Eyes on the prize

BJP’s moves could facilitate Jammu & Kashmir getting a Hindu chief minister

INDIA-PAKISTAN-KASHMIR-UNREST Uncertain road: A rider showing his ID card to security personnel in Srinagar on August 12 | AFP

A SENSE OF loss and indignation has gripped Kashmir. With the Union government scrapping Article 370 of the Constitution, Jammu and Kashmir has been stripped of its special status. Outsiders can now buy land, apply for government jobs and participate in assembly polls.

The state has been bifurcated into two Union territories—Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a legislative assembly, and Ladakh, which will not have one. All Central laws will apply to the two UTs, and there would be no separate constitution or flag, as had been the case earlier.

The immediate beneficiaries of the development are West Pakistan Refugees, or the families that had migrated from Pakistan to Jammu during the partition of India in 1947. There are now 50,000 such WPRs in Jammu. They are not officially recognised as residents, but are allowed to vote in Lok Sabha elections. With Jammu and Kashmir becoming a Union territory, they will be allowed to vote in and contest all elections.

The move will also benefit women who married persons from outside the state. Article 35A, which allowed the state government to define permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir, had barred them from inheriting ancestral property, seeking government jobs and participating in elections. The scrapping of Article 370 has voided Article 35A as well, giving succession rights to these women and their children.

The move, however, has evoked conflicting responses in the three administrative divisions of the region: Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hindu-dominated Jammu, and Ladakh, which is 46 per cent Muslim and 44 per cent Buddhist. The feeling in Kashmir is that the abrogation of the article reflects the BJP’s plan to change the demography of India’s only Muslim-majority state. Many believe the BJP will help outsiders settle in Kashmir.

The recently passed Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act allows for the creation of seven more assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir through delimitation. The assembly had earlier decided to freeze delimitation till 2026. The changes being planned have increased the chances of Jammu and Kashmir getting a Hindu chief minister.

“I was wrong to believe in the secular credentials of India,” Shahnawaz, a resident of Srinagar, told THE WEEK. “I feel so humiliated and hurt. I would have taken up guns had I been younger.”

Despite the simmering resentment, no major protests have been held, except for a big protest at Soura in Srinagar on August 9. Some protesters in downtown Srinagar who clashed with security forces suffered pellet wounds, and a boy jumped into a river amid the clashes. Other than that, no casualties have been reported.

Most Kashmiris learned about the abrogation through Doordarshan, the only news channel that was accessible during the clampdown. Lawyers are aghast at the manner in which the BJP bifurcated the state. “Only the J&K constituent assembly had the power to abrogate Article 370,” said a lawyer. “The constituent assembly was dissolved without abrogating Article 370. Parliament cannot assume the role of the constituent assembly, nor can the governor [alone] represent the state. So this process is constitutionally untenable.”

Residents of Jammu have largely welcomed the decision, though they fear losing jobs and businesses to outsiders. Gagan Bhagat, former legislator from R.S. Pura, had last year told THE WEEK that he would launch an agitation if Article 35A was removed. “Unlike Kashmir, people don’t debate it in Jammu. I am launching a campaign to make them aware about the dangers of removing Article 35A,” he said.

But even now, not everyone is averse to outsiders coming in. “They should be allowed to live in Jammu and Kashmir, just as we are allowed to do so in other parts of India,” said Itti Magotra, a resident of Jammu. “They will bring investment and help develop our economy.”

Muslims in Jammu, however, fear that the scrapping of the special status will make their lives difficult. Nadeem Ahmed Mir, a resident of Rajouri district and president of the J&K Pahari Movement, said Muslims in the Chenab valley and Pir Panjal will suffer the most. “It will pose an existential threat to us,” he said.

In Ladakh, the decision has widened the rift between the two districts in the division—the Muslim-majority Kargil and the Buddhist-dominated Leh. Early this year, the state government had decided to establish the offices of the divisional commissioner and the inspector-general of police in Leh. Fearing that Leh would become politically dominant, residents of Kargil launched an agitation demanding that the offices be rotated between the two districts. The agitation was called off only after the demand was met.

On August 8, around 300 protesters of the All Party Joint Action Committee, an alliance of political and religious parties in Kargil, took out a protest against the abrogation of Article 370. At least 20 people were detained for defying restrictions.

The Buddhists of Leh have long been demanding that Ladakh be made a Union territory. The BJP’s promise to meet their demand had helped the party win the lone Lok Sabha constituency in the division by 34 votes in 2014, and by around 11,000 votes in 2019. With the party now delivering on its promise, Ladakhis are both happy and wary—they fear that Ladakh is more vulnerable to demographic changes than Jammu and Kashmir.