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‘Slow demographic change’: New J&K domicile rules draw chorus of protests

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For months after August 5, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of special status and carved up into two Union Territories, residents of the Valley feared it was a step towards demographic change in the culturally distinct region. In both Jammu and Kashmir, residents feared the loss of land and economic rights.

If the Centre’s new domicile rules were meant to dispel these fears, they do not seem to have succeeded in Kashmir. The rules were met by a chorus of protests from political parties as well as ordinary residents of the Valley. Their main objection – the definition of domiciles in Jammu and Kashmir, which would pave the way for non-local residents taking over jobs and land.

The new domiciles

On March 31, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown to fight the coronavirus, the Union home ministry quietly rolled the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order 2020. Most of the rules are meant to fill the gap left by Article 35A, a law which was repealed on August 5.

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The law, introduced in 1954, empowered state governments to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir and reserve for them certain rights and privileges. Till August last year, the term permanent resident covered those who were state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir in 1954 and their descendants. It also included those who had lived and owned land in Jammu and Kashmir for at least 10 years in 1954. Various rights, such as the right to own land in Jammu and Kashmir, hold government jobs and get state scholarships, were restricted to these permanent residents.

The new rules replace “permanent residents” of the former state with “domiciles” of the new Union Territory anyone who “who has resided for a period of fifteen years in the UT of J&K or has studied for a period of seven years and appeared in class 10th/12th examination in an educational institution located in the UT of J&K”. The children of such individuals would also be counted as domiciles.

The order expands the definition further, to include the “children of those Central government officials, All India Services officers, officials of PSUs [public sector units]and autonomous body of central government, public sector banks, officials of statutory bodies, officials of central universities and recognised research institutes of Central government who have served in Jammu and Kashmir for a total period of ten years”.

Finally, those registered as migrants by the relief and rehabilitation commissioner will also get domicile rights. So far, they are mainly Sikhs, Kashmiri Pandits as well as some Kashmiri Muslims who fled the Valley in the 1990s.

But only the lowest level, non-gazetted government jobs are reserved for domiciles. Any Indian citizen would be eligible for the remaining gazetted and non-gazetted jobs.

The home ministry order also amended the Jammu and Kashmir Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Act. References to “permanent residents” were deleted from the law, making it easier for non-local slum dwellers to gain property rights in Jammu and Kashmir.

‘Slow demographic change’

“This is a textbook Israeli-model,” claimed Manan Ahmad, a law student in Srinagar. “While Kashmiris will have reservation in low-key jobs, the fact that all the top posts are open to every Indian means that we’ll be no less than their slaves. It’s the first step to Kashmir becoming a Palestine.”

The domicile law, Ahmad said, was the government’s way of introducing “slow demographic change” without international censure. “When you talk about 15 years or 10 years of residing in Jammu and Kashmir, it essentially means that one day he/she will be a resident of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. “Instead of encouraging a flood of non-J&K citizens into Jammu and Kashmir, they will do it slowly. The state always has time.”

Another local resident, who did not want to be named, thought it was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s token attempt to appease its core constituency in Jammu. “It’s a fact that top government officers in Jammu and Kashmir are mostly non-locals,” he said. “Nobody will become a domicile of Jammu and Kashmir for low-key jobs. So that way, it doesn’t matter much. There’s been a lot of anxiety about the loss of job rights in Jammu region. It’s the BJP’s attempt to assure them.”

‘Suspect timing’

Valley-based political parties described the order as “humiliating”, declaring it it was “adding insult to injury”. They felt it fell short of expectations and questioned the timing of the announcement.

“At a time when all our efforts & attention should be focused on the #COVID outbreak, the government slips in a new domicile law for J&K,” tweeted Omar Abdullah, National Conference leader former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, who was recently released after seven months of detention.

If the government had the time to issue new domicile policies during a pandemic, Abdullah asked, they surely had the time to release other Kashmiri political leaders still imprisoned? Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is among those still imprisoned.

Said Junaid Azim Mattoo, spokesperson for the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference, which had once allied with the BJP: “The presidential order defining the domicile law issued at the depth of night while the world is under the grip of a deadly pandemic falls way short of expectations even for those who expected some relief, some reconciliation process,” said.

According to Mattu, the order reflected the government’s “patience to script a disaster of its own”. “There seems to be a clear intent of conveying yet another serving of humiliation and insult to the people of J&K after what transpired on August 5,” he said. “During the COVID-19 battle, the people of J&K didn’t deserve more humiliation.”

‘Take people into confidence’

The People’s Democratic Party, led by Mufti, said the law lacked a “humanitarian approach”. Moreover, those affected most by the law had not been consulted. It said that “all political parties and people from civil society across the region must be taken on board to achieve the larger good of the inhabitants of UT & Nation both”.

“These reassuring steps which have come from govt makes sense only if they are welcomed by the common masses,” said Mohit Bhan, the party spokesperson. “Laws are for the people of this land and they should be taken into confidence and their fears must be listened to and those in power are duty bound to allay these fears.”

Mufti’s daughter, Iltija Mufti, who currently operates her Twitter account, tweeted to say the rules betrayed the Central government’s “sense of insecurity”, even after it had claimed to have integrated Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country. “They are in a maddening rush to appropriate our land & resources,” Iltija Mufti tweeted. “Wonder why they don’t show the same sense of urgency to save lives of thousands of Kashmiris jailed in & outside J&K?”

Abdullah also lashed out at parties who had demanded domicile laws after Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of special status: “You can imagine how hollow the domicile law is from the fact that even the new party created with Delhi’s blessings, whose leaders were lobbying in Delhi for this law, have been forced to criticise the #JKdomicilelaw.”

A legal challenge?

This was directed at the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, headed by Altaf Bukhari. The former minister, who gained prominence in the political vacuum created after August 5, when most existing Valley-based leaders were locked up and silenced, has demanded domicile rights for months now. But he was not satisfied with the rules passed by the Centre.

“The order issued by the Union government reflects a casual exercise carried out at the bureaucratic level without taking the aspirations and expectations of people into consideration,” Bukhari said.

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The broad definition of domiciles also irked him. “This section of the order is an antithesis to what was promised by the prime minister and home minister on the floor of Parliament, assuring a better domicile law for the residents of J&K than what is being enjoyed by the people in other states of the country,” he said.

The clause to include students who had studied for seven years and written board examinations in Jammu and Kashmir, Bukhari said, “provides a tunnel for the non-residents of J&K to easily encroach upon the job protections” previously available to permanent residents.

Bukhari called for a stay on the order and hinted at a legal challenge to it, saying it was not above judicial review.