Maverick Citizen Op-ed
India’s Agony: The erasure of Kashmiri indigenous rights accelerates under Covid-19
As the world fights the pandemic the Indian government unilaterally, and without a break, continues to change the laws and policies in Kashmir, even when India’s own constitution considers this illegal and unconstitutional.
The Indian government, headed by the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continues to claim that the removal of autonomy on 5 August 2019 of the Indian-occupied Kashmir is for the sole reason of vikas (development). Kashmiri people see the revocation of autonomy as an attack on their ethnic, religious and national identity and indigenous rights. The erasure of territorial sovereignty of Kashmir is paving the way for settler colonialism, dispossession of natives and rampant exploitation of resources and ecocide.
In 1947, the region was a princely state with a Muslim majority and ruled by a despotic Hindu monarch. At the time of the partition of British India and the formation of India and Pakistan, the dominant sentiment among Kashmiris was for independence. The monarch also envisaged Kashmir becoming the Switzerland of the East. The British partition plan, however, only allowed the option of India or Pakistan and their competing claims ended in war in 1948.
The UN arbitration resulted in a ceasefire and bifurcation of the region until a plebiscite was held. Instead of a plebiscite, India especially began pursuing aggressive integrationist policies. Wary of the deep-rooted self-determination of the masses, India engineered autonomy, also known as Article 370, as an interim arrangement. This was drawn up with a section of Kashmiri client politicians until the plebiscite was held. But the government of India had no intention to honour it. It also put into motion policies to erode Kashmir’s autonomy, pursuing a full integration of the state.
As the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian government unilaterally without a break, is continuing to change the laws and policies in Kashmir, even when India’s own constitution considers this illegal and unconstitutional.
Kashmiris face this on top of the quarantine, relentless war and counterinsurgency policies. Since August 2019, Kashmir was under curfew for more than four months and partial restrictions continued with e-curfew until early 2020. The restrictions are still continuing on cellphone services and only 2G internet is allowed. Consequently, India has broken its own record for the longest internet shutdown in Kashmir.
The economic loss inflicted on Kashmiris in the past 18 months is more than several billion dollars. Unemployment is on the rise and there are clear signs of dispossession of local Kashmiris from land and business, even administration and obviously governance.
In April 2020, the Indian government unilaterally amended the Domicile Act, fully oiling the wheels of settler colonialism. The new law allows all Indian citizens to become domiciles acquiring the right to franchise, property and employment which under the autonomous status were reserved for the indigenous population of Kashmir.
It cannot be said enough that Kashmir is “going the Palestine way”. In October 2020, the Indian government officially ended the exclusive land rights of indigenous Kashmiris, which were safeguarded under the autonomy agreement. Now anyone can buy non-agricultural land in the region.
Since it had come into effect the autonomy agreement had acted as a deterrent for the Indian government to directly amend laws, but it had been more of a Trojan horse which enabled Indian laws and statutes to be juridically imposed on Kashmir. It solidified Kashmir’s governance through clientelist regimes that helped India in eroding Kashmir’s autonomy through administrative, military and judicial means. And over the years it masqueraded annexation as administration, occupation as governance and illicit electoral process as democracy. By the time autonomy was forcibly removed in 2019 only a few symbolic parts and most tangibly the territorial sovereignty clause of the original agreement remained in force.
The death knell of dispossession, which has long been echoing in Kashmir since 1947, even under so-called secular Indian governments, began materialising fast after August 2019.
Even though the larger consequences of the land laws changing at breakneck speed are still unfolding, Kashmiri activists refute the government’s claim that 90% of the land is protected. They claim that most land in Kashmir is either agricultural land or forest land and cannot be used for industry or construction, but it is already under such use. Then there is the allocation of land to retired army officers and non-Kashmiris and the building of separate townships and colonies for Kashmiri Hindu Pandit migrants.
The creation of separate territories predicated on religion is setting the stage for deepening the Kashmir dispute and internecine warfare.
Most concerning is that under the new laws the Indian army can declare any land as “strategic” and take it without permission or civilian consensus. Kashmir is already the world’s most militarised zone. It is a de facto camp under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gives the military power to control the region with impunity and zero accountability. Since 1989 there are more than 700,000 Indian troops in the region, gross human rights violations include more than 100,000 people killed, 10,000-plus enforced disappearances, rape used a weapon of war, mass incarcerations and injuries including the world’s first mass blindings.
The Indian government is claiming that the new laws will bring industrialisation, economic growth, jobs and agricultural development. But all changes so far point towards a blinding unsustainable growth around big corporates while dispossessing local traders, agriculturalists and pastoralists. Headlines such as “10,000 apple trees cut”, “Pastoralists removed from ancestral lands”, “Lease of hoteliers not extended” are dominating the news coming out of Kashmir.
It is clear the stage is being set for neocolonial maldevelopment and erasure of indigenous rights fuelled by a fully fledged settler colonialism.
The control of local resources, especially Kashmir’s rivers, is a glaring example of how corporations, even before the removal of autonomy, have been a tool of India’s occupation. Kashmiris have long referred to these water corporations as the New East India Company. They are now bracing for more incursions on their environment and natural resources.
Even the pro-Indian client politicians inside Kashmir, who for the past 72 years have sided with India, have called the new laws “colonial” and against the people”. Whether genuinely or as a façade to further dilute the political question of Kashmir, these client politicians, many of whom were arrested following the removal of autonomy, have formed a united coalition. They seek restoration of autonomy and protest against sidelining the Kashmiri legislature in unilateral decision making.
With Kashmir having been divided into two and downgraded from a state to a union territory, it is directly governed from Delhi. In this equation, these pro-India politicians have been further reduced to caricatures of their previous client selves. For the majority of Kashmiris restoration of autonomy or statehood is being constructed in ways that downgrade their original demand for the right to self-determination and independence.
Kashmir’s resistance for indigenous rights is older than India itself
The Indian narrative in the most ahistoric, racist, Hindu supremacist and Islamophobic manner casts Kashmir as a terrorism issue aided by Pakistan. The fact that Kashmir’s resistance for indigenous rights is older than India itself is conveniently subsumed, as is the BJP’s goal of making India a Hindu rashtra (nation).
The dominant Muslimness of Kashmir in context of an India which is simmering in anti-Muslim and anti-minority hate, the lens of xenophobia and Islamophobia are key players in the brutal crackdown on the Muslim majority Kashmir. The Hindu nationalists have celebrated the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy as a step towards establishing a Hindu rashtra. The “invasion” of Kashmir was celebrated and the media was abuzz with opinions on buying land and property in Kashmir. Politicians announced plans for a survey to open 50,000 temples, others publicly issued calls to kidnap or marry “fair-skinned Kashmiri girls”. The Indian ethno-nationalist colonial gaze fetishised Kashmir as finally fully “invaded”, with its land and people perceived as spoils of war.
The ideology flourishing in India today is based on an extremely constructed mythical version of Hindu indigeneity in which Muslims are cast as invaders and foreigners. The fresh attack on Kashmir and removal of its autonomy is the Indian religious ethnonationalism, which has been focused on making India an imperial Hindu power, coming to fruition. And the intensifying neoliberal policies which are in favour geopolitically encourage India as much as they are responsible for creating the calamity that the country is unleashing on its own indigenous minorities and Kashmiris.
The BJP has activated an agenda of corporatising and linking nationalism to the economy, manifested in the slogan “One Nation, One Market”. Thus, the mix of neocolonialism, neo-liberalism and Hindutva is active in the service of building the rashtra. In its expansionist nightmare of a vision, Kashmir as prime real estate inhabited by Muslims has become its choicest victim. Thus, for India, Kashmir is to be returned to a mythical Hindu past made possible through settler colonialism, neoliberal maldevelopment and ecocide. DM/MC
This article is the 10th in India’s Agony, a series looking at the rise and manifestations of authoritarianism and intolerance in India.
Ather Zia is a political anthropologist, poet, short fiction writer and columnist. She is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. Ather is the author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir.
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