The year 2022 has been tumultuous for Indian-administered Kashmir as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government continued to introduce policies that pundits and locals fear are aimed at disenfranchisement and the disempowering the Muslim majority in the region.
The latest move by the government is the introduction of new rules aimed at the implementation of a law engaged in the lease of government land.
Since August 5, 2019, when the BJP government unilaterally dismantled the region of its limited autonomy and split it into two parts, land has emerged as a major focus of government. The governance of the region is directly ruled by New Delhi. Over the past three years, it has issued a series of orders to open the region to outsiders, fuel fears that the government wants to change the demographics of the region so that it is no longer Muslim-majority.
‘Attack on our livelihood’
The latest rules introduced earlier this month are considered by many to be particularly controversial. They demand that local entrepreneurs return land they have rented from the government. The rules explicitly threaten expulsion for those who break them.
The government has refused to renew the leases of indigenous hoteliers. Instead, it wants to auction these permits. Opposition parties and local businesses have protested – the move could deprive hundreds of Kashmiri hoteliers of ownership of their properties.
The land can now be leased to outsiders, including former members of the Indian Army, war widows and migrant workers, according to the government’s notice.
The Gulmarg ski resort in northern Kashmir and the picturesque Pahalgam area in southern Kashmir will be among the hardest hit areas and will now be open for outsiders to buy hotels through e-bidding.
“This is a direct attack on our livelihood,” one of the region’s hoteliers told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, as people are afraid to speak against the government in public.
Sheikh Ashiq, a trade union leader in the region, told Al Jazeera that companies have raised concerns with the government. “We want the government to take a sympathetic attitude and give the local population the opportunity to continue to run their businesses.”
The region’s administrative chief Manoj Sinha has defended the move, calling old laws “regressive”, but local politicians have criticized it, saying it is designed to “bring in settlers”.
“We have said from the beginning that the purpose of BJP … was to plunder our resources and take our land and settle settlers like how Israel does in PalestineMehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region, told the media about the controversial law.
Arrest of journalists
The past year was also special difficult for journalists in Kashmir.
The media is operating in a climate of fear, with the homes of several journalists raided and some summoned by police for questioning – what observers describe as an attempt to silence the press about the reality in the region.
The strategy seems to be working. Analysts said the government’s controversial orders are being overlooked by the media, while state-sponsored events promoting the image of the Kashmir government are making headlines in local and national media.
The arrest of two journalists, Sajad Gul and Fahad Shah, earlier this year under the controversial Public Security Act (PSA), which allows a person to be imprisoned without trial for up to two years, has further shocked journalists. Both have been transferred to distant prisons making it difficult for their families to reach them.
They were arrested for “spreading false stories” and “glorifying terrorism”.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media watchdog, this year ranked India 150th out of 180 countries in its annual World Press Freedom Index – India’s lowest position ever. Rights activists have expressed concern declining freedom of the press in India.
The government in the region also closed the Kashmir Press Club, the largest elected journalist organization in the region, and took over the building that housed the organization.
Many journalists are also barred from international travel. Won the Pulitzer Prize on October 18 Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was prevented from traveling abroad.
Many local journalists told Al Jazeera they “prefer being silent to writing in praise of the government”.
Radha Kumar, an Indian academic and author based in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that the policy has led to “increasing disempowerment of the local population at every level” in Kashmir.
“You hardly hear it [civil society] vote more,” Kumar said.
“In the local media, I can’t remember the last time I read an opinion piece about the situation in Kashmir. Media freedom is gone. Silencing dissent and arresting journalists are very authoritarian steps,” Kumar added.
Altered election map
In another move likely to affect the outcome of elections in the region, the government decided to redraw the electoral map of Kashmir after the completion of a demarcation exercise in May.
This angered residents and politicians, who said the universal idea fundamental to democracy – that every vote has equal value – had been violated. The total number of legislative seats in the region has been increased from 83 to 90. But while the number of seats in the southern part of Jammu, where Hindus have a majority, was increased from 37 to 43, it only increased by one seat from 46 to 47 for Kashmir. This, when Kashmir has a significantly larger population than Jammu.
In fact, the average population of a Muslim-majority constituency in Kashmir will be 140,000 while in Jammu it will be only 120,000.
But before that matters, the region needs elections first. Jammu and Kashmir have not had an elected government since the fall of the previous government in 2018, while New Delhi, 810 km away, governs the region.
“The demarcation process took 27 months instead of the initially allotted one year. With that process completed, the subsequent voter roll review has also been completed, but there is not even a trace of parliamentary elections,” Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst in the southern city of Jammu, told Al Jazeera.
“In less than five months, the region will be without a legislature and elected government for five years, which will be the longest for a state in India in the last 25 years,” Choudhary said.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, but is claimed by both in its entirety. The two countries have fought two of their three wars over the region.
Targeted killings of local Hindus
Many of the measures taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-ruled government in recent years have been aimed at strengthening law and order in the region, where armed rebels have been fighting for independence for more than 30 years.
Yet Kashmir has been rocked by rare protests by local Hindus, commonly known as Kashmiri Pandits, who blocked highways and staged demonstrations against the ruling government after a series of targeted murders against their community by alleged rebels.
For months, hundreds of Hindu government employees have protested and boycotted their jobs. They demand that the government move them outside the turbulent region.
According to government figures, 14 people from minority communities will be murdered in 2022. Among them are three local Hindus and migrant workers.
The Indian government has been trying for years to bring local Hindus back to Kashmir, from where they had fled in the 1990s during the height of the armed insurgency, when many of them were victims of targeted killings by armed groups. Under the government’s rehabilitation policy announced in 2008, nearly 3,000 Kashmiri Pandits had returned.
The recent murders threaten to nullify those efforts.
But despite anger and opposition from residents and political leaders, government officials are defending their policies.
“There is a significant improvement in the public order situation,” a senior official in the administration told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
The problem? Most Kashmiris interviewed by Al Jazeera said they have not seen that “improvement”.