Kashmir Meet After Two Years of Ruin: A Reckoning or a New Tack? — by Muzamil Jaleel

Jun 24, 2021

In this timely piece (featured in our opinions and perspectives section), Muzamil Jaleel poses and evaluates two essential questions: Is New Delhi’s outreach to pro-India parties a tactical step to normalise the devastating changes introduced in J&K since August 5, 2019? Has the Sangh Parivar’s Kashmir project run up against a roadblock or has it been compelled by international players to change course?

In Kashmir, people make big houses, bigger than they should, and often bigger than they can afford. Big enough to host wedding feasts for their children, big enough for mourners to gather when the time comes. For sorrow and for joy, Kashmiris say.

In Kashmir, home is also the place to hide. For the past thirty years, it has been the last refuge from the violence that runs mad on its streets, and over its lush meadows and hulking mountains. It isn’t really safe, of course, what with random midnight raids that often end in an inhabitant’s arrest, torture, and sometimes death. And if a militant is found holed up in one, it’s almost invariably blasted into rubble. Yet, home is where Kashmiris feel the safest. It is an island of life in a deluge of violence, which, in its newest form is being inflicted through the blunt instrument of demographic change, a deluge brought to drown Kashmiris once and for all.

Home and land, like political aspirations, are central to the conflict in Kashmir. On August 5, 2019, when India unilaterally removed Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, split the state into two territories ruled directly from New Delhi, and repealed the law that safeguarded the native population’s residency and property rights, it launched the final assault on the homeland of Kashmiris. The plan is, and always has been, to rob Kashmiris of their land, flood it with settlers, and eventually render the natives into a disempowered minority that’s not fully human, but human object, a thing.

The RSS – the mothership of the Sangh Parivar, a fleet of Hindu nationalist groups, including the ruling BJP, that seeks to turn India into an enthonationalist Hindu state – has publicly decried Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim majority demography as “oppressive”, “a thorn in the flesh”, and “a headache for our country”. These devastating changes launched on August 5, 2019 are integral to this civilisational project of the Sangh Parivar, which has long considered drastic demographic change, through what is essentially a settler colonial project, as the only way to end the Kashmir dispute for good. In fact, they publicly speak about taking inspiration from Israel to further their goal.

Once the Permanent Resident Act, a law enacted in 1927 to safeguard the demographic and cultural identities of Kashmir’s many ethnic and religious groups, was removed, it eased the legal path to set up townships for settlers in the region, under the protection of the massive military apparatus. The 1927 law ensured that only permanent residents of J&K competed for government jobs in the state, voted in local elections, and obtained property. These special protections existed in a complicated historical context.

After the British Raj folded up, India’s leadership promised a plebiscite for the people of J&K to determine their political future. In November 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told All India Radio that J&K’s fate was “ultimately to be decided by the people. That pledge we have given not only to the people of Kashmir but also to the world. We will not and cannot back out of it”. A few days later, he told India’s Constituent Assembly, “We have suggested that when people of Kashmir are given a chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as the United Nations Organization.”

Nehru’s assurances came after India secured conditional accession of J&K, thanks mainly to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, then the state’s most popular leader. He argued for J&K to go with India rather than Pakistan without seeking to determine the wishes of the population. Abdullah even represented India’s case at the United Nations. “I and my organisation never believed in the formula that Muslims and Hindus form separate nations,” he said. “We do not believe in the two-nation theory….”

Seventy years later, Abdullah’s words sound hollow. Almost every leader of Kashmir’s pro-India political camp, including three former chief ministers, were detained for months and gagged after New Delhi put the region under lockdown to preempt mass protests against the August 5 move. In fact, the Indian government divested all their local intermediaries, including Abdullah’s party, of any political standing in one fell swoop.

Back in 1947, however, Abdullah had insisted that J&K’s accession to India came with a condition: J&K was to have a special status within the Indian union. It took India’s top leaders and Abdullah, by then prime minister of J&K, nearly five months until October 1949 to negotiate the terms of this special status.

This arrangement, though, has never been accepted by one of the two broad ideological camps that have dominated J&K’s political landscape since 1947. They are those who resist India’s rule, arguing that the people of J&K have never been allowed to exercise their right to self-determination, promised by India’s first prime minister and endorsed by the UN. The pro-India camp, however, believes that J&K’s accession to India is final, but insists that the now revoked special status, guaranteed by the Indian constitution, formed the basis of the relationship. Indeed, they consider J&K’s special status the mainstay of a solemn compact between two sovereign peoples – which meant that when it was unilaterally revoked, all the terms of J&K’s entry into the Indian Union were voided. This compact also ensured that J&K had its own constitution, its own flag, prime minister, president and its own official language, Urdu. All these symbols of special status are gone. In fact, even pro-India political parties in J&K whose participation in local government elections India would use as an argument before the world against the demand for the right to self-determination, stand decimated. The distinction between Kashmiris who questioned India’s sovereignty over J&K and those who had been India’s face in the region has disappeared. They are all unwanted suspects.

To signal the essence of this Kashmir project in the larger Hindu supremacist agenda, the first anniversary of the abrogation of J&K’s semi-autonomy and dismemberment was chosen to lay the foundation of the Ram temple, which is coming up on the site where the Babri Masjid existed until it was violently torn down by Hindu extremists in 1992. India’s prime minister, fellow BJP leaders, and top RSS functionaries attended the celebration.

In the years since removing J&K’s semi-autonomy, the Indian government has taken a series of decisions to take forward its plan and each step is part of the single path towards altering the demographic complexion of the erstwhile state.

A new domicile law has been introduced, and implemented retrospectively, to provide legal cover to demographic change. Under this law, any Indian citizen who has resided for fifteen years in J&K or studied for seven years and appeared in class 10 and class 12 examination from a school located in J&K can become a domicile, as can the children of Indian federal officials and members of Indian armed forces who have served in the region for 10 years. Since the law does not specify that the period of residency or service must be at a stretch, any Indian citizen who has lived or served in J&K for the prescribed length of time over multiple stints would qualify as well. The exact number of Indian citizens who have thus become eligible to take domicile in J&K isn’t known but there is no doubt that it has already considerably altered the region’s demographic complexion.

According to the last population census, there were 2.8 million migrant workers from different states of India working in J&K in 2011, at least 1.4 million of them for 10 consecutive years.

And now that there’s a mechanism to become a “domicile”, the addition of Indians to the population of J&K will be continuous and uninterrupted. This way a separate citizenry of J&K will remain intact in theory but without having any meaning or significance in reality.

Though a plebiscite to settle the Kashmir dispute is a remote possibility in today’s international order, the introduction of the domicile category of residents to render the native population a minority in their own land is a clever manoeuvre to prepare for such an eventuality, especially because J&K is still a pending issue in the United Nations. (On April 21, 1948, the United Nations Security Council called for a plebiscite in J&K.) In the absence of the domicile category, the repealed Permanent Resident Act, also called State Subject law (even after its repeal) would have remained the yardstick to determine the electorate for a referendum. Indeed, for the first seven years of Indian rule, the people of J&K were not legally counted as Indian citizens and Indians needed a permit to enter J&K until 1959.

To enforce and normalise demographic change in Kashmir, the Indian government has made the domicile certificate compulsory for recruitment in state jobs and admissions in educational institutions. They also announced the recruitment of ten thousand unemployed youth immediately after the decision. Local officials will face penalties if they fail to issue domicile certificates within a stipulated time. The aim clearly is to push people to apply for domicile certificates and, thus, set the ball rolling for demographic change.

That all these changes are aimed at eroding J&K’s Muslim character is evident from the fact that while Hindu refugees from Pakistan have become domiciles, the Indian government has repealed a law passed by J&K’s elected legislature in 1982 to enable the survivors of the Jammu massacre to return home. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Jammu province were killed or forced to flee to Pakistan between March 1, 1947 and May 14, 1954. The 1982 law allowed these refugees and their children to return and resettle. They never were allowed, for the sole reason that they are Muslim.

The only state laws that haven’t been repealed are those that help oppress the people. For example, a draconian preventive detention law, the Public Safety Act, remains. It allows for detention of a person without formal charge and without trial for up to two years. It can be invoked against a person while they are in police custody, immediately after they are granted bail or even after they are acquitted.

Similarly, the Jammu and Kashmir Enemy Agents Ordinance Svt 2005, Jammu and Kashmir Egress and Internal Movement Control Ordinance Svt 2005, and Jammu and Kashmir Police Act Svt 1983 are among the draconian laws that haven’t been repealed.

The J&K Enemy Agents Ordinance, issued by the autocratic Dogra ruler in 1917 and amended after the partition in 1948, is extremely draconian, arbitrary and tyrannical. According to this ordinance, “whosoever is an enemy agent or, with an intent to aid the enemy, conspires with any other person to any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the enemy or to impede the military or air operations of Indian forces or to endanger life or is guilty of incendiarism shall be punishable with death or rigorous imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years and shall also be liable to fine”.

The trial under the Enemy Agents Ordinance is conducted by a special judge who is appointed by the “government in consultation with the high court”. The accused cannot engage a lawyer to defend themselves unless permitted by the court. “In any proceedings before the Special Judge and in proceeding before a Judge reviewing under section 9 the proceedings of a Special Judge when the Special Judge or the reviewing Judge grants permission in this behalf, a person accused of an offence triable under this Ordinance may be defended by a pleader,’’ the ordinance states. There is no provision of appeal against the verdict and the decision of the special judge can only be reviewed “by a person chosen by the Government from the judges of the High Court and the decision of that person shall be final”.

The ordinance also bars any disclosure or publication about the case tried under it. “Any person who, without the previous authorization of the Government, discloses or publishes any information with respect to any proceedings or with respects to any person proceeded against under this Ordinance, shall be punishable with imprisonment fora term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both,’’ the ordinace lays down.

The Jammu and Kashmir Egress and Internal Movement Control Ordinance Svt 2005, promulgated in 1948, empowers the government to bar movement of people within or outside the erstwhile state. “The Government may, by notifying in the Government Gazette, order that any person for the time being in the State or any class of such persons shall not proceed to a destination outside the State or more within the State from one place to another, except under the authority of a written permit granted in such form and manner and by such authority or person as may be specified in the order,’’ the ordinance states. Any violation of such a ban is non-bailable and punishable with imprisonment “not be less than one year” which could be extended to two years and also be liable to fine. Anybody deemed to have assisted the violator of this government ban will be tried for the same offence. Interestingly, as per this ordinance, “the pilot of any aircraft by means of which any person leaves” J&K will be “deemed to have abetted the contravention”. The offences under the ordinance can be tried before a special judge appointed by the government. The decision of the special judge cannot be appealed but can be reviewed “by a person chosen by the government from the Judges of the High Court and the decision of that person shall be final”. An accused can engage a lawyer only after prior permission from the special judge. Permission to engage a defence lawyer is needed at the time of review as well. Like the Jammu Kashmir Enemy Agents Ordinance, this ordinance also bars any disclosure or publication about the case tried under it and makes such a violation “punishable with imprisonment fora term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both”.

Seven state commissions were abolished, including the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the State Information Commission, and the State Accountability Commission. Eight thousand cases of serious human rights abuses – torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings – by Indian armed forces were pending before the human rights commission when it was shut. Though a powerless government body, the commission had become a repository of human rights violation cases. The presence of mass graves in J&K – 2,156 bodies buried at 38 sites – was first revealed by an investigation by the commission in 2011.

Now that J&K is ruled directly from New Delhi, the facade of an elected local government, which provided a degree of empowerment to the local population, is removed. A former cabinet minister and a top leader of a pro-India party said the complexion of the bureaucracy that currently runs J&K “looks alien to me and the common Kashmiris, as if it was Italy’s administration in Libya”.

In February (2021), the Indian parliament abolished the separate J&K cadre of the Indian civil services and merged it with Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram, Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre. Though an overwhelming officers in J&K cadre (running the state with 68 per cent Muslim population) would be non-Muslim and non-local, its complexion was substantially altered after New Delhi brought J&K under direct rule in June 2018. And once J&K’s semi autonomy was withdrawn and the state was downgraded and bisected on August 5, 2019, Indian government started to bring officers from outside to hold key positions. Currently, there are 58 civil services officers in J&K and among them only 11 are Muslim. Eight civil services officers have been brought in from outside and among them three are Muslim. In fact, there is only one Muslim officer among the top 11 bureaucrats that run the administration. He holds the charge of the insignificant “Skill Development” department.   Among the 18 other top officers, 7 are Muslim. There are 66 Indian Police Service officer in J&K cadre who run the J&K Police and among them only 8 are Muslim. There is not a single Muslim officer in Lieutenant Governor’s office. 

Leave aside the top bureaucracy, the Indian government has now amended the service rules for recruitment to all government jobs in J&K. These new rules are arbitrary, discriminatory, in breach of the doctrine of natural justice as well as Article 14 of the Indian constitution and they seem designed to keep a large section of the local population out of the administration.

The new rules lay down that:

  • Any person selected for a government job must undergo a compulsory verification of antecedents by the intelligence wing of the J&K police within two months after the selection list is finalised. In case of receipt of an adverse report, the appointment will be automatically cancelled.
  • The candidate must furnish details of educational qualification, including particulars of institutions studied in since the age of 15; their current address; address of the native place if the family have migrated to J&K after January 1, 1990; details of mobile numbers used during the past five years; all email and social media accounts; registration numbers of vehicles owned or used; bank or post office account numbers; and passport number.
  • The candidate must provide details of any legal proceedings against them, their family members or close relatives.
  • The candidate must give details of places where they have resided for over one year at a stretch in the preceding five years and, if they have stay abroad, particulars of all the places they have resided in for more than one year after attaining the age of 18 years; details of their or their spouse’s foreign visits during the past five years; details of employment with officials of foreign countries, details of children studying, living or working abroad; details of family members working in foreign missions or in foreign organisations, including foreign concerns in India and abroad.
  • The candidate must provide details of their own or close relatives’ membership of cultural or social organisations associated with or assisted by a foreign mission or organization; details of membership of or association with a prohibited or banned organization viz Jamat-e-Islami; details of membership of a club/society/association/trust/charity or similar bodies; details of membership of any political party/organization or of participation in any political activity.
  • The candidate must provide the names, addresses and contact numbers for two responsible persons of their locality or two references they are known to.

Urdu had been J&K’s official language since 1889, when it replaced Persian. It is still the language of courts; land, revenue and police records; and the mode of instruction in government schools, especially in the Kashmir valley and the Muslim majority districts of Jammu and Kargil regions. It has been dropped as the main official language and New Delhi has empowered J&K’s new legislature in future to “adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir or Hindi as the official language”. Subsequently, a law was passed in Indian parliament declaring Urdu as one of the five official languages to be used for the official purposes of the union territory of J&K. There are, however, clear indications that Hindi will replace Urdu. Names of government departments and programmes are already in Hindi. The Public Health, Irrigation and Flood Control Department has been renamed Jal Shakti Department. Once a new language or languages replace Urdu, it would suddenly leave a vast population from among the Muslim majority unemployable. As Urdu is associated with Muslims and their culture, this move too is linked to the project of demographic change given that the introduction of Hindi will hugely favour settlers.

In the law reorganising J&K into a pair of territories ruled from New Delhi, there is a provision for an elected legislature. It will be toothless, however, since the elected representatives will have to function under an unelected official, the lieutenant governor, appointed by the Indian government, and have no say in policymaking. Moreover, the affairs of land, revenue, police and top bureaucracy will be handled directly by the Indian government. Still, New Delhi has started the process to redraw J&K’s electoral districts. This process, to be completed soon, is seen to be aimed at reducing the numerical advantage of the Muslims, who are 68 percent of the population by increasing the number of electoral districts in the Hindu majority areas of Jammu, and thereby ensuring that J&K has a Hindu chief minister whenever the new legislature is elected. The ruling BJP’s leaders have been saying as much, publicly. Clearly, New Delhi is situating the new governance apparatus for J&K in the Sangh Parivar’s Hindu supremacist framework; it doesn’t want to give any significant role to Muslims even in the new pro-India political camp that it’s assembling. This is consistent with its larger plan of demographic change.

The story of land is alarming, especially after August 5, 2019. To purchase land and other immovable property in J&K, an Indian citizen needn’t even become a domicile.

Still, the Indian government has introduced massive changes in land laws in J&K. The Big Landed Estate Abolition Act enacted in 1950 gave six and a half lakh landless Muslim tillers and two and a half lakh lower caste Hindu tillers ownership of the land they had been cultivating for generations. Since the Dogra state was a Hindu monarchy, the overwhelming majority of the landlords affected by the 1950 law were Hindu. These aggrieved landlords assembled behind the Praja Parishad, a communal organisation aligned with the RSS, which launched a major agitation in Jammu. In June 1952, Praja Parishad submitted a memorandum to the then Indian president, Rajendra Prasad, demanding that Jammu be brought directly under Indian rule.

The Indian government has also repealed the Big Landed Estate Abolition Act and changed the Agrarian Reforms Act in a way as to render it inoperative. Simply put, the new law removes the ceiling on landholdings, undoing in one stroke the reforms carried out over the last 70 years. It also does away with the restriction that allowed permanent residents of J&K alone to buy, sell and own land and property in the region. This means all of J&K’s land is now open for Indian citizens and entities to buy and use as they wish. The removal of the ceiling on landholdings will pave the way for big businesses from outside J&K to come in and take over vast chunks of land.

The Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950 and the Agrarian Reform Act of 1976 were always read together so that there was never a contradiction. These laws put a ceiling on land holdings to disallow a situation where the local population again turned into landless tillers. It had historical context and these safeguards were achieved after a long struggle. To call these laws which safeguarded the interests of a vast majority of people of J&K “old, regressive, intrinsically contradictory and outdated”, as this government has done to justify its action, is not only preposterous, it is factually incorrect. A comparison of J&K’s development indicators with Gujarat’s by economist Jean Dreze shows that these laws have contributed to the wellbeing of J&K’s population.

Quoting the data from Fourth National Family Health Survey and National Sample Survey registration system, Dreze compared the development indicators of Gujarat with J&K while it existed as a State with semi autonomy.  The Life expectancy at birth in Gujarat was 69, it was 74 in J&K.  Gujarat’s under five mortality rate was 33, it was 26 in J&K.  The total fertility rate (children per woman) in Gujarat was 2.2 while it was 1.7 in J&K.

The percentage of girls aged 15-19 with eight years of schooling in Gujarat was 75, while it was far better at 87 in J&K. The percentage of underweight children in Gujarat was 39 while it was 17 in J&K. The percentage of adult women with low BMI in Gujarat was 27 and it was 12 in J&K. The percentage of children fully immunized in Gujarat was 50 while it was 75 in J&K. The percentage of rural populations below the poverty line in Gujarat was 22 while it was only 12 in J&K.

This ceiling on landholding has been lifted with one single aim: to allow individuals, corporations, big businesses to buy or own large chunks of land.

In addition, the new law repeals the J&K Alienation of Land Act, which laid down that any land given to tillers couldn’t be sold. It could only be alienated through an elaborate process with a lot of checks and balances. Simply changing the title of the land wasn’t possible; more than 10 officials would check every record from the earliest girdawari before the land could be alienated by the divisional commissioner, the head of the civilian administration in the province. The process was deliberately made cumbersome to prevent the exploitation of the landless tillers empowered through the land reforms. It is amply clear that this law has been repealed to make selling of land very easy.

Hindu supremacist groups such as the Praja Parishad, which merged with the BJP’s precursor Jana Sangh in 1963, were vehemently against such land reforms because they empowered the Muslim peasantry and lower caste Hindu tillers of J&K, and freed them from the oppressive and exploitative clutches of Hindu feudal lords. In this light, the rollback of these land reforms by the BJP government’s Third Order of October 26, 2020 fulfils an agenda that the RSS has nurtured for the last seven decades. It also belies the last remaining reason put forth by Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference in 1947 to support J&K’s entry into Indian union. Kashmir has returned to a state that is more challenging than even in 1846.

The new land law similarly repeals the J&K Utilization of Land Act and the J&K Prohibition on Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act. These laws regulated the utilization of land and prevented changes in land use. The prohibition on conversion law didn’t allow for alienation of orchards except with the permission of the revenue minister. A violation of the law would attract penal provisions. Orchards are the backbone of Kashmir’s economy and the law was meant to safeguard them. Its repeal opens up orchard land for any other use.

The J&K Land Revenue Act was also amended to make it easier to convert agricultural use land to non-agricultural use. Such conversion couldn’t take place without the revenue minister’s permission earlier. Now, the deputy commissioner and, in some cases, the tehsildar can grant the permission. Similarly, the “grazing land, arak, kap or kah-i-krisham or which grows fuel or fodder and belongs to such class as is notified by the government can be used for any other purpose after the permission of the district collector”.

The J&K Common Lands Regulation Act, 1956 regulated common village lands. It has been repealed. The J&K Consolidation of Holdings Act, 1962, the J&K Prevention of Fragmentation of Agricultural Holdings Act, 1960, and the J&K Tenancy Stay of Ejectment Proceedings Act, 1966 -- all part of the land reforms -- have been repealed as well. The Tenancy Act safeguarded tenants from being ejected from their tenements.

The new land laws introduced a scheme exactly like the controversial Roshni programme under the now repealed Jammu and Kashmir State Lands Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants Act, 2001. “The Government may make rules for regularisation of unauthorised occupation, if any, arising on account of repeal of Acts…provided that such regularization may be permitted subject to payment of levy or fees to the Government at a rate not less than the fifty percent of the circle rate notified by the Government for such type of land in the particular area.” The scheme runs out on December 31, 2021.

The introduction of this scheme is especially ironic because the Roshni Act, which allowed the transfer of ownership rights of state land to its occupants, subject to the payment of a cost as determined by the government, was one of the first state laws repealed by then Governor Satyapal Malik after the BJP government imposed its direct rule in J&K.

The story of Roshni Act – a law introduced The Roshni Act in 2001 by J&K Legislative Assembly envisaged the transfer of ownership rights of state land to its occupants after the payment of a cost. The government said the revenue generated would be spent on commissioning hydroelectric power projects. The Sangh Parivar started falsely alleging that the  Muslims especially belonging to Gujjar and Bakerwal tribe and Muslims from Kashmir valley were the main beneficiary of this law. A vicious communal campaign was launched especially in Jammu. They even dubbed the Roshni scheme as “land Jihad”. Once the current BJP government brought J&K under their direct rule in 2018, one of the first actions taken by the then governor Satyapal Malik was to repeal the Roshni Act. Last year, the J&K High Court declared this law “unconstitutional” and “void ab initio from its very inception”, and ordered a CBI investigation into the illegal conduct of senior officials in implementing the law. The ruling BJP termed the High Court decision a “surgical strike on land Jihad” and vowed that its government will retrieve all the land transferred under this law. But once the lists of beneficiaries started to come out and it became clear that the major beneficiary of this scheme is in fact their own constituency, they sought a review of the High Court judgment. Subsequently, the affidavit filed by BJP government says that “large number of common people would suffer unintentionally”. The Sangh Parivar has now gone completely silent on Roshni.

The narrative around the “unauthorized occupation” of forest lands by the Muslim Gujjar and Bakerwal tribe in J&K too has fallen flat. Since the state of J&K had never implemented the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which is in vogue across India, these communities did not have ownership rights to the forestlands they have been living in for generations. The changes introduced on August 5, 2019, made this law that provides ownership rights to tribals and traditional forest dwellers on forest land applicable to J&K. The government made this law operational in J&K after a long wait but is still reluctant to implement it fully on ground. And the reason is the identity its main beneficiaries.

Immediately after the new land laws were introduced, the government claimed that 90 percent of land under agricultural use cannot be sold to outsiders. This was again obfuscation of truth. The new land laws have made the conversion of agricultural use land to non-agricultural use land very easy. At the same time, the continuous addition of Indian citizens to J&K’s domicile registry will make this land available to them. Lastly, the land under cultivation in J&K is very little. According to the 2011 Agriculture Census, the average size of agricultural landholdings in J&K was 0.62 hectares as compared to 1.15 hectares in India. The size of the landholdings was “even less in the Kashmir valley -- Anantnag (0.39 hectares), Kulgam (0.39), Shopian (0.56), Pulwama (0.48), Srinagar (0.31), Budgam (0.43), Baramulla (0.51), Ganderbal (0.37), Bandipora (0.48) and Kupwara (0.51)”. By the 2015-2016 agricultural census, the average size of agricultural landholdings in J&K had further dropped to 0.59 hectares.

The other Indian policy decisions with far-reaching consequences for J&K include the recent introduction of “strategic areas”, which, once notified, would be under the sole control of the Indian armed forces, who are no longer required to take permission from local civilian authorities to acquire land. The Indian forces can now declare any area in J&K as “strategic” and it will immediately become a no-go area for the local people. There is not a single area in J&K which does not have a substantial presence of the Indian armed forces.

Once the Indian forces were granted the right to take over land, practically at will, at least 16 pending requests for acquisition of 1,045 acres of land were immediately cleared, including 913 acres for building an ammunition dump. This process will now continue unhindered.

Approval was also given to the diversion of 243 hectares of forest land, including in the ecologically sensitive Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary, for the use by the Indian army and paramilitary forces.

What are the implications of these strategic areas? Say, the army were to declare that they need Lal Chowk, Residency Road and Polo View in Srinagar for operational purposes. The government can notify it as a Strategic Area and they can carry out any constructions they desire without hindrance. The modification to the J&K Development Act makes it particularly easy for the army to acquire land in places managed by development authorities such as Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam, Yusmarg, Bangus, Kokernag, Verinag, Aharbal, Peer ki Gali, Lolab-Bangus Drangyar, Wullar-Manasbal, and Doodhpathri in Kashmir, and similar authorities in Jammu province. The transfer of land away from a development authority is otherwise difficult; the transfer of land to hoteliers under the Roshni scheme in Gulmarg was illegal only because it had already been acquired by the Gulmarg Development Authority.

Another modification to the J&K Development Act portends equally grave consequences. A new provision added to the law allows for levying of land use charges after a master plan or a zonal plan is made operational in an area.

It means that even if you own a piece of land and have the right to use it as per your requirements, and once a master plan or zonal plan is made operational in the area, the government can charge you for using your own land.

The modifications to the J&K Development Act include the setting up of a new J&K Industrial Development Corporation. The aim of this corporation, the new law states, is “securing and assisting in the rapid and orderly establishment, and organization of industries…and for the purpose of establishing commercial centers”.

The new law provides sweeping powers to the government. It is literally AFSPA for civil administration. In fact, the industrial corporation is designed to be more powerful than even the East India Company in its heyday. It will have power “to acquire and hold such property, both movable and immovable as the Corporation may deem necessary for the performance of any of its activities, and to lease, sell, exchange or otherwise transfer any property held by it on such conditions as may be deemed proper by the Corporation”. It will also have power “to purchase by agreement or to take on lease or under any form of tenancy any land, to erect such buildings and to execute such other works as may be necessary for the purpose of carrying out its duties and functions”; and “to construct buildings for the housing of the employees of such industries or commercial establishments”.

The corporation will also exercise all the powers under the Jammu and Kashmir Town Planning Act, 1963; Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Act, 2000; and Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Corporation Act, 2000 on the land it has acquired.

The new law lays down that “whenever any land is required by the Corporation for any purpose in furtherance of the objects of this Act, but the Corporation is unable to acquire it by agreement”, the government will order acquisition of the land in the same manner it does if the land was needed for a public purpose.

The corporation’s functioning can’t be scrutinised by the courts. The law governing it states that no court can take cognizance of any offence related to the corporation’s property without its say-so. That’s not all. No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings can be initiated against any person (the officials of the corporation and the industries/businesses that function under its order) for anything which is “done or intended to be done in good faith”. And if there is a complaint, no suit can be filed against the corporation’s officials or the industries that function under its order for “anything done or purporting to have been done” under the law governing it without “two months' previous notice in writing of the intended suit and of the cause thereof and not after six months from the date of the act complained of”.

On the other hand, anybody who “obstructs the entry” of a person authorised by the corporation can be punished with six months of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000.

What does this mean? Say, the corporation wants to acquire an inhabited area and evict its population for a big company to set up their plant, or decides to take over cultivable land for some purpose. The owners of the land can’t do anything about it. There is no legal recourse available to them to prevent the corporation from acquiring all their private property.

The Indian government has been planning a major “investment summit” where top businesspeople would be invited to set up shop in J&K. It has already taken over 1,201 acres of state land at 37 places for industrial activity. Separately, 2,124 acres have been identified for industrial use by companies from outside J&K.

The idea is that setting up industrial units would help bring people from across India to work in J&K, and settle in secured settlements around the worksites. There are many business houses that are ideologically aligned with the ruling dispensation who will be ready to help with this project.

Under the Industrial Policy 2021-2030, put in motion in April this year, the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been split into 292 industrial zones, 142 of them in the Kashmir valley. This followed the introduction of another policy, the Industrial land Allotment Policy 2021-2030, which was issued in January with the aim to identify and create special land banks across J&K that would be offered to businesses for industrial activity. There are incentives for this activity. Of these special industrial zones, 27 are to be set up along the Line of Control.

Relatedly, the government recently gave contracts to mine sand and boulders from rivers and streams in two districts of Kashmir to contractors from outside J&K.

There is also a recently unveiled housing policy that will enable the government to bring in private developers. There is a plan to construct two hundred thousand houses primarily for slum dwellers. This new housing policy also provides special exemption from building permit fee, land use conversion and external development charges. These dwelling unit will be available on licence basis for occupation and use for a particular period on making an initial deposit and monthly charges. There are hardly any slums in J&K and the homeless are negligible in number. In its 2012 annual report, the Reserve Bank of India provided a poverty ratio on the basis of Tendulkar poverty line. According to this report, the poverty ratio in J&K was 10.35 percent against the national average of 21.92 percent.  According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census conducted by India’s rural development ministry in 2011, the number of households that didn’t have a house in J&K was 2,518 – 2,318 in rural areas and 263 in urban areas. The corresponding all-India figure was 2,54,505 households, 1,57,475 of them in rural areas and 97,030 in urban areas. The report also states that at “all-India level, 73,296 households are houseless with shelter and 23,684 households without shelter” while in J&K, “the corresponding figure is 189 households and 74 households respectively”.

In March (2021), Indian government allotted 62 acres (496 kanal, 17 marla) of its land to the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams (TTD) trust to build a temple and allied pilgrim infrastructure in Jammu. The Trust has to pay Rs 4960 (67 US dollars) annual rent for this land. 

Read together, all the decisions related to Kashmir that New Delhi has taken on and after August 5, 2019 reveal one startling fact: that the singular aim of this project is to alter the demographic reality of J&K, and quickly, thereby permanently changing the facts on the ground.

All this was done while Kashmir was silenced by force. First, a total lockdown and communications blackout was enforced. Almost every political worker of note, from both pro-India and pro-freedom camps, was detained. While the crackdown against pro-freedom parties was widespread, with their members booked under stringent anti-terror laws and sent to jails outside J&K, the Indian government dismantled the entire pro-India political structure, which its predecessors had nurtured over the last seven decades. Even after their release, several of these leaders were placed under house arrest through verbal orders so that they couldn’t challenge the Indian government in courts. Many among them were forced to sign bonds that they would not carry out any political activity if they were released.

Today, any expression of opinion, any criticism of the government on social media leads to a police case. The curbs on journalists are especially strict. Two journalists were booked under an anti-terrorism law earlier this year for their work, another was booked for publishing a statement by a pro-freedom group, and a journalist was charged with incitement to violence for his reportage. Journalists are routinely summoned to police stations and questioned about their work. The condition of the local press is dire. Dependent on government advertisements for survival, several newspapers have stopped reporting the situation and instead reproduce government statements. India’s federal anti-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency, has questioned the editors and owners of two prominent local newspapers and raided and searched the home of a senior journalist.

An Orwellian “media policy” aimed at thwarting independent journalism was recently introduced. The policy’s stated goal is to create a “sustained narrative on the functioning of the [Indian] government in media”. It empowers Indian officials to monitor newspapers and other media for fake news, ‘anti-social’ or ‘anti-national reporting’ and journalists or media organisations that are deemed to have violated the policy would be de-empanelled and denied government advertisements, and face legal action. The policy states that “J&K has significant law and order and security considerations” and “has been fighting a proxy war supported and abetted from across the border”, so “it is extremely important that the efforts of anti-social and anti-national elements to disturb the peace are thwarted”.

Surveillance of social media is pervasive. When a young lawyer criticised a court ruling sanctioning the detention without trial for almost a year of a prominent lawyer, he was summoned to a police station and questioned for hours.

The courts, meanwhile, have sat on habeas corpus petitions endlessly. Even India’s Supreme Court has shown little urgency to hear the challenge against the removal of J&K’s semi-autonomy. So far, it has only decided whether the case should be heard by a bench of five judges or seven. The last hearing of the case took place in January last year.

The Indian government has used the coronavirus pandemic as a cover to hasten the implementation of its project in Kashmir. The lockdown and uncertainty have devastated Kashmir’s already struggling economy, leading to widespread joblessness. The clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh has added yet another dimension to the conflict. Pakistan was already a party to the dispute, now China has publicly opposed India’s moves in the region as well, especially in Ladakh. This means Kashmir is now a source of conflict between three nuclear powers.

This is why the Indian government’s offer of an olive branch to Kashmir’s pro-India political camp – especially those who have opposed its unilateral decision to strip J&K of its semi-autonomy and downgrade it into two union territories ruled directly from New Delhi – by inviting them for a high-level meeting with the Modi on June 24 is important. These parties, which don’t question India’s sovereignty over J&K but want it to be an autonomous state, have been humiliated since August 5, 2019. Their coalition – the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration – was derogatorily nicknamed “Gupkar Gang” by the Indian government and accused of being “anti-national”, “corrupt” and “nepotist”.  Several cases were slapped on its leaders and workers to keep them under severe and constant pressure.

That New Delhi has called this meeting with the pro-India political camp of J&K is a clear indication that the Sangh Parivar’s Kashmir project has run up against some roadblocks. On ground, the outreach isn’t seen as a “change of heart” on New Delhi’s part but a shift in strategy. The widespread public outrage against New Delhi’s moves on and after August 5, 2019 too doesn’t seem to be a reason for this step because it only feeds into the ruling dispensation’s Hindu majoritarian political outlook. What’s the motivation then?

It has become evident that New Delhi needs to install a “local political face” in J&K to avoid bumps in the road as it pushes to achieve the larger strategic goals behind the decisions of August 5, 2019. So this policy shift can be tactical, designed to manoeuvre around the roadblocks while staying on course to acieve strategic and ideological goals. In this context, what the pro-India political camp, especially the PAGD, agrees to during this process which will begin with this meeting, will have far-reaching consequences.

This sudden shift is also being seen in the backdrop of regional and global developments since August 5. Those who suggest the current international situation in and around the region have influenced this move give several examples to buttress their argument. China has already entered the arena and has been consistently and publicly opposing New Delhi’s moves in J&K. After violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh, the Line of Actual Control is tense. There’s a new regime in the United States and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is now a reality. There’s every likelihood that the Taliban will be back in power in Kabul. The US urgently needs bases in Pakistan to keep an eye on Afghanistan after the withdrawal and it is trying hard to convince Islamabad. All of this, they say, has produced an intersection of sorts where the big powers, especially the US, want reasonable stability in India-Pakistan relations and the calming of tempers in South Asia. In fact, a senior US State Department official recently said they want the Modi government to quickly return normalcy in Kashmir. The UAE has been facilitating back-channel talks between New Delhi and Islamabad with Washington’s blessings for some time now.

Over the last several months, Pakistan has taken several reconciliatory steps towards India. It imposed an unconditional ceasefire along the Line of Control which was an advantage for New Delhi at a time when tensions along the LAC with China were rising. The Pakistani leadership has muted criticism of India’s prime minister and the BJP, and especially stopped comparing them with the Nazis. Cross-border infiltration is almost zero, as the J&K police and other Indian security agencies have publicly admitted. Save one recent instance, there has been no encounter involving non-local militants in the last eight months or so. Islamabad has provided some relief to India in the case of Kulbhushan Jadav, a former Indian navy officer who Islamabad says is a RAW agent involved in terror attacks inside Pakistan.

Is New Delhi’s shift on Kashmir an outcome of the changed regional and global power dynamics and the talks facilitated by the UAE? If these steps taken by Islamabad are indeed an outcome of the back-channel talks facilitated by the UAE, what reconciliatory measures has New Delhi agreed to take to reciprocate? The answers to these questions will become apparent once the purpose and contours of the meeting called by Modi are known.

But if New Delhi doesn’t address the main concerns of the people and instead limits its outreach to bring J&K’s pro-India camp on board in lieu of the restoration of a truncated state, it will only mean that there has not been a rethink on the Indian government’s Kashmir policy. It will be seen as a mere ploy to prop up local political faces to normalise the devastating changes effected with the scrapping of J&K’s semi-autonomy. On the other side, even if J&K’s local pro-India parties, which have been opposing New Delhi’s unilateral decisions on and after August 5, 2019, submit to this new scheme, it won’t dent the public alienation with New Delhi. It will, in fact, delegitimize these parties further, paving for the public anger to eventually explode.

The views, perspectives and opinions presented in this piece are the author's own. For more details, please consult our Editorial Disclaimer at the bottom of every page on this platform.

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About the Contributor

Muzamil Jaleel is a Kashmiri journalist who has been reporting and writing for more than 25 years. He is currently Deputy Editor at The Indian Express.