thousands of migrant workers left the valley immediately out of fear. It became a political controversy as Hindutva parties quickly scooped up the issue to show the 'communal' nature of the Kashmiri struggle. The Shiv Sena [which brutally drove away Bihari migrants the next year with MNS in Maharashtra] equated it with the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990's. The VHP state unit demanded the persecution of Syed Ali Geelani under the National Security Act [NSA] for asking non-Kashmiris to leave Kashmir. 

BJP member Shahnawaz Hussain turned up in Srinagar to appeal to Kashmiris to not blame all the migrant workers for the crime of some. Ironically, Hussain had to give the example of Americans assuming every Muslim to be a terrorist to drive his point across for the migrant workers. Parties that claim Kashmir to be an 'inalienable' part of India invoked 'kashmiriyat' and the Sufi tolerance of Kashmiris for their call. The migrant workers became an etched presence for the Indian political parties to again claim their territoriality and uninterrupted mobility in Kashmir as a part of continuous Indian territory, as also an occasion to posture higher morality on secularism, a moment that majoritarian-nationalist parties do not miss as per the stakes involved.

While the reaction of right-wing parties in India was predictable, a flurry of opinion followed in Kashmiri media, most it decrying the call to oust workers as hurried and unnecessary. Some of the opinion expressed was however xenophobic. Some write-ups in local newspapers termed the migrants as 'snake[s] that wait the warmth to bite us.'The workers have been blamed in several instances as unhygienic scum who indulge in 'immorality, waywardness and drinking of liquor', besides peddling drugs and acting as army informers. Though no one from Bihar was involved in the crime, many columns blamed the immorality on the slow permeance of 'bihari culture' in Kashmir. Most of these opinions dubbed this disturbance as unfortunate in a society guided otherwise by religious and moral principles. The immorality of the migrant workers has been in some instances stretched and conflated easily with the ills that beget modernity and more seriously as a conspiracy to introduce Indian population in Kashmir

Qazi Sajad Delnavi, writing in Greater Kashmir questioned the logic of some of these statements, asking how the presence of a few lakh labourers could threaten Kashmiri culture at large. He also pointed out how the news - otherwise relegated to the inner pages of local newspapers, jumped to headlines as soon as non-local workers were implicated, while the two local workers involved were largely unscathed in the barrage of comments that followed. Arguing within the columns of the same newspaper, Inayat Choudhry argued that despite most of the migrant workforce being poor Muslim workers, it has been dubbed as an intrigue of Hindus out to destroy Kashmir‟s economy.

Post 2007 migrant workers are back in Kashmir in larger numbers. Migrant workers have been a close part of Kashmiri workforce for over two decades now. Though there are no statistics on total numbers, current estimates presume that about 5 lakh outside workers come to work in the Valley seasonally every year. They have been working in paddy fields, construction, brick kilns, as domestic help and in various other quarters including petty trade and sales. Most of them are from U.P., Bihar, Bengal and other north Indian states and work seasonally through the summer returning to their native places once the winter sets in. According to some sources they have been in Kashmir since late 70‟s. This research has been conducted with the help of numerous interviews during last autumn with migrant workers working in construction industry, brick kilns and as hawkers in and around Srinagar, in places such as Hawal Chowk, Hyderpora etc. 

It can be said that more than half of Srinagar's workforce now consists of migrant workers from other states. Kashmir has been called in some instances, a 'second Gulf' for its high wages, good climatic conditions and work opportunities. Actual wages in construction industry for instance are much higher than those notified by the state government; masons in Kashmir earn around Rs. 400 per day, which is almost double of what they earn in other cities like Delhi. In the last decade, the big demand for construction workers from Bihar has also changed the nature of construction itself in the Valley, with now concrete and POP being used more than earlier forms of wood and stone construction, changing the architectural landscape completely. Locals prefer migrant workers since they are seen as more pliant, more productive and skilled than Kashmiri workers. Interviews with migrant workers reveal a different picture than expressed in the newspaper comments mentioned above. Most workers have been coming for many years and feel comfortable owing to friendliness of employers and Kashmiri people. They feel more trusted, they are provided with better accommodation and have had almost no reported outwardly tension with the Kashmiri neighbourhoods. All the interviewees reported no communal tension either. They are also not 'Indian-ised' by the local people as easily as by some commentators, though most of them are quick to claim the nationality themselves...

Download the article athttp://www.sacw.net/article5155.html

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