Uproar in Kashmir as India allows voting rights to non-locals

Any Indian citizen living temporarily in the disputed Muslim-majority region can be enlisted as a voter – a move that has outraged the Kashmiris.

Kashmir election
Until August 5, 2019, voting rights in Indian-administered Kashmir were restricted to its permanent residents [File: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters]

India’s decision to allow voting rights to any Indian citizen living temporarily in Indian-administered Kashmir has again ignited anger and fears of yet another attempt by the Hindu nationalist government to change the demography of its only Muslim-majority region.

The move, announced on Wednesday by the federally controlled territory’s top electoral officer, is expected to add about 2.5 million more voters on top of the 7.6 million existing voters – a whopping 30 percent increase.

The new voters would include Indians temporarily residing in the region, mainly Indian military personnel, government and private sector employees, and migrant workers.

“All those not enlisted as voters earlier are eligible to vote after the abrogation of Article 370,” Hirdesh Kumar said, adding that the provisions of the Representation of the People Act – the law that deals with the conduct of elections in India – also applies to the region.

Until August 2019, voting rights in Indian-administered Kashmir were restricted to its permanent residents only, guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution that gave the disputed region – also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan – limited autonomy. The law forbid Indians from outside the region from permanently settling, buying land and holding local government jobs.

On August 5 that year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, two months after having won a landslide re-election, unilaterally stripped the region of its special status by abrogating the decades-old law and dividing the region into two federally controlled territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

It was only the beginning of a series of laws and government moves that residents say aim to crush a popular movement for either an independent state or a merger with Pakistan. Kashmiris say the scrapping of Article 370 and subsequent legal moves are aimed at changing the region’s demography.

In the years since, the Indian government has introduced a controversial domicile law that grants citizenship rights to every Indian living in the region for more than 15 years. New laws making every Indian citizen eligible to buy land in the region were also passed.

Kumar on Wednesday said there is no need for an Indian citizen to have a domicile certificate or to be a permanent resident to get enlisted as a voter in Indian-administered Kashmir.

“Any employee, a student, a labourer, or anyone else ordinarily residing in Jammu and Kashmir can become a voter now,” he said.

According to the 2011 census, of the 12.5 million total population in Indian-administered Kashmir, Muslims comprise 68.31 percent and Hindus 28.43 percent. More than seven million of these residents live in the valley, 97 percent of them Muslims.

‘Israel policy’

Kashmiri politicians and India’s opposition parties have condemned the government’s new election rules.

Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, described the move as the “last nail in the coffin of electoral democracy” in the region.

“They (government) want to fraudulently bring 2.5 million voters and install some fascist rulers. They want to make demographic changes,” Mufti said.

The 63-year-old politician said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government wanted to implement a “Nazi Germany or Israel policy” in Kashmir.

“Hitler inflicted extreme sufferings on Jews but he could not erase the Jews and the same is with Israel. No matter how much they suppress the Palestinians, they cannot erase them or their resolve. The BJP’s evil designs would not succeed,” Mufti said.

Mufti’s coalition government with the BJP fell in 2018. Since then, Indian-administered Kashmir is without an elected government and is being ruled directly by New Delhi through a handpicked administrator.

Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister of the region, accused the BJP of importing voters to win seats.

“Is the BJP so insecure about support from genuine voters of (Jammu and Kashmir) that it needs to import temporary voters to win seats? None of these things will help the BJP when the people of J&K are given a chance to exercise their franchise,” he tweeted.

Some experts described the government’s decision to add outsiders to the voting list in the region as the BJP’s “final solution in the Kashmir dispute”.

India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh had said in July 2019 – days before Article 370 was scrapped – that “the final resolution of Kashmir” was on the cards and “no power on Earth can stop it”.

Redrawing of electoral map

In May this year, Modi’s government announced a new electoral map for the region which the residents said was aimed at disenfranchising and disempowering them.

The new map increased the number of assembly seats in the Hindu-majority Jammu area by six from 37 to 43, while the Muslim-majority Kashmir part of the region received just one more: 47 in place of 46.

Experts said the move was skewed in favour of the Hindu-majority Jammu and accused the government of violating the universal criteria of considering the population of the area in drawing electoral seats.

For the last seven decades, Indian-administered Kashmir was ruled by Kashmir-based political parties and has had a Muslim chief minister who enjoyed political dominance over the region. However, since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s government has promised its supporters a Hindu chief minister there.

While the BJP has not won a single seat in the valley yet, the party enjoys considerable influence in the Hindu-majority areas of the Jammu region where it won 25 of 37 assembly seats in the 2014 elections.

Since then, the right-wing party has attempted to make inroads into the Muslim-majority valley. With this latest move, experts say the BJP is closer to its agenda than ever.

The process of updating electoral rolls for the upcoming assembly elections, likely to be held next year, has begun, with a final list expected to be out in November.

Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri
Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri Shia Muslim for participating in Muharram procession in Srinagar [File: Mukhtar Khan/AP]

‘Settler colonialism’

A Kashmiri political analyst, who refused to be identified fearing reprisals, told Al Jazeera the decision to bring in more voters has “shaken the Kashmiris and the next move could be to ask them to leave their homes”.

“It will ensure complete disempowerment of the Muslim community. Already through many laws, they have been turned into a political minority,” said the analyst.

Mohamad Junaid, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera the government’s “eventual goal is forced demographic change, dispossession of Kashmiris and the erasure of Kashmiri as a political identity”.

“The Indian government’s moves fit the classic methods of settler colonialism where rights are offered to non-native settlers through executive fiat and not based on the democratic choice of the Indigenous people. Over the last three years, every single decision on Kashmir has been taken from New Delhi without the consent of Kashmir’s people,” he said.

Junaid said the latest decision to allow residents in the region to vote in local elections is driven by the BJP’s agenda to “manufacture a BJP-led regime in Kashmir that can formally endorse the August 5, 2019 decision to revoke autonomy and split the historical state of Jammu and Kashmir”.

“This is unprecedented in Kashmir’s history,” he said. “While foreign regimes have ruled Kashmir, they have not generally sought to replace the native people with a new population.”

Source: Al Jazeera