A rash of killings by separatist militants targeting outsiders in India’s Kashmir has persuaded growing numbers of migrant workers to stay away, rather than risk working in road gangs, building sites, hotels and apple orchards in the restive region.
On Tuesday, militants barged into a house in southern Kashmir, marched out six men who had come to work in the orchards and paddy fields, lined them up and shot them.
Five died, a sixth, who the gunmen had left for dead, survived to tell the tale that has fanned fears of further attacks on outsiders.
Migrant workers are a soft target for militants, and during the past few weeks 11 have been killed, including the victims of this latest atrocity.
Vikas Kumar Bharti, a gaunt faced 18-year-old from northern India, has had enough of living with danger. His month-long contract building a multi-storey car park in central Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, has another 20 days to run.
“After that, I will leave,” said Bharti, a white headband wrapped over his forehead and Hindu prayer beads strung round his neck. The anxious phone calls from his family had become unbearable. He was going home to Uttar Pradesh state.
The separatist insurgency in Kashmir began three decades ago, but the latest flare up in violence followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision in August to take away the autonomy previously afforded India’s only Muslim majority state.
His Hindu nationalist government wants to open up the region to other Indians and spur economic development by lifting restrictions on property ownership, and reservations on government jobs and college places.
But for the government to have any chance of succeeding, it will have to remove the growing sense of insecurity among Indians who have risked coming to Kashmir to make a living.
“The terrorists and their patrons in Pakistan are hell-bent on preventing a return to normalcy. These were poor labourers who were targeted on Tuesday night in the most merciless manner,” said a top security official in New Delhi involved in the counter-insurgency campaign.
Pakistan has long denied India’s accusations that it gives material support to militants in Kashmir. But three decades of violence have taken 40,000 lives there, according to government estimates. Human rights groups say the number could be more than double.
Even before the latest bout of unrest, there had been a massive fall in the numbers of migrants working in Kashmir, as many had been scared off by clashes between the Indian and Pakistani forces along the border in the weeks after a Kashmiri villager recruited by a Pakistani-based militant group made a deadly suicide attack on a paramilitary convoy in February.
In August, the government estimated that the number of migrants in Kashmir – mostly from northern and eastern India – had fallen to around 200,000 from 500,000 last year.
Much of Kashmir’s economy is dependent on outside labour, who do everything from farming and construction work to running barbershops and snack stalls.
On Thursday, Jammu and Kashmir was made a federal territory, governed from New Delhi. The high altitude, thinly populated, Buddhist dominated region of Ladakh, was split off from Jammu and Kashmir and also made into a separate federal territory.
Despite the heavy deployment of paramilitary forces, some small protests broke out in Srinagar over the loss of statehood following the administrative shake-up.
Mohammed Sagheer left his village in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, to become a labourer in Srinagar. He has worked there during previous bouts of unrest, including in 2016, when anti-India protesters fought running battles with security forces in the streets.
“Even then, things weren’t this bad,” he said. Back then, non-Kashmiris weren’t targeted, and phone connections weren’t suspended, unlike during the recent security crackdown.
Sagheer earns around $225 a month, about 25% more than he’d get back home, but as much as his wife and two kids need the extra money, the risks could be getting too great.
His wife has read the news and she wants him to come home.
“Maybe I will leave for good,” Sagheer said.