A Train From Kashmir

A student of journalism called me one day and asked if I knew about Kashmiri migrants coming to Ahmedabad each year. His question instantly took me back to a well-dressed, good-looking Kashmiri couple I saw on the streets in the winter of 2020. I asked about the number of migrants, their location and reasons for migrating. The facts and figures weren’t very clear at that point but one thing was, they should be visible.

I called some social workers who were likely to have an idea about the matter. Some said that Kashmiris have been migrating for more than 4 years, others said 10 and added the need for ration relief. Kashmiri migrants travel by train so settling in areas around the railway station is an obvious choice. A friend was kind enough to share a local contact who helped me navigate and exchange basic introductions. It was a weekday so I reached around 8:00 pm and saw some men and women standing attentively outside their tents. They knew me as someone who wanted to talk to them so their obvious questions were if I’m associated with a newspaper, media house, or an NGO. They looked confused when I said no, so I explained that I am an independent writer with an interest in stories and news from Kashmir. I continued, “This is something local newspapers will never cover so I wanted to understand what leads to this migration and write about it in a safe manner.”

Apparently, he was partly hurt and partly insecure and tried to justify, “As Indian citizens, we can go anywhere in the country. I have been coming here for several years and my wife belongs to Ahmedabad.” Understanding that I had unintentionally upset him, I agreed, encouraged the visit and mentioned that I am also from Uttarakhand and have been living in Gujarat only for a few years. That seemed to work, I believe. He expressed, “Haan shakal se Gujarat ke nahi lagte”. We all laughed and he added, “Hum pahadon ke log shakal se khoobsurat aur dil ke saaf hote hain.” The smiles were warm enough to melt the ice and we had some chai over the daily routine of Kashmiri women and children in Ahmedabad. But one thing he wanted to assure was that they are in no trouble and do not need any assistance from anyone. The whole conversation was formal and less than 30 minutes long. I knew it was not easy to establish trust so proposed to meet the women alone. They didn’t object and asked me to visit any day around 3:00-4:00 pm.

I can’t say that the first visit did not disappoint me, but I also thought that different areas could mean different ways of survival for the migrants and trying all the locations once could give a better direction. Meanwhile, another journalist friend’s Facebook post appropriated the thought and that’s where I went on the following weekend.

I was randomly walking down the streets, stopping every few minutes to ask in which lanes do Kashmiri migrants live. And then the same drill for finding their temporary residences. The first house I went to had a young man listening to something on his phone. His co-residents were his wife and a few months old daughter. My introduction neither confused him nor alerted him except for when he heard my Hindu name and saw my tattoo in Arabic. He patiently heard whatever I said and seemed willing to talk. His wife offered nun chai and to my surprise, the man asked if he could call some of his friends if I wanted a better understanding. I agreed and we talked by the time his friends arrived. For the next one hour, it was four men in their 20s and 30s, a young mother in her 20s, an infant and I in the room.

Why do some Kashmiris migrate? Winters are particularly troublesome for people in the valley as snow makes farming impossible and other occupations like driving come to a standstill. So, seasonal unemployment results in seasonal migration. Some migrants from the villages near Kupwara, Baramulla and Shopian are small farmers. Meaning, the size of the land on which they farm is so small that they mostly consume the yield and hardly anything is left to sell before the arrival of snow. Let alone food, they do not have enough savings to buy fuel to keep themselves warm in the bone-chilling weather. Villagers who work as drivers in towns and cities also have no job during the winter months. The third category of people who migrate is small traders who get Kashmiri embroidered shawls, Kehwa (Kashmiri tea), Zafraan (saffron), and dry fruits to sell till their inventory lasts. The people in the first locality I visited were mostly traders, hence a better financial condition than others. Besides, the police in that area set up tents for the migrants so they don’t have to pay rent. Some rounds of dry ration distribution provided added relief. However, survival was easier for the traders only for the first two months. When their stock was over, they also had to rely on ration assistance.

Other areas have farmers or people employed in seasonal jobs who live with locals, so their savings are spent in paying rent amounting to 3-6k/month for 5 months. They do not get food assistance from the police either and have to often rely on locals to provide for their families.

The men informed that there are no jobs in Kashmir. So the problem exists permanently in the erstwhile Himalayan state and temporarily in their state of residence. Besides, power cuts for days make it very difficult to bear the cold wave. A young mother of three I met later was scared to tell how her husband died. She sews clothes to make ends meet. Her landlady shared that she was struggling to buy cooking gas a few days back. The landlady’s husband who runs a small provision store joined the conversation later. He said, “Bitiya ye log bahut pareshan hain. Inke liye kuch ho paye to karna.” This family of kite-makers also shared their struggle of being able to make kites only in winters as sitting with the fan off is a prerequisite. Another family I met during my visit to the third area said that most families living there have senior citizens, widows and children. So the families with earning members share their income with those without a bread-winner.

Children have a hard time coping in the three months long winter break as mobile connectivity is poor in the hills. Internet shutdowns are normal in Kashmir but the 18 months long internet blockade, curfew, violence and a vengeful state since August 2019 have been particularly hard. How does one attend online classes? Schooling was not normal in Kashmir even before the pandemic hit. To witness such tension at a very young age, to be unable to lead a normal childhood, to lose the opportunity to learn, grow, develop, work, earn, love and be content in life, can create havoc with children’s physical, mental and emotional health. Too many opportunities are taken away to punish them for their birthplace. I’m not even getting into the dehumanizing ways of the army, the burning of the houses and innocent people taken away to never return. What can you tell a woman who lost her husband and two sons in state violence, even though none of them were militants? That should explain the anger! The resistance in Kashmir is political, not religious.

We are often unaware of what happens in our cities, let alone conflict zones like Kashmir or the North-East. The circumstances under which migrants from various parts of the country come, never make it to our newspapers. I was also trying to imagine how ironic it must have been for Kashmiris to seek warmth in Gujarat, the epicenter of the current political dispensation. Kashmiriyat is an amalgamation of different cultures surrounded by art and Sufism. Waging war for a piece of land is the prerogative of governments and armies. Citizens must have a human perspective towards the people of that land. So far, we have been seeing Kashmir the way Delhi wanted us to. It’s only appropriate that we now look at the struggle of Kashmir from the perspective of Kashmiris.