People in Indian-administered Kashmir have reacted with fear and anger to a Supreme Court judgement upholding the government’s decision to remove the partial autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority region.
For most residents, fears of a demographic change triggered by the 2019 decision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are slowly becoming reality.
“There’s now a clear threat to the people in Kashmir,” Irshad Ahmad, a university student from the region’s main city of Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.
“Over the last four years, they [the government] passed contentious laws which include laws to serve residency permits to the non-Kashmiris. Now, Indians would be able to purchase land in the disputed territory,” the 25-year-old student said.
More crucially, Ahmad said, the government has “changed the entire architecture of laws in Kashmir”, including doing away with progressive laws related to its Indigenous people and replacing them with a policy aimed at disempowering local residents.
“At the same time, they have retained draconian preventive detention laws, so clearly, Kashmiris have the right to be cynical about whatever the Indian government wishes to do here,” he said.
Another resident said he had never felt more hopeless.
“I have seen all the ups and downs in Kashmir, but the situation was never like this,” he told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, adding that people have “accepted everything as their fate now”.
“We don’t even know what else will change in the future,” he said.
What happened in 2019
In August 2019, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status, which allowed it a separate constitution and inherited protections on land and jobs under Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution.
The unexpected move dissolved the elected state legislature, divided the disputed region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – to bring them under New Delhi’s direct control. It was the first time in India’s history that a full state was downgraded to federal territory status.
The move was followed by an unprecedented months-long security clampdown in one of the world’s most militarised regions, where an armed anti-India rebellion has been raging since the late 1980s.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of whom claim it in its entirety after their independence from British rule in 1947. The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours have fought three of their four full-scale wars over the territory.
Since its inception in the 1980s, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had made scrapping Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status one of its key planks to consolidate its nationalist constituency. It saw the region’s partial autonomy as an affront to its vision of a unified – and ethnic Hindu – state.
On August 5, 2019, less than three months after Modi returned to power with a larger majority in parliament, his government passed a law in parliament, scrapping the special status of the region, defending it as a move that would bring peace and development.
But the government’s unilateral move, which many legal experts said was illegal, was challenged by the region’s pro-India political parties and other Kashmiri groups and individuals in the Supreme Court, which gave its verdict on Monday.
The court upheld the BJP’s 2019 move. Its five-judge bench, led by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, called Article 370 “a temporary provision” and declared its removal was constitutionally valid.
The top court said the government’s move was “a culmination of the process of integration and as such is a valid exercise of power”. It ordered the restoration of the region’s statehood “at the earliest and as soon as possible” and legislative assembly elections to be held by September 30.
Modi called the court’s judgement “a beacon of hope”. He said on X, formerly Twitter, that it brought “a promise of a brighter future and a testament to our collective resolve to build a stronger, more united India”.
Ahead of the top court’s verdict, security agencies in Indian-administered Kashmir took extensive measures to avoid mass protests.
The police asked people to desist from sharing “provocative content” on social media. Several pro-India politicians in the region said they were put under house arrest, a charge denied by regional authorities.
Unexpectedly, the Supreme Court’s verdict was marked by a profound silence in the valley, where an environment of fear has prevailed since the 2019 move.
Many residents expressed little confidence in the Supreme Court’s willingness to challenge the government’s decision.
“For us Kashmiris, the special status was not just a legal issue but the question of our identity, our existence. Its loss has created an existential threat for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially the Kashmiri Muslims,” Muhammad Numan, a 45-year-old businessman in Baramulla, told Al Jazeera.
“There have been ongoing efforts to assimilate the Muslim character of this place into a majority Hindu state. With the court’s approval, such efforts would gather pace now,” he said.
The region’s political parties, who had pinned their hopes on the top court, also condemned the verdict.
“This is not our defeat but the defeat of the idea of India,” said Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, as the region is officially called in India.
‘Kashmir’s colonised condition’
Kashmiri journalist Anuradha Bhasin, who wrote the book A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir after Article 370, told Al Jazeera that Kashmiris have lost faith in India’s democracy after the 2019 decision.
“What Article 370 protected were the privileges of the permanent residents related to jobs, land and business investments. Young people now fear that jobs and admissions in higher education will be shared with people from outside and they will be unable to compete,” she said.
Bhasin said people from outside Kashmir are already investing in businesses in the region.
“In due course of time, there are fears and threats of changing the demography of the place, and these threats are more pronounced also because BJP, which is in power, has for years talked about changing the demography of Kashmir as a way to resolve the dispute.”
Mohamad Junaid, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera the Indian government has failed to uphold the interests of the people of Kashmir.
“Kashmiris have been forcibly silenced, but people know if the Indian government wasn’t crushing them under military control and repressive laws, their response would be the same as those whose sovereignty has been denied or stolen,” he said.
“Those few in Kashmir who hoped that the Supreme Court would protect their interests are probably feeling the weight of the reality of Kashmir’s colonised condition.”