Modi Is Trying to Engineer a Hindu Majority in Kashmir

Aug 12, 2021 | Demographic Engineering

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—The Indian government has commenced preparations to redraw the electoral boundaries in Indian-administered Kashmir two years after New Delhi rescinded the disputed region’s semi-autonomous status and introduced tighter federal controls.

In 2019, New Delhi hoped that ratcheting up federal control would make it easier to subdue Kashmir’s population and many groups’ calls for self-determination. It has since unleashed the wrath of federal agencies on local politicians, traders, publishing houses, and even government employees who have been or potentially could become sources of dissent.

The crackdowns have also targeted protesters, members of civil society, and journalists, who are charged under draconian anti-terrorism laws that guarantee lengthy pretrial detentions and make bail an exception.

Now, the delimitation program envisions breaking up the electoral constituencies of the erstwhile semi-autonomous state into several new voter units in a manner that’s likely to give numerical heft to the southern region of Jammu, where there is a larger concentration of Hindu voters. 

Altered demographics, when combined with a clever reconfiguration of electoral constituencies, would allow Hindu-nationalist politicians to realize their long-standing goal of installing a Hindu chief minister in Kashmir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has also started to enforce hundreds of federal Indian laws and policies in Kashmir, echoing similar Chinese measures in Hong Kong.

New Delhi has dismantled structures of self-government in Kashmir with remarkable speed. The Indian government opened ownership of land in Indian-administered Kashmir to outsiders, made it easy to acquire domicile rights, and overturned historic land reforms.

This was followed by a move that reduced the share of Kashmiri candidates entering the Indian civil service from 50 percent to 33 percent, which in the future will increase the number of nonlocal officers in Kashmir’s administration.

The federal government has also empowered the Indian armed forces to declare any area in the disputed region as “strategic” and ended the 131-year reign of Urdu as the sole official language of the region.

Unlike other Indian states, these laws and policies were not applicable in the region until August 2019 as Kashmir had its own constitution and its legislative assembly had exclusive power to make the laws. 

Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority region. Before 2019, Hindu-nationalist groups had long campaigned for the annulment of Kashmir’s special status enshrined in (now repealed) Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Another feature of this extinguished legislation was Article 35A, which restricted the purchase of land to local residents alone.

In August 2019, Modi discarded both laws in a highly controversial move that has since soured India’s relations with Pakistan and China.

This year, New Delhi started rolling out residency permits for non-Kashmiri Indians, escalating fears that the Kashmir Valley, wedged between the snowy Himalayas, would be swamped with outsiders, turning the local Muslim-majority population into a political minority in their homeland, much as Han Chinese settlement has demographically transformed Tibet and Xinjiang. Last October, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued new land laws for Indian-administered Kashmir, making it possible for any Indian citizen to buy land in the region. 

While the federal government, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has openly pursued a policy of electoral engineering in the region, the delimitation process provides a smokescreen and gives it constitutional validity—while still achieving the goal of disempowering Kashmiri Muslims.

A delimitation commission overseeing the entire process draws on numbers supplied by the decennial national population census mandated by the Indian Constitution.

However, in 1976, when India was under a national state of emergency, its Parliament passed an amendment freezing all delimitation so that it remained based on the 1971 census. This freeze was put in place at a time when India was struggling to control its booming population. To effectively implement the state policy of population control, a freeze was put on the delimitation exercise, which would electorally penalize those states where the population grew faster, until the 2001 census.

This has divided the country on North-South lines. Most of the Southern states have achieved zero population growth, while the Northern states still have a very high fertility rate. If India carries out the delimitation exercise as per the recent census figures, the Northern states would gain many seats, while the Southern states would lose some. 

Notwithstanding the Parliament-sanctioned freeze, Kashmir held the delimitation exercise in 1995, ahead of the state elections conducted in 1996, based on the 1981 census. (The 1991 census could not be held in Kashmir because of turbulence in the region at the time.) The delimitation process in Indian-administered Kashmir at that time was governed by its own state constitution, and the freeze was not applicable to the region.

In 2002, Parliament enacted yet another amendment extending the freeze until the first census after 2026. In line with the Indian Parliament, Kashmir’s then-ruling party and the region’s oldest, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), also put a freeze on delimitation until 2026.

However, last March, the Modi-led government set up a delimitation commission under the aegis of a retired justice with an aim to redraw constituencies, based on 2011 census numbers, in Kashmir as well as in four northeastern states—Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh.

This year, all four northeastern states were struck off the list, while Kashmir, curiously enough, stayed. A senior political analyst, Noor Mohammad Baba, told Foreign Policy that resuscitating the plan exclusively for Kashmir is simply an attempt to gerrymander the voter units in the region. ­

Pro-India politicians in the region, representing a clique of local leaders who aspire to remain within the Indian union but with the kinds of autonomous powers that Modi scrapped two years ago, fear that the exercise will effectively disenfranchise Kashmiri Muslims.

“The whole exercise becomes illegal after the unconstitutional abrogation of Article 370,” Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the Jammu & Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), told Foreign Policy. “Every decision taken or order issued from the Indian government since the abrogation of the special status has been to fulfill their objective of diluting our position and identity. The hurried delimitation exercise is another step in that direction.”

Mufti argues that the redrawing of boundaries and division of seats are likely to take place along communal and sectarian lines. “This can be catastrophic for a state like J&K that has multiple religions and various ethnicities that have always co-existed peacefully,” she added. 

After the abrogation of Article 370, the BJP-led Parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 (which the region’s mainstream political parties call unconstitutional and have challenged its validity in India’s Supreme Court), adding seven more seats for the region and making a delimitation exercise imperative.

Until August 2019, Jammu and Kashmir had 111 seats in its state legislative assembly. The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley had a share of 46 seats, while Jammu had 37. Also, 24 seats were reserved for the people of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which India claims.

The universally accepted rule for delimitation of electoral constituencies is population, followed by the Indian government since its inception as a parliamentary democracy. However, the BJP in Kashmir proposed to use geography as a criteria while demarcating boundaries of new assembly segments. Besides geography, the BJP and other Hindu-nationalist groups in Jammu demand other parameters like facilities of communication and topography of the constituencies to be considered while redrawing the seats, which would tilt the numerical strength of the seats in favor of Jammu. 

Constitutionally, population is meant to be the prime criterion while drawing electoral constituencies, and India has by and large followed this rule. However, there is a precedent when geography and topography of a few select districts in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand were considered over population.

The BJP and other Hindu-nationalist parties have been called out for their hypocrisy on the issue; while they demand area be considered as the main criterion for delimitation in Jammu and Kashmir, they demand that population be the primary factor elsewhere, given that the northern Indian states where the BJP has a strong political presence are more populous.

In two years of federal rule in the region, domicile rights were given to thousands of nonlocals who had served or stayed in the region. Most of these new residents have settled in Jammu, which political experts believe will alter the electoral demography of Kashmir in the long run.

If the delimitation commission relies on the 2011 census to demarcate the new electoral boundaries, the Kashmir Valley would get more seats than Jammu, as that year’s official census figures revealed that the Kashmir Valley had a population of 6.8 million to Jammu’s population of 5.3 million.

However, the Hindu-dominated Jammu area is geographically larger in size (10,100 square miles) than the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley (6,100 square miles). That is why the BJP over the years has been demanding that area be considered as the main factor for carrying out the delimitation exercise in the region.

Also, the BJP has been demanding to reserve seats for socially disadvantaged groups from the Hindu community, known as scheduled castes or Dalits. (Their numbers in the region are disputed.) The party has also proposed to reserve seats for the tribal groups and Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) who migrated to Jammu in the 1990s, when a popular insurgency erupted in the Kashmir Valley against Indian rule. It has proposed to exclusively reserve seats for Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir, thereby reducing the overall number of general seats for the Kashmir Valley.

Other than these groups, the BJP is also likely to reserve seats for refugees who migrated from Pakistan and settled in Jammu during the India-Pakistan wars in 1947 and 1965. These moves are seen as attempts to increase the share of seats in Jammu, where the ruling BJP has a major foothold, leading to more political gains for the party at the cost of other regional parties. 

Aug. 5 marked the completion of two years since Kashmir lost its special status. Now, people in Kashmir fear more assaults on their identity as the BJP is inching closer to achieving its civilizational project of changing the Muslim-majority region into one with a Hindu majority.

In the face of this attempted gerrymandering, Kashmir Valley-based political parties continue to demand that population should be the sole parameter to delineate constituencies.

These political parties fear that Muslim-majority assembly constituencies in Jammu would be declared as “reserved constituencies” for Dalits and Pandits, thereby denying Muslims political participation. There are also fears that Jammu’s Muslim-majority areas could be dispersed across seats due to politically motivated redistricting so that their numerical strength is diluted.

Before 2019, the regional political parties had vowed to resist any move from the union government that would revoke regional autonomy in what became known as the Gupkar Declaration.

Later, after Modi revoked autonomy, the political parties formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, which they argue is a “movement for the restoration of the rights and dignity of the people of J&K.” However, soon after its formation, the coalition fell apart as political differences crept in and many political parties left the group.

This month, the coalition disregarded its pledge to provide a formidable opposition to the BJP in the region as most coalition partners—apart from Mufti’s PDP—participated in the inaugural meeting of the delimitation commission, a widely criticized move that was deemed to provide legitimacy to the Modi government’s policies in the region.

Ruhullah Mehdi, a senior political leader affiliated with JKNC, views the participation of local political parties in the delimitation meeting as futile. He believes that the maps for the new electoral constituencies have been already drawn in the BJP’s headquarters in New Delhi.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological forerunner of the BJP, “has an ideological objective which they want to achieve in Kashmir. They are anti-Muslim and anti-secularism. And empowered Muslims do not fit in their ideology,” Mehdi told Foreign Policy.

“Kashmiri Muslims have a double crime in their understanding—that they are Muslims and Muslims with a state.”

Author: Kaisar Andrabi & Zubair Amin| Publication: Foreign Policy