New Delhi’s Demographic Designs in Kashmir

Hindu nationalists have long wanted to reshape the region. Now they are getting their chance.

Indian government forces stand guard in the deserted city center of Srinagar on Aug. 15.
Indian government forces stand guard in the deserted city center of Srinagar on Aug. 15. Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Since 1989, when an armed uprising against Indian rule began in India-administered Kashmir, violence has killed more than 50,000 people, according to official figures. Hundreds of mass graves have been discovered, and the International Crisis Group has estimated that the region is home to 30,000 orphans and at least 1,000 “half-widows,” a term used for Kashmiri women whose husbands are among the missing but have not been proved dead.

On any given day over the past several years, young boys would throw stones at gun-wielding Indian soldiers in protest of a killing of a civilian or militant. And general feelings of dissent against Indian rule, which many Kashmiris see as an occupation, were commonly expressed.

It was against this background that, on Aug. 5, New Delhi ended the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Constitution by revoking Articles 370 and 35A. At the same time, it set up India’s only Muslim-majority state to be split into two union territories—one comprising the mountainous region of Ladakh and the other combining the Kashmir Valley with the state’s Jammu region. Hours before the move, the valley was put under strict curfew with internet, landline, and mobile phone services and cable television all blocked at once.

Although New Delhi had already eroded much of what Jammu and Kashmir’s special status promised over the years, it had continued to perform two important tasks. First, it served the symbolic function of keeping hope alive for reconciliation with, and better treatment by, India. Second, and more importantly, Article 35A prevented any demographic transformation of Jammu and Kashmir—something Kashmiris have long feared—since it prevented outsiders from purchasing land.

Indian authorities have for now enforced calm, but high levels of violence could be around the corner.

With both of these benefits gone at once, the gulf between Kashmiris and the rest of India will grow wider, and although Indian authorities have for now enforced calm, high levels of violence could be around the corner.

It seems clear that revoking Article 35A will change the nature of Kashmir. For now, it is Muslim majority—according to Indian census data from 2011, 68 percent of Jammu and Kashmir’s 12.5 million people were Muslims. With the local government no longer able to bar outsiders from land ownership, New Delhi could presumably encourage the migration of Hindus to the region in the same way China has supported the growth of Han Chinese populations in Tibet.

As of 2016, according to the Economist, Han Chinese made up 22 percent of the population of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, compared with 17 percent in 2000. However, the strategy of changing the ethnic mix of the population (combined with building large-scale infrastructure) has hardly led to its intended result of enforcing Tibet’s integration and generating loyalty. It may have given Beijing the opportunity to exercise greater surveillance and control, as reported by Freedom House, but among Tibetans, it has led to deeper alienation and resentment. More than 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2011 to protest the Chinese rule.

Similarly, the Indian state’s current move, justified in the name of development, could change Kashmir’s ethnic mix. Doing so has been a long-standing demand of the militant Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is widely seen as the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2002, after decades of using the demand of ending Kashmir’s special status as a central slogan of the Hindu nationalist movement, the RSS passed a resolution that clearly laid out its vision for reorganizing the state in a way that would favor Hindus. The move was accompanied by a similar resolution by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another organization in the RSS family, which demanded that the “five Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu should be made a separate state, a union territory be carved out of areas northeast of the Jhelum River in the Kashmir Valley for settling Hindus there and Ladakh be given the status of a union territory.”

Now such demands have been enacted in law. Ladakh, comprising an equal number of Buddhists and Muslims, will be governed by the BJP-led central government. Under that administration, Muslims will surely feel increasingly alienated just like those in other parts of India. Over time, it would be easy to change the balance between Buddhists and Muslims by allowing some Hindus from mainland India to buy property there.

In the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the approximately half-million Indian soldiers already there may buy land and property immediately. Change could soon come on a much larger scale: The government has already announced that it would hold an international investment summit in Kashmir in October.

Even if the ongoing political violence discourages ordinary Hindus from buying property in the Kashmir Valley, they could still migrate to the union territory’s Hindu-dominated area of Jammu. As a result, Jammu would outweigh the valley electorally, which would very likely hand the territory’s government to the BJP. Further territorial delimitations, which India’s home minister has already hinted at, could further change the calculus of the new legislative assembly.

In the legislative assembly of the previous state of Jammu and Kashmir, Jammu had 37 seats, Kashmir 46, and Ladakh 4. With Ladakh gone, increasing Jammu’s seats in the new assembly will reduce Muslims to electoral insignificance. If their representation in government erodes, Kashmiri and Jammu Muslims would become even more vulnerable than they already are. Across India, Muslims are lynched for eating beef. They’re labeled as anti-India or pro-Pakistan. Such narratives serve the aim of Hindu nationalists like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who see India as a Hindu country and paint Muslims are outsiders.

Since the 1990s, the BJP has used migration of the Kashmiri Pandits to mobilize its Hindu voter base.

Helping the outsider narrative along is the story of the Kashmiri Pandits, around 100,000 high-caste Hindus who fled the region in the 1990s amid a surge in separatist violence. Since the 1990s, the BJP has used migration of the Kashmiri Pandits to mobilize its Hindu voter base, and it has routinely promised in its election manifestos to resettle them. Modi himself has reiterated such plans in his election speeches.

Under the new arrangement, the government could simply create separate townships with their own malls, schools, and hospitals inside them. New Delhi may give those areas the status of a union territory and further divide Kashmir. Or it may simply give some seats to these separate townships in the new assembly. Both ways, Kashmiri Muslims will feel threatened. Although local parties and activists have long resisted such designs and will continue to do so, the BJP will be able to push them through. Not surprisingly, many Kashmiri Pandits and organizations welcomed the scrapping of Article 370. They expressed jubilation and saw the move as the fulfillment of their desire to create a homeland in Kashmir.

Adding to an already complicated picture is Pakistan, which has vowed to “explore all options” to help Kashmir. That may include increasing its support for militants, which will turn an already tense situation even more volatile. A single attack could have catastrophic effects for Muslims if it snowballs into a massive communal riot. The partition of British India in 1947 created a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. It also led to a war over Kashmir between them. The new partitions in Kashmir could bring back such fighting, with Pakistan opening its gates for the displaced.

At present, people across India are celebrating as the media runs stories about strong, masculine India subduing the restive, exotic Kashmir. Initially, non-Muslims in Jammu and Ladakh also welcomed New Delhi’s move. But now even some of them have started expressing their anxieties about protecting their culture and jobs. Meanwhile, the Kashmir Valley has been largely invisible since Aug. 5. The information ban and curfew continue. People have been locked up in their houses, and hundreds have been put in jail. The blackout can’t last forever, though, and when it is lifted, the world may see a radically different Kashmir.

Idris Bhat is an academic based in New Delhi.

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