Praveen Swami

Attack preceded by hate campaign demanding eviction of migrant workers

Migrants behind sex crimes, kidnappings: Geelani

They have become easy targets; killings rarely attract attention

NEW DELHI: It is unclear if Rubina Khatoon or her family ever feared anything other than the prospect of starvation.

But the desperately poor mother of four and her children — all of whom died in Thursday’s jihadist attack on a bus carrying migrant workers at the Batmaloo bus stand in Srinagar — were seen by Islamists in Jammu and Kashmir as dangerous enemies: soldiers in an Indian war to transform the State’s demographic character.

Less than 24 hours before the tragic killings, Islamist leader Hilal Ahmad War had asked non-Kashmiri workers to leave the region, warning that they would otherwise be “forcibly evicted.” Mr. War claimed that the migrants were threatening “our economy, our daughters and our future generations.” He even alleged that migrant workers were spreading “various diseases, including AIDS.”

Interestingly, Mr. War said his People’s Political Party, a minor secessionist group, would welcome “technocrats, doctors, engineers, businessmen, tourists and students from different Indian States.”

While his call immediately preceded the bombings, similar xenophobic polemic was a leitmotif of Islamist mobilisation during this summer’s agitation against the grant of land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board.

At the June 13 rally in Kulgam, Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani lashed out at migrant workers, claiming that “the State government, in collaboration with New Delhi, wants to settle outsiders permanently in Kashmir to turn the Muslim majority into a minority.”

Later, addressing his Tehreek-I-Hurriyat cadre on June 20, he alleged that migrant workers were behind sex crimes and kidnappings in Kashmir. “Such crimes were unheard of in the valley,” he said, “but the day the number of outsiders increased, the crime rate also went up.” Mr. Geelani also complained that outsiders were “promoting their own polytheistic culture.” He ended by asking Kashmiris to neither employ nor provide accommodation to outsiders, and asked migrant workers to “leave Kashmir peacefully.”

Xenophobic attacks on migrant workers, though, long preceded the shrine board agitation.

Following the rape-murder of Langate schoolgirl Tabinda Gani in 2007, Mr. Geelani claimed that migrant workers were responsible for the outrage. Addressing a June 24, 2007 rally at Langate, he said “lakhs of non-State subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.” He claims that “the majority of these non-State subjects are professional criminals and should be driven out of Kashmir.”

Mr. War also played an important role in the 2007 agitation against migrant workers, saying their slums were centres of “all kinds of illegal businesses.”

In the wake of these calls, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen ordered migrant workers to leave the State within one week, saying their presence was “pushing the Kashmiri youth into all kinds of social evils.” A Jaish-e-Mohammad spokesperson also endorsed this call, arguing that “hundreds and thousands of non-State subjects, mostly workers and labourers, have been pushed into the Kashmir valley in a well-planned conspiracy to destroy its economy and society.”

Just as this year, the 2007 calls were followed by a brutal act of violence: the execution of Malda resident Abul Kalam, who was dragged out of the house of his apple-orchard owning employer, Farooq Ahmad Dar, and shot dead from point-blank range.

Islamist attacks on migrant workers have gathered momentum in recent years, even as violence has declined overall. Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis-affiliated religious leader Maqbool Akhrani initiated a campaign in 2004, charging migrants with introducing country liquor to the region as part of a plot to “divert our attention from real issues” — real issues, in his opinion, begin the Islamist struggle against India.

Sympathetic newspapers joined the chorus. Greater Kashmir, for example, reported that migrant labourers at local brick kilns, as well as workers hired to build the Srinagar-Qazigund rail line, were selling liquor laced with poppy seeds to residents.

Hate-polemic of this kind drove the massacre of nine Nepali workers in Kulgam in 2006, for which a local Hizb ul-Mujahideen unit was later held responsible.

Migrant workers proved easy targets of Islamist wrath since their killings rarely attracted large-scale media outrage or public pressure for action against the perpetrators.

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 Yumo village, near Acchabal, while another 19 were massacred in Qazigund, an hour’s drive.