In 2014, during floods in Kashmir, television footage showed hundreds of migrant workers traveling all the way to Ramban, 150 kilometers away, along the Srinagar-Jammu highway that was closed to traffic. This mass exodus across a highway left in rugged mountainous terrain forced by a natural disaster. Seven years later, migrant workers are once again returning to their places of origin in states like Bihar – and this time it is not nature’s wrath that is driving them out of the valley. It is the fear of being killed by militants. Fear sparked by a series of targeted killings over the past few weeks.
When Virinder Paswan, 55, of Bihar, was killed in Srinagar on October 5, Pankaj Paswan, 45, of the state’s Banka district, thought it was an intermittent accident. But when two more attacks followed on 16 and 17 October, killing four migrants, including three from Bihar, Pankaj was shaken to the core. He left Kashmir on October 18, and arrived in Jammu the following day to catch a train back to his state. He found the platforms full of Bihari immigrants. “They were all afraid and just wanted to go home,” he says. “The ticket counter was so crowded that the railway staff asked us to board the train even without a ticket. Inside the general cabin, seven passengers were sharing each lower berth, and seven more at each upper berth. There was no room even on the ground. Somehow I managed of traveling all the way to Bhagalpur Junction and then I reached my village.”
Pankaj was selling GULGAPASS in Kashmir for more than two decades. He was living in the Amgari market in Srinagar, barely three kilometers from the Edgah market where the October 16 attack was carried out. Most people do not want to go to Kashmir to work or do any business because it is a turbulent region. We saw this as an opportunity to sell and earn more. “I used to earn 1,000-1,200 rupees a day selling gulgapas,” says Pankaj, who does not forget to pay tribute to the hospitality of the Kashmiris. “We helped local people with rations for four months during last year’s lockdown.”
Raja Rashidev’s family who wanted to build this house but was killed in Kashmir
Shah Faisal’s photo
Returning to Banca, Pankaj resorted to selling fish, but the income is low. “I buy fish from Bhagalpur town and sell it in the local market, and I barely make 400 rupees a day,” he says. Will he return to Kashmir? “It’s hard to make ends meet and pay for my four children’s education with what I earn in Banca. But my wife doesn’t want me to leave Bihar again. I don’t know what to do.”
The murder that precipitated Pankaj’s exit from Kashmir was the murder of 28-year-old Arvind Kumar Sah. Also from Banca, Arvind was murdered on October 16 while selling gulgabas at Edga Bazar in Srinagar – something he had been doing for 15 years. His income was helping us run the family. “Now I don’t know how we are going to live,” says his older brother, 35-year-old Dablo Kumar Sah. Dablu had also been selling golgappas since 1999, until he left the valley in 2019. “When the central government repealed Article 370, I felt the situation was going to get worse in the coming days. So I left Kashmir for good.
Unemployed for several months in Banca, Dablo later started a small restaurant in Sahebganj (Jharkhand), about 120 km away. “I earn only 300-400 rupees a day. I have two daughters and a son. Everyone is studying. I own little land. When my daughters have to marry, I don’t know how I will manage the money.”
The latest series of attacks to date, on 17 October, claimed the lives of two migrants from Bihar. One of them was Raja Reshedev, an 18-year-old from the village of Posi in the Araria district. Raja wanted to build a pucca type house on his small plot of land in the village. He bought for this purpose bricks, sand and iron bars. He had gone to Pampor in Pulwama four months earlier to work on construction sites so that he could earn enough to build that house. “He wanted to build a house as soon as possible so that he could get married,” says his uncle, Vidyanand Reshedev.
Raja belongs to the most materially and socially marginalized Mahdalit community, and does not own any agricultural land. Since work in the fields is only available during the village’s sowing and harvest seasons, and wages are very low – “only Rs 200 a day,” says Vidyanand – one contractor persuaded Raja to work on construction sites in Kashmir. He was told that he could earn up to 12,000 rupees a month. I knew that Kashmir was a troubled region, so I warned him. But the offer looked profitable and left for the valley,” says Vidyanand.
Manish Kumar, 20, has returned to his village in Araria district, Bihar state after Raja Rashidev was murdered.
Shah Faisal’s photo
After Raja was killed, 20-year-old Manish Kumar from Panjama Panchayat in Araria District, Kashmir left the next day. Take a bus from Bampur to Jammu, where he takes another bus. He arrived in Araria on the third day. “I came back spending 4,000 rupees. More than 50 people came back with me from my village. We were scared after the attacks. My family was very worried and insisted that I should leave Kashmir,” says Manish.
Like Raja, Manish was working on construction sites in the valley. Returning to his village, he has not yet found any work, but he has no plans to return to Kashmir. I can go to Delhi or Mumbai, but not Kashmir. There is no guarantee of life there.
Vikas Paswan, a 21-year-old from Badi Hassanpur village in Bhagalpur district, was a carpenter in Kashmir, where his father had been selling Guljapas for 20 years. The father and son fled the valley shortly after the first attack on October 5. “Only 200-250 rupees are paid as a daily wage in Bihar. How will my family live with such low wages? That is why I went to Kashmir. There I was getting 600-700 rupees a day,” says Vikas, who decided not to return to the valley on Although he has not found any work in his village yet.
For years, Bihar has been providing cheap labor across the country due to minimal job opportunities in the state. According to the latest NITI Aayog Index of Sustainable Development Goals, 33.74 percent of the state’s population lives below the poverty line. A report by the International Institute of Demographics states that migration affects about 50 percent of all households. As per the 2011 census, about 9.3 million people migrated from Bihar to other states in the previous 10 years. Migrants from Bihar made up a large part of those who walked hundreds of kilometers to reach their villages of origin after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in the wake of last year’s Covid pandemic.
“Bihari workers are leaving for other states in desperation, not by choice,” says DM Diwakar, Professor, Head of Department of Economics and former Director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. “There are no industries. Agricultural activities happen only for four months a year, but mechanization is increasing, leaving little scope for manual labour.” Between 2016-2017 and 2019-20, around 665 Bihari migrants were killed in various accidents and disasters in other states. In October 2018, large numbers of Bihari workers had to flee Gujarat after hate crimes stemming from the rape of a baby girl. In November 2008, Bihari workers were forced to leave Mumbai in the wake of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena attacks. When the official death toll during the recent floods in Uttarakhand reached 52, 10 laborers from Bihar were among them. However, such risks are outweighed by the economic forces driving the indigenous Bihar people out of the state.
(This appeared in the print edition as “A Terrifying Return to Despair”)
Edited by Satyadeep