SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― A mid-level revenue official in Kashmir is sandwiched between the Government of India that has threatened to impose a Rs 50,000 fine on tehsildars who fail to issue domicile certificates within 15 days, and other Kashmiris who are deeply anxious about the demographic change this exercise may bring about in the region.
“It is a tough, tough situation,” said A. “We are caught between the government and society At a personal level, demographic change scares me too. It is a question of the future of our next generation.”
One year after the Narendra Modi government rescinded Jammu and Kashmir’s semi autonomous status and demoted India’s only Muslim majority state to a Union Territory on 5 August, Indians who have resided in J&K for fifteen years can apply for a domicile certificate that entitles them to vote, buy land and apply for government jobs in the conflict-ridden region. The time spent in J&K, which does not have to be in one stretch, is ten years in the case of central government employees and seven years for students from the other parts of India.
The region’s Muslim majority fears the influx of “outsiders” would over time reduce them to a minority. Others who have lived in the J&K for decades, including communities like the West Pakistan Refugees, Gorkhas and Valmikis in the Jammu Division, have been waiting to become domiciles for a long time.
Of the 13.6 million living in J&K, according to Census 2011, 68.3% are Muslim while Hindus are 30%. While Kashmir is 97% Muslim, the Jammu division is 65% Hindu and 31% Muslim.
These changes could transform the struggle for restoring Article 370, now running alongside a longstanding and violent militancy, into one of retaining the Kashmiri identity.
The Modi government has not only made it necessary for outsiders to get the domicile certificates, but also the region’s permanent residents, undoing, former J&K Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu says, the earlier principle of “domicile of origin” and replacing it with a “domicile of choice.”
“The rules obliterate, through redefining, the ethnic conceptions of belonging that was sought to be protected by the domicile law in the first place,” he writes.
Other states in India that have restrictions on who can vote and buy property are Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Nagaland.
Khurram Parvez, a noted human rights defender and convenor of Srinagar-based Coalition of Civil Society, said the influx of new domiciles would not only relegate the demographic majority into a minority, but also profoundly alter the nature of the existing conflict and further relegate the concerns that Kashmiris have raised over the decades.
“Down the line, J&K will cease to be a Muslim majority region and this will also alter the complexion of the lingering dispute in and over the erstwhile state,” he said.
Ashok Kaul, the J&K spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Modi’s party, said that he believe that most domicile applicants would be people already living in the region, and only a few outsiders would apply, but he did not provide an explanation for this assumption. “The new domicile rules won’t change the demography,” he said.
“We are caught between the government and society At a personal level, demographic change scares me too.”
The work of a tehsildar
A, in an interview on 25 July, spoke of receiving 2,000 domicile applications since June, the bulk of them from Kashmiris, who, according to the new rules for domicile, must also apply for domicile in J&K.
Earlier, under Article 370, J&K citizens were issued permanent resident certificates, but now the Modi government has left them with no choice by making a domicile certificate a pre-requisite for buying land and applying for jobs.
A spoke of receiving 25 applications from non-Kashmiris, all of them online, and rejecting all of them because the accompanying documents didn’t prove they had lived in the area under his jurisdiction for 15 years. A did the same for Kashmiris, explaining that permanent residents of J&K have to show documentary proof of living in his area. Non Kashmiris, A said, have to show documentary proof of cumulative in any part of J&K.
A had approved around 1,600 applications by the end of July, all of them from Kashmiris.
Tale of a tailor
One non-Kashmiri, A said, was a tailor from Uttar Pradesh, who claimed to have been living in the area since 2002.
A said the tailor failed to produce a rent deed and instead got his landlord to testify for him. But the landlord, A said, refused to give a signed document saying the tailor was his tenant for 15 years.
That got A into trouble. The tailor, A said, complained to the Deputy Commissioner of the district and an inquiry followed.
“I pleaded that this person had no property in my area and had moved away from there,” A said. “They eventually accepted my decision.”
A is anticipating more such disputes over domicile certificates in the years to come. The situation, A said, is bound to get more complicated in the Kashmir Valley.
“We are just starting out,” A said. “Right now, only a few people are applying. In the weeks and months to come, lakhs are expected to apply, and many of them are likely to be the outsiders. It will be a huge challenge to deal with this rush.”
“J&K will cease to be a Muslim majority region and this will also alter the complexion of the ldispute in and over the erstwhile state.”
Kashmir and Jammu Division
By the end of July, the J&K government had granted 3.7 lakh domicile certificates, 2.9 lakh of them in Jammu Division and 79,300 in Kashmir.
A revenue official based in Srinagar, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak with the media, said that a majority of those issued domicile are permanent residents of J&K, and a significant number of them are from three communities — West Pakistan Refugees, Gurkhas and Valmikis (sanitation workers) — who have been residing in Jammu division for decades without the rights to buy property, vote or apply for government jobs.
Kashmir hosts around eight to one million migrant workers who largely work in construction and agriculture sectors, and a large number of them are believed to meet the eligibility criteria for domicile.
But officials say the violence in Kashmir makes settling here a less enticing prospect than the Jammu Division.
In July, a BJP youth leader Sheikh Waseem Bari and his father and brother were killed by militants at Bandipora in North Kashmir. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, this year, 203 people have lost their lives comprising 152 militants, 34 security personnel and 17 civilians. While the official estimate of people killed in J&K since the militancy started in 1990 is 42,000, the Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights group based in Srinagar puts the death toll at 70,000.
Some outsiders in Kashmir are also reluctant to apply for the residency rights, in deference to the local sensitivities.
Zeeshan Ahmad, who sells sweet meats from a cart in Srinagar, came to Kashmir with his parents when he was just three months old from Sherkot in district Bijnor of Uttar Pradesh, but he does not want to apply for domicile.
“We know people here would not like it. This would make people unnecessarily hostile towards us,” he said.
WPRs, Gorkhas and Valmikis
Under the deal that J&K’s first prime minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah struck with New Delhi for J&K to stay with India, it was the J&K government that decided who was a permanent resident. Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which was struck down along with Article 370 last August, kept outsiders including refugees from West Pakistan, or long time residents like Gorkhas and Valmikis, from becoming domiciles of J&K.
Lobha Ram Gandhi, Chairman of the West Pakistan Refugees Action Committee, who estimated the population of WPRs in Jammu Division to be 8 to 10 lakh, is thrilled at the new domicile status “finally” available to his community.
“We didn’t ever imagine that this day will come,” he said. “But it has. And it is nothing short of a miracle for us”
“It is nothing short of a miracle for us.”
The Gurkhas, a community comprising around 500 families, whose members are the famous Gurkhas soldiers of the Indian Army, are similarly pleased.
In 1960, then Prime Minister of J&K Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad had given Gurkha families land to construct their houses, but it was not their property.
“Now we can transfer the land in our name”, says Leela Thakur, the chairperson of Gorkha Sabha in Jammu. “We are happy with Modi ji. He made it possible”
In 1957, in the wake of the indefinite strike observed by the local sweepers in Jammu, Bakshi brought more from Gurdaspur and Amritsar. The Valmiki community in the Jammu Division is estimated at 206 to 272 families. They were given Permanent Resident Certificates at the time with a proviso that they could only apply for jobs as sweepers.
“Getting a domicile is a big thing for us. It has opened up new life prospects for our youth who could only apply for sweeper jobs,” said Garu Bhatti, president Valmiki Samaj, Jammu. “Our new generation is educated. They want to move ahead in life.”
“It has opened up new life prospects for our youth who could only apply for sweeper jobs.”
Unease in Jammu
Rajeev Jindal, a 43-year-old liquor marketing agent from Kolkata, who lives in Jammu Division’s Samba district, applied for a domicile certificate on 22 June.
Jindal submitted a host of documents including a certificate from a local liquor company where he worked from 2004 to 2014, his provident fund account number, his son’s birth certificate, and transactions with J&K Bank going back to 2006. He even filed a complaint against his local tehsildar when he did not get the domicile certificate within the stipulated fortnight.
“I have been in J&K for the past 17 years and have all the documents to prove it. I deserve the domicile certificate. Where will I go? At this age, I can’t start my life afresh in any other state,” Jindal said in an interview on 17 July.
Notwithstanding the prospect of the shift of political power away from Kashmir Valley to Jammu Division that the new domicile rules are expected to make, there is also unease in Jammu with respect to the loss of land, livelihood and jobs to new domiciles.
Leaders from Congress and the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party have said the new domicile rules will not only deprive the youth of the local employment but also pave way for the takeover of the land by outsiders.
“There is unease in Jammu. Our demography, culture and identity are getting diluted,” said Harshdev Singh, leader of Panthers Party and its lone lawmaker in the last J&K Assembly. “People have been opposing the domicile law. But because of restrictions in place due to the pandemic, people are not able to come out”.
Jindal, who got his domicile certificate on 21 July, is not aware of the troubled backdrop to his citizenship claim.
“I have no time to think about politics. I am too preoccupied with my livelihood and family,” he said. “This is why the domicile certificate is important for me. After all, J&K has been my karmabhoomi.”
Editor’s note: A’s name has been withheld to protect to A’s identity.