Reforms, whether political or economic, are never a one step process. Big bang reforms often need series of smaller reforms in order for the change to percolate to all stakeholders and citizens of the country. It is in this context that the massive political reform of abrogation of Article 370 and the reorganization of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir must be viewed. On August 5th 2019, when the Home Minister, Amit Shah, consigned the regressive and oppressive section 370 to the dust bin of history on the floor of the parliament, the soul of Jammu and Kashmir and all genuine stake holders in the state found succor. Although thousands of lives had been sacrificed at the altar of Article 370 which fueled separatism and made the ground fertile for terrorism, no one had seen this moment coming. No one had seen the political reorganization of the state coming, even though in retrospect, this seems the most basic thing to do to get rid of the oligarchy that the state had descended into, making any kind of reform impossible to implement. The status quo had been challenged, the old order dumped to replace with the new.
After the announcement of August 5th, the first real challenge was maintaining peace and ensuring those who benefitted from status quo were effectively prevented from causing law and order issues. Prime Minister Narendra Modi owed the people of Jammu and Kashmir peace on the streets and prevention of any ‘intifada’ on the ground engineered by those who don’t hesitate to destroy lives of poor children while their own children are in the safe havens of Turkey, Europe and the United States.
On this account, Modi delivered very well. The streets in the valley remained peaceful and the only turbulence was seen in the opinion pieces of international newspapers. Srinagar remained cautiously optimistic as sparks flew in the US Congress at the behest of the Pakistani lobby.
A reality check was needed for a lot of power centers in the Kashmir valley and the actions taken after the abrogation of Article 370 provided that. No one poured on the streets in support of ‘popular’ leaders who were put under house arrest and no one wanted their power reinstated. People of Jammu and Kashmir were complaining about information clampdown and rightly so, but not one credible voice of support from the masses came for the Abdullahs or Muftis. Paper tigers had been exposed. Hurriyat too was unable to drum up support amongst the faithful. The message had gone out that this government means business.
The next step now in the series of reforms was to reinstate the real stake holders of Jammu and Kashmir. All those who had been painfully kept out of the political mainstream and had suffered enormously over the decades needed to be given their rightful place in the Union Territory. This was made possible through the new domicile law which has been recently notified. India, as a union of states, recognizes state domicile for the subjects if the state chooses to do so for her own subjects. This is primarily a way to prioritize those who have been living in the state for few years over those who have never lived in the state. The prioritization is typically done in state government jobs where domiciles are given priority. The new domicile law paves way for every citizen of India to become domicile of J&K after 15 years of residence. Some people have questioned the time limit of 15 years and have a valid reason, but the operative part of the new law they miss is that every Indian citizen now has a legal right to get domicile in J&K. The number of years can always be challenged and changed but it cannot be missed that Jammu and Kashmir is now open for all. The change in time limit can be done with a simple executive order in the future if the government is convinced that 15 years is too long and an impediment in the integration. It no longer takes a constitutional amendment to bring about change in Jammu and Kashmir. This simple but most important point has been missed by quite a few.
Now we need to answer two important questions. Why the need for domicile at all and what does the new domicile law hope to accomplish? Both questions are inter-connected and therefore must be answered together. Jammu and Kashmir lived under the tyranny of Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC), colloquially known as ‘state subjects’. These certificates were hard to come by and required everyone to go through the oppressive state bureaucracy to get one. These prized possessions were so hard to acquire that my mother had to grease many palms and go through many rounds of ‘sifarish’ (connections) to get me one. This process was totally out of reach for ordinary people. PRC also was only available for natives of Jammu and Kashmir. The erstwhile state was effectively shut for outsiders. The new Jammu and Kashmir Domicile Certificate corrects that historical wrong. One nation under one constitution ensures that anyone can live in Jammu and Kashmir and become a domicile.
The categories of those who have immediately become domicile have been increased. Besides PRC holders and their children, any person who has already resided in J&K for 15 years and their children, or any person who has studied in J&K for 7 years and appeared in Class 10th or 12th examination, is now a domicile. Kashmiri Hindus who have officially become ‘migrants’ but in reality are refugees in their own country, are all granted domicile. Indeed, they all were eligible for state subjects earlier too but this new law now opens doors for those who have migrated since 1944 to become domicile. This corrects another historical blunder where many Kashmiri Hindus who had fled due to persecution or for any other reason at any time since 1944 were kept out of state subject eligibility. Every displaced migrant or displaced person who was not eligible for PRC is now eligible. Children of central government officials who have served in Jammu and Kashmir for 10 years are now eligible for domicile. Besides this, West Pakistan refugees who had been living since the state’s accession to India have been included. Safai Karamcharis who had been brought from other parts of India, mostly Punjab but had never been given dignity of a PRC and their children, who could never climb the social ladder, now have doors of opportunities opened for them.
Those who have only now been brought under the ambit of domicile want their state to prioritize them in the state government jobs because many other states prioritize their residents. Therefore suddenly opening up these jobs for everybody will again place them under disadvantage. The demand for state government jobs to be reserved for domiciles had come from many stake holders including dogras of Jammu. The Government in this step of reform post abrogation of Article 370 has accepted their justified demands.
Is this the last of political reforms needed in Kashmir? Certainly not. For a state that had been brutally cut off from mainland and had oppressive set of laws in place, a lot more needs to be done to bring it up to speed with the rest of the states. Next round of reforms should address the question of displaced Kashmiri Hindus. The domicile law brings a sense of ownership in all stake holders of Jammu and Kashmir and was therefore necessary but rehabilitation of Kashmiri Hindus remains a question mark. They have been forced into exile by brutal jihadi terrorism which engulfed the valley. Valley still struggles with terrorism so should the Kashmiri Hindus wait till the last gun falls silent or should there be a road map considered for their dignified return. The problem with waiting for the last gun to fall silent is that the guns will never be in short supply as long as global jihadi terror network flourishes. Many road maps have been discussed in the past but nothing really has come out of them. Various demands have also been made by Kashmiri Hindus, over the years, such as a separate homeland within Kashmir which will give them a sense of security after systematic persecution of several centuries. A road map for the future will have to be evolved. Prime Minister Modi’s vision of new Kashmir has dimensions of hope in it. It is a comprehensive, far seeing, dynamic and multi-dimensional vision.
Meanwhile, as we wait for the next step of reforms to be unveiled in Jammu and Kashmir, few points can be made with certitude. There is no going back to the old order. Nobody can create any oligarchy in Jammu and Kashmir now. Those who have been kept out of decision-making process and silenced for decades will now speak up and be heard.
(The writer is a political commentator and a columnist. In a video that went viral recently, she represented the Kashmiri Hindu voice and addressed the human rights situation in Kashmir at the US Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The views expressed are personal.)
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