Conflicts & War

India’s controversial land law changes spark demographic fears in Kashmir

By Sarwar Kashani

Srinagar, India, Oct 28 (efe-epa).- India’s controversial new law to let outsiders buy land in Kashmir sparked outrage on Wednesday as the move changed over a century-old rules that reserved immovable property rights for the permanent residents of the disputed region.

The latest in a series of controversial moves since the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomy last year, has sparked angry reactions from residents and opposition parties.

Modi had justified the “historic decision” on Aug. 5, 2019, as a move to bring peace and prosperity to the troubled region that has witnessed three decades of an armed rebellion against the Indian rule, seeking complete independence or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.

A federal government notification issued on Tuesday said that it was omitting the term “being permanent resident of the state” from the land and property laws, in effect paving the way for non-Kashmiris to purchase land in the idyllic Himalayan territory.

The 111-page notification of the new rules replaced 11 existing property laws of the state that restrict the transfer and inheritance of land to only those permanently living in Kashmir.

The order also empowers the authorities to declare any area in Kashmir as “strategic for direct operational and training requirements of armed forces,” on the request of an army officer not below the rank of the corps commander.

The residency rights were introduced in 1927 by Kashmir’s last autocratic ruler, Hari Singh, a Hindu king, to stop outsiders from settling down in the former princely state.

The rules continued after Hari Singh acceded to India as part of Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution.

Residents and opposition politicians view the new controversial law drafted and approved by bureaucrats in New Delhi as yet another step towards a demographic change in India’s only Muslim-majority region, which the government downgraded into a federally-ruled territory last year.

Muslims comprised over 68 percent and Hindus 28 percent of the 12.5 million population in the erstwhile state according to the latest census conducted in 2011.

The People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, a grouping of various pro-India parties, condemned the amendments to land laws and vowed to fight the move on all fronts.

Sajad Lone, the group’s spokesperson, told EFE that it was a “huge betrayal” and “grossly unconstitutional” move.

“The assault on exclusive property rights, changes in urban development laws and creation of security zones would affect the environment and ecosystem in the ecologically fragile region,” Lone said.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, who is part of the new alliance, called the amendments “unacceptable”, and said the order meant that Kashmir “is now up for sale.”

“Even the tokenism of domicile has been done away with when purchasing non-agricultural land and transfer of agricultural land has been made easier. The poorer small land holding owners will suffer,” Abdullah said in a tweet.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a prominent Kashmiri legal expert, said the changes represented the operational aspect related to the demographic changes of Kashmir unveiled by the government in August last year.

“This takes the revocation of Articles 370 and 35 (A) to its logical end. It is not surprising,” Hussain, an author of several books on the Kashmir conflict, told EFE.

The idyllic Himalayan territory has been at the center of India-Pakistan hostilities since 1947 when the British rulers of the subcontinent divided it into the two new countries.

The two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three major wars, including two over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965.

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