In the wake of the February 14 terror attack in Kashmir—the Himalayan region caught in a decades-long border dispute between India and Pakistan—Kashmiris who live in other parts of India have become targets of persecution and violence.
Kashmiri students have been expelled from colleges, kicked out of apartments, and in some cases charged with sedition for criticizing the Indian government. In various states, shopkeepers have been attacked by right-wing mobs.
But in Kochi, a bustling port city in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Kashmiri immigrants say they’ve found a safe haven.
“They’re kicking us out everywhere else, but here, we’re at peace” said Hilal Ahmed, a handicrafts trader who moved from Srinagar to Kochi 12 years ago. “This is the most beautiful place in India after Kashmir.”
Ahmed owns one of the many Kashmiri shops in Jew Town, a neighborhood that was home to a thriving community of Paradesi (or “foreign”) Jews until the 1950s, when most of them migrated to Israel. Today, only five Jews remain in the neighborhood, which presents an unusual scene: Stars of David and signs announcing “Jew Street” dot a row of storefronts advertising pashmina shawls, Persian kilims, and traditional Islamic crafts. The shops extend all the way to the end of the street, leading to the 460-year-old Paradesi Synagogue.
There are 35 Kashmiri shops in Jew Town and 81 more in the surrounding Mattancherry and Fort Kochi districts, said Sajid Khatai, the president of the local Kashmiri Traders’ Association. His uncle, Gulshan Khatai, was the first-ever Kashmiri to set up shop in Kochi in 1968. He remained the only one in the city until the late 1990s, when the rising separatist insurgency and the Kargil War between India and Pakistan made tourism an unsustainable business in Kashmir.
That’s when Kashmiri traders started migrating all the way south to Kochi, which was then a burgeoning tourist destination. “We follow tourists, because that’s what our trade depends on,” said the younger Khatai, who has lived here since 1998. “Ours is a trade of peace, not war.”
Another draw was the exceptional religious diversity in Kerala, branded “God’s Own Country” by the state’s tourism department. The state is home to higher populations of Muslims (26 percent) and Christians (17 percent) than most other provinces in India—and two decades of communist rule have ensured that it remains relatively impervious to the sectarian troubles that plague much of Indian politics.
Its deep-rooted multiculturalism makes Kerala one of the safest places for Kashmiris, according to Khatai. For Malayalis, or native speakers of Kerala’s local language, the philosophy is “Malayali-first,” he said. “They leave their religion at home.”
Khatai said that this spirit of tolerance has not changed even in the last four years, which saw the rise of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India after its sweeping victory in the 2014 general elections. Kerala is one of the few states where the party has received almost no support, but in the rest of the country, the BJP has been pushing a nativist, Islamophobic agenda that has been linked to an increase in religion-based violence. The perpetrators of the recent revenge attacks on Kashmiris have been reported to be members of Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with the BJP.
Days after the terror strike in Kashmir, a mob led by the Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu organisation, took to the streets of the northern city of Dehradun with the slogan “Shoot those who betray India,” demanding that Kashmiri students be removed from town. In Patna, a group of young men attacked a bazaar of Kashmiri shopkeepers with sticks and rods.
On February 23, the Indian Supreme Court directed all states to ensure the safety of Kashmiris settled within their borders, especially students. And yet, just two weeks later, four men clad in saffron (the color of Hindu nationalism) were caught on video beating up a pair of Kashmiri street vendors in Lucknow.
No instance of assault has been reported in Kerala so far, although two students in Malappuram (100 miles north of Kochi) were recently arrested for sedition for putting up posters that read “Liberation for Kashmir.” Khatai is confident that the violence will not spread to Kerala. He said that the only response he’d received from the locals in Kochi after the terror attack in February was concern. “Friends asked if my relatives were safe, they suggested I bring them here.”
Even if the BJP retains power in the coming general elections, Khatai doesn’t think anything will change in Kerala, where the Congress-led, left-leaning coalition United Democratic Front is expected to dominate again. “I have faith in Malayali society,” Khatai said, citing the universal literacy and high rates of education in the state.
Despite the lack of overt violence, however, it’s clear that fear lingers in the Kashmiri community even in Kochi. Several traders affirmed that they felt safe in the city, but asked that their names be withheld from this article. They described having to report to the local police station every six months for background verification. “Or else, they’ll think we’re terrorists.”
One trader said that although he has never encountered attacks or threats, he has been harassed by local rickshaw-drivers and workers, who sometimes charge Kashmiris extra for services and say things like “militant” and “go back to Kashmir!” if they refuse. He also said that he is careful to not say too much on the phone when he calls home, out of fear of surveillance.
“No one here can be open about the truth,” he said, “which is that we don’t feel a hundred percent safe, even here.”
This article is part of a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, made possible in part by the Henry Luce Foundation.