By KO Correspondent
Ten non-locals have been killed in Kashmir since the August 5 scrapping of Article 370 which granted Kashmir partial autonomy under India’s constitution and barred outsiders from settling down in the erstwhile state. Four of the victims were active in Valley’s apple industry leaving it reeling in the midst of harvest, five were construction workers and the one was a labourer at a brick-kiln. The killings triggered a flight of non-local traders and labourers from the Valley. It took some additional security deployment by the government in sensitive areas to arrest the exodus.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the killings and it is unlikely that anyone will. This is the first time in three decades of the armed separatist struggle in the state that the outsiders have been targeted. The message is clear: outsiders should leave the Valley even if it means dealing a body blow to Rs 10,000 crore apple industry which directly and indirectly gives livelihood to 3.5 million people of the state.
The only credible explanation for the killings is the fear of the outsider triggered by the loss of autonomous status which has made Kashmir a fair game for demographic change, something that New Delhi has also not ruled out. Article 370 safeguarded the state’s unique culture, language and Muslim majority character and it is for these features that the article was valued in Kashmir more than the partial autonomy in running the erstwhile state’s internal affairs it guaranteed.
Is the thirty year old bloody conflict in the state thus taking on an existential dimension? As the killings seem to indicate, the conflict could be heading in that direction, becoming less about the struggle for right to self-determination which it has so far been and more about protecting the identity.
The paranoia about a perceived hostile New Delhi allegedly conspiring “to dilute Valley’s Muslim majority character” is already redrawing the discourse in Valley like never before. It is bringing into full play the issues of land and identity, hitherto more or less dormant elements of the ongoing conflict which operated so far largely along a political dimension. And this is pitting Kashmiri Muslims not only against New Delhi but also against the outsiders in the state. Already, an estimated six lakh migrant labourers from other parts of the country have fled the Valley following removal of Article 370. Although, their departure was occasioned by the extraordinary situation that followed August 5, a sudden hostile environment against them in the Valley became a factor too. In some parts of the Valley, these labourers are reported to have been told by the local people to leave. This has triggered in the Valley an extreme shortage of the labour, more so, in apple industry which is currently going through its harvest.
There is little outside labour available for construction and agriculture activities too. Five labourers who were killed on October 29, the day European delegation visited Kashmir, were building a house at the time. This has already raised the cost of local labour in Kashmir, as the availability falls far short of the demand. But this has hardly become an issue in Kashmir. Despite the three-month long shutdown taking a massive toll on the economy, rendering thousands jobless and crushing some businesses, shops and businesses seem unlikely to re-open in near future.
The shock of revocation of Article 370 is yet to sink in. And most of this shock springs from the deepening anxiety about the identity. There is a foreboding of what New Delhi might do next, now that it directly rules J&K, a union territory now. And New Delhi hasn’t acquitted itself well by its actions so far. Between August and October 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of J&K has already given clearances to 125 projects involving diversion of forest land. There are no details in public domain about these projects and how much land is involved.
In 2008, around 70 people had lost their lives and several hundred were injured in protest against the transfer of 40 acres of forest land for the development of the infrastructure for pilgrims to Amarnath shrine, following which the government had to cancel the transfer. But after the loss of special status which has passed the reigns of J&K into the hands of the central government, Kashmiris have no say in the governance of the UT. BJP-led union government can do to the state as it chooses, largely unmindful of what the majority of people think of its actions.
Deepening fears in Kashmir further is the BJP’s longstanding ideological position on the state which among other far-reaching designs seeks to restructure the state – already accomplished by bifurcating J&K into two union territories J&K and Ladakh – and re-engineer its electoral map by giving more seats to Hindu majority Jammu as the already initiated process of delimitation has made it clear. The sweeping changes like these and the apprehensions about a demographic makeover of the UT are fast redrawing the contours of the Kashmir problem as it existed prior to August 5: a struggle for freedom from New Delhi’s rule going on alongside an India-Pakistan conflict over the state. The conflict is now transforming into an existential issue, into a fight for the protection of identity, something that in its initial phase is triggering a deep suspicion of the outsiders. They are seen as the unlawful claimants to the land in Kashmir, backed by the might of the state, the future citizens who over time will relegate the current Muslim majority into a minority. It is now obvious that a majority of people in J&K see the push toward integration of the UT, along with the larger changes it telegraphs, as less about development and more about replacement. This has lodged a troubling new dynamic into the situation in Kashmir which doesn’t bode well for the future. That is, if New Delhi doesn’t pre-empt it by taking steps to credibly address the anxiety of the people about the land and identity.