In Kashmir, fear and cheer grip nonlocals as politics over voting rights heats up

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Srinagar: The framed photo of a Hindu Goddess hung on a wall. On large trays, sweets meant for sale in the market remained neatly arranged. In a shop, cooked chickpeas were served to people. In a field young men dug land and several miles away a man fixed the puncture in the tyres. In a dusty village, a group of people worked to haul up raw bricks into the brick kiln.

A shop to fix tyre punctures being run by a nonlocal in the central Kashmir area of Chadoora. Image courtesy Ishfaq Naseem

All these routine activities of daily life involving nonlocals went on away from the media glare on the all-parties meeting which was convened by the former chief minister and NC president, Farooq Abdullah, at his Gupkar residence on 22 August after the authorities said that those settled here from rest of India can vote in the elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Political parties including the amalgam of the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — which was constituted to work towards the restoration of Article 370 — have opposed the voting rights of the nonlocals in Jammu and Kashmir and this came after a series of attacks by the militants on them in Kashmir. The PAGD has said that the BJP government in the Union Territory and the Central level was working to change the demographics of Jammu and Kashmir.

A tea shop is run by a nonlocal in Kashmir. Image courtesy Ishfaq Naseem

However, the nonlocals including both Hindus and Muslims have appreciated the government’s move allowing them to vote here, but some expressed apprehensions that this will pit them against the local people and make their lives difficult in the region. Right now they care more about the daily livelihood issues and some trace their connections to the Valley for decades. And there is hardly an area where one can’t spot their presence. What also explains their decision to continue to live in Kashmir despite militant attacks is their long association with the Valley and small investments over a course of time. Some have set up glitzy barbers shops, tire repair shops, and even sweet shops and also rented out places in the markets spending good sums of money to raise the facilities for small-time businesses.

In a room that overlooked a street in the Bugam area of Chadoora, where nonlocals worked in fields to load trucks with vegetables for supplies to several Kashmir and outside markets, Vipin Kumar, 20, watched the TV set in a corner. The room smelled of oil while dust-covered gas stoves and large trays of sweets gave it a cramped look. The framed photographs of  Hindu goddesses rested on a  wooden shelf set on a brick wall. Vipin helps out his brother prepare sweets that they sell in the market and continues to do so despite the militant attack in June this year barely a few miles away in Magray Pora at a brick kiln that left one nonlocal labourer dead and another injured.

“My brother has worked here for several years. I came here earlier this year as Kashmir is beautiful but I also fear for my life after the militant attacks,” he said.

A nonlocal in Kashmir is uncertain how the issue of getting voting rights in the Valley might turn out to be. Image courtesy Ishfaq Naseem

In June after the militants attacked the brick kiln no 711 in Magraypora, its manager said that he was briefly detained by the police and the army. The CCTV cameras at the facility remained nonfunctional at the time of the attack, but now vast stretches of land on which the brick kilns have been raised remain covered by surveillance cameras. More lights have been set up to keep the areas, where nonlocals live, safer during the night hours while patrolling by the troops has increased.

“The decision granting us the voting rights is what the Constitution promises us,” said Ram Dev, who has been working at the brick kiln in Magraypora for several years, as he sat with a group of people from Uttar Pradesh on a frayed sofa seat. He and other fellow workers became uneasy over the talk of militant attacks.

“We are being helped by the army. They come from a nearby camp and inquire about our well-being,” added another brick kiln worker Mohan Lal. The staff at the brick kilns said that they have provided the list of all the workers and employees to the local police along with details of their Aadhaar cards after the militant strikes.

Bipin Kumar’s face fell over the talk of militant strikes and the nonlocals getting rights of employment and ownership on land and other properties after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019. From a shiny glass case on a wooden stall, he sold golgappas just outside the court complex in Chaoodra where a Kashmiri Hindu employee was shot dead by militants in May. Bipin has been living in Kashmir for the last over 27 years and shifted from a sweet-making business to selling golgappas a few years ago. Paying the rent of the building didn’t yield him profits in the sweet-selling business due to which he shifted to selling snacks.

“I am primarily here for a living and can’t buy property in Kashmir. I don’t want to sell my property in Bihar to settle down in Kashmir. I also brought my family members here and they stay with me, but I don’t want to settle down here permanently. Now this talk of voting rights granted to us could become a problem. Nonlocals could be asked by a landlord to vacate the room as they may think that we have come to permanently occupy it,” he said. “What would be your reaction if you are perceived to be making a forcible entry into someone’s house?” Bipin asked.

A sense of insecurity could also be felt among the nonlocal Muslims. Several refused to be photographed while many said that moving out of Kashmir during a spate of militant attacks remains a temporary phenomenon. On the main road in Chadoora, Mohammad Mushtaq, and his brother set up machines costing nearly Rs 80,000 to fix punctures and fill the air in the tyres after renting out a shop in the area where hiring a space for business is difficult. He said he was not sure whether he would vote in the next elections.

“I have not decided yet to get registered as a voter,” he said.

Nonlocal laborers working on a field in Kashmir. Image courtesy Ishfaq Naseem

Among a group of non-locals working on a field in the Daulatpura area of Central Kashmir, some had been in the Valley for the last few months only. In the group, people who had been working largely for several years here before they brought in some of their acquaintances for better wages. Sheikh Mantoo, 30, said that he earns Rs 600 a day against the daily wages of only Rs 400 in Bihar and the expenses on his stay were low as he shares a room with his fellow workers. He said that better wages drove him to Kashmir even as he knew that attacks on nonlocals had increased after the abrogation of Article 370.

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In Kashmir, fear and cheer grip nonlocals as politics over voting rights heats up
In Kashmir, fear and cheer grip nonlocals as politics over voting rights heats up
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