Kashmir: Tension rises as citizenship rights law under threat

There are fears of a demographic change in the Muslim-majority state if Article 35-A is repealed or amended.

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Tension is growing in Indian-administered Kashmir amid fears India’s top court will revoke a law on Monday protecting exclusive citizenship rights.

Article 35-A empowers the Jammu and Kashmir state’s legislature to define “permanent residents” and provide them with special rights and privileges. It also bars non-state subjects from purchasing property and having government jobs in the disputed state.

In the event India’s supreme court repeals the law, there are concerns about a demographic change in the Muslim-majority state.

Politicians, traders, civil society members and residents in the restive region have threatened a massive protest to defend the law, which grants them special status and prevents non-residents from permanent settlement.

“This is the matter of our identity,” Yasin Khan, who heads Kashmir Economic Alliance, a union of traders and businessmen, told Al Jazeera. “We have been protesting for a week now. No attempt will be tolerated to change the disputed nature and demographic character [of Kashmir] and making it like a state of Palestine.”

We The Citizens, an NGO widely seen in Kashmir as being linked to right-wing Hindu groups, filed the petition.

The group argues that Article 35-A is “highly discriminatory” and therefore, liable to be declared as unconstitutional.

The article is, it says, against the “very spirit of oneness of India” as it creates “a special class of citizen within a class of Indian citizens”.

Two-day strike threatened

Kashmiri separatists, who support merging the region with Pakistan or an independent state, called for a two-day strike from August 5 against what they called a “serious challenge”, warning of “mass agitation” if the law is changed.

Joint Resistance Leadership, an alliance of three separatist leaders – Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammd Yasin Malik – said in a statement: “We want to make it clear to the government of India that Kashmiris will not take this attack on them lying low. Any and every attempt made at changing the demographic nature of the state will be stiffly resisted.

“They can kill us or detain us, but we won’t succumb to pressure tactics. We are ready to sacrifice our lives and face detentions to safeguard people’s interests and the disputed nature of the state.”

There are fears that a significant protest movement could result in violence, shutdowns and curfews.

Zafar Shah will defend Article 35-A on behalf of a group of Kashmiri lawyers at court.

“The existence of this law is important for the disputed region to keep its political issue alive,” the lawyer told Al Jazeera. “This law is the identity of Kashmir and this constitutional provision protects four things: state subject, right to property in the state, employment and scholarships. If any change is made to the law, people will lose these rights.

“If the law is abrogated, it will affect the rights of people and the constitutional history of Kashmir dispute that is recognised by United Nations.”

The law was initially enacted by the last monarch of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, and has been in place since 1927. It was later included in the Indian constitution drafted after independence and was accepted in 1954.

This matter is related to the life and death of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and we are ready to spill our blood to safeguard this law.

Alliance of 27 Kashmiri groups defending Article 35-A

India’s ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) dismissed people’s fears.

“Those who are crying over it are fooling people. No one will lose jobs here. The matter is in court and whatever is decided, we will stand by that,” Ashok Koul, general secretary of BJP in the region, told Al Jazeera.

“There is no need to protest, nothing will change even if the law is scrapped. Kashmir is not different than any other state of India.”

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir and rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.

Over the past 20 years, violence has killed thousands of people, mostly civilians.

The region is currently under direct federal rule after a fragile coalition between the BJP and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a local pro-India party, collapsed in June this year.

Nasir Aslam Wani, a leader of the pro-Indian National Conference party, which has governed the state for much of the last seven decades, told Al Jazeera that it will defend the law in court.

“We oppose its repeal. This is about the rights of the citizens of Kashmir,” he said.

Senior Kashmiri separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq speaks during a demonstration against attempts to revoke Article 35-A [Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

The issue has united Kashmiris from across political and ideological divides.

Earlier this week, representatives of 27 organisations including traders, industrialists, transporters and fruit-growers in the region vowed to defend the law.

“If the law is removed or tinkered with, then the rights of original citizens of Jammu and Kashmir on their immovable property and other such rights would be taken away, and all Indians would be afforded a right to establish their settlements in the length and breadth of the state, pushing away the original citizens,” they said in a statement to reporters.

“This matter is related to the life and death of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and we are ready to spill our blood to safeguard this law.”

Residents worry that any change in the law will divert attention from the political dispute.

“The main reason why some right wing-groups want the law to be repealed is they want to make settlements here,” said Danish Ahmad, a 28-year-old local. “They want to erase the nature of Kashmir’s political dispute. It is worrying for all Kashmiris.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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