Days before Indian Administered Kashmir lost autonomy on Aug. 5, a comic WhatsApp video showing Kashmiris losing their homes and land to outsiders as a consequence went viral in the state. And soon thereafter, buying land in Kashmir emerged as one of the top Twitter trends across India, and Indian companies set out plans to invest in real estate in the state. This caused a deep anxiety among the Kashmiri people. There is paranoia in the region that this would lead to demographic change on the pattern of Israeli settlements in Palestine, a fact also acknowledged by Mani Shankar Aiyer, a senior leader of the opposition Congress Party, in a recent write-up.
Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which has been overturned by the Indian government, granted Kashmir a special status and forbade Indians from rest of the country from settling in the state. This protected the state’s demography from any change. But no such bar exists now. Land in Kashmir can now be bought by all Indians just like it is done in most other states of the country.
India’s move has thus altered the complexion of the long running Kashmir issue. Until Aug. 5, the conflict in and over the state was essentially political. It had two dimensions: one, the three-decade-long political and armed struggle in the state for liberation from India, which has claimed around 70,000 lives. And, two: the dispute over the state between India and Pakistan – both claim the state in entirety – have fought three wars to unsuccessfully wrest the parts of the territory under each other’s control.
Now the issue has taken on an existential dimension, overshadowing the aspects about the local political aspirations and the dispute between India and Pakistan. From a violent political pursuit of the right to self-determination – with its benign and nasty ideological offshoots – the issue has transformed into an unremitting conflict about land, identity and religion. It is about a community staring at and paranoid about its demographic and cultural extinction.
The correspondence with Palestine is now the new existential dynamic that is animating the conflict in Kashmir. Like Palestine, land has come to be at the heart of the Kashmir issue, too. And every time land is acquired in the state by or for the non-local people or companies, it is certain to generate a violent backlash resulting in continuing bloodshed. In its early years, the problem is likely to be much more violent, just like Intifadas in Palestine.
The Kashmir and Palestine issues originated around the same time in the late 1940s. Kashmir, however, is senior to the Palestine problem by a year, having become a bone of contention between India and Pakistan soon after their creation following undivided India’s freedom from British in 1947. Both issues went to the United Nations in 1948 where the peoples of the two places were promised self-determination. Since then, Palestine and Kashmir have followed disparate trajectories, dictated by their unique histories and dissimilar origins.
For all the conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan and the bloodshed in the state as a result of the ongoing separatist movement, both countries have largely stayed short of land grab and demographic alterations in the sections of the state under their control.
But with Article 370 gone, all bets are off in the Indian part of the region. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi has not ruled out settlement of outsiders in the state to enable its integration and assimilation into the Indian Union. In fact, India’s reasons to do so have both security and ideological dimensions: In security terms, settling Hindus in the state is seen to be the best anti-dote to the ongoing separatist movement and militancy. And ideologically, a demographic change is a means to reclaim Kashmir from Islam, which came to the state around 700 years ago.
From here onwards, the similarities begin to surface between Palestine and Kashmir. Just as Palestine is seen by Jews as their biblical land, Kashmir, too, has a deep religious significance in the imagination of the Rightwing Hindutva ideology. Shrines like Dome of Rock in Jerusalem and Amarnath in Kashmir attest to this fact. So takeover of the land draws on an implicit scriptural justification.
This sets the stage for a fraught future for Kashmir. Should New Delhi follow the Israeli model of settlements in the state, which it appears determined to do, it could set off a fresh cycle of violence and bloodshed in the state, much like the way it happens in Palestine.
The plans to settle outsiders in Kashmir and allow corporate houses to buy land for investment are already a part of the media and policy discourse. During the coalition Peoples Democratic Party-BJP government in 2015, there was a plan to set up segregated townships for the migrant Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus). After public backlash, the government had come around to the idea of establishing composite colonies comprising Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. According to the reports then circulating in media, the Centre had asked the state government to identify and earmark 16,800 kanals of land in three districts of the Valley — Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar — where the Pandit families could be resettled.
Each township, according to the proposal doing the rounds at the time, would accommodate at least 75,000-100,000 people. The government would set up a medical college and an engineering college for each settlement. Under the plan, 12 police stations would be provided to ensure security to the colonies. The Centre would also provide housing assistance, transit accommodation, cash relief for a period of two years after the Pandits returned, besides student scholarships, employment in state government services, assistance to farmers and waiver of the interest component of loans taken by the members of the community before they fled the Valley in 1990.
But the scrapping of Article 370 has changed the game. There would be no need for composite colonies, which are now likely to be deemed as a security risk. Besides, if the Centre decides to set up these townships, they would be free to be inhabited by even the Indians outside the state.
In Kashmir, settlements like these will be seen as encroachment of their land and a step towards demographic change. This will only aggravate the problem and deepen grievances, taking on the form of public response prevalent in Palestine. True, militancy will be there to stay, so will be the Pakistan factor, both of which are likely to become more pronounced in the post-Article 370 Kashmir. This makes the near to medium term situation in the state deeply uncertain.
The choices in Kashmir are now starker than before. The repeal of Article 370 has wiped out the space for political concessions that lent meaning to engagement and dialogue between the stake-holders in the Kashmir issue: New Delhi and Kashmiri dissident groups as well as Pakistan and India. It has now become a choice between accepting the new status quo or fighting to change it.