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Hanan Zaffar

'Another Palestine': Kashmiris fear demographic change under India's new domicile law

India is fast-tracking residency rights for non-Kashmiris. [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 July, 2020

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India has issued 25,000 domicile certificates to non-Kashmiris, raising fears that New Delhi is engineering demographic change in the Muslim-majority region.
Within a year of revoking Indian-administered Kashmir's autonomy, New Delhi has started issuing 'domicile' certificates to its citizens in the disputed Himalayan region, a move residents fear is an attempt to engineer demographic change in the Muslim-majority province.

More than 25,000 domicile certificates have been granted under a new law which allows Indian citizens to acquire permanent residency and government jobs in the conflict-torn region contested between India and Pakistan.

Until August last year, when India revoked Article 370, local residents had exclusive land and job rights guaranteed under the Indian constitution.

As per the new rules, all Indian citizens who have lived in Kashmir for a period of 15 years are now eligible to get domicile certificates and become permanent residents.

The law also extends residency to those to have studied for seven years or taken the 10th and 12th class examinations in local institutions, as well as the children of Indian government employees who have worked in the state for more than 10 years.

Migrants and their children registered with the state government can also obtain domicile certificates. Experts fear the new rules are aimed at disenfranchising and disempowering Kashmiris - who have been fighting to realise their right to self-determination for seven decades. 

India has issued thousands of 'domicile' certificates to its citizens in Kashmir, a move residents fear is an attempt to engineer demographic change

"Kashmiris feel scared they may be rendered homeless within their own homes," Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a prominent political analyst and scholar of international law in Kashmir, told The New Arab. "The new rules will enable outsiders to purchase properties and settle here. This is a new Palestine in the making."

Fast-tracking demographic change

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have also threatened officials who fail to issue domicile certificates within a stipulated time period with a penalty of 50,000 rupees ($700). 

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"This is being done to expedite the process of settling outsiders and hence fast-track massive demographic change," Faizaan Bhat, an independent researcher from Kashmir based in New Delhi, told The New Arab.

"At this point in time, when there is a global health emergency and we are struggling to deal with the pandemic, they have found an appropriate time to dispossess and humiliate Kashmiris," Bhat added.  

Last week, a picture of the domicile certificate granted to a senior Indian bureaucrat, Navin Kumar Choudhary, went viral on social media, leading to uproar among Kashmiri netizens.

Choudhary, originally from eastern India's Bihar state, is believed to be the first official from the Indian Administrative Service to become a permanent resident of Jammu and Kashmir.

"Why does a Indian bureaucrat with ample money and resources need to settle in a place like Kashmir ridden with conflict and violence? It is simply a ploy to change the Muslim-majority character of the province, which has been the primary agenda of (India's) ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)," a local resident from Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, told The New Arab.

The last census conducted in the region in 2011 found that Muslims formed the majority at 68 percent of the population, with Hindus constituting around 28 percent of residents. 

The new rules will enable outsiders to purchase properties and settle here. This is a new Palestine in the making
- Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain

The national spokesperson of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, GVL Narasimha Rao, refused to comment on accusations of his government's plan to change the Muslim-majority state's demography. "I don't think the query merits any response," he told The New Arab. Another BJP spokesperson, Nalin Kohli, also refused The New Arab's request for comment.

Disenfranchising Kashmiris 

In addition to fast-tracking domicile certificates, experts are also warning about the possibility of revoking residency rights of the original inhabitants of the state - a tactic used by Israel as a punitive measure against Palestinians.

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"The threat is most prominent for those Kashmiris who do not have the necessary documentation to establish themselves as permanent residents. Many vulnerable communities like nomads do not have any documents to establish their status," Mirza Saaib Beg, a Kashmiri lawyer who is currently a Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar and candidate for MPP at the University of Oxford, told The New Arab.

"Under the existing structure, anyone who fails to meet the criteria laid out for domicile certificates will not be eligible for jobs and admissions in educational institutions. Therefore, people will need to relocate elsewhere in search of employment and education," he added. 

While demographic changes appear imminent and are widely feared by the local population, Kashmiris have little recourse to justice – whether domestically or internationally – to challenge unilateral Indian policies.

India's Supreme Court has regularly deferred petitions which challenge the constitutional validity of the government's decision to revoke Kashmir's 'special status' last year – which laid the foundations for eventual demographic change. International options, meanwhile, are also far and few between.

"Institutions like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can exercise jurisdiction on matters referred to it by the UN General Assembly and on matters that involve states, or recognised countries, that have accepted the jurisdiction of the court. Kashmir is not a sovereign state, so that also doesn't help," said Beg.

"Besides, India has not granted any jurisdiction on disputes relating to or connected with facts or situations of hostilities or armed conflicts."

Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in New Delhi and has written extensively on South Asian politics and minority issues 

Follow him on Twitter: @HananZaffar

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