Hit by a complete security lockdown in Kashmir, hundreds of poor migrant workers have begun fleeing the Himalayan region to return to their far-away villages in northern and eastern India.
Some complained on Wednesday that their Kashmiri employers didn’t pay them any salary as security forces began imposing tight travel restrictions over the weekend and asked them to leave their jobs.
Authorities in Hindu-majority India clamped a complete shutdown on Kashmir as they scrapped the Muslim-majority state’s special status, including exclusive hereditary rights and a separate constitution, and divided it into two territories.
The Kashmir region is divided between India and Pakistan and is claimed by both. The two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars, two of them over control of Kashmir, since they won independence from British colonialists in 1947.
Pakistan announced Wednesday that it is downgrading its diplomatic ties with India and suspending bilateral trade in response to New Delhi’s decision to reduce Kashmir’s special status.
On Wednesday, workers crowded the railroad station at Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, as they waited for trains bound for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. They carried their belongings on their heads and under their arms, tied in bedsheets.
Worker Jagdish Mathur said many people walked for miles (kilometers) on a highway and hitched rides on army trucks and buses from Srinagar to Jammu, a distance of 260 kilometers (160 miles).
“We haven’t eaten properly for the past four days,” said Mathur, adding that he doesn’t have money to buy a rail ticket to take him to his village in eastern Bihar state. “The government should help me.”
Surjit Singh, a carpenter, told the New Delhi television channel that he was returning home because of Kashmir’s security lockdown.
Every year, tens of thousands of people travel to Kashmir from various Indian states looking for work, mainly masonry, carpentry and agriculture. Whenever the security situation deteriorates, they return homes.
Insurgent groups have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.