Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – The Indian government has announced a new set of laws for Indian-administered Kashmir, including domicile rights for Indian citizens, that experts and residents fear will alter the demographic status of the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.
Under the new law, those who have resided for a period of 15 years in Indian-administered Kashmir or studied for a period of seven years and appeared in Class 10/12 examinations in educational institutions located in the region are now eligible to become permanent residents.
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The announcement came nearly eight months after the Indian government stripped the disputed region of its limited autonomy that had protected the region for decades from demographic changes.
‘Worry the Kashmiris’
The new law announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs also provided domicile status to the children of central government officials who have served in Indian-administered Kashmir for a total period of 10 years.
The notification by India’s Hindu nationalist government comes as the country of 1.3 billion people is under a 21-day lockdown due to coronavirus fears.
The government changed the geographical and political status of the Indian-administered Kashmir region on August 5 after it abrogated Article 370 – a law that restricted rights over jobs, scholarships and land to the permanent residents of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Subsequently, the Muslim-majority region was divided into two federally-administered territories with little power vested in the hands of the local people to decide their future.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had justified the stripping of the region’s special status saying it will bring development.
Retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, who has challenged the abrogation of Article 370 in the Supreme Court, said it is “a permanent resident by stealth”. “It should worry the Kashmiris.”
“The effect of this notification would be felt in [the] Jammu [region] because there are not many people who have come into Kashmir in the last 15 years,” he told Al Jazeera.
While the law has triggered fear among Kashmiris about the “permanent settlements by the outsiders”, the experts say it will lead to “demographic flooding”.
“It is a lot to circumvent the law. I think it illustrates clearly that some will not stop from politicking during coronavirus,” Siddiq Wahid, a political analyst based in Indian-administered Kashmir told Al Jazeera, referring to the current coronavirus crisis.
“Obviously it is an attempt to change the demographics, not only change but flood it. It will lead to demographic flooding,” Wahid said.
He said the change of law “is much larger than [the issue of jobs]”. “I am not even thinking about jobs.”
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, professor of legal studies based in the region, said: “It was in the offing.”
“The whole purpose of revoking Article 370 was to settle outsiders here and change the demography of the state. Now this provides the modalities and entitles so many categories of Indians whose settlement will be legalised over here.”
But the leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) justified the step, saying it will secure jobs only for the domiciles of the region.
“We have been pitching for it. Everyone in Jammu and Kashmir is happy, let people who live here for 15 years get the benefits, no other outsiders will get it,” said Ashok Kaul, the general secretary for the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to the new law, jobs up to the lowest level of non-gazetted rank are reserved for Jammu and Kashmir domiciles.
Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and a pro-Indian politician who was recently released after seven months of detention, criticised the government for bringing in the law when the focus should be on fighting the current pandemic.
“Talk about suspect timing. At a time when all our efforts and attention should be focused on the #COVID outbreak the government slips in anew domicile law for J&K. Insult is heaped on injury when law offers none of the protections that had been promised.”
‘To protect Kashmir’s unique identity’
Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender based in the region, said: “By virtue of this order, outsiders are also going to be the claimants of jobs in Jammu and Kashmir, which already has a huge unemployment problem. This is an act against the interests of unemployed youth.”
The right-wing BJP has been opposed to the special status given to Indian-administered Kashmir in 1947 when British India was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Pakistan as land for Muslims. But Kashmir’s status could not be decided at the time as its then-Hindu ruler signed an Instrument of Accession with India, with New Delhi granting it a measure of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and right to make laws.
Prime Minister Modi made the abrogation of Article 370 as one of his poll planks in the 2019 elections that he won by a landslide.
Rakesh Sinha, BJP leader and member of the upper house of Parliament, denied it was an attempt to change the demography of the state.
“There is an attempt to spread rumours about altering the demography of the state,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
“To protect Kashmir’s unique identity is our moral and constitutional obligation. Identity of the northeast is protected and so is that of Kashmir so that the uniqueness of their culture remains protected.”
Akash Bisht contributed from New Delhi