Shifting landscape and searing anxiety in Kashmir

A volley of amended Acts post-Article 370 abrogation has unleashed a sense of distress in the valley where commoners are currently struggling to hit the normal routine amid COVID concerns.

By the time first—1947—Kashmir war thawed and resulted in regime rearrange, Rehman Dar’s father found himself at the crossroads of history—that was to haunt his homeland for years to come.

In that bloodcurdling fall, his routine land forays changed forever.

To his chagrin, the belt nestled near the mausoleum of Kashmir’s national poet Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor became a barrack of the war-weary Indian troopers, earlier flown in sorties to counter the marching Afridis from Pakistan’s tribal frontiers.

Thus, began what he calls his family’s and that of his tribe’s ‘unending tryst’ with the garrisoned land.

By 1954, a year after the incarceration of Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah—the leader whose emergency rule ushered the “land to tiller” reforms in the valley—Rehman’s family watched their landholdings being devoured in the name of defence.

That year, the Badamibagh (BB) Cantonment was formally established in Srinagar. Over the years, it spread over an area of 1,458.537 acres including civil area of 313.50 acres. What used to be a simple barrack for Maharaja’s turbaned troopers became one among the six stations declared as cantonment after the spine-chilling partition of the Indian Subcontinent.

But even as the gargantuan military installation spread its tentacles with time, the hope that one day their lands would be demilitarised, never died down.

Rehman lived with this hope and died with it. His son, now a senior citizen, became a foot-soldier and the heir-apparent of his family’s cause. Receiving meagre rent, he awaited dawn, when, as beloved bard Agha Shahid Ali yearned, “the soldiers return the keys and disappear…”

But then, came August 5, 2019, and New Delhi decided to alter the political landscape of Kashmir by abolishing Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status.

Months later, on July 18, 2020, the Government of India amended Control of Building Operations Act 1988 and J&K Development Act 1970, allowing armed forces to regulate construction in ‘strategic areas’.

Ten days later, on July 28, the central law on land acquisition was extended to J&K.

Additionally, a 1971-circular was withdrawn which required the armed forces to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ before acquiring any land in J&K.

“The Act was the last nail in the coffin,” Rehman laments, while sitting with glum face on the fringes of Sonawar belt. “My fear is bigger now. With this act, they can declare any land as ‘strategic’ and turn it into a barrack.”

Rehman’s fears aren’t entirely misplaced.

The Act has empowered the armed forces to carry out construction activities beyond cantonments. The forces can define strategic areas and once notified, the existing authority would be replaced by a new authority on the pattern of the cantonment boards.

Already, the imposition of Disturbed Areas Act and Armed Forces Act authorise the Indian armed forces to establish military encampments and bunkers in the region. The existing campgrounds house a sizeable military number.

A 2007 report by Outlook reveals that 39,210 acres of “privately owned” land is under the use of the army in the erstwhile state. Further, a 2018 report notes that 4.30 lakh kanals of land in J&K are already under the Armed forces.

And now, the acquisition will be under Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. “This means a free ticket to acquire land in the name of national security or defence of India or State police, safety of the people,” an analyst opines.

As New Delhi today, in absence of the beleaguered local unionist camp, is issuing a slew of orders and circulars, “aiming at undoing the old setup and status quo”, commoners fear that the state has moved beyond establishing control over physical space and has penetrated into social life of the region.

Amid the valley’s uncertain situation, coppersmith Nisar Mir from Old City is running from pillar to post.

These days he’s making rounds of the Tehsildar’s office for getting a new identity proof — Domicile Certificate.

“I was told that state subject is no longer valid now, is that true?” Mir, whose sole breadwinning job hardly spares any time for distressing news, asks.

“I don’t know why they’re doing this now. Have they forgotten their own past blunders—like the 1987 rigged elections and its outcome? Problem with New Delhi is that they want to manipulate the reality of Kashmir through martial management. But truth is like sun, it’s bound to shine.”

What’s making the entire process gruelling for the likes of Mir is the demanding paperwork and online application to obtain the controversial certificate in a 2G network.

Such procedures of pushing natives to prove and secure their new identities have made many Kashmiris believe that they’re already part of “a subtle form of NRC exercise”.

These fears escalated when the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) amended the 2010 legislation pertaining to the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 (Decentralization and Recruitment Act) on May 31, 2020, substituting the term ‘permanent residents’ with ‘domiciles of J&K’.

The amendment, notably, was brought in when Kashmir was reeling under the COVID lockdown, within an already existing lockdown.

Under the law, a domicile can be anyone who has “resided in J&K for 15 years or attained 7 years of education, and children of central government employees or government of India aided organisations who have served in J&K for 10 years”. The timeframe of issuance of a domicile certificate was initially kept 15 days, which has now come down to 5 days only.

Despite the union territory managers allying fears, saying that the domicile document is only meant for employment in J&K, the lockdown-laden natives reckon that the controversial certificate will make outsiders eligible to hold land and cast votes.

Previously, all these provisions were a prerogative of permanent residents of J&K through their state subject — the binned identity paper.

“If one even thinks of a remote possibility of a UN recommended plebiscite happening in the near future,” many believe, “this domicile law would’ve changed the demography of the region to India’s benefit.”

So far, nearly 15 lakh people have been granted domicile certificates in J&K, including non-native IAS officers.

A military facility, infamous for being a torture centre, at a strategic location in Ganderbal.

Commentators feel that these administrative alterations only compliment the Modi government’s “Naya Kashmir” blueprint.

As part of the same vision, they say, the Administrative Council on July 17, 2020, gave a go-ahead to the proposal of the Housing & Urban Development Department for adoption and notification of the J&K Housing, Affordable Housing, Slum Redevelopment and Rehabilitation and Township Policy, 2020.

Approving 2 lakh dwelling units to be built in a span of few years envisages seven models of housing, ranging from in-situ slum redevelopment to integrated township.

It’s believed that the proposed housing policies with rental housing and approving of different models of housing pose a valid suspicion of a demand of housing being created for outsiders.

Earlier, on December 12, 2019, 57,000 acres of land was identified in J&K for setting up industrial estates. Similarly, in February 2020, a mining auction was held online while Kashmir was still under internet blackout; hence, giving 100 per cent of the mining rights to outsiders.

Lately, the genie came out of the bottle yet again, when Srinagar Metropolitan Regional Master Plan laid out a Special Investment Corridor to the south and west of the Srinagar city, around which High density residential areas have been demarcated.

The Master Plan confirms that informal and formal housing colonies have been proposed in the town planning scheme as well as in the Special Investment Corridor, even before the J&K Housing Policy, 2020 was introduced.

Another concerning element in the Master Plan is the carefully designed eviction of Dal dwellers from the Dal Lake.

The Draft House Boat Policy issued on June 27, 2020 drew flak for proposing eviction of locals and apparently disempowering them.

According to the policy, no new houseboats will be allowed to be built and the current ones will have to renew their registration following certain conditions. While stating environmental concerns as the reason for this move, the Master Plan clearly demonstrates proposals to build floating gardens in Dal, cafes, and introduction of water sports.

In 2000, a plan to rehabilitate Dal dwellers, which were considered encroachers, in colonies in Bemina and Budgam was rolled out. These colonies are built on floodplains and marshy lands, hence, vulnerable to natural disasters.

In the same Master Plan 2035, saffron fields have been tagged ‘special areas’, which were previously marked under the legend of agriculture.

This abrupt un-grouping of the saffron fields from agriculture group to special category has been a very confusing to read and offers no explanation.

The closest that could be read with the saffron fields on the Master Plan – is that large fields of saffron are very close to where the proposed Food Parks and Export Promotion Industrial Parks in Khunmoh and Budgam are being planned.

The probable question that arises here is – with the special category attached with saffron fields, what is going to be the ownership of the saffron fields like? Who will control the economy of the saffron fields?

Likewise, in June 2020, J&K Forest Department was converted into a government owned corporation.

The order says that the corporation will have a share capital of Rs 10 crores, and all except 2 of those will be held by the Lt. Governor. The order explicitly does not make any claims but this move, many fear, will potentially allow outsiders to buy forest land in J&K.

In the backdrop of these “distressing developments”, commoners like Rehman have only grown nonchalant and thoughtful over the fast transforming landscape of Kashmir.

“My father used to talk a lot about the pre-1947 treacherous times when Dogra Maharaja’s tyrannical troupes would unleash terror on Kashmiris,” Rehman recalls. “And now when my sons also grumble about the harsh times, I feel the clock has been reversed, and we’re back to those harrowing times.”


Evita Das contributed to this article.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected]


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