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Hizb threat has workers scurrying

Srinagar, July 28: Hundreds of non-Kashmiri labourers are fleeing the Valley, ordered out by militants after a carpenter from Bengal and a cobbler from Rajasthan allegedly raped and murdered a 14-year-old schoolgirl.

The Class VIII student was attacked on her way home from school on July 20 at Handwara, a town northwest of Srinagar. Her body was found with the throat slit.

Jahangir, a carpenter from Malda, and Suresh Moochi, a cobbler from Rajasthan, and two Kashmiris were arrested this week.

Handwara superintendent of police Haseeb Mugal said the four have confessed to the crime and added the police were still verifying the antecedents of the two outsiders.

“They told us they are from Bengal and Rajasthan but we are in touch with the concerned police stations in these two places to ascertain the truth. We are awaiting their response,” he said.

The incident created a huge public outcry, with Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani demanding that the labourers leave Kashmir.

Geelani, however, clarified today that he had sought the expulsion of only the criminal elements.

But his first statement sparked a chain reaction, with the Hizb-ul Mujahideen serving an ultimatum yesterday to all labourers from outside the state to leave Kashmir in a week. Some other militant groups have supported the warning.

An official at the government-run State Road Transport Corporation said several busloads of outstation labourers left Kashmir today. “Around 300 left by our buses in the morning and many others boarded other vehicles. This is not the time when they leave this place,” the official said.

The impact of the warning has been felt more in north Kashmir, where Handwara is located, the police said. “Many did not go to work today,” an official said.

Kashmir’s divisional commissioner, Mehboob Iqbal, denied there was a “mass exodus” and said fear has driven out “some people only” from north Kashmir. “But we will do whatever is possible to provide them (labourers) security,” he said.

“There are criminals in every society and all of them (labourers) cannot be painted with the same brush. If they leave Kashmir at this juncture, it will be a big setback to our development activities.”

Chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad today said some people are politicising the schoolgirl’s rape and murder and said tens of thousands of Kashmiris living in other states might have to bear the brunt.

Several delegations of migrant labourers went to Geelani’s home to seek his help. He later said labourers working with honesty and dedication should be allowed to stay on after proper screening. “The militant groups should stay away from this social issue,” he added.

State labour commissioner Pritpal Singh Betaab said the government has not conducted any survey to ascertain the number of outstation workers. “But they certainly outnumber the locals,” he said.

A rough estimate says the Rs 150-a-day wage — it’s double this amount for skilled workers — has drawn around two lakh workers to the Valley, most of whom are from Bengal and Bihar. There are more in Jammu and Ladakh.

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