Srinagar: Three Kashmiri labourers attacked in Barot village in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh on Saturday by a group of unidentified locals apparently fearful of the coronavirus are anxious to return home as they continue to fear for their safety
The three Kashmiri labourers – among a group of nine Gujjars from Banihal who had come to Barot to work on a transmission tower in November – claimed that they were subjected to an unprovoked attack at their place of residence. The assailants also hurled obscenities and warned them to leave the place or bear the consequences, claimed 60-year-old Abdullah.
Even after attacking the labourers with cricket bats, the men allegedly followed them to the government hospital and threatened them while calling them “aatankwadi (terrorists)”. “They hate us because we are Muslims,” said Bahaardeen Naik, a 32-year-old victim, who sustained injuries in his arm.
Abdullah, who was severely beaten, is bedridden as a result. “I cannot work now, I feel like I am crippled,” he said, speaking to The Wire.
On April 11, at around 10:30 pm, Naik and eight other workers were sleeping in two separate rooms when the men broke into their house and attacked them.
“They started thrashing us without telling us the reason,” Naik said. “I tried to escape and ran out crying for help, while others were struggling to get rid of them,” he said.
Joy Choudhary, a digital marketing consultant, who lives half a kilometre away from the labourers, was the first person to come to their rescue after Naik narrated the whole incident to him. “I saw his right hand severely injured when he ran for help towards my place,” said Choudhary.
After that Choudhary, with the help of another friend, reached the place of the incident and saw the labourers lying on the road with injuries on different parts on their bodies. “We then took them to the hospital,” he said.
Chaudhary had previously made the acquaintance of the labourers after he would see them getting groceries from the same place where he used to have his meals.
Yashwant Singh, the station house officer, Padhar, told The Wire over the phone, “The incident took place after there was a scuffle between one of the labourers and the locals, so they beat them up later”. “We arrested three of the people,” he said.
However, Naik told The Wire that he and his fellow workers had never spoken to them. “We used to do our work here, we don’t know them,” he said.
Narrating the sequence of events, one of the workers said a friend of theirs came the previous to help them with money from Hara Bagh, after they called him. “We had no money to survive due to the complete lockdown,” said Naik.
After locals heard about the visitor, they assembled near the labourers’ place and demanded that the labourers be exiled from the area as they feared that the labourers were spreading the coronavirus. “That day, in the afternoon, a few men were roaming around our place with sticks in hands,” said Naik. “Later, the next night, we were attacked,” he said.
“The premises where the labourers were residing is adjacent to the Durga Mata Mandir. Some people already had issues about the labourers living there,” said Chaudhary. “They are Muslims and their passage is through the temple, so the locals were troubled by that. They thought they [the labourers] were polluting the place and there is already a campaign in the media about it as well,” he said.
Advocate Deshraj, a lawyer who lives near Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, however, said that the attack against the labourers was communal in nature as the locals felt that Muslims are responsible for spreading the coronavirus. “It is a result of the hate campaign which is creating a communal divide between two communities,” he said.
“There is no other reason,” he said. “The police is calling it an altercation, which is not the case.”
“We have not seen such cases from here before this, but what is being circulated on social media and also by certain sections of the media, has made a target out of these labourers right now,” he said. “People here have also circulated posters about not providing rooms to Muslims on the grounds that they are responsible for spreading the coronavirus,” he added.
SHO Singh, said that the labourers were being kept in a safe place now, and that the government of Himachal Pradesh was taking care of them.
The accused g0t bail within 24 hours of the incident.
The Wire tried to reach the investigating officer. However, he refused to comment on the case. The story will be updated if he responds.
Quratulain Rehbar is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist.