On Tuesday 11 October, Deputy Commissioner Jammu who is also officiating as District Election Officer in the run-up to the proposed assembly elections, passed a new order pertaining to Special Summary Revision(SSR) which is expected to add new voters to the electoral rolls in the erstwhile state.
The order makes Aadhar card, bank passbook, one-year-old electricity or gas bill, rent, lease and sale deeds as “proof of residence” for the registration of new voters. The document further directs that in order to ensure that no eligible voter is left out of the SSR, all “Tehsildars (revenue officers) are authorised to issue a certificate of residence after conducting necessary field verifications, to the person(s) residing in the District Jammu for more than one year.”
A new order pertaining to Special Summary Revision(SSR) which is expected to add new voters to the electoral rolls in the erstwhile state.
The order makes Aadhar card, bank passbook, one-year-old electricity or gas bill, rent, lease and sale deeds as “proof of residence” for the registration of new voters.
The directive has now sparked political controversy and revived concerns over the non-locals getting incentivised to live permanently in the region
J&K is gearing up for the assembly elections for the first time since 2014. The previous legislative assembly was unceremoniously dissolved in June 2018 after the BJP withdrew support from its coalition partner, People’s Democratic Party.
The directive has now sparked political controversy and revived concerns over the non-locals getting incentivised to live permanently in the region—an emotive topic in J&K. There’s also significant anger over limiting to just one year, the minimum time for which one is supposed to have lived in J&K to become eligible as a registered voter.
Fresh Voter Induction in Poll-Bound J&K Trigger Row
Legal experts said such orders signal intent of mischief as J&K is headed towards the assembly elections after a gap of 8 years and opening up floodgates of voters from the outside could be deemed as a partisan move.
“These steps won’t bring integration but more and more alienation,” said Sheikh Showkat, a legal scholar and a political analyst. “The J&K Reorganisation Act which is the parent legislation from which all these decisions are flowing is currently sub judice.”
Although the order was later withdrawn following an outcry, the episode still points to the fragile political situation prevailing in the UT.
J&K is gearing up for the assembly elections for the first time since 2014. The previous legislative assembly was unceremoniously dissolved in June 2018 after the BJP withdrew support from its coalition partner—People’s Democratic Party.
In that year, the security situation in Kashmir had dangerously spiralled out of control with the militant groups waging big attacks and an unprecedented number of youngsters participating in the armed violence. The last straw, however, may have been the assassination of high-profile Kashmiri editor, Shujaat Bukhari, which gave the BJP a pretext to call off the alliance.
How the Repeal of Special Status Affected Internal Politics
The pull out was also strategically timed so that the erstwhile state doesn’t go to polls before 2019 Parliamentary elections that gave Modi a resounding second victory, thereby ensuring that the region effectively remained under the governor’s rule ahead of the August 2019 decision.
The following year, the Union government abrogated article 370 and imposed what several critics have described as de facto martial law. As the clampdown was eased, timidly and gradually, the government found it necessary to jumpstart the frozen politics of the state.
This was followed by the alleged efforts by the Modi government to poach influential members from extant political order and stitch together newer arrangements which would make it appear as though the repeal of special status in J&K was being accepted as fait accompli.
Can Local Parties Mobilise the UT?
In 2020, the the government created District Development Councils(DDC) to mark the implementation of the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment in J&K. The elections to DDCs were held in winters that year. It was an exercise through which the administration probably wanted to gauge the public sentiment as the crackdown associated with the August 2019 move had all but wiped out the press, civil society as well as narrowed down the public engagement significantly.
Again, DDC results threw up a surprise with the non-BJP parties, particularly those associated with the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, an amalgam of regional political groups who want the special status rehabilitated, bagging the most number of seats.
The group also met Prime Minister Modi in June last year suggesting that the Union government was beginning to take serious note of its political opponents in the J&K, it had previously derided as Gupkar Gang.
However, J&K’s immersion into a prolonged political coma had its own unforeseen consequences. Starting 2021, the militancy scenario in Kashmir began seeing a renewal but not in the manner the security forces had probably predicted. Sustained political repression through legal tools like Unlawful Activities Prevention Act(UAPA) and Public Safety Act(PSA)galvanised public anger brewing underneath an illusion of social and political normalcy.
The results were drastic. Young men with no documented history of crime or association with the militancy were being found involved in a spate of high profile assassinations in Srinagar city. The targets included members from minority groups or non-locals doing business in Kashmir such as Aakash Mehra—a restaurateur, or Satinder Kaur, head mistress of a public school, or ML Bindroo, the renowned Kashmiri Pandit chemist—most of whom lived and worked in Srinagar.
What the Tone and Tenor of Regional Leaders Imply
In recent months, the Union government seems to have accelerated the poll-related activities in the former state which include commencement of the Special Summary Revision (SSR) of electoral rolls, the first level checks of EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) and VVPATs (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail) and delegating the duties of District Election Office to all Deputy Commissioners across the UT.
This has been accompanied by the brisk public engagement by political parties across the board that involves travelling to different parts of the state to canvass political support amid the escalating buzz around elections.
Some leaders like Mehbooba Mufti have also become shrill with their party messaging. Recently, Mufti publicly sparred with the Srinagar administration on Twitter for allegedly disallowing her from going out of her house as the Union Home Minister Amit Shah was in the midst of his visit to Kashmir. J&K police deny subjecting her to confinement, and insist that she was always free to travel.
The directive by the deputy magistrate Jammu, meanwhile, has now sparked a new controversy, feeding into the long-simmering anxieties related to demographic changes and dilution of voting power in Kashmir as well as in Jammu.
“The order and the constitutional provisions it is citing are very vague,” said Zafar Choudhary, author and editor. “It says the Electoral Registration Officers will determine who qualifies to be a temporary resident. But in Representation of People’s Act 1951 such conditions are not specified. And now they appear to have come up with this provision of meeting the requirement of one year residence to become a temporary resident. This appears arbitrary.”
Choudhary said that choosing Jammu as the first district where such directives were announced is not a coincidence. “It’s been thought through very well,” he says.
“I feel that the Jammu DC must have been told to check the reaction so that the same steps could be put to effect in the rest of J&K. But the general population has opposed it. You don’t need any survey to know this. Today popular public opinions can be easily distilled from social media.
J&K and Its Judicial Overhaul
Since the abrogation of article 370 more than three years ago, the Union government has enforced a wide array of changes to the erstwhile state’s legal system to make it more analogous to the one operational across the rest of the country. Nearly 890 Central laws are now in force in J&K. Only 160 laws originally passed by the former state’s legislative assembly have been retained. The remaining laws were extinguished as part of a Centre’s wholesale assault on J&K’s special status.
But the government, as Amnesty International’s recent report noted, has been very selective about which laws to retain and which ones to eschew. Whereas the controversial laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and PSA are still in use, the report notes, the regional version of Right to Information Act, a much stronger law than its national counterpart, was de-operationalised.
Infiltration in J&K Lands Guided by Political Motive
Along with this, the government has also implemented sweeping new structural changes that have hardly inspired any confidence among locals. In October 2019, the government approved the establishment of the Department of Registration in J&K which would function under the aegis of Registration Act 1906, a Central law which allows the powers dealing with transactions of land to switch over from judiciary to the revenue department.
Critics insist that such a move allows easy acquisition of land in Kashmir for the outsiders who will get to bypass judiciary that was virtually invulnerable to bribery unlike the revenue department.
In 2020, the Union government reduced the share of regional J&K candidates entering the all India civil services from 50% to 33% which implies that more outsiders are likely to pour in and pervade the region’s bureaucracy.
In the same year, the government also notified J&K Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central) Third Order that made all Indian citizens eligible to acquire land in the UT. The order also allowed armed forces to declare any land in J&K as ‘strategic’ and conferred them with sweeping authority over it. Once a land has been earmarked as ‘strategic’, the local municipality and civil authorities will cease to exercise any jurisdiction over it.
In September 2020, government also notified The Transaction of Business of the Government of Union Territory of J&K Rules 2019 which dropped the civil services, police and Anti-Corruption Bureau from the purview of J&K UT’s Chief Minister as and when he/she is elected. This clearly means that in absence of statehood, any new elected head of the regional government will have abridged powers.
Further, by amending Panchayati Raj Act to make DDCs in J&K electable via direct vote – unlike the rest of the country – the government has effectively, as some commentators have argued, consigned sarpanches (village heads) into irrelevance.
These radical changes that the Union government has described as “important reforms” have overturned much of what was known about the J&K when it functioned as a state and clearly are viewed as attempts to marginalise Kashmiris in their own homeland and to undermine the structures of self-governance in the region.
The final blow, the locals believe, was the Delimitation which resized the electoral constituencies in J&K in a manner which clearly skews the balance in favour of BJP.
Voting Criteria in J&K Refurbished
Recently, UT’s Chief Electoral Officer Hridesh Kumar, citing Representation of People’s Act 1951, said that anyone “residing ordinarily” in Kashmir can decide to enlist themselves as voters.
He also said that J&K was likely to add around 25 lakh voters after the completion of special summary revision (SSR), adding that there was no need for a domicile certificate for anyone to become a voter and that any “employee, student, labourer or anyone who is living ordinarily in J&K” can register themselves as voters.
This has since fuelled a fresh round of political turmoil in the region. Now, 11 October’s notification too is having the same effect with the public in Jammu expressing dismay over the decision.
Can BJP Encash Its Domicile Law Strategy?
Choudhary said that when the government notified new domicile laws that liberalised the criteria to acquire residency permits in J&K two years ago, it had first triggered a reaction in the Jammu region. “It put the BJP in the dock then. Even now, from the last three years, a lot of businesses such as sand mining which is very profitable, liquor trading, steel and cement industries have been taken over by outsiders. Jammu is now like ‘hindutva is OK but don’t play with our economic interests,’” he said.
This is evidenced by a huge protest led by Jammu Chamber of Industries and Commerce on Sunday in the Jammu city against the opening of Reliance retail store. The local traders have argued that they will not be able to compete with big retailers such as Reliance and will be forced to shutter.
“One thing is clear,” Choudhary says, “The next battle for the identity of the J&K will emerge from Jammu.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)