Thousands of workers fleeing northern Kashmir following shootings by militants

Indian security forces move tens of thousands of agriculture and construction workers into army and police camps for their safety

Indian paramilitary soldiers standing guard in  city centre Lal Chowk in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. Photograph:  EPA/Farooq Khan

Indian paramilitary soldiers standing guard in city centre Lal Chowk in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. Photograph: EPA/Farooq Khan

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Thousands of migrant workers are continuing to flee India’s insurgency-ridden northern Kashmir region each day after 11 civilians were shot dead recently by armed militants in targeted killings across the Himalayan principality.

Officials in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar said on Wednesday that workers, mostly from northern and eastern India, were crowding bus and train stations in an effort to leave the region, but many were unable to secure places on transport due to the overwhelming demand.

Security forces had moved tens of thousands of agriculture and construction workers, who constitute the backbone of Kashmir’s labour force, into army and police camps to provide security until they were able to escape the heavily militarised region, officials said.

“I have directed officers to shift the vulnerable [labourers] urgently to [the camps] “temporary measure” before they facilitated the workers’ return home by providing them with additional transportation.

“There is grave fear and terror after the killings of labourers,” one worker, Santosh Kumar, from eastern Bihar state, told the Hindu newspaper. “So we fled Kashmir to save our lives and those of our children.”

Chintu Singh, also from Bihari, who has been travelling to Kashmir each year over the past decade to work at building sites during the summer months, said he had come to Kashmir to earn money, not get killed on the streets. “It has now become hell and it’s time to leave,” he said.

Both workers were referring to the shooting dead by militants of at least six out-of-state labourers and five other locals, including a Sikh and a Hindu school teacher, earlier this month.

Indian security officials said the gunmen had said they were from The Resistance Front or TRF, a Pakistan-based Islamist organisation. In a recent social media post the militant group said it was not targeting people on the basis of their religion, but seeking out those who were working for the Indian authorities.

India blames Pakistan-supported militant groups such as the TRF for fuelling Kashmir’s 32-year Islamist insurgency for an independent Muslim homeland, which has claimed over 70,000 lives.

Islamabad denies all such allegations, claiming it provides the Kashmiri struggle only “moral and diplomatic” support, and in turn accuses India of illegally occupying the Muslim-majority region and of committing human rights abuses.

Four wars

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since independence from colonial rule in 1947, but is claimed by both in its entirety. The neighbours have fought three of their four wars over Kashmir, the most recent of which in 1999 came close to a nuclear exchange.

The Indian army, which has lost nine soldiers in gun battles with Islamist militants since October 6th, is involved in counter-insurgency operations in the thickly forested Rajouri and Poonch areas adjoining Kashmir’s disputed border with Pakistan.

“We suffered losses after militants ambushed our patrols in the area, but now we have cordoned them off,” said a senior army officer involved in the operations, who declined to be named, citing security reasons. “We aim to tire them out and eventually eliminate or capture them,” he said.