A petition in India's top court challenging a law that grants special rights to the permanent residents of India-ruled Kashmir and bars outsiders from buying property there has put the strife-torn region on the edge.
Article 35-A of the Indian constitution grants special citizenship rights to the permanent residents of India-administered Kashmir and bars outsiders from buying property in the region, seeking employment or voting in the polls. Seeking its repeal, an NGO has filed a petition in India's Supreme Court.
The landmark hearing on the state's autonomous rights was scheduled to take place on Friday, but the court has postponed the ruling until at least January.
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The state subject law was initially introduced by the last monarch of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, in 1927. Later, in 1954, through a presidential order it was brought into the Indian Constitution to safeguard the rights and guarantee the unique identity of the people of the region.
Tension has been brewing in the restive region as political parties across the spectrum have called for demonstrations against the petition.
A general strike and partial curfew brought the Muslim-majority region to a standstill for a second day, as shops, schools and business establishments remained shut and the streets deserted on Friday.
A large number of security personnel guarded the streets as authorities put many volatile parts of the region under a security lockdown.
Kashmir's separatist leaders have threatened to launch a massive agitation if the law is tinkered with in any form.
"People have expressed their strong resentment and protest against the nefarious design of tinkering with state subject laws," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a senior separatist leader.
'Liable to be set aside'
The plea in the Supreme Court was filed by a Delhi-based NGO, named "We The Citizens." In its petition, it said: "Article 35-A is creating a special class of citizens. Therefore, it is unconstitutional and is liable to be set aside."
"The concept of a special class of citizens is unknown to the law of citizenship," it added. "The spirit of the Indian constitution lies in oneness of the citizens of this country. Therefore, Article 35-A is highly discriminatory."
But the protests in Kashmir against any attempt to change the law have cut across the political divide, with both mainstream and separatist leaders voicing support and arguing that it's an important part of their "identity."
Jahanagir Iqbal Ganai, a former advocate general, told DW that "if any changes to the law are made, the residents will lose all their special rights."
"This law protects the rights of the citizens of the state in relation to the property, employment, scholarships and right to vote. Any change means all these things will go. This has a constitutional history associated with it," he said, adding that the law is a part and parcel of the Indian constitution.
Kashmir is a pending dispute between India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over the region, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in India-administered Kashmir – a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. The associated violence has so far claimed tens of thousands of lives over the past three decades.
"This will create a demographic change in the region where thousands of people have died in the ongoing conflict. This will result in more bloodshed. It will erase our existence," said Nazir Batoo, a 55-year-old local driver.
Batoo said that it will create another spell of protests in the region, which has already been grappling with intermittent violence since the 2016 killing of a prominent insurgent commander, Burhan Wani, by government forces.
Kashmir has witnessed continuous demonstrations since the beginning of this month in support of the existing law and any meddling with it would likely intensify the protests.
"The special status of the state should remain; it protects our cultural and environmental identity," said Devindar Singh Rana, a senior leader from the mainstream political party National Conference.
Rana's party, which has ruled the region for most of the last seven decades, has warned that if the law is revoked, it will bring "catastrophe" to the region.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP), which until recently ruled the state for three years in a coalition with the BJP, has also taken a stand in defense of the law.
"This is a very emotional issue. People are attached to it. If anything is changed, it will create havoc," the party's spokesperson Rafi Mir told DW.
Zafar Shah, the lawyer pleading in support of the law in the court, told DW that the "abrogation of the law will end the concept of permanent residents."
"People will be reduced to just the citizens of India. All citizens of India will participate in the elections," said Shah, adding that the abrogation of the law will have a ripple effect. "This will create a constitutional chaos in the state. We will leave no stone unturned to defend it," he said.
Shazia Jahan, 25, a student at the University of Kashmir, which is the largest institute of learning in the state, admitted her fear that if the law is "diluted, it will change the nature of Kashmir dispute and lead to demographic changes in the Muslim-majority region."
"No one will talk about the political dispute if the law is abrogated. They will make permanent settlements here," she said.
A general strike and partial curfew brought the Muslim-majority region to a standstill for a second day on Friday
Despite the law commanding widespread support within the state, the BJP and Hindu nationalist outfits in India continue to argue against it, saying it is "constitutionally invalid."
"This law should go as it has done more harm to the state. This has barred outside investments and development of big institutions because outsiders cannot buy property here. This has hindered the progress of the state. If this law goes, it will open up new areas for investment," said Sunil Sethi, the chief spokesperson of the BJP in the region.
"There will be development in the state if the law is repealed, it will create more jobs for the local people. There will be no demographic change as some sections are warning," Sethi told DW.
But Siddiq Wahid, a professor of central Asian and Tibetan political history, told DW that "the law represents an elaboration of the basic rationale for the state's partial, conditional and temporary accession to India."
"It should be defended because it is a contract between the Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian State and cannot be rescinded by India unilaterally," he said.