On 5 August 2019, India’s far-right Hindu supremacist government unilaterally annexed the region of Jammu & Kashmir (J & K), ending its autonomous status which had existed since 1947 and imposing a lockdown and communications blockade.
Article 35A of the Indian Constitution was revoked during the annexation last year, directly paving the way for the new ‘domicile laws’. Introduced in 1954, Article 35A had granted Kashmir the right to define its ‘permanent residents’ and was thus meant to prevent interference from India’s legal machinery. All identified residents were entitled to special benefits related to employment, scholarships and other rights, as well as the unique right to buy and own property in Kashmir.
In May this year, the central government introduced new domicile laws that dramatically expand who can live permanently in Jammu and Kashmir. This move represents the next stage in the continuing process of ‘conquering’ Kashmir during the pandemic, and drives home the message to the Kashmiri people that not even a health crisis can prevent the Indian state from doing what it wants.
The new rules are a major departure from the historic recognition of Kashmir’s right to define its citizens, known as ‘permanent residents’. They grant eligibility of domicile to Indians including migrants, central government employees, Indian armed forces personnel and their children who meet the eligibility criteria. Significantly, a Kashmiri in the global diaspora, whose parents do not have an existing certificate of permanent residence, cannot obtain domicile without living in the region for 15 years or being employed by the Indian government for 10 years. Conversely, the child of an Indian citizen may be eligible, even if the child has never lived in Kashmir.
The rules do not merely grant Indians the right of residence in Kashmir. They also have the potential to render stateless Kashmiris who are unable to prove their residency and obtain a domicile certificate. The revocation of residency rights if Kashmiris fail to meet the new criteria will inevitably lead to forcible transfers of the Kashmiri population, which may qualify as a war crime. This has sparked fears of demographic change, militarised settlements, dispossession and alienation of land in Kashmir. There are unavoidable parallels with Israel which since 1995, has been escalating the use of residency revocation as part of a widespread, systematic policy to transfer the Palestinian population.
This exercise of re-verification of permanent residents is also comparable to India’s controversial National Register of Citizens/Citizenship Amendment Act exercise, which has already seen hundreds of thousands of people rendered stateless after failing to satisfy criteria for documentation.
For Kashmir, the new laws are just another reminder that the Indian government can alter its position at any point to suit circumstances. Prime Minister Modi had asserted that J & K residents’ interests would be protected in government jobs and land laws. However, through these changes, all eligible Indians can compete against J & K residents.
Previously, a total of 480,000 jobs in Kashmir were reserved for permanent residents. However, according to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, there are now only around 84,000 such jobs, even as the new domicile laws are potentially adding at least 1.5 million people to the Kashmir’s population. This is especially disconcerting for a population with 25% youth unemployment, which is set to increase further. The private sector has also been destroyed since the annexation.
The diminution of our rights is set to hasten the disenfranchisement of Kashmiris. There are also fears of losing access to welfare schemes for food, health care, provision for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
This new domicile law will also have an irreparable impact on Kashmir’s ecology. Only 30% of Kashmiri land is habitable and fit for cultivation. Prior to the annexation, over 50,000 acres of land in Kashmir were under occupation of the Indian army, and just last week, India eased the rules for security forces to acquire Kashmiri land. So there is very little habitable land to go around for the new domiciles without deforestation, which has already begun to take place. Further, contracts for mining in the region have been auctioned online; due to restricted Internet connectivity in Kashmir since the annexation, the majority of these contracts have been acquired by non-Kashmiri contractors.
These changes are an erasure of Kashmir’s history of independence and a project in creating homogeneity. Kashmiris were once the State-Subjects of a Princely State. Under questionable circumstances, we were then made permanent residents of an autonomous state, pending a plebiscite which has still not taken place. Today, without our consent, we are being made domiciles of a Union territory. It is likely that the Kashmiri landscape will be seeded with predatory militarised settlements in a hegemonic fashion similar to Palestine. The implications are calamitous: the threat of demographic change, loss of livelihood and increased competition for scarce resources. The Indian state’s authoritarian and xenophobic actions over the last year have shown that Modi’s India is not democratic. As Kashmiris, we must continue to engage in the persistent labour of resistance and hope, despite the reckless strictures India continues to impose on our freedom and democracy.
Mirza Saaib Bég is a Kashmiri lawyer and writer. He is a current candidate for a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Oxford
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