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Conflict in Kashmir Shifting Focus from Politics to Identity

Ten non-locals have been killed in Kashmir since the August 5 scrapping of Article 370, which granted Kashmir partial autonomy under India’s constitution and barred outsiders from settling down in the erstwhile state. It is the first time in three decades of armed separatist struggle in the state that outsiders have been targeted. 

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the killings of the 10 – four of whom worked in the Valley’s apple industry, which is reeling in the midst of harvest season, five were construction workers, and one was a labourer at a brick-kiln. 

It is unlikely that anyone will claim responsibility. However, non-local traders and labourers are fleeing the Valley and the government has deployed additional security personnel in sensitive areas to stop the exodus.

The message behind the killings is clear: outsiders should leave the valley even if it means dealing a body blow to the Rs 10,000-crore apple industry which directly and indirectly provides livelihood to 3.5 million people of the state. 

The only credible explanation for the killings is the fear of the outsider triggered by the loss of the region’s autonomous status which has made Kashmir a fair game for demographic change – something that New Delhi has also not ruled out. Article 370 safeguarded the state’s unique culture, language and Muslim majority character and it is for these features that the article was valued in Kashmir more than for the loss of partial autonomy in internal affairs.

Is the 30-year-old bloody conflict in the state thus taking on an existential dimension? As the killings seem to indicate, the conflict could be heading in that direction, becoming less about the struggle for right to self-determination, which it has so far been, and more about protecting its identity.

The paranoia about a perceived hostile New Delhi allegedly conspiring to “dilute Valley’s Muslim-majority character” is already redrawing the discourse in the Valley like never before. It is bringing into full play the issues of land and identity, hitherto more or less dormant elements of the ongoing conflict which operated so far largely along a political dimension. 

This is pitting Kashmiri Muslims not only against New Delhi but also against the outsiders in the state. Already, an estimated 600,000 migrant labourers from other parts of the country have fled Jammu and Kashmir following the removal of Article 370. Although their departure was occasioned by the extraordinary situation that followed, an immediate hostile environment against them in the valley also became a factor. In some parts of the Valley, these labourers are reported to have been told by the local people to leave. This has triggered in the Valley an extreme shortage of labour, more so in the apple industry. 

There is little outside labour available for construction and agriculture activities too. Five labourers who were killed on October 29, the day a European Union delegation of legislators visited Kashmir, were building a house at the time. This has already raised the cost of local labour in Kashmir, as the availability falls far short of demand. 

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But this has hardly become an issue in Kashmir. Despite the three-month shutdown taking a massive toll on the economy, rendering thousands jobless and crushing some businesses, most establishments seem unlikely to re-open in near future. 

The shock of the revocation of Article 370 is yet to sink in. Most of this collapse springs from the deepening anxiety about their identity. There is a foreboding of what New Delhi might do next, now that the region is directly ruled as a centrally administered union territory. And New Delhi hasn’t acquitted itself well by its actions so far. Between August and October 2019, the Forest Advisory Committee of Jammu & Kashmir has already given clearances to 125 projects involving diversion of forest land. There are no details in the public domain about these projects and how much land is involved.

In 2008, around 70 people had lost their lives and several hundreds were injured in protests across the Kashmir valley against the transfer of 40 acres of forest land for the development of infrastructure for pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine. The government had to cancel the transfer ultimately. But after the loss of special status, Kashmiris have no say in the governance of the Union Territory. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led union government can do to the state as it chooses, largely unmindful of what the majority of people think of its actions.

Deepening fears further is the BJP’s longstanding ideological position on the state, which among other far-reaching designs, seeks to restructure the state – already accomplished by bifurcating Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into two union territories, J&K and Ladakh. It also seeks to re-engineer the region’s electoral map by giving more seats to the Hindu-majority region of Jammu, as the process of delimitation has already started. Such sweeping changes and apprehensions about a demographic makeover of the union territory are fast redrawing the contours of the Kashmir problem as it existed prior to August 5 – a struggle for freedom from New Delhi’s rule alongside an India-Pakistan conflict over the state. 

The conflict is now transforming into an existential issue, a fight for the protection of identity – something that in its initial phase is triggering a deep suspicion of outsiders. They are being seen as unlawful claimants to the land in Kashmir, backed by the might of the state, and also as the future citizens who, over time, will relegate the current Muslim majority into a minority. It is now evident that a majority of people in the region see the push toward integration of the union territory, along with the broader changes it telegraphs, as less about development and more about replacement. This has lodged a troubling new dynamic into the situation in Kashmir, which doesn’t bode well for the future. That is, if New Delhi doesn’t pre-empt it by taking steps to address the anxiety of the people credibly. 


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