Being Azad in times of migrant departure

Indian labourers boarding buses at the tourist reception centre on August 7, 2019 after the government ordered an advisory for tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave Kashmir. [FPK File Photo/Vikar Syed.]

The non-native workforce’s departure due to targeted killings in Kashmir has conveniently sidelined the strife-stricken society’s migrant welfare role during the last thirty years of raging turmoil.

Following the leaked police advisory directing state constabulary to shift non-locals to police and army camps in the face of targeted killings, Nazim’s outing has been constantly shadowed by the street policing.

But there’s a concern of being cramped-up in a room where his anxious family keeps calling and insisting him to pack up and return home. His tribe is already moving out — arriving at cab stands and railway stations in droves and dozens.

However, Nazim doesn’t feel like leaving for the sake of good old times when as a ‘Bihari’ he found second home in Kashmir.

“There’s a fear, but we know Kashmiris are there for us,” Nazim says. “They were there for us in 2010, 2016, 2019, and even during the pandemic.”

This community compassion might be an omission during the “acerbic” primetime television debates in Delhi and elsewhere, but for the likes of Nazim, it’s an anchor of hope.

Almost three decades back, a young ‘Bihari’ Mohammad Azad found the same hope when he came to Kashmir looking for some labour work.

The skillful hands of this young boy within years made him a household name for an agrarian society in the uptown area of Srinagar.

“Since 1987,” Azad said, “I’ve been coming to Kashmir. I’ve lived through the most terrible times since then. I had only one hope in the form of Kashmiri people. Despite suffering so much because of strife, they were always there for me and my tribe.”

For years, Azad was the ‘man in charge’ of the paddy fields of late Abdul Samad Dar of Hyderpora Srinagar. “He always treated me like his son,” Azad recalled. “Be it farms where he taught me the skill or home where he pampered me.”

Azad would always be the first person to visit Dar’s farms in early spring after returning from his three-month-long annual visit to Bihar.

“From checking the water level in the farms to getting the fertilizers, I would do it all myself,” Azad recalled. It was he who would break the good news about the new harvest.

Having done farming all his life, Azad believed that his Kashmiri language has come from farms as well.
“While working in farms along with Kashmiri farmers, I always needed to interact with them in their language as they couldn’t understand Hindi,” said Azad while mentioning how language even played a role to get him closer to the Kashmiri society.

Azad with Noushad at his rental room in Srinagar. [FPK Photos/Arif Nazir.]

“I would go to collect dinner from the kitchen even when no man would be home,” he recalled. “I was always like their family member.”

Apart from many other things in the Kashmiri society, Azad is a witness to the fast changing landscape, especially post 90s when as an outsider, he always found local support.

Years later, he would be eventually joined by another man at his rental apartment. The man with salt and pepper beard was Mohammad Noushad.

In his sixties now, Noushad first come to Kashmir almost ten years before Azad. He claimed to have lived in better times than most of outside labourers did in Kashmir.

“I remember after being done with the daily work, I would still reach back the apartment round 12:30 am,” he recalled. “Cinema was a favorite place in the evening.”

Despite the changes in every aspect with time, Noushad believed that their relation with the locals has hardly changed.

“After 90s, when tehreek started on a large scale, our concern to leave the place was always there but only to come back,” he said. “Back then we would be taken out by armed forces for crackdowns along with natives.”

On this, Azad interrupted him, “We’ve seen what can be said, and we’ve heard what can’t be seen. And that’s why our belief on locals is beyond doubt.”


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