Some unimportant deaths

Published : Jun 30, 2006 00:00 IST

Sixteen agricultural workers of Nepali origin are the latest victims of terror.


MORE than 300 residents of the small south Kashmir town of Kulgam, all Muslim, gathered to witness the cremation of nine Hindu men none of them had known: nine men massacred for no reason other than their religion and, of course, because they were too desperately poor to refuse work in one of the most dangerous parts of India's most dangerous State.

Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad did not find the time to join the mourners. Nor did People's Democratic Party chief Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Opposition leaders such as the National Conference's Omar Abdullah, or secessionist politicians such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq - all who have claimed in recent weeks to be appalled by the horrific levels of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. If the truth be told, the lives of the nine men who died in Kulgam were just too unimportant.

Not surprisingly, the lives of those nine unimportant men have not become well known. In March, a group of 16 migrant workers from Nepal and one from Bihar made the long journey from Siliguri to south Kashmir, where they had heard wages were good - good enough to justify the enormous risks of being there. Soon, they found work with a labour contractor in Tranch, near Shopian. On the morning of May 11, the men were asked to build a wall around a home in Hangalbuch.

Soon after noon, it began to rain and the men decided to take their lunch break early. Abdullah Teli, an agricultural worker who lived in Hangalbuch, had already been hired to cook them a simple meal. As the men ate, three armed men arrived and demanded that the workers accompany them into the woods. Assuming that they were being ordered to help with ferrying supplies to a terrorist hideout, the men complied without resistance or protest.

At Badroo, a short walk from Hangalbuch, the men were ordered to line up and undress. Mohammad Naimuddin, who turned out to be a Muslim, was ordered to step out of the group. The three men then opened fire. Six of the migrant workers were killed immediately, while three died of their injuries on their way to a Srinagar hospital. Naimuddin survived to tell the story of the killings to police and military authorities who made their way to Badroo, after outposts reported hearing shots.

Eyewitnesses say the three men who carried out the attack were all well-known local Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operatives, residents of the hamlets of Buttpora and Haltipora on the fringes of Hangalbuch. Sajjad Butt, who under the code-name `Tahir' commands one of the two major Hizb-ul-Mujahideen units in the Kulgam area, along with his lieutenants Samir Mir and Arshad Butt, have also been named in dozens of extortion-related attacks in the area, as well as the killings of at least half-a-dozen civilians.

"I begged them not to do it," said Teli, breaking down as he recounts what happened in the minutes before the massacre. "I told them that these were simple working men who had done no wrong. But they just wouldn't listen. They marched out all those men, and a little while later, I heard the shots."

Ever since the attack, Teli has been afraid to return home. "I saw the men who carried out the killings," he says, "and they know I saw them. Do you think they will let me live in peace?"

Just why did the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen execute the strike? At one level, the question itself is misplaced. Terrorist groups have found migrant workers to be easy targets for their wrath several times in the past. Six Nepali workers were shot dead at Lasjan, near Srinagar, in the run-up to the historic - and bloody - 1996 elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Again, in the midst of the 1999 Kargil war, the Lashkar-e-Taiba executed 12 brick-kiln workers from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh at Sandu, near Anantnag.

Again, in August 2000, the Lashkar targeted migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh in two separate locations in southern Kashmir - not far from the site of the most recent killings. Nine workers from Bilaspur were killed at the village of Yumo, near Acchabal, while another 19 were massacred in Qazigund, an hour's drive away. On both occasions, the terrorists led the workers to their death by claiming they needed their help to push a broken-down truck, a deception tactic remarkably similar to that used in Kulgam.

Underpinning all these killings was a single motivation: pure communal hatred. What happened in Kulgam was not dissimilar to the regular communal massacres that have taken place across the mountains of Jammu, most recently in Doda and Udhampur. Lashkar-e-Taiba ideologues, in particular, believe that communal killings are a religious obligation, an opinion shared by many in the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Ill-defended clusters of migrant workers are an easy target for such beliefs to be put into practice.

For several years, Islamists in Jammu and Kashmir have been arguing that migrant workers are the vanguard of an Indian-led project to corrupt the State's culture and undermine its religious identity. Two years ago, for example, the south Kashmir religious leader Maqbool Akhrani charged migrants with introducing country liquor to the region as part of a plot to "divert our attention from real issues" - `real issue' being a reference to the anti-India Islamist movement in the State.

Akhrani's campaign soon won the endorsement of the Srinagar-based right-wing newspaper Greater Kashmir, which reported that migrant labourers at local brick kilns, as well as workers hired to build the Srinagar-Qazigund railway line, were selling liquor laced with poppy seeds to local residents. Greater Kashmir's reportage of the issue suggested the migrant workers were corrupting local residents through this practice - an absurd allegation, given the widespread abuse of marijuana in rural Jammu and Kashmir.

Absurd or otherwise, though, the idea of desperately poor economic migrants as agents of a predatory cultural assault gathered momentum - and, unchallenged by politicians, a degree of legitimacy. In the wake of recent charges by the religious right that a Srinagar-based prostitution ring was part of the Indian state's war on Islam, the cultural anxieties from which communal massacres draw legitimacy sharpened. Long before the three Hizb-ul-Mujahideen terrorists reached Teli's home, the killings had become inevitable.

On March 31, two Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives visited a civil works contractor at Chattargam, near Shopian, to demand a contribution to the jehad. Alarmed at the sight of guns, the contractor's migrant workers panicked and ran.

A patrol of the 62 Rashtriya Rifles unit was passing by, and one terrorist was shot dead - a killing that the local jehadi cadre blamed on the migrant workers. Ever since then, Indian signals intelligence intercepted at least six communications suggesting that a massacre was being planned.

Why have such massacres not been more frequent, given their ideological context? Interestingly, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen's Kulgam district commander, Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, is thought to have resisted calls from within his organisation and the Lashkar for a massacre. So, too, did his divisional commander, Mohammad Ashraf Shah, who operates under the code-name `Sohail Faisal.' Wani, though, was killed in an encounter in May - and the massacre plans were promptly revived by his subordinates.

Wani's obstruction of the massacre plan stemmed from the fact that civil works contractors in Kashmir are major sources of revenue for the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The contractors, in turn, are dependent on migrant workers. Jammu and Kashmir's rapid economic growth - the outcome of massive injections of Union government finance for infrastructure development projects as well as security - have fuelled a demand for manual labour that far outstrips supply, and tens of thousands of seasonal migrants meet the gap.

Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps unusually, is both an importer and exporter of agricultural labour. Its harsh winters mean that an intense burst of agricultural work as well as domestic and infrastructure construction takes place during the three months of peak summer. After the snows fall, most migrant labourers from elsewhere in India, and Nepal head home. Workers from the poorer mountain villages of Jammu and Kashmir, in turn, head to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in search of work.

Under other circumstances, competition between local workers and migrants for work during the summer might have bred tension of the kind seen in Punjab and elsewhere.

However, most migrants do not have the special skills needed for specialised agricultural work such as harvesting apples and pruning trees, which can bring in wages of up to Rs.350 a day. Instead, they fill the bottom-end jobs, such as small construction projects or rice-harvesting, at wages ranging from Rs.100 to Rs.150 a day.

For the most part, senior Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commanders such as Shah or Wani understood the importance of the summer-time migrant labour influx to the economy, and resisted attacks on them. However, junior figures like Sajjad Butt see such killings not just as an ideological imperative, but also as a means with which to intimidate local contractors - to break into the big league, as it were, by showing that they had the brute force needed to command the same kinds of deference that had made Wani rich.

As a tactic to coerce local contractors, the massacre has worked: thousands of migrant workers seem to have decided that these wages are not worth the risks. Of an estimated 2,700 residents of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal working in the Kulgam belt alone, some 1,000 are believed to have left after the massacres. "We had two truckloads of workers come in yesterday," says Manzoor Ahmad, a contractor in Qazigund, "but four truckloads left. The killings have hit us very hard, particularly since it is the peak construction season."

Construction projects are not alone in feeling the economic pain. Farmers around Yaripora and Kulgam fear that they will be short of hands when, in August, the rice crop will have to be harvested. Work on several new homes in the area, local residents told Frontline, has also had to be abandoned. Economic hardship caused by the exodus of workers has generated deep resentment against the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, and the claims of its cadre that they have acted in defence of Islam have found little resonance in the countryside.

Police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel have begun holding workshops across south Kashmir, teaching migrant workers basic survival skills. Workers have been asked to report all job offers to the authorities, and told not to accept one-off jobs in remote areas without prior verification. All contractors, in turn, have been ordered to register their workers with the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Police pickets around major construction projects, like the railway line, have been strengthened.

Too little? Perhaps. Too late? Most certain. But if there is one lesson to be drawn from the Kulgam killings, it is that all deaths, just like all lives, are not of equal importance.

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