SRINAGAR, India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is changing Indian Kashmir’s residency laws for the first time since 1947, in a bid to snuff out any challenge to the disputed territory belonging to India.
Drawing comparisons with Israel’s “settler” tactics in the Palestinian Territories, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government aims to change the demographic makeup and identity of the Muslim-majority region, critics say.
AFP looks at the background, what the new rules are and their implications for the area’s 14 million population.
The Himalayan former princely state has been split between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947.
In the Indian-administered part a conflict between separatist rebels and government forces has killed tens of thousands since 1989, mostly civilians.
More than 65 percent of the population is Muslim. In the Kashmir Valley, the main center of the rebellion, it is close to 100 percent.
On August 5, 2019 Modi’s government revoked articles in the Indian constitution that guaranteed Kashmir’s partial autonomy and other rights including its own flag and constitution.
A huge accompanying security operation saw tens of thousands of extra troops — adding to 500,000 already there — enforce a siege-like curfew. Thousands were arrested and telecommunications were cut for months.
Jammu & Kashmir state was demoted to a union territory governed directly from New Delhi, while the Ladakh region was carved out into a separate administrative area.
Creating such new “facts on the ground” in Kashmir has long been advocated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hard-line Hindu parent organization to Modi’s BJP party.
The move sent a further shudder through India’s 200-million Muslim minority and defenders of its secular traditions, who fear Modi wants to create a Hindu nation — something he denies.
“What I see unfolding is a Hindu settler colonial project in the making,” Mona Bhan, associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse University who has long researched Kashmir, told AFP.
Modi’s government tore up Kashmir’s special residence rules dating back to 1927 which had ensured only permanent residents could own land and property, secure government jobs and university places and vote in local elections.
Now a raft of different categories of people from anywhere in India can apply for domicile certificates, giving them access to all the above.
These include those living in Kashmir for 15 years, who include around 28,000 refugees who fled Pakistan and as many as 1.75 million migrant laborers — most of whom are Hindus.
In addition, civil servants who have worked in Kashmir for seven years and their children, or students who have taken certain exams, also qualify for domicile status.
The changes are “the most drastic imposed since 1947,” Siddiq Wahid, a historian and political analyst, told AFP. “It was done with the intent to open the gates to demographic flooding.”
Locals too now have to apply for the new “domicile certificates” in order to qualify for permanent resident rights.
To get this, they have to produce their Permanent Resident Certificates (PRC), cherished documents valid since 1927, which then become worthless.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, an engineering graduate said young Kashmiris were in effect being forced to give their political loyalty to India in exchange for a livelihood.
“They say, you want a job, OK, get the domicile document first,” he said.
A few people. Bahadur Lal Prajapati, born in Indian Kashmir to Hindu refugees who fled Pakistan during its first war with India over Kashmir seven decades ago, is finally an official resident and has “never been so happy.”
“We got the right to live in this part of India as citizens after 72 years of struggle,” Prajapati, 55, told AFP from his home in Jammu, the Hindu-dominated district of the region.
One of the first people to receive the new domicile certificate was Navin Kumar Choudhary, a top bureaucrat from the Indian state of Bihar who worked in Kashmir for many years.
Photos on social media of Choudhary proudly holding the certificate sparked huge anger among Kashmiris but delight among Modi’s supporters.
Some 430,000 new domicile certificates have been issued — despite the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear how many of them are to people from outside and how many to locals.
Many locals are refusing to swap their old documents, even though this makes life harder. Some do it in secret for fear of censure from their neighbors.
Wary of being labelled “anti-national” by the authorities many Kashmiris are also scared to speak out openly. Some are deleting their Twitter accounts.
“It’s a travesty that I have to compete with outsiders for citizenship rights in my own homeland,” said a student — who also wished also to remain anonymous out of fear of problems with the authorities.