Last week, 15 families of Srinagar’s congested downtown locality of Nawakadal lost their homes amidst a gunfight in which two militants were killed and two security men injured.
The militants were believed to be holed up in a house. As part of counter insurgency strategies, security forces blow up buildings housing the militants during encounters to make sure no booby traps are left behind. In Nawakdal, however, they rained grenades on several adjacent buildings, blowing up a large part of the neighbourhood, not just leaving many people homeless but also causing severe burn injuries to some. Three people have died due to burn injuries suffered in the incident.
The week before that in an encounter in Pulwama district, four houses were similarly razed to the ground when security forces found their prized catch – top Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Riyaz Naikoo – and shot him dead. Are the Standard Operating Procedures being violated as part of callousness and efficiency or as some kind of vendetta?
The government first went into denial and later began a process of assessment of losses without any official acknowledgement of the wrong or of making amends like announcing compensation and relief. Instead, the notorious Cyber Police of J&K summoned a journalist, who first broke the story of 15 houses being razed to the ground, and grilled him for over five hours. Few weeks ago, three journalists were booked under criminal cases, two of them under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Preventive) Act for their social media posts. No reference was given of which particular comment was deemed to be a threat to the nation.
On May 11, Indian Supreme Court, despite upholding access to internet as fundamental right failed to provide a remedy for slow speed internet and frequent disruptions and instead set up a panel headed by the Union Home Secretary to review the matter, virtually asking respondents to become arbiters, judge and jury in the case. Ever since, the Valley has seen weeklong bans of mobile phone voice calls and mobile internet, twice, after the two major recent encounters.
The government has laid out its blueprint for Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370. It has recently notified new domicile rules. J&K has now officially been opened to those residing here for 15 years, those who studied here for 10 years or government and public sector undertaking officials who have worked here for 10 years. To hasten the process, the authority for granting domicile certificates has been given to the tehsildar. The officer category among the aspirants will be getting their domicile certificates through the government secretariat.
A time frame of 15 days has been set, and failure to dispense applications within another seven days would lead to punitive action. This is in striking contrast to the process for getting Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC), commonly called the State Subject Certificate, for which the authorising powers rested with the deputy commissioner and the cumbersome process coupled with the bureaucratic red tape often made it a prolonged ordeal of over two years.
As per the notifications, PRC holders will now be required to get new domicile certificates and the PRC document will be treated as a valid proof, not a valid substitute, allowing government to revise the list of residents of J&K and collect their data. Is this the regional variant of the National Register of Citizens?
How cumbersome the process will eventually be and what will be the compliance policy or structure is yet to be seen. While the rules indicate the government’s haste in changing J&K’s social topography, there is no mention of transparency and accountability mechanisms, heightening the chance of unscrupulous practices and backdoor entries as well as harassment to bonafide residents.
The propaganda that has accompanied the administrative changes is that West Pakistan refugees, Dalits, Chhamb refugees, Kashmiri Pandits and women will now get their due.
The case of West Pakistan refugees, languishing in uncertainty for over seven decades, has indeed been awaiting a humanitarian intervention for long. The 200-300 odd sanitation workers who were brought to Jammu and Kashmir from neighbouring state of Punjab in 1956-57 is yet another but it is being wrongly projected to include all Dalit communities living in the state.
The Chhamb refugees were PRC holders by virtue of being dislocated from areas in Pakistan Administered Kashmir and were never denied the rights as permanent citizens. So is the case of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits, whether they chose to shift base to Jammu or moved to other parts of the country and abroad, unless the reference is to the Kashmiri Pandits who migrated more than a century ago, before the State Subject law was formed.
The question of gender parity, which arose from the ambiguity of the original law and its myopic interpretation, was settled in favour of women in 2002. In fact, after the abrogation of Article 370, some of the rights that women enjoyed including reservation in professional colleges has been dispensed with.
The claims of people of Jammu and Kashmir being happy with both the dilution of the state’s special status and the framing of domicile rules is not borne out on the ground, where an overwhelming sense of loss is laced with the fear of speaking out.
The lockdown has perpetuated the silence. Whether it is Jammu, despite its lately dominant right-wing discourse or Kashmir, the apprehension of losing their monopoly to land, jobs etc. is pretty much uniform.
The loss of what they had prior to August 5 - the political space, the freedom to speak and now the denial of full access to the internet –is real but unspoken. Also real is the dread of demographic change, something that seemed preposterous at one time.
When the introduction of domicile rules is peddled as justice, it amounts to rubbing salt over the wounds of the people. When someone like Ram Madhav patronisingly feels that silence of the people of the state should now be “rewarded” with restoration of 4G internet and “full-fledged political activity”, it is not difficult to imagine what is on the anvil.
The existing atmosphere is very different, particularly in Kashmir. Hundreds of political activists of all hues faced months of detention. While many were released on conditional bonds that forbid them to speak on certain matters including the dilution of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and its reorganization, some continue to be jailed and many also placed under house arrest.
Hundreds of ordinary men, activists, traders and lawyers continue to be in prison in distant lands because it is feared that they may speak out. Journalists are summoned by Cyber Police for their reports and social media comments and three are facing criminal charges.
These rules of engagement are reinforced with regular surveillance and methods of control that seek to portray Kashmiris as villains and Jammu-ites as non-existent. The only kind of politics that can flourish in this climate is the one that is certified, endorsed and stamped by New Delhi.
(The author is Executive Editor Kashmir Times)