The country with its 1.3 billion people had been reeling under the phased lockdown clamped by the BJP-led Indian government to prevent devastating corona-virus pandemic from entering into community transmission stage. As in most of the states, the two newly formed Union territories, Jammu- Kashmir and Ladakh, particularly the former had also been feeling the heat of the pandemic and lockdown. By the middle of April, J & K had near to 300 affected, 30 cured and 4 dead. The Prime Minister, the man at the helm of the fight against the pandemic, had been repeatedly appealing to his countrymen on the small screen to stand united with him. But he and his party, BJP had their own agenda which time and often speak otherwise. Kashmir comes out as an example.
Covert operation when all eyes are focussed on Covid-19 pandemic
Well within the lockdown on 1 April 2020, the Indian government announced a new set of laws for Kashmir, including domicile rights for Indian citizens. It is alleged that the law which was to govern the 12 million population of J&K was so offhandedly drafted that the Union government had to change it within 72 hours. In any case, under the new amended law announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs, those who would have resided for a period of 15 years in Kashmir or studied for a period of seven years and appeared in Class 10/12 examinations in educational institutions located in the region would be eligible to become permanent residents. The new law also provided domicile status to the children of central government officials who served in Kashmir for a total period of 10 years.
It may be recalled that the BJP-led Union government abrogated Article 370 on 5 August 2019 whereupon the geographical and political status of Kashmir region was significantly changed. Article 370 which was part and parcel of the treaty of accession of the Princely Kashmir state to India, had given the permanent residents of Kashmir their rights over jobs, scholarships and land. Its abrogation terminated that provision. It also stripped Jammu and Kashmir, avowedly in the name of bringing development, of the limited autonomy that had protected the region for decades from demographic changes. Subsequently, Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two Union territories, namely Jammu and Kashmir and the other Ladakh, placed directly under the administration of the Union government with little power vested in the hands of the local people to decide their future. The announcement of the new Domicile Law by the now-all-powerful Union government came nearly eight months after these events and that too in a situation when the country, including J& K is busy fighting the dreaded pandemic. This was the point that Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and Vice President of the National Conference party, recently released after seven months of detention, highlighted in his criticism. He is reported to have commented: “At a time when all our efforts and attention should be focused on the COVID outbreak the government slips in a new domicile law for J&K. Insult is heaped on injury when law offers none of the protections that had been promised.” He demanded restoration of statehood and holding of elections in J&K. “It’s high time people of J&K get to decide the laws that will govern them rather than being subjected to the whims and fancies of the Centre, where orders are issued in the morning and changes issued in the evening.”
New Domicile Law faces sharp criticism
The new Domicile Law amended within days of its issue drew sharp criticisms from different circles of Jammu and Kashmir. While the law has triggered fear among Kashmiris about the “permanent settlements by the outsiders”, the experts say it will lead to “demographic flooding”.
Retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, who has challenged the abrogation of Article 370 in the Supreme Court, said it is “a permanent resident by stealth”. “It should worry the Kashmiris.” “The effect of this notification would be felt in [the] Jammu [region] because there are not many people who have come into Kashmir in the last 15 years,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of legal studies said: “It was in the offing”. “The whole purpose of revoking Article 370 was to settle outsiders here and change the demography of the state. Now this provides the modalities and entitles so many categories of Indians whose settlement will be legalised over here.” Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender, said: “By virtue of this order, outsiders are also going to be the claimants of jobs in Jammu and Kashmir, which already has a huge unemployment problem. This is an act against the interests of unemployed youth.”
Spokesmen of the two major parties of J&K, PDP and NC reiterated this point that there is not an iota of doubt about this domicile law bringing drastic change in the demography of J&K and essentially robbing the local educated and uneducated youth of their ‘right to job’ in the state. Such a major decision has been taken just by the stroke of pen and without any consultation with anyone, that too in the middle of night.
Expectedly, the elated BJP spokesman and party leaders hailed the move. They did not fail to reveal that this was part of a design, long-thought and worked out in steps. “Hectic lobbying and efforts of J&K-based BJP leaders succeeded in persuading to amend the domicile law, in which all jobs have been kept reserved for the J&K youth in government sectors,” said Altaf Thakur, Kashmir BJP spokesman, while praising the party’s top leadership. Ashok Kaul, the general secretary for the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir told boastfully “We have been pitching for it. Everyone in Jammu and Kashmir is happy, let people who live here for 15 years get the benefits, no other outsiders will get it.” So they accepted the planned design as also the demographic change as they welcome the outsiders as permanent residents after being qualified by their 15 years of stay. However, Jammu BJP may have raised concerns over new J&K domicile law with Amit Shah, party boss and Union Home Minister .
The above responses from the political leaders-intellectuals of Kashmir speak adequately how Kashmir is receiving the BJP move on domicile status, a sensitive issue that people of Kashmir have fought for long, since accession of Kashmir to India was accepted unhesitatingly by them under the then leadership of the National Conference led by Sheikh Abdullah. But the present BJP leadership and their government at the Centre do not end with only this change in domicile status. Certain apparently innocuous moves made, again to use the term stealthily, during this lockdown period, may raise serious concern.
More steps to devastate poor Kashmiri people further
On 8 April, the J&K Union Territory (UT) government issued an order approving a policy to regulate functioning and operation of houseboats in two iconic water bodies of Srinagar, namely Dal and Nigeen lakes. The order banned construction of new houseboats and shikaras and categorization of the existing ones based on facilities available. Ostensibly issued with an aim to preserving the lakes for future generations, it provides guidelines to prevent pollution of the lakes and adopt sustainable tourism by providing conducive and pleasant atmospheres for the tourists. It is claimed that thus developed, the houseboats and shikaras will turn out to be sustainable source of living for their owners. Only they will have to fulfil certain general conditions and register or renew their houseboats with an advisory committee to be constituted by the government.
Apparently innocuous, eco-friendly, and development-oriented policy contains ominous signs for the houseboat- shikara owners, who are, by and large, common people of Kashmir. From now on they will have to obtain registration or renewal from a bureaucratic body. In the name of sustainable tourism patterned to attract more tourists and earn more profit as the livelihood, the controlling body is likely to set guidelines to furnish and develop the houseboats in ways that may themselves be not sustainable for the present owners. One can look at the tourist facilities on rivers of Goa, like Zuari etc., for example. On the other hand, the prospect of attractive and profit-making tourist facilities will attract big corporate bodies to invest in the project and push out the common existing owners. The latter will lose their livelihood or turn into appendages of the big corporate bodies.
Introduction of the new Domicile law did not take the corona-virus pandemic into account. But when it comes to felling of lakhs, if not crores, of female Russian Poplar trees before onset of the flowering season in April, the J&K administration represented by Deputy Commissioners of all ten districts are pro-active to issue orders to get the work done in one week from the first week of April. The order comes in the wake of alleged apprehension prevailing among some people that the pollen shed in April causes respiratory problem and may thus be carrier of COVID-19. After all the number of coronavirus patients is increasing in the state. It is also alleged by locals that the trees are water consuming and may lead to water scarcity in future. However, the said order completely bans plantation and growing of female Russian Poplar trees and directs to axe existing ones on government –owned Social Forestry or private-owned lands. It is true that generally pollens affect people with allergies to these and may cause respiratory trouble for some. But the point to note is that there is no scientific proof so far, not in the country or elsewhere in the world, that pollen of this Poplar species can be a COVID carrier. The hectic order without any probe on whether the allegations of some locals have any scientific basis, has naturally triggered severe criticism from environmentalists. The trees are also income generating for a section of small farmers. It may be recalled that the species was introduced in Kashmir in 1981-82 under the World Bank-aided Social Forestry Project of the state government and has grown to more than a crore trees by this time. Either way the callousness of the government is clear. While introducing it, it was not checked if the pollens are especially allergenic and the trees are water consuming in an area like Kashmir. And now, under a dreaded virus attack, the government feels little compunction in issuing an order to fell lakhs of trees at one stroke, without confirming if the pollens are carriers of COVID 19. But what will be the fate of the land thus denuded ? Will the people of Kashmir earn any benefit from that denuded land or will it go to the land-mafias and corporate houses in an ambience where the domicile status of Kashmiri people is already under attack with the introduction of the new Domicile law and their rights curbed with the abrogation of Article 370?
Surely time will say what will be the fate of the existing houseboat owners or the land denuded by felling of lakhs of Poplar trees. But is it not very interesting to find that all these measures are coming in a chain: the abrogation of Article 370, arrest and detainment of political leaders of even parliamentary parties for months together, introduction of new Domicile law, ban on new houseboats and felling of Poplar trees, the last three, to quote once more the words of Air Vice Marshal Kak ‘stealthily’ at a time when people of the country are helplessly trying to cope with the loss of life and livelihood under the spell of the dreaded pandemic and the government urging them to fight together by clapping, lighting candles and herding together the poor and migrants under lockdown. The entire script thus smacks of a clear ulterior motive of the BJP-led Union government for extending grip over Kashmir, this or that way.
(Source: Al Jazeera News 01 April 2020 Srinagar, Kashmir & Peerzada Ashiq Srinagar 04 April 2020]