First Person | Closer to Precipice

The new law on domicile status will only further the separatist sentiment in Kashmir

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

As the nation hunkered down under the lockdown, several members of the government, led by the Prime Minister himself, made news either for their actions or comments. These comments ranged from advising people to consume certain kinds of food and beverages to combat the Corona virus; do specific yoga postures to ensure suppleness of mind and body; or watch a television show for spiritual uplift, and while doing so post a selfie on social media for the entertainment of the bored and the unemployed minister.

Missing in news and out of the public view was home minister Amit Shah, purportedly the most important person in the government after the prime minister. This led to speculation that probably the minister was not keeping well. As it turned out, he was probably the only one working; burning the midnight oil, so to say. The evidence: on April 1, the government notified new rules to determine the domicile status of people in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

Under the new law, which comes into effect immediately, anyone who has lived in the state for 15 years, or has studied there for seven years including taking class X and XII examinations, or is a child of a government official who has served in the state for 10 years is eligible for domicile status. In other words, the person will be regarded as equivalent to the resident of the state. Additionally, anyone who has the status of a migrant under Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrants) will also be considered a ‘domicile’ of the state.

Until 5 August 2019, when government of India revoked Article 370 and Article 35A, residency status in the state was determined purely on birth and ancestry. It was such a tenuous possession that it could be lost, in case of a woman, by marriage to a non-resident. This was something akin to certain minority religions, Parsi for instance, where until 2017 when the Supreme Court intervened, the woman, upon marriage to a non-Parsi, lost all her community benefits including the right to enter the Fire Temples and cremation in Parsi cemetery.

To an outsider, the Kashmiri obsession with the permanent residency status appeared both xenophobic and parochial. However, the truth is that it was driven by the primeval instincts of self-preservation and pragmatism. Living in a small area with limited resources, the locals had a very real fear of being overwhelmed by outsiders. Also, the residency status ensured that they wouldn’t have to compete with better qualified/ trained outsiders for the state government jobs, as these would be available only to the permanent residents. In a state with minimal industry and overwhelming dependence on seasonal trade – tourism, horticulture, handicraft etc – only a government job gave the permanence of income and security, apart from prestige. Incidentally, this exclusive residency rules, which flowed from ‘J&K state subject law’ of 1927 was enacted by Maharaja Hari Singh. He wanted to ensure that the state was not overrun by traders and business people coming from the mainland.

Like everything else, the new government notification has roughshod over all these insecurities. In effect what it means is that all government of India bureaucrats of the Kashmir cadre and their children can chose to become residents of Kashmir. As residents, they will be eligible for all state government employment. There is no clarity as of now whether these people with domicile status would be eligible to own land as well. But given the protests by all Kashmiri political parties, including the new-fangled New Delhi creation Apni Party, the fear that outsiders will come and swarm the state with their purchasing power is very real.

The government’s motives are not suspect, as some Kashmiri politicians are quaintly putting it. They are clear. They want to subsume the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the union of India. That’s the leftover Partition business which the Modi government is obliged to finish. And finish it will, given its majority in Parliament and control over the nationalistic narrative outside.

Seen dispassionately, this is the natural progression of the August 5 action, just as delimitation of constituencies – an exercise that has begun — would be. Yet, the truth is, the government is operating in a vacuum. It still doesn’t have a grip over either the ground situation in the Valley, nor the sentiment. This can be gauged by three factors.

One, even after six months, some restrictions still remain in place in the Valley. The majority of political prisoners remain incarcerated. The Abdullahs of the National Conference were released primarily because of the impending hearing in the Supreme Court on the petition filed by a family member. Moreover, releasing them means little at the moment, because the Valley is in any case under lockdown because of Covid-19. Even after the lockdown is lifted, the political activity will remain limited for many months. Who says Omar Abdullah cannot be arrested again?

Two, for all its efforts of six months, the government could only manage to get discredited light-weight politicians on its side to build a new political beast, Apni Party. It had to do this because the BJP in the Valley failed to take-off despite government spending a lot of money. The truth is, while money plays a big role in Indian politics, it is still only a force multiplier. Without mass base/ support, it cannot go far.

Three, despite the overwhelming presence of the army in the state, on the Line of Control (LC) and hinterland; and infusion of additional battalions of the central armed police forces like the CRPF and ITBP, violence and fear of violence remains. In the last six months, several incidents of infiltration have occurred on the LC, many of which were foiled, but by army’s own admission, some were successful. Similarly, there have been several low-level IED attacks in the hinterland.

However, unlike in the past, low level of violence does not provide the comfort it used to, as the state has no sense of the street any longer. Because of the restrictions, first imposed by the government, then by the people and now by the global pandemic, an average Kashmiri has made peace with living indoors; going out only when absolutely necessary. This has curtailed gossip and, consequently, the flow of information. The government is conscious of this fact. It knows that absence of violence does not mean absence of hostility.

Most importantly, violence is not the main problem in the Kashmir Valley. Violence is a mere manifestation of the main problem, which is the sentiment of separateness. Even before the insurgency began, an average Kashmiri was convinced that she was not an Indian citizen in the sense a person from the mainland was. Indian nationalism in Kashmir was an acquired sensibility, not something that came naturally. All that the insurgency did was open the possibility of realising that sentiment; with Pakistan’s help.

As long as this sentiment remains, Kashmir cannot be a part of India; government laws notwithstanding. All that the new law on domicile status would do is render the Kashmiri even more powerless, as a large number of government employment would now go to non-Kashmiris as they will be able to compete better. For years, Kashmiris in government employment were seen as New Delhi’s people in the Valley, the executors of Centre’s writ, but also its bridge to the people. With their depleting number, the sense of being ruled from New Delhi would only intensify. And separateness would grow further.

Despite August 5, the government can still start the process of political resolution by starting talks with both the people of Kashmir and Pakistan. After all, all that the revocation of Article 370 has done is remove the illusion of separateness. Perhaps, with the illusion gone, talks can be more meaningful and result-oriented.

But for that to happen government has to replace agenda with a policy. And brute force with understanding.


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