Winds of change swept across Banihal Tunnel lately when a militant mood in its political mainstay forced BJP-led Centre to amend a job clause in the controversial domicile law. For many, the fiery online opposition was a small sign of the larger brewing anger against the economic insecurity in the province.
Jammu expressed its anger in a rare outburst on March 31, nearly eight months after New Delhi abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and statehood on August 5 last year.
The outburst was triggered by rollout of the much awaited domicile law, declared hours before the dawn of the April Fool’s Day.
With Kashmir reeling under fears of an inevitable demographic change, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order 2020 upset residents of the Jammu division, as the law drafted by New Delhi initially provided reservation only for the lowest rung non-gazetted jobs.
The residents of Jammu had pinned hopes on assurances from the local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party that economic safeguards will be given to the natives.
As a lockdown is already in place due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jammu residents instead of taking to the streets took to social media releasing a barrage of videos and messages opposing the domicile law.
In one such video from the Doda district, a woman identified as Ankita accused the Narendra Modi led central government of playing games with the people of Jammu and Kashmir since August last year.
The woman sarcastically applauded New Delhi for passing the order as the pandemic spreads and “people can’t come out to protest”.
“You bring this [law] and think that we won’t react? It’s your mistaken belief,” she says in the video that has gone viral in the region.
“We have made a big mistake by trusting this government but we won’t do it again.”
The issue was neither communal nor regional, she emphasises.
“It’s not about Dogra or Kashmiri, Hindu or Muslim, it’s about the youth of Jammu and Kashmir,” she continues. “[The] future generations who do not yet know that their democratic rights have been taken away and their history erased.”
The consistency in the criticism of the BJP is evident even from a cursory scan of social media pages from the region; critical comments from across the board referred to the law as “draconian” and “unacceptable”, and the move as “shameful” and “betrayal”.
The local BJP’s social media pages are similarly inundated with criticism.
However, seemingly responding to the spontaneous outpour of resentment, the Centre amended the domicile law within two days and issued a fresh notification on April 2 extending domicile reservation to all government jobs in the Union Territory.
The wording of the fresh notification has led to caution that the celebrations might be premature.
“The jobs have been reserved for domiciles deemed to be residents, not what we used to call the [natives as] permanent residents,” points out Sheikh Shakeel, advocate at the Jammu High Court.
“Despite the amendment it still means that the jobs can go to outsiders. The law redefines who is a domicile and they are in turn now eligible for all jobs.”
According to the new law, the definition of the erstwhile “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir now expanded to include any person who has either himself or whose parents have resided in the region for 15 years, or has studied for seven years and appeared in class 10th and 12th examination in a school in Jammu and Kashmir as “domiciles” of the Union Territory, or have served for 10 years in certain central government institution.
Shakeel said that Jammu had heaved a sigh of relief without going into the nuances of the amendment.
“A victory in real sense is if the Permanent Resident Certificate is made the criteria for jobs,” he said, adding that the current amended law did not grant job security to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
“Only that will ensure jobs for the people of JK. There is nothing to celebrate at the moment.”
In the Kashmir Valley the discourse is dominated by the fears of demographic changes while in Jammu economic security stands out as the main concern of the people.
The limitation of the reservation to the lowest rung jobs, a Jammu based activist said, was seen by the people as “their social categorisation” by the BJP.
Zafar Choudhary, a Jammu-based editor of The Dispatch, concurred that “the nuances of the domicile law are overshadowed by the relief in the [illusion of] job security” owing to which the BJP had, for now, salvaged its position.
“People were not expecting such a quick response,” he said. “It’s now thought that demands would not materialise if they are to agitate again. The BJP will say that they have just given a concession. People are beginning to realise they need a broad strategy.”
Still, it was difficult to ascertain the people’s mood in the midst of the lockdown, argued executive editor of Kashmir Times, Anuradha Bhasin.
“Whatever resentment there is might be quelled by the time the lockdown is lifted,” she said, adding that the timing of notification was intriguing.
Bhasin sees the amendment as a “temporary remedy” meant “for optics” and to buy time as the BJP pursues its end goal of altering Jammu and Kashmir’s demographics.
“It is clear that they just wanted to mute the public criticism and the possibility of people coming out [in protest against the law],” she said.
Seen as extension of the Indian political, economic, and religious mainstream, retaining the political constituency in Jammu that voted the BJP to power for the first time is important to the Hindu reimagination of the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the Hindu Right’s vision of the region’s total integration with mainland India is sometimes at odds with the local BJP’s interests.
As the Modi led BJP in the Centre attempts to oscillate between the two, the balance, analysts in Jammu argue, tends to go against the interests of the local population.
Since August last year, businesses in Jammu have borne the brunt of the political instability while simultaneously insecurities about outsiders taking over the market share have worried the business community, a businessman based in Jammu said.
“There was already an economic slowdown across India,” he said. “But Jammu was even worse because of political instability across the state and a remote controlled government since August 5.”
Figuring on the top of their grievances is the issue of toll plazas in the Jammu division and the rising cost of business.
Post August it was hoped that the integration of the region would also mean the abolishing of the earlier state level toll plazas in a desperately needed breather for the local traders and transporters.
However, the government instead operationalised new toll plazas.
In October 2019, the Sarore toll plaza in Samba district was made functional amid public resentment.
“The people of the state are greatly agitated on this count and is giving us bad name,” the PTI quoted Jammu and Kashmir BJP’s president Ravinder Raina having written to the union transport minister Nitin Gadkari seeking the removal of the toll plaza.
The resentment showed in the first elections held in newly downgraded Union Territory, also the first ever election to the Block Development Councils.
The BJP could win only 52 out of the 148 blocks in the Jammu division; its leaders and local party office bearers losing blocks to independent candidates.
Soon after the drubbing in the BDC elections, in December the Lakhanpur toll plaza was abolished and projected as proof of the BJP heeding to Jammu’s concerns.
However, ending March this year the government issued fresh notification for the implementation of toll collection at a new toll plaza not far from the abolished Lakhanpur plaza.
In hindsight, the activist from Jammu said, the earlier Lakhanpur toll plaza had become symbolic of the point of exit to and entry into the state from the Indian mainland and was as such bound to be refurbished sooner or later.
“The timing of the abolishing of the Lakhanpur toll plaza was again intended to address two issues with a single move,” he said.
The businessman from Jammu added that traders in the region were not expressing their grievances lest they be branded as anti-nationals or traitors.
“Across the country toll fees are being waived and here they create new toll posts. Businesses are bleeding but we fear complaining about it in the open,” he said. “No one wants to be seen as going against the national interest.”
However, it isn’t just the fear of muscle flexing by right wing groups that has contained the outpour of anger in Jammu.
“The anti-incumbency here is true for anywhere in India,” a political scientist from Jammu said wishing anonymity.
“But the ideological alignment is very clear: Jammu aligns itself with the idea of ek vidhan ek nishan (one nation, one identity). If people vote them out in local elections, they will still vote for Modi in the national elections.”
Zafar Choudhary added that the BJP was “deeply worried” over the developments post August 5 but at the same time it was “complacent” as it did not feel an urgency to address issues.
“It realises there is no opponent to them,” he said. “What are the other possibilities available to the people of Jammu? There are no other forces to build a narrative and mobilise people for it.”
As New Delhi began to dust the political arena in the region in the hopes of its revival, Jammu was in for another setback as Kashmir based Altaf Bukhari became the centre of political movement after months of lockdown.
“People are asking what are the dividends of the abrogation,” said Choudhary. “They feel things have circled back to square one. It’s the beginning of a new alienation in its nascent stages and the future depends on what Delhi has to offer Jammu next.”
The love-hate relationship between the Kashmir and Jammu regions has its roots in the events of the partition in 1947, when the dominance of the autocratic Dogra rulers was replaced by the Indian Union’s democratic framework favouring a Kashmiri Muslim Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had turned the tables on Jammu.
The transition was seen as a transfer of power from Jammu to Kashmir and left the political consciousness in Jammu emasculated and bitter, forever in an opposition to the Kashmir based politics as evident by the divergent collective responses of both regions to the same issues concerning them.
On the night of August 4 as prominent leaders of Kashmir centered regional parties scrambled from one VIP residence as they anticipated the abrogation of the special status, the activist from Jammu quoted earlier said, a lot many people in Jammu derived sadistic pleasure from their palpable helplessness and anxiety.
The political narrative in Jammu was pitched against Kashmir, said Zafar Choudhary, largely owing to the belief in “false statistics” of Kashmir getting a lion’s share in Central largesses to Jammu and Kashmir.
“It was passed on for generations that we have to fight the Kashmiris,” he said. “It has been inculcated in the Jammu psyche that anything that is seemingly favouring Kashmiris must be opposed and anything that makes them suffer must be supported [regardless of its impact on Jammu].”
As far back as 1953 when Sheikh Abdullah had proposed the devolution of powers by setting up twin assemblies in the Kashmir and Jammu provinces, both equipped with the authority to legislate laws of local concern; the Hindu rightwing in Jammu, however, would not relent from its desire to see the toppling of Sheikh Abdullah.
The abrogation of the special status was seen as the abrogation of Kashmir’s hegemony and the return of power in the hands of Jammu.
However, the culmination of the brewing resentment post August 5 into the outpour of anger over the domicile law had de-hyphenated political conversations in some circles of Jammu, said Choudhary.
“The April 1 prank they played has triggered a process where people have started to connect the dots,” said Choudhary. “It could lead to a possible reconciliation between Kashmir and Jammu”.
Any response to the post August developments, Choudhary argued, must be out of pacts between the people of Kashmir and Jammu on the lines of common political and societal interests instead of religion.
However, any attempt at that in the current atmosphere seems difficult.
Jammu’s unresolved differences with Kashmir have led to a perceived economic disadvantage and fears around the possession of land.
For years now, far-right Hindu groups in Jammu have been accusing Muslims of encircling the Hindu dominated Jammu in a bid to alter its demographic, layering its paranoid arguments with the infamous Roshni scam.
More recently the Hindu far-right with the help of an Indian television channel labelled the settling of Muslim state subjects in their own state as “zameen jihad”.
The “extension counters of the RSS”, a lawyer referring to certain far-right cultural and political groups that have emerged in Jammu said, were resorting to such wanton misinformation with an aim at polarisation to the BJP’s benefit but this was made possible by the resentment caused by the rampant corruption and nepotism by successive state governments dominated by Kashmiris.
The short-sightedness of Kashmir-based politics had even ignored the largely ethnically different Muslim population of the Jammu region.
“The truth is Kashmiris have also discriminated against Muslims of Jammu so why should I expect any better from the Modi government,” a Jammu based lawyer said, wishing anonymity.
“They didn’t even regularise a single Muslim colony in Jammu. Had they done that we would not be living in the fears of the government’s bulldozers.”
For now, the people of Jammu did not get the time to process the domicile law, the political analyst quoted earlier said.
“While Kashmir was from the outset worried about the definition of domicile, Jammu ignoring that was fixated on jobs,” she said, pointing to the irony.
“People don’t realise the law is flawed but even when they do, it won’t amount to much. Perceived national interest will trump all other sentiments.”
Besides, the outcome of the delimitation process is yet to be seen.
Distractions in the form of political stunts in Kashmir and the shadow boxing by the central and local BJP might just help the BJP quietly work on the consolidation of votes and favourable delimitation to deliver another pending promise: a Hindu chief minister.
Even if observers argue the post in the current framework of a union territory is only as good as “glorified municipality seat”.
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