How India’s ruling party is tightening its grip on Kashmir

  • More than a million people could vote in local polls for the first time
  • BJP aims to take control of gathering of Muslim parties
  • Pakistan accuses India of marginalizing Kashmiri Muslims

JAMMU/SRINAGAR, India, Jan 12 (Reuters) – For the first time in her life, Asha, a street cleaner in the Indian city of Jammu, will be allowed to vote in the upcoming local elections. And she’s in no doubt who will get her ballot.

Asha plans to reward Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for abandoning policies in place for decades that denied her and a million other people in Jammu and -Kashmir, many of the same rights as other Indians.

“We faced humiliation in silence, but Modi-ji changed our lives forever,” she said, leaning on her broom. “It’s not just me and my children, future generations of our community in Jammu and Kashmir will vote for the BJP.”

The Hindu nationalist party is counting on Asha’s vote to take control of the Indian part of the Himalayan region, bitterly contested by neighboring Pakistan and ruled almost exclusively by Muslim chief ministers.

The BJP hopes that the addition of one million mostly Hindu voters to the electoral rolls, new electoral boundaries, seven additional seats in the regional assembly and the reservation of nine for groups likely to support the BJP will will give a chance to become the largest party in the 90-seat legislature.

Reuters interviewed three dozen federal and state officials, six groups representing disenfranchised residents and analyzed the latest data to expose for the first time the scale of the BJP’s push into Kashmir – and why it may succeed.

A BJP majority would be a seismic shift and even talk of a strong showing underscores how Modi has trampled on old taboos to push his agenda in every corner of the country of 1.4 billion people.

The 72-year-old, who is set to seek a third term in 2024, has combined promises of prosperity and social mobility with a strong Hindu-first agenda to dominate Indian politics.

A BJP victory in the disputed region could cement India’s claim to the territory on the world stage.

“We are committed to clearing more than 50 seats to form the next government with an overwhelming majority,” BJP chairman for Jammu and Kashmir Ravinder Raina told Reuters. “The next chief minister will be from our party.”

For many Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP’s policies upending decades of autonomy and privilege represent a dangerous new phase in what they see as a national push to uphold the rights of the Hindu majority over groups minority.

Position of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu and Kashmir

“ILLEGAL OCCUPANCY”

Pakistan has claimed Kashmir since the partition of India in 1947 and the countries have fought two wars in the region, which is also partially claimed by China. Pakistan accuses India of trying to marginalize Muslims there with its policies.

“India is following a strategy to perpetuate its illegal occupation by depriving Kashmiris of their rights by changing the demographic structure of illegally occupied Indian Jammu and Kashmir from a majority Muslim to a predominantly Hindu territory,” the official said. Pakistani government in a statement to Reuters.

Jammu and Kashmir is divided into two. Jammu has a population of around 5.3 million, 62% of whom are Hindus while the Kashmir Valley has 6.7 million, 97% of whom are Muslims, according to a 2011 census. and senior officials suggest the population was 15.5 million in 2021.

From 1954, the Indian region enjoyed special status under the Indian constitution.

The change in the political landscape came in 2019 when the BJP-led parliament in New Delhi revoked that status, which had denied rights to many Hindu communities not considered indigenous to the region.

Since 2020, the BJP has required everyone in Jammu and Kashmir to apply for residence certificates which allow them to vote in local elections, purchase farmland and permanent housing, as well as apply for universities in State and jobs.

Just over a million people have the right to vote in local elections for the first time – and 96% are from castes within the hierarchy, say regional government and associations representing six previously disenfranchised groups Hindu.

Of those people, 698,800 had received residence certificates by December, according to official records seen by Reuters. Government data showed another 7,346 bureaucrats and retired army officers had registered.

Reuters spoke to 36 people who now enjoy full citizenship. All said they would vote for the BJP in the assembly elections.

Asha, a Hindu who has only had one name since her divorce, said the changes have only been good.

At the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, her family had been stuck in menial labor since being invited from Punjab in 1957 to replace striking sanitation workers. Today, her two children are studying to become teachers.

“No one will ever understand what it feels like to tell an educated child to sweep the streets,” she said.

SPECIAL STATUS

Until the region’s special status was revoked, centre-left secular parties with Muslim leaders controlled the local assembly and whoever governed India from New Delhi tended to stay out of self-rule politics of the region.

The assembly, which controls the state budget, spending, employment, education and economic activity, was dissolved and a lieutenant governor appointed to lead the region until an election is held. local – which could take place as early as this spring.

In anticipation of protests after the move, authorities imposed a curfew, shut down the internet, tightened security and put hundreds of Muslims and other opposition leaders under house arrest for months. They have since been released.

A militant Islamist uprising and public protests against Indian rule killed thousands, mostly in the 1990s when the violence peaked.

Since the special status was revoked, dozens of civilians, security personnel and activists have been killed.

Many Muslims have yet to register for residency certificates, wary of the BJP’s ultimate goals, although some say they may be forced to do so if refusing leads to trouble.

Previously unpublished official records show that just over 5.3 million certificates had been issued in September.

The government has not said what will happen to those who do not join the scheme, although they can still vote in local elections using permanent residency cards.

“All these laws like domicile and demarcation (boundary changes) served only one purpose: to change the Muslim majority character of the state,” said Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir formerly allied with the BJP. She was detained without charge in 2019 and released the following year.

Position of Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu and Kashmir Distribution of legislative assembly constituencies

AWARENESS CAMPAIGN

BJP’s Raina said Modi’s policies had ended the injustice suffered by tens of thousands of people who had lived in the area for decades and, in the case of some families, centuries.

The 46-year-old from Jammu said the process was about leveling the playing field rather than getting votes, although that may be a by-product.

“The BJP is not working to dilute the power of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, but it is our duty to empower every Indian citizen. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, it happens to be just Hindus.”

The BJP sought to push its advantage.

Nine of the 90 seats – six in Kashmir and three in Jammu – are now reserved for marginalized communities for the first time, and they are likely to support the BJP.

The party also launched a door-to-door campaign in 2020 involving hundreds of officials to identify those who would benefit from residence certificates – and potentially vote for the BJP.

Mohammed Iqbal was one of those responsible. The “tehsildar”, or executive magistrate and tax collector of the Pulwama region near Srinagar, held educational gatherings in the hilly terrain and organized tours to ensure people registered.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the work hasn’t stopped. Isolation tents were set up so people could apply for certificates while lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules were in place. Now the process has moved largely online.

“We have received direct instructions from the government to complete the issuance of residence certificates at a rapid pace,” Iqbal said.

By early December, around 70% of the Iqbal region’s 600,000 residents had received certificates, although only a minority would get new rights, he said.

The BJP has also strengthened its position thanks to the reshuffling of borders by a government panel and a new way of allocating seats in the assembly.

Under the new structure, Hindu-dominated Jammu will get six more seats, raising its representation to 43, while Muslim-dominated Kashmir would increase by one to 47 seats.

Marginalized groups such as the Asha “sweepers” and the group of Hindu refugees from West Pakistan who settled in Jammu and Kashmir after partition are among those who will be granted full citizenship for the first time.

The refugee community alone numbers more than 650,000 people.

“We are now eligible to vote and finally enjoy all basic rights. We thank the Modi government for making this a reality,” said Labharam Gandhi, president of the association representing West Pakistan refugees.

Bharatiya Janata Party Stance in Jammu and Kashmir Vote Party Share

Reporting by Rupam Jain in Jammu and Srinagar, Kanupriya Kapoor in Singapore; Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam in Islamabad; Editing by Mike Collett-White and David Clarke

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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