‘Minds Have Been Poisoned’: HP Villagers On Attack on J&K Workers
“They kept calling us terrorists and beating us. I was hurt the worst,” Raja Bahar, who broke his arm, said.
"There is no denying that there has been a lot of paranoia about Himachalis getting COVID-19 due to those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat meet. It's all over TV, WhatsApp forwards and Facebook. But these workers who were living here, they've been working here since November. So what got into these men to go and beat them up, I do not understand," sarpanch of Barot village Ranjana Devi spoke to The Quint days after Nine Gujjar Bakarwal migrant workers from Jammu and Kashmir were beaten up in Himachal Pradesh's Barot on 11 April.
A case has been registered against three accused under Section 452(House-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. The three accused were arrested on Monday, 13 April and granted bail the same day, the sarpanch (village headwoman) confirmed.
The Quint spoke to the sub-divisional magistrate, the village sarpanch, her husband, villagers and the victims to understand why nine labourers who were staying in Himachal Pradesh since November 2019 were beaten during the lockdown by three men.
Who Are These Kashmiri Migrant Workers?
Living here for 6 months, they're originally from Ramban district in Jammu and Kashmir.
Their names are Raja Bahar, Akram, Azgullah, Rafeeq, Nazeer, Maneer, Idris, Manzoor and Mushtaq. They've been working on the construction of a tower in the village to help setting up high-power electricity transmission cables that need to be put up between Harabagh, Barot and Lohardi for a Hydro Electric Project that is currently under works.
"The thekedaar (contractor) who brought them here has been making them live in a shed that is adjacent to a temple. The entry to their residence is through a temple, but there has been no proper electricity, food, water or even a toilet for them. I remember during the cold months of the winter, the villagers actually came forward and helped them with food and clothes," 35-year-old Joy Chowdhury who is a digital marketing consultant said.
They earn Rs 450 a day for the work they do on the site.
WhatsApp Forwards, Facebook and Television Sets
These migrants were not new faces, the villagers knew about them. But when the lockdown kicked in, so did paranoia. The sarpanch and his wife tell us how an incident from a few days before the accident was the background to the eventual attack.
"A few days ago a labourer, who is also from Jammu and Kashmir, came to Barot from Harabagh village. The others in the village saw this and got anxious. The tehsildar was called and we asked the man who he was and why he was there. After he explained that he was from a nearby village he was asked to leave, but this incident had already created panic," sarpanch Ranjana Devi says. Her husband, Ramesh Thakur, adds, "There is a lot of fear and anger against Muslims from the Tablighi Jamaat meet. It is everywhere. On WhatsApp, on Facebook, everywhere. This anger has poisoned the minds of people," Thakur says.
One of the accused is Ramesh's cousin brother, Rakesh.
Thakur was present when the labourers were taken to the hospital. When asked why the Tablighi Jamaat links would be used to target people who've been living in the village for six months, Devi says, "Their anger was elsewhere but they took it out on someone else. That is the environment here." Thakur says that when they saw the man enter the village, since then they were angry with the labourers. "When they went to hit them eventually, they were drunk and out of their minds."
Other villagers The Quint spoke to also agreed, "There was tension brewing ever since that man came from Harabagh. People were complaining that the labourers are not clean, they do not have baths and defecate in the open."
Drinking on Saturday night, these men got into a car and went straight to the shed where the labourers were sleeping.
"Around 10:30 pm these men came out of nowhere. We anyway have no security where we live. They kept calling us ugravaadi (terrorists) and beating us. I was hurt the worst. I have broken my arm in the process. I am a labourer and I need my arms to function," Raja Bahar tells The Quint. He has a plaster on his left hand and other bruises that hurt.
An FIR was filed against the men on Sunday and after being on the run, they were arrested on Monday. The same day they secured bail. The three men include Rakesh, Gangaram and Sanju who are all from Barot.
The sub divisional magistrate Shivmohan Singh Saini has told The Quint that this was not a communally motivated case. "There is no communal angle, the men were drunk and angry and beat the labourers up. We have taken complete care of them. Moved them to a safe government facility where they get all amenities without paying any cost. The investigation into the case is also ongoing. The Himachal Pradesh government is committed to taking care of all migrant and stranded workers in the state."
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