The gradual encroachment on Kashmiri’s rights and the growing prospect of colonisation could set the region on fire.
By Anuradha Bhasin
For more than 70 years, Kashmiris have lived with the dread of the Indian government changing the demography and special status of Indian-administered Kashmir, which was till recently Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state. Deemed preposterous and exaggerated at one time, these anxieties have now become completely justified and have even deepened.
On August 5, 2019, Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave the state its special status and excluded it from the application of various constitutional provisions, was abrogated, while Article 35A, which limited certain residency rights to the local population and granted them certain protections, was altogether scrapped.
These two articles had guaranteed that the right to buy and own land or apply for government jobs was the sole prerogative of those who had inherited permanent residency by descent. They also meant a bar on business investments by outsiders or attempts by big monopolistic companies to take control of J&K’s lands and economy. This protected Kashmiris’ rights and afforded them a certain level of political and economic autonomy.
In October 2019, J&K was dissolved as a state, which meant it no longer had a state assembly empowered to pass legislation, and was divided into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – allowing New Delhi to bring them under its direct control. Until then, J&K was the only Muslim-majority state in India.
With the abrogation of Article 370 and the removal of its status as a state, the region was fully integrated and its population stripped of the special privileges and entitlements it had been enjoying in view of the peculiar nature of the state’s history and its accession to India.
The actual disempowerment, which will soon begin to be felt on the ground, is more than the loss of the special local identity. Brought by stealth and deceit, without fulfilling the constitutional requirement of participation of the state legislature, the abrogation of Article 370 and demotion of the erstwhile state has become fait accompli, as the hearings on a bunch of petitions challenging the move in the Supreme Court of India have been postponed multiple times.
If Article 370 was aimed to lay down the foundation of the Indian government’s agenda in J&K, the actions that have followed are the building blocks to serve that design calculatedly.
Thus, in a late-night move on March 31, when the Indian government officially announced a new domicile rule for Jammu and Kashmir, more clarity was shed on what the future entails. The devil was in the detail.
According to the notification called “Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order, 2020”, anyone who has resided in J&K for 15 years or has studied in the territory for seven years, and appeared in either Class 10 or Class 12 examination, will get residency rights. They will then be eligible for various government jobs.
The notification’s timing, one week after India announced a countrywide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, was odd. While a lockdown in the rest of the country became a safety measure in the fight against a virus, in Kashmir it assumed a different meaning. It was a lockdown within a lockdown that had been partially in place since August 5, 2019.
A stringent clampdown on J&K under military boots including an absolute communication blockade allowed the Indian government to surreptitiously scrap its special status and split it into more pliable units last year. The longest-ever lockdown in Kashmir served the purpose of scuttling any public outrage and also ensured that information slipped into a black hole, making an entire population invisible and their grievances inaudible.
The 2019 lockdown was unconstitutional, undemocratic and morally erroneous. But this has now become the foundational principle of India’s strategy in Kashmir with no punctuations of pretence. If the first lockdown was successful in preventing public outcry over the loss of special status and protections, the other provided a stepping stone for laying the blueprint of what the Indian government intends to do as part of its larger agenda.
The new domicile rule, and its timing, stirred up anxieties, particularly among the J&K youth, irrespective of their ethnic and communal identities or their political ideologies, as it meant they would be losing government jobs, they earlier had a monopoly over, to outsiders. The government is one of the biggest employers of fresh graduates in the region and in the spring a number of recruitment processes were stalled, prompting suspicions that this was done intentionally to allow outsiders who qualified for domicile under the new rule to apply as well.
On February 27, the authorities scrapped the recruitment process of J&K Bank for more than 1,450 posts, which had been going on since 2018, jeopardising the career prospects of thousands of aspirants who had been waiting after clearing their preliminary exams. On June 2, the bank advertised for 1,850 posts inviting applications for domiciles.
In the midst of the pandemic, as hospitals battled with a shortage of infrastructure and staff, the government showed the door to hundreds of healthcare employees on temporary contracts in Srinagar and Kathua district in Hindu-majority Jammu region. This, despite shortages of medical staff and the established practice of offering temporary workers permanent contracts.
The recruitment, appointment and promotion processes for various civil service positions in the administration, education and healthcare sectors have also been put on hold after the J&K Public Service Commission, which is responsible for civil service recruitment, was made defunct and the constitution of a new commission under the new status of the region as a union territory was delayed. A new chairman was finally appointed in May.
The threat of losing jobs to outsiders is coupled with the anxieties of the existing government employees with respect to service-related litigations related to pay, promotions, etc, of which there are currently more than 30,000 cases.
On April 29 this year, on grounds that J&K had lost its statehood, the Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985 was made applicable to J&K and Ladakh. In June, the creation of Jammu Bench of the Central Administrative Tribunal was announced which will cover the union territories of J&K and Ladakh. But a single bench at the south end of the region will be insufficient, given the large size of the population and the difficult mountainous topography which renders the journey to Jammu too long.
These changes come as over the last couple of decades, locals in the administrative bureaucracy have been sidelined or sent out on deputations. This process has further picked up steam recently. After the abrogation of Article 370, the majority of top bureaucratic positions in the administration of Jammu and Kashmir are held by outsiders.
The immediate beneficiaries of the new domicile rule could go beyond the thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees, who have fled Pakistan since partition and have settled in the suburbs of Jammu city. The rules for getting a domicile certificate are now pretty relaxed, so there is no way to assess the exact number of people who are likely to benefit.
Thousands of bureaucrats from outside and those working in the private sector have spent more than the required 15 years in J&K in the last 70 years. A sizeable part of the Indian armed forces is concentrated in J&K and many have served several postings in the erstwhile state, easily making many eligible under the new criteria.
The numbers are likely to add up by each year and given the easily corruptible system and lack of accountability, there is no telling how the laws will be tweaked to further allow an influx of beneficiaries from outside.
And this is not just about jobs. There is also the question of land ownership and business investment over which the new domicile rule is silent, which means that unlike the past, any Indian may buy land, settle and start a business venture in J&K.
Under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, which came into effect in October, the legal provisions restricting ownership of private property to permanent residents were struck down. In the past, local land reform legislation empowered peasants including the socially oppressed classes, giving them a sense of dignity and making J&K one of the few states in the country where nobody died of starvation.
The amended land-related laws induce fears in the local population of not just losing their exclusive privileges but also of suffering under possible monopolistic economic hegemonies.
The state also had in place its reservation act that provided for quotas in educational institutions and jobs for people of disadvantaged backgrounds, including Dalits, members of various tribes, etc. Women enjoyed a 50 percent reservation in professional colleges. Since the 1950s, education at school and college level was free in government institutions. All of that now stands to be reversed.
For now, using the pandemic as an excuse, the government has also halted the 150-year-old annual practice of shifting the capital from Jammu to Srinagar in the summer. Though the practice of two capitals – in Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir – was ideally inclusive, it was Srinagar that became the hub of political power after Kashmir’s accession in 1947.
The government decision to begin the delimitation (redrawing of boundaries) of electoral constituencies, which is likely to give Hindu-majority Jammu more seats, will reshape the local political dynamics. Two ideas have been mooted by several Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to that end – enumeration on the basis of area and not population, as is the countrywide norm, as well as adding the kitty of 24 seats of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir (PAK) and Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin that lay vacant for the last 70 years to Jammu region by fielding Hindu and Sikh refugees from PAK.
The Delimitation Commission was announced on March 6 and immediately the process of data collection was set in motion. It has been going on without any punctuation throughout the COVID-19 lockdown.
Structures of power are being dismantled bit by bit, particularly emaciating the political significance of Srinagar and turning Jammu into a symbolic site of victory while keeping its people disempowered.
Already, the political space in J&K has been completely decimated. While many top leaders continue to be in detention, including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, others have been let off or placed under house arrest on conditions of maintaining silence.
A lobby of renegades from various parties recently floated a new political organisation called Apni Party. It is believed to enjoy the patronage of New Delhi and has failed to cut much ice.
Under the new arrangement, while the far-flung union territory of Ladakh would be robbed of a legislative assembly, J&K will get one with limited powers, turning the two entities virtually into two remote-controlled municipalities.
This puts a question mark over the practicability of managing the erstwhile state, with its huge area, its complexity, its socio-political diversity and its fragility, under this arrangement of one centralised authority. While a sense of political empowerment is diminished, the terms of engagement in local political narrative are decimated to municipal and administrative matters.
A sense of loss appears to be a strange leveller and may have somewhat bridged the traditionally divisive narratives in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and Hindu-dominated Jammu, the latter having seen a phenomenal rise in Hindu right-wing politics in recent decades.
But while in Jammu public discontent is linked to loss of jobs, land, monopoly over trade and higher education, in Kashmir, in addition to all these, the dilution of Article 370 and domicile law assumes a whole new meaning – the fear of a demographic change.
Shaped by Hindu right-wing groups openly calling for changing demography of Kashmir and integrationist politics, anxieties of demographic change have existed in Kashmir for decades. Today, a pathway is being paved for replicating the Israeli model of occupation and colonisation of the West Bank in Kashmir towards disempowerment and dispossession of the locals, particularly Kashmiri Muslims, to exercise hegemonic control through new settlers.
Sometime in late November last year, a serving Indian diplomat in the United States, while addressing a gathering of Kashmiri Hindus, averred that “Kashmiri culture is Indian culture; it is Hindu culture” and espoused the Israeli model of West Bank settlements as the way forward. Though the Indian government did not officially support this policy of apartheid, it also conveniently did not distance itself from the remarks made by its serving envoy in his official capacity.
If there were any doubts about the seriousness of these remarks, they can now be discarded. The recent moves indicate a more systemic pattern of making this model the centrepiece of India’s Kashmir policy. The present lockdown has been used to plot the points on the map while avoiding any public outcry. This arsenal of administrative changes in a fragile setting is like dumping fuel that could well trigger an inferno of unimaginable proportions.
The government is underestimating the patience and silence of the public and the international ramifications of riding roughshod over the aspirations of the people of Kashmir and pushing them to the margins as secondary citizens with an uptick in massive human rights abuse.
While this amounts to trampling of Indian democracy, it also makes peace in South Asia extremely vulnerable. In all probability, the transition to demographic change will not be as smooth. A desperate struggle for self-preservation within Kashmir and the heightened level of tensions between India and Pakistan – two nuclear powers – will throw up an explosive situation. The present standoff between India and China also has the potential to escalate and add fuel to the fire.