While a young man from Jammu and Kashmir was in the US for higher studies some decades ago, he went to meet the world-renowned scholar of Palestinian origin, Edward Said.
The latter asked him about the Kashmiri movement. When he had finished, Said is believed to have summed up the difference succinctly: ‘Kashmiris had land. Palestinians did not.’
He had hit the nail on the head. Even the agitations and violent conflict that have erupted there in the past few days are essentially about the right to—or, conversely, dispossession of—property.
A small group of Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, not far from Jerusalem, so that Jewish-Israeli settlers can move in. The settlers’ claim is based on a sale deed from about 80 years ago, but the residents, and other Palestinians, are resisting.
The Palestinian Experience: A Gradual Takeover By Israel
In Palestinian minds, this eviction has come to symbolise the gradual takeover of their territories by Israel. In fact, the history of that land over the past century has been the replacement of Palestine by Israel, and the eviction of Palestinians to make way for Jews from other parts of the world to settle there.
According to a division that most parties agreed between 1967 and the 1980s, a substantial chunk of the central part of the country, up to the west bank of the Jordan river, was to remain as Palestine, along with the Gaza Strip in the southwestern corner. The rest of the country was to be Israel.
Over the past two decades, however, most of that central portion has been taken over by Israeli Jewish settlers, often forcibly and with the support of State apparatus. The tiny Gaza Strip (about 70 square km now) and a few pockets in the centre are all that now remain of Palestine.
Land Safeguards in J&K For Residents
Edward Said was right. While Palestinians have steadily been deprived of land that used to be theirs, the opposite has been true in J&K. On the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the state, nobody from outside the state was allowed to buy land, except on lease.
This was a unique safeguard, which did not even allow for normal migration of the sort that happens all over the world. In fact, between 1948 and 1953, J&K had a virtual visa barrier at its border with the rest of India.
From 1954 to 2019, a guarantee that nobody from outside the state could own property or be employed by the state government was embedded in India’s constitution (Article 35-A).
Even now, after the state has been turned into two union territories, domicile laws have been put into law, preventing anyone who has not lived there for at least 15 years from buying property.
Kashmir & Palestine: The Stories Are Reversed
In light of these facts, placing the ‘Kashmir issue’ in the same bracket as the ‘Palestine issue’ is far-fetched—at least with regard to land rights. And yet, this has been attempted since 2008, with repetitive harping on the ‘occupation’ of Kashmir as a parallel to Israel’s military conquest and then gradual occupation of the West Bank since 1967.
In the Palestinian context, occupation has signified the forcible eviction of long-time residents and the takeover of their properties by settlers. While many Kashmiris are deeply fearful of demographic change through ‘outsider’ settlers, this has not happened—at least yet.
On the other side of the Line of Control, meanwhile, large numbers of ‘outsiders’ have apparently been resettled in the Gilgit-Baltistan area in the northwest of the state.
Constitutional Changes in J&K
There is of course renewed fear that, with the constitutional guarantees gone, the Centre could engineer a demographic change.
To the extent that this fear is essentially with regard to Hindus being added to the population of the Valley, it neglects the fact that lakhs of Hindus of the Valley actually moved out, in abject terror, mainly in 1990.
It also neglects the fact that people from the Jammu region always had the legal right to relocate to the Valley. They did not. It is Kashmiris who have built winter homes in Jammu in large numbers in recent years.
Meanwhile, restrictions on property ownership for ‘outsiders’ have inhibited potential investors from spurring the economy of the state. To that extent, the Jammu region and Ladakh have paid a price for Kashmir’s insistence on exclusivity.
If anything, the takeover of land works the opposite way around in Jammu and Kashmir from the way it does in Palestine. For, although the sentiment for independence is largely limited to the Kashmir Valley, almost everyone who backs that aspiration insists on taking along the entire erstwhile state, including all of the Jammu region (or at least up to the Chenab river) and Ladakh.
None of them bothers with the fact that, in area, Leh district alone is almost four times bigger than the Valley, Kargil district is almost as large as the Valley, and Kishtwar district is almost half as big. Yet, the peoples of those regions are not considered worthy of having a say.
Of course, there are similarities between Kashmir and Palestine in the ways in which a powerful state in each case deals with what it considers to be ‘terrorism’.
Yet, it’s worth noting that there are about 7 million Palestinian refugees—about as many as the total number of Kashmiris. The world sees no refugees from Kashmir, though, and the major chunk of migrants from the state hails from Mirpur on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.
Why We Should Question Misleading Comparisons
Despite these facts, there is a knee-jerk tendency—in both the Left and the Right—to unquestioningly adopt narratives that club Kashmir with Palestine. This tendency has been visible again over the past few days.
For anyone who has traveled in Gaza, and seen the desolation that has been wrought there, the comparison is odious. Gaza’s residents have hardly any means of sustenance, but if they want to exit Gaza to sell their produce, they have, over the past few decades, faced queues and checks lasting hours, followed quite often by refusal.
Imagine high-barbed wire fencing at the Banihal tunnel with a narrow exit turnstile, and a long line of people waiting several hours for their turn to shuffle up to it if they want to leave the Valley—only to be brusquely told, in many cases, to go back.
Then imagine that this is the situation in a state that is 0.4 percent of the area of the Valley. Yes, Gaza residents are locked into a space more than 200 times smaller than the Valley.
Although there was brutal repression in Kashmir to combat militancy—mainly by Pakistanis and Afghans along with Hizbul Mujahideen from 1993 to 1999—the physical-cum-economic lockdown of Gaza is of a different order.
Throughout these years, large numbers of Kashmiris have seasonally migrated to different parts of the subcontinent, making good money as handicraft shopkeepers in different parts of the country every winter.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)