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Why Kashmir Faces the Greatest Existential Battle in Past 500 Years

Why Kashmir Faces the Greatest Existential Battle in Past 500 Years

A look at India’s new domicile law for Kashmir in light of the region’s history

In 1585, when Mughal emperor Akbar invaded Kashmir, he couldn’t defeat its  flamboyant ruler Yusuf Shah Chak. The 5,000-strong Mughal force led by Raja Bhagwan Das was fought to a standstill by Chak’s smaller but determined army. This compelled Das to sue for peace and offer Kashmir an autonomous status under Mughal suzerainty. Chak agreed.

The terms of that agreement were echoed by the 1952 Delhi accord between India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, and his Kashmir counterpart Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah: it allowed the state to conduct its internal affairs. In addition, “the coins were to be minted and Khutba (Friday sermons) recited in the name of Emperor Akbar.”

The 1585 agreement didn’t last long. A year later, Akbar summoned Chak to Delhi and imprisoned him. Thereafter, he was exiled to Bihar where he is buried at a place called Biswak.

Chak’s exile and consequent loss of Kashmir’s autonomy have a canny resemblance to Abdullah’s summary dismissal from power in 1953 and his subsequent incarceration. This was followed by the systematic erosion of the state’s autonomy, a task eventually accomplished on August 5, 2019 with the nullification of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

In the intervening seven decades, Kashmiris had enjoyed a fleeting control over their destiny after more than four centuries of slavery, during which they were ruled by Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras – the last one bought Kashmir along with its people from British for 7.5 million rupees in 1846.

There’s now a sense of being enslaved yet again. And the implications of the slavery are perceived to be disproportionately greater than ever before in the region’s history. For people, it’s now not only about the loss of a cherished autonomy but also about the threat to the region’s unique culture and demography.

The new domicile law for the region issued recently by New Delhi grants  citizenship  to anyone who has been a resident for 15 years. For the central government employees in the region, the period is just 10 years and, for the non-local students, it is even lesser, at seven years.

On May 18, the Jammu and Kashmir administration notified the rules for fast-tracking the process. Tehsildar, the revenue official, who has to grant the certificate has to do so within 15 days failing which he will be slapped with a penalty of 50,000 rupees to be drawn from his salary. What’s more, even permanent residents have to apply for the certificate to be considered domiciles.

This paves the way for the granting of citizenship to a large section of non-local population spread across diverse occupations. An estimated 600,000 security personnel are deployed in Kashmir to combat the militancy. Similarly, the region is home to about 600,000 to 700,000 migrant labourers. The law would qualify a significant proportion of both for citizenship. 

New Delhi has also amended the Jammu and Kashmir Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, by deleting references to “permanent residents.” This has made it easier for non-local slum dwellers to gain property rights.

The law has already granted citizenship to around 300,000 West Pakistan Refugees in Jammu. These refugees had come to the region from Pakistan during the 1947 Partition and subsequent wars with the country, but Article 370 had barred them so far from becoming citizens. They could vote in national polls but not in the elections to Kashmir Assembly.

With New Delhi also wooing the major corporate houses and traders across India to invest in Kashmir, with an offer of 6,000-acre land bank, an ever growing number of outsiders are expected to qualify for domicile status in future.

This mortally threatens the demographic composition of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region which is also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan. Nearly 70 percent of the region’s population of 13 million is Muslim, according to Census 2011. Hindus constitute 30 percent, Sikhs 2 percent and Buddhists, who inhabit the separated Ladakh region, a little more than 1 percent. Hence, a settlement of 1 to 2 million non-local population will markedly alter the demographic composition as it exists now.

Existential Challenge

SRINAGAR, JAMMU AND KASHMIR: People visited Khanqah-e-Moula, one of oldest mosques in down town Srinagar. (Vivek Singh)

In its centuries-long slavery, Kashmir has never faced this grave a threat to its identity. Under the successive foreign occupations, Kashmiris have been subjected to the worst kind of oppression, its severity increasing as one occupier took over from another. One such practice was Begar, a forced unpaid labour. One form of Begar, adopted during Dogra rule, was to draft Kashmiris to carry supplies to soldiers stationed in Gilgit. This involved a walk of several hundred miles across an arduous hilly terrain. Begar was also exacted in transportation, construction of buildings and roads. 

During Dogra rule, a period still part of Kashmir’s collective consciousness, ordinary Kashmiris were banned from holding any land. A major chunk of the land was owned by a few hundred feudal families and the rest were tenants on this land. Also, around 50-70 percent of agriculture produce was appropriated by the government. Dogras also imposed  taxes on almost every activity, including ‘Zaildari tax’, the infamous tax on the cost of collection of tax itself. This was done partly to raise the money they had paid to the British to buy Kashmir.

But through it all, the region’s demography and identity remained intact. No such hope exists now. The new domicile law threatens both.

By opening up Kashmir for settlement by outsiders, New Delhi has betokened the real motive behind the withdrawal of Article 370. The law  had otherwise been hollowed out over the years of most of the provisions that granted the region autonomy in its internal affairs. Article 35A, a feature of the Article 370, that barred outsiders from settling in the region, was among a few other protections that still held strong. Nothing remains now. The constitutionally guaranteed Article 370 has been pulled out by its roots and junked.

It’s  a sad turn of events for a people who had gone against the Two-Nation Theory by  preferring India over Pakistan at the time of Partition. And ironically, the considerations that had helped shape the public opinion in favour of India – other than autonomy in all matters except foreign policy, defence and communications – included the constitutional guarantee for protection of the demographic composition of the region. Under Article 35A, the region’s state subject laws enjoyed  immunity against  challenge in India’s Supreme Court. 

Sheikh’s Role

Sheikh Abdullah, India Post, Government of India / GODL-India, 5 December 1988

Rallying the region’s people around the accession to  India was Sheikh Abdullah, also called the Lion of Kashmir (Sher-i-Kashmir in Urdu),  the region’s most popular leader at the time. He  lent legitimacy to India’s control of the state as against the instrument of accession signed by Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler.

In hindsight, Sheikh’s idealism was just that – a reflection of his gullibility and lack of understanding of the statecraft. Or, some say, it was just a quest for personal power disguised as idealism: Sheikh was made the prime minister of Kashmir for his support for India’s case on Kashmir at a time when  Pakistani Pakhtoon tribesmen were advancing towards Srinagar after taking over one-third of Kashmir.

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Fraught Future

Poised at the cusp of what threatens to be the beginning of Kashmir’s demographic and cultural makeover, Kashmiris are deeply anxious. State of Muslims in India over the past six years plays on their mind. They apprehend that much like Muslims in mainland India, they could soon become targets of lynching in their homeland with perpetrators getting away with it.

Up until now, Kashmir has been insulated  from the ravages of mainland Indian politics. In 1947, as the Partition riots consumed millions of Hindus and Muslims, Kashmir remained peaceful, leading Mahatma Gandhi to see “a ray of hope” in the region. Similarly, the rise of Hindu nationalism since the 1990s and its violent fallout has left the region largely untouched. People had the luxury of watching it from a distance and be upset about it. No more. After last August, the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology has not only broken into the Valley’s political mainstream, but is also in full control of the lives of the people – in fact, catching them by their throat. 

The goal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as is becoming clear by the day, is far-reaching. It is bidding for a complete socio-political  makeover of Kashmir. Revocation of  Article 370 in the first six months of its second term gives it four and a half years to execute its ideological agenda for the region. And considering the pace at which it is going about it, Kashmir will be a transformed place by the time its term ends.

As things stand, Kashmir has been completely disempowered in the new scheme of things. So much so that even the local establishment parties that have all along supported New Delhi’s case on Kashmir and taken bullets for it, can’t hold any political activity, let alone be counted in the new governance structure of the region. Further, the top administrative machinery has largely been rid of Kashmiri bureaucrats. J&K Bank, that relic of the autonomous Kashmir, has now no Kashmiri in top administrative positions. None of its important committees has a single Muslim as member, let alone as their head.

And with the BJP on course to increase the seats for the Jammu (Hindu majority part of the region)  in the Assembly, it won’t be long before no one from Kashmir will be in a position to be the chief minister in a region where ironically they are in majority. 

Anger at Sheikh

People are venting their anger, due to their sense of helpless, at Sheikh Abdullah, dead since 1982, who is squarely blamed for tying Kashmir’s lot with India in defiance of the Two-Nation theory. In the days leading to the revocation of Article 370, Sheikh was the subject of choicest abuse across WhatsApp groups. People invariably sought a place in hell for him in hereafter, for threatening, through his ill-conceived decision, the survival of Kashmiri race.


It is a tragic posthumous fall from grace for a leader comparable to Kashmir’s own Nehru or Jinnah. Until his death, he commanded a near total adoration of his people. His wave of the hand was sufficient to galvanise Kashmir. But since the outbreak of the separatist struggle in 1989, Sheikh’s mausoleum on the banks of Dal lake is under 24×7 security lest it be vandalised by people. More so now, when Kashmiris are deeply anxious about their identity and hate Sheikh all the more for joining India. 

Ironically, Sheikh has now no takers in New Delhi either. In fact, New Delhi is out to erase his name from  public memory of Kashmir. The region has already dropped his birth anniversary from the list of public holidays, and his epithet no longer remains on the title of the J&K Police gallantry medal. Similarly, Sheikh’s name has been excised from the SKICC that has now become Kashmir International Convention Centre.

The Lion of Kashmir lies abandoned both by his people and by the country that owes its possession of Kashmir in large part to his efforts. Unlike Yusuf Shah Chak, Sheikh is buried in Kashmir, but has been exiled in his death.

Jayanta Kalita is a Delhi-based journalist and author. Views are personal

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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