Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Deepak Lal came to Kashmir‘s main city of Srinagar in May hoping to find work as a painter.
The 23-year-old travelled several hundred miles from his home state of West Bengal in eastern India to the disputed Himalayan region expecting to work during the summer and autumn months.
His plan was foiled when India’s Hindu nationalist government imposed an unprecedented security lockdown in the territory earlier this month, followed by a contentious move to strip the region of its limited autonomy.
Tourists and pilgrims visiting the Muslim-majority region were ordered to leave before the August 5 decision. Tens of thousands of additional troops were deployed to the already-heavily militarised region, while internet and phone lines were cut as part of a bid to avoid civil unrest.
The security measures brought Kashmir’s economy to a halt and many migrant workers started to pack their bags.
“The situation is bad. There is fear but there is also no work,” Lal said on Friday.
“Non-local workers are not visible here any more. Everyone who came with us has already left.”
Thousands left in the first few days of the lockdown alone. Lal said he too would leave after he finished paintwork on a house on the outskirts of Srinagar.
‘No advisory for us’
Ashok Lal, his brother, said the government did not alert “poor migrant workers” on its move.
“There was no advisory for us,” he said. “We did not know what to do, we were not beaten or touched by people but we are afraid because when we walk in the streets the local boys ask us why haven’t you left yet.”
Residents of Kashmir fear New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 that granted a measure of autonomy to the territory is aimed at changing the demography of the only Muslim-majority region in the country.
The special status prohibited non-residents from permanently settling or buying land in Kashmir – claimed by both India and Pakistan.
The move to strip Kashmir of its special rights and bring it under federal control has prompted fears the Indian government may start building settlements for non-residents and grant them the right to permanently settle there.
“Most of them have left out of hysteria and fear psychosis and some have been forcibly driven out by the people,” a senior official told Al Jazeera.
“Due to the current situation, we helped them leave the region by providing bus services and food.”
New Delhi justified its unprecedented actions, saying it was necessary to fight an armed rebellion which sought self-rule or a merger with Pakistan. Thousands have been killed in the decades-old conflict.
India’s decision prompted large protests in Kashmir. Thousands of people, including senior politicians from the region, have been arrested.
In Srinagar, some young men started telling migrant workers to leave the region, claiming they would be the first to settle there. Some labourers said they were threatened.
Fears of demographic change
But Muhammad Umar, a resident of a Srinagar neighbourhood where non-local workers were told to leave, said: “We are not doing anything wrong.”
He added: “We fear that the permanent settlements might just start with them. We do not want the demography of the state to be altered. We helped them to collect dues from people and then told them to go to their home states. We are not hurting them.”
At a mosque in Srinagar, people pledged not to rent their houses or sell properties to the migrants.
Tens of thousands of workers, mainly barbers, tailors, bricklayers and carpenters, travel from the Indian states to Kashmir for work every year.
In almost all neighbourhoods of Srinagar, salons were shut as barbers who worked there left.
“I do not go to shop now. I do not even dare to open it as all other shops of locals also remain shut,” said Mohammad Shafiq, a barber from Uttar Pradesh state.
He was among the last remaining barbers in a Srinagar neighbourhood, which hosts dozens of salons. Shafiq said he now attends to his customers at their homes.
Muhammad Hanief, a tailor from the Indian state of Bihar who has a shop in Srinagar’s commercial hub, said he was uncertain about the future.
“No one asked to me to leave, but there is so much fear in the air and no work,” he said.