Thousands of miles away from home, from the land of warmth, after living a life-in-transit, many Bengali migrant workers have found a safe haven in one of the most militarized zones of the world, a safety that their own native place doesn’t seem to provide them at the moment because of their religious identity.
Mindful of the menacing situation prevailing in mainland India where Indian Muslims are grappling with Hindutva extremism, Ismail Shah is living another routine day in Kashmir. He knows the fatal fate of Afrazul, a Bengali migrant labourer, hacked to death in Rajasthan by a Hindu extremist Shambhulal Regar. The murder has sent a stark reminder to him and his migrant community about the reality of contemporary India.
But Shah, a Bengali migrant goldsmith working at Hari Singh High Street—Srinagar’s Jewel Street—says, matter-of-factly, “We feel safer in Kashmir despite the conflict, especially since Afrazul’s death.”
Daily wage labourers from Bengal have been migrating to different places in India for the purpose of livelihood since generations. North India is populated with such migrant laborers. Afrazul’s case, however, has left many scared for their loved ones working in North India, a belt known to be dominated by the ideologues of Hindutva and their mobs.
While Indian civil society is busy raising their voices against the increasing tyrannization of Muslims, demanding justice for Afrazul and asking for the basic right to life, the Bengali Muslim migrants in Kashmir are narrating a different story.
“I’m happily living in Kashmir for the past 10 years,” says Sheikh Mafizul Rahman in between answering his customers’ queries and demands about the newest styles to be stitched on their dresses.
Sitting in his beautifully decorated tailoring shop by the river Jhelum, in a place, popularly known as the Bund, the middle-aged tailor from Howrah district of West Bengal shares his experiences of living in the conflict zone.
“Mumbai is the best place to be in the line of work I’m involved in. The pay is the best there.”
“Then why did you choose Kashmir?”
“I don’t feel safe in Mumbai.”
“Because of what I hear, what I see. I’ve lived in many cities since I took up tailoring as my profession, like Bangalore, Delhi etc. But I feel the safest in Kashmir.”
“But Kashmir is a conflict zone. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Yes, I was afraid initially. But here, at least, I don’t have to fear for my life constantly because of my religious identity. Though I’ve many Hindu friends who do the same kind of work I do, but they’re afraid to come to Kashmir. They’re wrong. I tell them, they should visit the valley and see for themselves. The people here are helpful, friendly and welcoming.”
Above the shabby shops lined up in the Hari Singh High Street, with half-worn boards, sometimes too illegible to be read, migrant laborers from West Bengal live in rented rooms.
“We heard a lot of negative things about Kashmir and Kashmiris while deciding to come here for work. But when you see the society up-close, and when you live with them, it is a totally different scenario,” says Asit Jana, a fellow Bengali labourer, standing in a narrow alley at Jehangir Chowk, behind the impressive malls adorning the main street.
Reaching Kashmir in 1990, at the height of army crackdowns and raids, Jana says he faced interrogation at the hands of the Indian forces a number of times. “At first,” he recalls, “we were very scared. But Kashmiris always provided the necessary support during crackdowns, even though they’re the targeted ones. I haven’t seen them discriminating between me and my fellow Muslim workers.”
Pointing out to a curious eyed young girl peeking out of one of the windows above a shop, Jana says, “That is my daughter, she was born here. My son, too. They study in a nearby school.”
“Do you want your children to live here?”
“If they wish to. I feel they would be happier here. Kashmiris are also respectable towards women. And what I read happening in Haryana, even in our own Bengal, I feel women are much better off in Kashmir.”
In the same street, Samir Khan, is a second-generation migrant Bengali goldsmith. He says, “you cannot give up working or looking for better opportunities outside your home, as your whole family is depending on you. On the other hand, it’s scary to think that I can die any moment.”
“What do you mean by saying ‘I can die any moment’?”
“This feeling that I can die any moment actually applies to both my father and me. He came to Kashmir for better opportunities despite the political turmoil. At that time, the conflict was at such a height that anybody could’ve been killed at any moment. Presently, I might feel that I’ll have a better opportunity to earn more in someplace else but because of my religion and the situation in some states in India, I know that I might get killed at any moment.”
“Don’t you all miss home?”
“Sometimes. Though I don’t miss the Kolkata cacophony, but I do miss the lush green paddy fields, you can see as soon as you leave Kolkata and go towards the rural areas. I sometimes miss the warm weather, the festivals, Durga Puja, Kali Puja. We can’t always go back home because of work but sometimes opportunity arises. Like during the 2016 uprising, we couldn’t work. Money stopped flowing in so we had to go home for two months.”
“What do you do during festivals?”
“We all pool money. Hindus, Muslims all of us donate money for Kalipuja and Biswakarma puja. We bring idols from Jammu and celebrate the festivals in the Hanuman Mandir at Lal Chowk, opposite Goni Khan market.”
“Will you ever go back home?”
“Home is also not safe. I always keep myself updated with latest developments in Bengal. What is happening in Bhangar now? The Muslim farmers are being killed, raped and tortured by the TMC government. Who’ll want to go back? This is home now.”
Perhaps in the times when a low-class Muslim migrant labourer is being murdered with utmost legitimacy and support from the state apparatus, the concern of these migrant workers depicts a ghastly reality of the present day India, whereas they find an ironic refuge in a war-torn region.
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