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Changes made by the Indian government to Jammu and Kashmir’s domicile and land laws could end up changing the region’s identity.

Looked at from above, an angel’s wings appear to embrace the Kashmir Valley. Quite appropriate for a place known as heaven on Earth. The wings around Indian administered Kashmir are the snow-capped mountains of the Pir Panjal Range in the southwest and the Himalayas in the northeast. The fairy tale, though, ends there. 

The state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is surrounded by three nuclear-armed hostile nations – India, China and Pakistan. It has experienced decades of bloody battles with the Indian state. 

On August 5, 2019, the federal government of India—led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—did away with the quasi-autonomy accorded to it by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. India’s only Muslim-majority state was brought under New Delhi’s direct control.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or the RSS, whose formation was influenced by European fascist parties, is the ideological parent of the BJP. In many ways, New Delhi’s “takeover” of J&K in August last year is a culmination of the RSS’ decades-long dream of making India a Hindu Rashtra (nation). 

According to The Brotherhood in Saffron, a book on the RSS by scholars Walter Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle, the RSS was opposed to the semi-autonomous status of J&K from the start and doing away with Article 370 was on the BJP’s election manifesto ahead of both 2014 and 2019 general elections. In both elections, India elected the BJP to power with absolute majorities. 

It was not enough to revoke Article 370. India had to enact laws which would change the Muslim majority status of the state, according to Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, who works on Kashmir. The pandemic became a perfect cover.

J&K faced about eight months of strict curfews, with reduced mobility and internet shutdowns. Just as the situation was easing in March, COVID-19 struck, plunging the state back into another lockdown with the rest of the country. 

In March 2020, as the region was demanding more doctors and medical equipment to deal with the spread of the pandemic, the Government of India brought in a new domicile law. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order, 2020—introduced on the night of March 31—defined who can own land and apply for government jobs in J&K. 

Under normal circumstances, such a law which affects close to 10 million people would have been debated by people’s representatives. Except, in this case, not just were there no senior political leaders—who were either in jails or in house arrest—but the population was focused on battling the virus. The press was gagged by a New Media Policy, which threatened to incarcerate journalists for publishing “anti-national material.”  

“This is the beginning of demographic change and, therefore, the domicile law makes India the Israel of South Asia,” said a Srinagar-based Kashmiri scholar who requested anonymity. 

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution of 1956, a Permanent Resident (PR) was anyone who was a state subject of J&K in 1954 under the monarchy; their descendants were also considered permanent residents. Anyone who lived in the state for 10 years before 1954 or owned land was granted the PR status. According to the March 2020 rules, anyone who has lived in J&K for 15 years or studied there for seven years or written class 10 or 12 board examinations in a school there, are eligible for PR. The first person to acquire a domicile certificate was a senior Indian diplomat from the eastern Indian state of Bihar, who was posted in J&K. “According to the 2011 census data, 1.5 million non-Kashmiris are eligible under the 15-year category. This number is 13-14 percent of the total population of Kashmir,” said Mirza Saaib Beg, a Kashmiri lawyer.

The children of Indian government officials, All India Service officers, other public sector employees and researchers who had spent more than 10 years in Jammu and Kashmir are also eligible to apply for domicile.

Beg noted that India’s population is 100 times that of Kashmir’s. Therefore, he said, engineering a demographic change will not be hard for the Indian government.

Immediately after the revocation of Article 370 was announced in August 2019, social media was flooded with messages claiming to sell property in Srinagar, which were later found to be fake. “Why this desperate desire to own Kashmiri land? What does it signify? If our lands are being taken away without our consent, it is surely an attempt to Hinduise India and bring about demographic change,” said the same Kashmiri scholar. “Much on the lines of what Israel is doing in the West Bank. India officially started its settler colonialism on August 5 last year,” he added.

In November 2019, Sandeep Chakravorty, India’s consul general in New York, called for the adoption of the “Israel Model” in J&K. “If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it,” he said in the video and quickly followed it up by stating that the current Indian administration is “determined” to do so. The Ministry of External Affairs did not comment on it publicly. 

While senior diplomats liken India to Israel, activists and residents compare Kashmir to Palestine. A 17-year-old Kashmiri boy, who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said that he is a part of a private Telegram group called “India = Israel.” 

“Through that channel, we are trying to connect with our brothers in Palestine. We are learning about their struggles and challenges just as India is learning its lessons from Israel,” said the young man. “The Hindu Rashtra project of the RSS needs to disempower and dispossess Kashmiri Muslims and lodge new settlers in their place,” he said. “That is the purpose of the new domicile laws.”

In May this year, when 15 houses were demolished in downtown Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, it reminded the youth of Isreal’s policy of occupying Palestinian land and expanding settlements, said the 17-year-old boy. In Kashmiri villages, though, destruction of property under the garb of “security operations” has been ongoing for years. “Once these houses are demolished, it takes years to rebuild them,” said Shehla Rashid, a Kashmiri scholar and activist. “Without a strong economy, we cannot hope to rebuild them.”   

Beg, though, cautions against borrowing language from other struggles. “Both struggles can contextualise these structures and gain perspective as well as inspiration from each other’s experience, but it is essential to understand that the struggles are also unique in their own ways,” he said.

Observers say acquiring land forcefully is a particular feature of Indian colonial and capitalistic exploitation of resources in Kashmir. According to Dr Aditi Saraf, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University, “the termination of land rights pushes the conflict in Kashmir beyond a dangerous new threshold and has been interpreted as a step within an overt program of settler colonialism aimed at altering the region’s Muslim majority demography.”

New Delhi has been actively redrawing boundaries of electoral constituencies in J&K. “The new domiciles will get voting rights and become a significant voting bloc, especially in places where election boycotts take place, where under normal circumstances, only a few percent of the inhabitants come to cast a vote,” said Beg. 

India’s aggression in J&K has not attracted large-scale opposition from other countries. “Kashmir has long given up on the world,” said the Kashmiri scholar. “We don’t expect anyone to be pained by our pain.”

Published in: Vice
Published on: August 5, 2020