Anger in Kashmir, thanks in Jammu: South Asia's Hindu-Muslim conflict heats up
SRINGAR-- Idrees Ahmad could not keep his tears from rolling down his cheeks after meeting his ageing parents and hugging his two- and three-year-old nephews. The 35-year-old works in business in the Indian city of Pune, more than 2,000 km (or 1,200 miles) away. He couldn’t get in touch with his family in Kashmir for two weeks during an unprecedented communication block by the government in Kashmir.
Calling home was particularly urgent because Ahmad is getting married next week.
While most weddings in Kashmir have been cancelled since Aug. 5 when the Indian government took away Kashmir’s unique degree of autonomy in the Indian constitution. A communications ban, road blocks and curfews have been enforced by a massive influx of security and army officers in the region. Thousands have been detained on charges, some unclear and some under a controversial law that allows up to two years of imprisonment before a trial (the AP reported 2,300, AFP reported 4,000 and this reporter heard a report that an estimated 5,000 people have been arrested, according to different government officials who spoke anonymously without authorization.)
Kashmir has been a flashpoint of contention between India and Pakistan since their partition in 1947. Two wars have been fought to determine each side’s “lines of control” in Kashmir already, and both countries possess nuclear weapons. Violence by militant separatists in the nineties forced Kashmiri Hindus to flee the valley, and government efforts to resettle them in Kashmir have had mixed success and support.
Ahmad thinks the impact of scrapping Kashmir’s special protections to its character will be a slow but definite demographic change from Kashmir’s Muslim majority, unique to India, to a rise in Hindu refugees and Indian migrants.
“Once the new system comes into force, Kashmiris would have to pay property taxes as per the law,” Ahmad said. “Those who cannot afford to do that, will sell their properties, and this would eventually open doors for outsiders who have the buying powers to buy land in Kashmir.”
As Ahmad speaks, a dozen of his neighbors came over to his house. Due to a complete lockdown, everybody is home. Meeting and chatting with people is the most common sight in the daytime. Everybody seems to have the view that the unilateral approach adopted by India will have a catastrophic impact on Kashmir.
“This would catalyze violence in Kashmir and provoke more people to oppose this move,” said Ali Mohammad, a neighbor of Ahmad’s. “The Indian media is showing a wrong picture of Kashmir that all is well, but the situation is bad on the ground.”
The scrapping of Article 370, the provision for Kashmir’s autonomy, is a promise delivered to West Pakistani refugees by India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
An estimated 120,000 people have settled in Jammu and Kashmir as refugees, either from Pakistan, mostly Hindus and Sikhs fleeing an Islamic republic, or as internally displaced people.
The refugees in Jammu played a crucial role to determine the outcome of India’s parliamentary elections in May. With the previous autonomy, those who weren’t born in Jammu and Kashmir could not contest or vote in state elections and were denied state government jobs and ration cards for welfare. The ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, pitched hard to win refugee votes with Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising to give state citizenship rights to the refugees, including the right to vote, to own property, get access to higher education and state government jobs, seen by many as the ultimate stable income and hallmark of success.
Waryam Singh is one of those west Pakistani refugees who will benefit. Singh has been working as a security guard in Jammu for the last 20 years. His two sons are working as salesmen for shops in Raghunath Bazar, and the family lives in a set of two rooms. Being west Pakistani refugees in Jammu and Kashmir meant a life of unequal opportunities, he said.
“We are hoping that the discrimination will end now and my sons would be able to sit in the state professional exams and get state government jobs,” Singh said.
It is also good news for a few thousand cleaners and their families residing in the Valmiki colony of Jammu. All of them are non-Muslims specially brought in from Punjab, India in the early 1950’s to fill in the shortage of the state’s cleaning staff. Ever since they settled in Jammu, finding jobs and buying land has been difficult for them.
Milki Singh, 55, earns a livelihood by going door-to-door hauling garbage away from homes in the wealthy Gandhi Nagar area of Jammu. His father came from Punjab to work as a cleaner and the job has passed down generations, with his two sons also clearing garbage. He is now hopeful that the people from his community will now be able to earn a decent livelihood and even find a government job.
“It has always been our demand that we should be dealt at par with the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and the going of Article 370 would ultimately ensure that,” Milkhi said.