Saturday marks four years of India scrapping the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir, New Delhi’s most far-reaching move against the disputed region in seven decades.
The abrogation of Article 370 of India’s constitution that granted the region partial autonomy in 2019 heralded a slew of policies by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to tighten New Delhi’s grip over a region also claimed by its nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan.Residents and critics slammed the move in India’s only Muslim-majority region as the BJP’s bid to impose “settler colonialism” aimed at changing its demography and land ownership patterns and depriving Kashmiris of their livelihoods.
Earlier this week, India’s Supreme Court began hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the BJP’s 2019 move.
But people in the valley say they have little hope anything will change.Anxieties over land ownership
Article 370 barred outsiders from settling permanently or buying property in Indian-administered Kashmir.
However, a domicile law introduced in 2020 permits anyone who has lived in the region for 15 years or studied there for seven years to apply for a domicile certificate, entitling them to apply for land and jobs.The policy proposes the provision of five marlas of land (.031 acres) and the construction of houses under the Prime Minister Housing Scheme-Rural – a government initiative to provide housing to the rural poor.
In another measure, the federal rural development ministry allocated a target of 199,550 new houses in the region for the financial year 2023-24 for people belonging to the economically weaker sections (EWS) and low-income groups in the region.
Kashmiri activists and politicians have raised suspicion over the schemes, accusing the government of a “deliberate ambiguity” over who the beneficiaries will be.
“[…] the wide discrepancy between figures for the landless and housing allocation raises suspicion. According to official figures, there were 19,047 landless people in the region in 2021,” said a report released on Thursday by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, a civil society group advocating for the rights of the people in the region.
“Presumably the allocation of 199,550 new houses … will cover urban migrants, including labourers, street vendors, and rickshaw pullers. According to the Jammu and Kashmir Housing Board, however, any citizen of India who migrated temporarily or permanently, for employment, education, or a ‘long-term tourist visit’, would be eligible to apply. If the affordable housing policy is implemented, it would lead to the inclusion of around a million people,” the report said.
Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region, accused the government of “importing poverty and slums to the region under the pretext of providing housing to homeless individuals”.
“There is total disempowerment of the locals, whether it is in land or jobs,” Mufti told Al Jazeera.
‘The situation is bad’
A year before India scrapped the region’s autonomy, its elected legislative assembly headed by Mufti was dissolved in 2018.
Since then, the region is being ruled by the federal government through its hand-picked administrator as the regional pro-India political parties demand fresh elections.
Mufti accused the government of adopting policies aimed at “disempowering” the local residents and “being driven by a desire to increase their [BJP] vote bank, thus leading to a change in the demographic makeup”.
Mufti said the last four years were “full of surveillance and raids by investigative agencies”.
“Economically also, the situation is bad. Except for showcasing the so-called tourism, whether it’s the fruit industry or any other industry, they are killing it. With such surveillance, no one can express or talk,” she said.
But Altaf Thakur, spokesperson for the ruling BJP in Indian-administered Kashmir, claimed tourism is at an all-time high and for the first time, an international event such as a Group of 20 (G20) meeting on tourism took place in the region earlier this year.
“There is no strike, no stone pelting, no anti-national slogan is being raised. Kashmir is on the way to peace progress and prosperity,” he told Al Jazeera.Crackdown on free media
Press freedom in Indian-administered Kashmir has seen an unprecedented crackdown since 2019.
Since last month, nearly a dozen journalists from the region writing for international publications have told Al Jazeera they received emails asking them to surrender their passports for being a “security threat to India”, or face action.
Three journalists from the region are currently jailed outside Indian-administered Kashmir under stringent laws, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).Security restrictions on reporting and travel have made the job of a journalist difficult. Many journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Sanna Irshad Mattoo, have been barred from travelling abroad.
“The freedom to report is increasingly getting restricted. For example, too many stories on human rights issues will inevitably bring allegations that you have an anti-national agenda,” a 31-year-old Kashmiri journalist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity since he feared reprisal from the government.
“We have seen reporters facing summons, raids, detentions, no-fly-lists, and now passport seizures. So it automatically narrows down the scope of our reporting,” he said.
The journalist said conflating critical journalism with being anti-national hobbles the ability to gather information and report truthfully.
“No official wants to be seen as speaking to someone who is anti-national. It looks like journalism – unless it is devoted to praising the government or limiting criticism to potholes or lack of sanitation – is being criminalised.”
‘Break the Kashmiris’
At least 50 government employees in Indian-administered Kashmir have been terminated from their services since 2019 on vague charges of being a “threat” to the security of the state.
The law under which the termination was done allows the government to fire its employees without providing an explanation for it.
Meanwhile, unemployment in the region stands at 18 percent – nearly twice the national average – despite promises made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the government will “end the miseries of the youth”.
“Even if one protests over unemployment, it could be considered anti-national,” Muhammad Saqib, a 28-year-old engineering graduate, told Al Jazeera.
Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri anthropologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera India has enforced a “blanket silence” in Indian-administered Kashmir.
“Order after arbitrary order is autocratically issued and implemented to disempower, dispossess and break the Kashmiris,” he said.
“Not a single law passed in the last four years has had inputs from the Kashmiri population whose lives these laws are meant to radically alter.”