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Militants target non-Kashmiris amid tensions over land laws

Samaan Lateef Srinagar
January 19, 2021

The recent killing of a non-Kashmiri trader by militant groups has drawn focus to the tensions related to the new land and residency laws implemented by New Delhi in the disputed region.

An Indian police officer patrols on a street in Srinagar during a lockdown on the first anniversary of the revocation of Kashmir's autonomy
A police officer patrols in Srinagar during a lockdown on the first anniversary of the revocation of Kashmir's autonomyImage: Reuters/D. Ismail

It seemed like any other cold December evening at the sleepy market of Sarai Bala in Jammu and Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, when Satpal Nischal was killed by militants. Most of the shopkeepers had returned home and the crowds were beginning to thin out.  

A young man then suddenly burst into a jewelry shop and brandished a handgun, aiming at Nischal. "I was horrified," said Aijaz Ahmad, who has run a jewelry shop right across from Nischal's store for 20 years. "It's always been peaceful here until the shooting, the gunman shot and ran off. We all hid behind our desks," Ahmad said.

"We don't know why it happened. We don't have animosity with anyone. No one ever harassed us here in 50 years, not even militants," Nischal's son Rakesh told DW. "His death has left deep emotional scars. I felt rage and anger, and so many emotions that I did not know what to do," he added.

Nischal, a 70-year-old goldsmith from the Indian state of Punjab, had lived in Kashmir for almost 50 years.

A few weeks before he was killed, Nischal had obtained a certificate under the new domicile law that allows people who have lived in Jammu and Kashmir for more than 15 years the right to acquire immovable property.

The new land laws were introduced in October 2020, by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government and they caused consternation among locals.

Nischal became the first victim of a campaign by a recently setup militant group, The Resistance Front (TRF), to kill every non-Kashmiri resident in the disputed region.

A woman's perspective of the Kashmir conflict

Non-Kashmiri settlers in danger?

The TRF claimed responsibility for the killing, saying Nischal was part of a "settler project" and that anyone who obtains domicile "will be treated as occupiers."

Militants have threatened to kill all non-Kashmiris who move into the region to settle. They call them agents of the rightwing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Modi's BJP.

Kashmiris have long accused Modi's Hindu nationalist government of trying to alter the territory's demography by encouraging Hindu migration to the disputed Muslim-majority region.

In August 2019, Modi scrapped the autonomous status that Kashmir had enjoyed since it came under the administration of New Delhi following partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

After the abrogation of the special constitutional status, the Modi government also decided to grant domicile certificates to every Indian citizen who has resided in Kashmir for 15 years. The new laws also allow them to purchase land there, a controversial move some locals say mirrors Israeli settler policy in Palestinian lands.

A demographic shift?

So far, nearly 2 million domicile certificates have been granted, with most of them going to Hindus and retired Indian army personnel. About 1.5 million of these certificates have been issued in Hindu-dominated areas of the Jammu region.

When the 2011 census was conducted, Kashmir had over 2.8 million non-local migrant workers and among them, 1.4 million had already been living in the region for 10 years or longer. Since the 2011 census is 10 years old, all of them now meet the 15-year rule and are eligible to receive domicile. They would constitute around 11% of the region's 13 million population, causing a significant demographic shift.  

The 2011 census showed that 66.9% of Jammu and Kashmir's population was Muslim while Hindus constituted 30%, Sikhs 2% and Buddhists little over 1%.

Many locals fear that the settlement of 2 million non-locals will alter the demographic composition of Kashmir, dilute the region's unique culture and weaken them politically.

"It's quite clear that the BJP wants to grab land and change demography in Kashmir. They want to do what Israel is doing in Palestine. If ever a plebiscite on the region's future under the United Nations happens anytime in future, these settlers (non-local Hindus) will vote for India to defeat us politically," said Ghulam Hassan Rather, a local Kashmiri.

However, the BJP's senior leader Nirmal Singh, who recently served as deputy chief minister of the region, argues that the new land laws are a progressive step taken by the Modi government.

"Kashmir is part of India, so everybody should have the right to live anywhere in the country. The militant attack on Nischal won't weaken the BJP government's resolve. Militants are mistaken if they think that by killing people, they will turn the clock back. It's not possible," Singh said.

Furthermore, the BJP government has empowered the Indian army to declare any land as "strategic" and take control of it without permission from locals.

Kashmir is the world's most militarized zone, and more than half a million Indian troops have been stationed in the region since 1989, when a violent pro-independence insurgency erupted here. They are accused of carrying out gross human rights abuses against civilians.

'Demographic engineering'

Historian and political analyst Siddiq Wahid said the new land laws violated India's constitution but are in fulfillment of the BJP's ideological Hindutva agenda. 

"The fears of potential demographic change, as the intent of this law, are very real. It is not PM Modi per se but his ideological masters, the RSS, and his party, the BJP, that have openly spoken of wanting to effect demographic change in Kashmir. So we assume he subscribes to that view," Wahid told DW.

He said the BJP government was "encouraging the demographic change" and thereby complicating the Kashmir issue, citing Chinese aggression in Ladakh as an example.

Ather Zia, a political anthropologist who teaches at the University of Northern Colorado in the US, shares the views of Wahid and says the BJP is oiling the wheels of non-local settlement in Kashmir.

"There has been always a looming fear of India doing demographic engineering to dilute the Muslim-majority nature of Kashmir," Zia told DW.

"Indian occupation in Kashmir by the changes that have been unilaterally and illegally made in the land laws will create a power structure where exploiting land and resources of the native people will become normalized and indigenous culture and the economy will be overpowered, and cultural imperialism will rule the roost," the expert said. 

Before revoking the region's autonomy, Indian authorities detained all top political leaders of Kashmir, including former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who was released after eight months of detention. The arrests were an attempt to stave off mass protests in opposition to New Delhi's move.  

Anguished with the muzzling of dissent in Kashmir, Abdullah's first reaction to land laws was that New Delhi has put Kashmir up for sale. Abdullah told DW that right from the beginning, he has had concerns about the implications of the new laws and domicile for Kashmir.

"If you see the haste with which the domicile certificates are being handed out, that will suggest to you what the motives [of the BJP] are. They have mostly gone to non-residents, and non-Muslims which would suggest in the medium to long term, the BJP wants to effect a demographic change. It may not be possible in the short term but that is their [the BJP's] intent," Abdullah said.