India’s Modi visits Kashmir: How has the region changed since 2019?

Here’s a look at Narendra Modi’s government policies and how they have affected Kashmir since the region’s semi-autonomous status was taken away.

Paramilitary soldiers guard near a billboard ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir.
Paramilitary soldiers stand guard near a billboard ahead of Modi's visit to Srinagar [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday made his first visit to Kashmir since his government’s controversial 2019 decision to scrap the region’s special semi-autonomous status.

Addressing a crowd at a football stadium in the region’s largest city, Srinagar, Modi claimed that the removal of Article 370, which granted a measure of autonomy to Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, had ushered in development and peace.

“I am working hard to win your hearts, and my attempt to keep winning your hearts will continue,” Modi said even as the region was placed under a security blanket, with thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces deployed and new checkpoints set up.

The 2019 decision was hailed by the Hindu nationalist movement that Modi represents, but was met with anger in Kashmir – one of India’s only two Muslim-majority regions – which has seen a decades-long armed rebellion against Indian rule.

Since then, Modi has visited Hindu-majority Jammu region, but has stayed away from Kashmir, until now, on the eve of the 2024 national elections.

Modi and his government have claimed that the scrapping of Article 370, and their subsequent policies in Kashmir, have helped transform the region for the better.

Here’s a look at key changes brought to Kashmir by Modi’s government since 2019:

Special status under Article 370 removed

Article 370, which was enshrined in India’s constitution signifying Kashmir’s unique relationship with New Delhi, granted the Himalayan region a large measure of autonomy: Kashmir had its own constitution and flag, it could make its own laws in all matters except finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.

Until 1965, the Indian-administered region had its own prime minister under whom property and domicile laws were passed to protect the interests and territorial rights of the region’s Indigenous people.

However, successive Indian governments watered down the autonomy, leaving the region, in some cases, with fewer powers than other states in India’s federal structure. The region had become heavily militarised after armed rebellion erupted in the late 1980s.

The 2019 revocation of Article 370 resulted in the loss of Kashmir’s flag, criminal code and constitutional guarantees. Several Indian states have laws in place to protect the tribal and Indigenous populations. Kashmir no longer does.

In December 2023, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the 2019 decision. Kashmir has been a major source of conflict between India and its neighbour, Pakistan, for more than 75 years. Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety but govern only a portion of it.

Indian-administrated Kashmir bifurcated into two

Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated into two regions – Jammu and Kashmir in the west and Ladakh in the east. Neither region has statehood any more, as a consequence of the Modi government’s 2019 decisions.

Both are governed directly from New Delhi.

But people have expressed their grievances against their lack of democratic rights, with Ladakh too seeing frequent protests for more political rights and authority in local governance.

No elections for state legislature

The two new regions – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – have been without a state legislature since 2019. The last state elections were held in 2014 – the year Modi first came to power.

In December 2020, the first local elections took place to elect 280 members of District Development Councils (DDC) across Indian-administered Kashmir’s 20 districts. The DDC members, however, do not have the power to amend or introduce laws.

There have also been elections to fill seats in the village councils, also called panchayat, and municipal bodies, but they have very limited power, with the region ruled by New Delhi’s representative and bureaucrats.

India’s Supreme Court in December ordered the government to hold local elections by September 30, 2024.

Kashmir’s pro-India political parties have been demanding that elections be held in the region.

Modi and his government, however, have not indicated when they will hold the elections.

Clampdown on free speech

In the wake of the 2019 decision, New Delhi cracked down on rights activists and local politicians, imposed sweeping restrictions on free speech and shutting down the internet for months. Authorities used “antiterror” laws to arrest Kashmiri activists and journalists.

Human rights groups, including United Nations agencies, have criticised New Delhi for its rights violations in Kashmir.

On Friday, Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan was rearrested under an “antiterror” law days after his release from prison after five years. Sultan, the former editor of the now defunct Kashmir Narrator magazine, was arrested in 2018 for “harbouring militants”. His family has denied the allegations.

In November 2021, prominent Kashmiri activist, Khurram Parvez was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Kashmiri journalist Irfan Mehraj, who was previously associated with Parvez’s human rights organisation, was also arrested. UN experts and Amnesty International have condemned the arrest of Parvez and called for his release.

Journalist Fahad Shah, the editor of independent news portal Kashmir Walla, was released in November 2023 after more than 600 days of confinement under the “antiterror” law.

Journalist Sajad Gul was arrested in January 2022 under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows the detention of an individual without trial for six months.

A global report on internet censorship in 2022 found that Kashmir experienced more internet shutdowns and restrictions than any other region in the world.

Lack of protection for local communities

The Indian government also removed Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which barred outsiders from permanently settling, buying land and holding local government jobs in the Muslim-majority region.

Other Indian states such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Odisha continue to safeguard the property rights of local residents, mostly tribal or Indigenous people.

Non-Kashmiris can now buy property in the region. This has prompted fears that the Modi government is trying to engineer a demographic shift in the Muslim-majority region.

These fears were further fuelled by a new domicile law for Indian citizens that the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs introduced in April 2020.

Under the domicile law, those who have lived in the Indian-administered region for 15 years, or have studied for seven years and appeared in secondary or high school-leaving examinations in educational institutions located in the region, are eligible to become permanent residents. Children of government officials who have served for 10 years in the region are also granted domicile status.

This law too has made Kashmiris fearful of permanent settlement by outsiders, including the family members of Indian security forces. Leaders from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have rejected that there are attempts to alter the demographics of the region.

Indigenous communities in Kashmir, and Ladakh are also affected by environmental damage and an influx of tourists. Kashmir’s Dal Lake is choked with sewage and its farmers suffer as a result of illegal river mining, and Ladakh is struggling to mitigate flooding and landslides.

Attempt at delimitation in Kashmir

The New Delhi-run local authorities have also redrawn assembly constituencies that many Kashmiris fear are aimed at the democratic marginalisation of Muslims.

A delimitation commission is assigning more legislative seats to the Hindu-majority Jammu region – where the BJP has wide support – than Kashmir Valley, despite the latter having a higher population. The total seats from Jammu region are expected to rise to 43 from 37, but only by one in Kashmir – to 47 from the existing 46, in effect changing the balance of power within the legislature.

Armed attacks continue in Indian-administered Kashmir

Modi’s ruling BJP government has said that Article 370 was abrogated to wipe out “terrorism” in the region and it has claimed that its policies have improved the security of the region.

However, armed attacks have continued in the region, causing deaths among civilians, security forces and rebels. Since 2021, attacks against Indian soldiers in districts like Rajouri and Poonch in the Jammu region have increased.

Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi told Al Jazeera in December 2023 that most of the recent killings of security forces took place in army-initiated operations. “I don’t believe that normalcy has returned after Article 370 abrogation,” said Sahni.

The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) reported that the incidence of killing in the Indian-administered Kashmir went from 135 in 2019 to 140 in 2020 and further rose to 153 in 2021. While the number of incidents dropped to 72 in 2023, 33 security forces were killed in the year compared with 30 in 2022, where 151 incidents took place.

Source: Al Jazeera