India accelerates its nationalist transformation of Kashmir as the world remains silent

It has been one year since India revoked the semiautonomous status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state and placed the region under a complete communication blackout and military siege, and detained thousands of Kashmiris.

One year later, the fears that the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will accelerate an existing settler-colonial project that aims to alter the demographics of the Muslim-majority disputed region have materialized.

India’s long-standing war crimes in Kashmir— ranging from extrajudicial killings, home demolitions, rapes, use of human shields, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, mass blindings and torture, to name a few — have been well documented, and endured by a population that has been denied its right to self-determination for more than 72 years.

But today, Kashmiris are in the midst of a dystopian nightmare, one in which each day brings a new government order, policy or law that seeks to further dispossess them of their basic rights, land, resources, identity, and ultimately, lives.

The most devastating of these administrative changes, which was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 31, under the title “Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Order, 2020,” creates a series of categories through which Indians — who had previously not been able to own land or access government jobs as they were reserved for Kashmir “permanent residents” — will now be able to lay claim to residency rights in what is still a disputed territory. The permanent resident category has been done away with, and all Kashmiris will now need to obtain domicile certificates to get residency rights.

Since the occupational machinery in Kashmir consists of more than 700,000 Indian forces, as well as thousands of Indian officials who have served in various capacities in Kashmir’s decades-long occupation, the shift toward domicile status is a clear path to demographic change.

Most crucially, the order is retrospective, meaning that it includes those who already meet these requirements. Already, as many as 400,000 domicile certificates have been issued (although it remains unclear what percentage of these are non-local applicants), and an estimated 1.74 million Indian workers alone are eligible. And this is just the beginning.

But why are these legal changes significant, and why should the international community take note?

Various members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have mentioned their desire to flood the region with Indian Hindus, and Hindu supremacists see the region as integral to the idea of a Hindu nation.

Ensuring that Indian settlers — and that is what they will be — are able to claim domicile in Kashmir puts any solution to the long-running disputes further out of reach.

Kashmir, which is currently disputed between India and Pakistan, still awaits a resolution, and has been the site of massive resistance to Indian rule. A majority of Kashmiris prefer independence or merger with Pakistan. As India changes the demographics, those numbers will be deliberately diluted, many fear through ethnic cleansing.

While India claims that removing Article 370 paves the way for “development” and “progress” in the region, indigenous Kashmiris have essentially lost their historic protections in relation to land, access to education and government employment. The one-year lockdown has resulted in an economic loss of more than $5.3 billion, and most of Kashmir’s industries, including tourism, handicrafts, horticulture, IT and e-commerce, have been shattered.

As with other colonial powers, Indian officials are participating in international investment summits parroting Kashmir as a “Land of Opportunity,” setting off a scramble for Kashmir’s resources, which will cause further environmental destruction.

India’s then-consul general in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, chillingly declared last fall that India already has a model — the Israeli one in the occupied West Bank. The government plans to create separate colonies, or settlements, for the non-locals, mostly migrant laborers, who can now claim domicile. These settlements will be protected by an ever-expanding military grid and infrastructure. Some months ago, the Indian army passed around forms in certain localities asking whether locals would be willing to sell their property. Now, it doesn’t even need permission. A recent provision was passed that allows the Indian army special dispensation for carrying out construction activities in areas that it deems “strategic.”

What is most alarming is that the Modi government has made these momentous changes in the midst of a pandemic.

Yet, even this is not surprising. India’s actions last August have drawn unprecedented global criticism. But now, given that the attention of the international community is fully focused on controlling the coronavirus, the time was opportune to deflect any criticism.

India’s actions have led the once dormant “Kashmir issue” to once again be internationalized. It continues to make the region volatile, as evidenced by frequent India-Pakistan cross-border shelling and threat of war, as well as the recent clashes between India and China along the Line of Actual Control.

Kashmiris, like all people, deserve to live a life of dignity and security. It is unconscionable that the international community has enabled India’s actions. India must allow access to foreign journalists, human rights observers and international delegations.

Most importantly, Kashmiris must be given the right to determine their future, something promised to them by the international community more than 72 years ago. The future of South Asia, and indeed the world, depends on it.

Hafsa Kanjwal is an assistant professor in South Asian history at Lafayette College.

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