While public attention is focused on COVID-19, Jammu and Kashmir suffers twin lockdowns, rising violence and unilateral government actions, all at the same time. In the 12 months since the Narendra Modi administration returned to office, their Kashmir policy has comprised measures that are perceived as disasters in the Valley, garner mixed reactions in Jammu and Ladakh, and are welcomed by some in the rest of India.
Also read: Domicile rules for J&K
A clear bias
The latest of these actions is the new domicile rules, notified on May 18, 2020. Based on the Home Ministry’s order of March 31, these rules seek to replace the Jammu and Kashmir State subjects law, recognised under Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which entitled permanent residents of the State to free education along with reservation of government jobs, and sole rights to land ownership.
The new domicile rules entitle anyone who has worked or lived in the State for 15 years, or studied there for seven years, to receive a domicile certificate and the benefits previously reserved for permanent residents. Curiously, they also entitle Union government officials who have served in the State for 10 years to domicile, along with their non-resident children, and list the categories of those eligible: members of the Indian Administrative Services (including those working in statutory bodies), public sector units and banks, central universities and ‘recognised research institutes of the Central government (sic)’.
The clear bias to favour not only Union government officials but also their children smacks of instating privileges that many State and Union governments began to do away with as civil service salaries rose in the early 2000s, and the demographic pressure on urban spaces mounted. That this bias continues to exist in some parts of the country is shameful for any democracy; that it has been imposed on Jammu and Kashmir without the acquiescence of its elected leaders is an absolute violation.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesmen argue that the new domicile rules were necessary since many marginalised groups were denied their rights under the State subject law, such as refugees from west Pakistan. The argument is ill-founded. What prevented the Modi administration from expanding the permanent resident category to include these groups, without doing away with it altogether? How can it possibly be necessary for 12 million people to reapply for domicile when the groups to benefit number a few lakhs?
Ruling party spokesmen ask what the fuss is about, when their intent was stated in the party manifesto and followed through by the President and Parliament of India. They ignore the fact that the presidential orders and Reorganisation Act of August 2019, including all actions that follow from them, are under constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. A democratic government that upholds the rule of law would freeze implementation until the court rules, but the Modi administration proceeded to build facts on the ground with astonishing rapidity.
Within months of the August announcements, separate committees were set up to divide Jammu and Kashmir’s assets between the two new Union Territories. The State police was put under direct rule by the Union Home Ministry. The Upper House of the Assembly was abolished. Land was requisitioned for sale to industry, national tourist conglomerates were invited to take over what was a flourishing local industry, and mining rights were sold to non-Kashmiri contractors. All the former State’s statutory bodies were dissolved, including the State Human Rights Commission. Power was concentrated in the hands of the Lieutenant-Governor and his advisers, all but one of whom were from outside the former State.
The Jammu and Kashmir Legislature remains dissolved, many of its political leaders remain under detention and forbidden to speak, a ban remains in force on all public gatherings and the media are intimidated. Even so, protest against the new domicile rules has been voiced by all political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, except the BJP. Indications are that their protests will be ignored. BJP General-Secretary Ram Madhav calls the new domicile rules a done deal, implying that the Modi administration will not review them (Indian Express, “It is time to allow J&K full-fledged political activity”, May 21, 2020).
Fall of the last bastion
Most people in Jammu and Kashmir saw Article 35A and the State subject law as the last remaining bastion of the State’s internal autonomy, guaranteed under the instrument of accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh. Successive Union governments chipped away at the former State’s powers, but none touched Article 35A or the State subject law. Gradually the two grew to be inextricably tied to Kashmiri identity and, equally importantly, Kashmiri empowerment through education and employment. As armed insurgency rose in the 1990s, many Kashmiri political leaders raised fears of an Indian intention to alter the demography of the Muslim-majority Valley and several Jammu districts.
Until 2019, these fears seemed a bogey to intensify Kashmiri alienation. However, the August 2019 nullification of autonomy and division of the State, which overrode the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir and dismissed Article 35A, turned the bogey into an immediate threat which the domicile rules have now actualised.
With the fall of this last bastion, disaffection has exponentially multiplied in Jammu and Kashmir. Armed encounters are on the rise and the security situation is extremely fragile. Blaming it on Pakistan is futile. Pakistan has always taken advantage of disaffection in the Valley, indeed China is now doing so too. As a result of the Modi administration’s Kashmir policy, India will have to face mounting security threats on its western front, and the people of Jammu and Kashmir the systematic denial of their rights. Are we really ready to pay this price for a mere ideological shibboleth?
Radha Kumar’s latest book is ‘Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir’