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Soadnara, Bandipora: The sound of a few gunshots were not loud enough to disturb the haunting stillness of this quiet north Kashmir village on Thursday night, August 12, but its consequences will ring loud in the days to come.
Just past midnight, Bilal Ahmad Dar’s phone buzzed to life. “Bilal bhai, come over to our room. We need your help. Please come as soon as possible,” said the tearful voice of Mohammad Saddam, a worker from Bihar, tersely.
Dar, a resident of Soadnara, got out of bed and scurried towards the small building in the neighbourhood owned by his father, where he saw a badly injured Mohammad Amrez, 19, another worker from Bihar, struggling to breathe in the blood-smeared arms of Mohammad Tamjid, his elder brother.
“Blood was dripping onto the stairs from two holes in Amrez’s back. One bullet hit the stairs also. We took him to a local health centre where he was given first aid and put into an ambulance,” Dar, who also works as a daily wager in the J&K government, told The Wire.
According to J&K Police, Amrez, who hailed from Bihar’s Madhepura Besarh, was shifted to a hospital in the adjoining Sumbal town of Bandipora where he succumbed to injuries. While the police has termed the killing as a terror attack, no militant group has claimed responsibility so far.
Amrez is the second migrant worker to have died in Kashmir in target killings by suspected militants in August. Close to three dozen civilians have been killed by militants this year alone in similar attacks. Many of those who were targeted were Hindus. According to official data, 118 civilians were killed in J&K between August 5, 2019 and July 9, 2022.
The latest attack took place a day after four Army soldiers were killed in a “fidayeen strike” in the union territory’s Rajouri district and eight days after another worker from Bihar was killed in a grenade attack in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Hours after the killing of Amrez, suspected militants fired at a police patrol in south Kashmir in which one police official was critically injured, highlighting the precariousness of the security situation in the union territory.
Soadnara is some 45 km north of the capital Srinagar. The small, rundown building where the migrant worker was killed lies along the main road, which is flanked by the Jhelum river on the other side. In the only shop that makes up the building’s ground floor, Dar’s father runs a small, tailoring business.
Amrez was living with two brothers, including a 15-year-old, in one of the two small rooms on the first floor, both of which had been taken on rent by migrant workers from Bihar. The two rooms are connected to the ground by a concrete staircase from the backside, beneath which a freshly painted, small, rectangular tin shed houses a toilet.
Hundreds of thousands of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers migrate every year to Kashmir during summer. Because of high wages, Kashmir has earned the nickname of ‘Second Gulf’ among these workers. The majority of these workers come from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal and are an integral part of Kashmir’s developmental landscape.
Speaking with reporters, Tamjid said they heard the sound of gunshots at around 12:20 am on Friday. “The youngest brother said there was firing but I told him to go to sleep since firing keeps on happening here. But he said Amrez was not in the room. I told him that he might have gone out to attend nature’s call,” he said.
Tamjid continued: “When we came out of the room, Amrez was lying in a pool of blood on the stairs. I picked him up with my arms. He could not speak or breathe properly and I started crying, which caught the attention of the other workers, who called the landlord and police.”
“I stayed with the workers till security forces arrived at the spot,” asserted Dar, worried about the outcome of the police investigation. “They later took them to the police station. I have no idea where they are now. I have three small children and the government job doesn’t pay enough. The rent of these two rooms helped me in meeting my family’s expenses. I don’t want to land in trouble.”
According to Dar, the three brothers had taken the room on rent in July. They had set up a small stall in the building’s backyard, where they made cheap bedding items like mattresses and pillows.
The backyard is now littered with empty plastic cans of cooking oil, half-made mattresses, pillow covers and small sacks of wool and rags, the aftermath of a search operation carried out by security forces in the building after the shootout.
Abdul Majid, the sarpanch of Soadnara, said that the village had remained largely untouched by the militancy but the killing has revived the dark memories of the Ikhwan era, when a ruthless civil militia backed by the state in the mid-90s was unleashed on people suspected of being militants or their sympathisers.
The roots of Ikhwan are traced to Bandipora’s Hajin area, where Soadnara is located. “A similar attack took place some two decades ago, when a civilian was killed by Ikhwanis on a shopfront in the village. Since then, we have been living peacefully,” Majid told The Wire.
The latest killing has sparked a wave of fear and tension in the village. Both the rooms as well as the shop run by Dar’s father have been locked up following the shooting. All the migrant workers living in the village have been taken by the police to a safe house.
Tamjid and his youngest brother are preparing to take the body of their slain brother back home.