India

Why is Kashmir's 'special status' under threat in India?

Kashmiri boatmen at the floating vegetable market on Dal lake in Srinagar Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kashmiris fear that a change in the law will affect the state's demographics - currently it's the only Muslim-majority state in India

India's Supreme Court is hearing a batch of petitions that challenge a property law unique to Indian-administered Kashmir. According to this law, widely known as Article 35A, only long-term residents of the state can own land there. Senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari explains its importance.

What is Article 35A?

Article 35A allows the legislature of Indian-administered Kashmir to define the state's "permanent residents" and what distinguishes them. It applies to all of Indian-administered Kashmir, including Jammu and Ladakh.

All identified residents are issued a permanent resident certificate, which entitles them to special benefits related to employment, scholarships etc. But the biggest advantage for permanent residents is that only they have the right to own and, therefore, buy, property in the state.

All those who were living in the state as of 14 May 1954 when the law came into effect; and those who have lived in the state for 10 years anytime since, are counted as permanent residents.

The state legislature can also alter the definition of a permanent resident or other aspects of the law by a two-thirds majority.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protests, shutdowns and violent clashes between civilians and Indian security forces are common in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir

How did it come about?

The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, first passed the law in 1927 to stop the influx of people from the northern state of Punjab into the state. Reports say he did this on the urging of powerful Kashmiri Hindus. The law still exists in parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In India, the law in its current form was introduced in 1954. It's part of Article 370, a constitutional provision that grants Kashmir a unique status within India. It allows the state its own constitution, a separate flag and independence over all matters except foreign affairs, defence and communications.

When the Jammu and Kashmir constitution was adopted in 1956, it ratified the then two-year-old permanent resident law.


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kashmiris have been revolting against Indian rule since 1989

What is its significance?

It protects the state's distinct demographic character.

Since Indian-administered Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in India, many Kashmiris suspect Hindu nationalist groups of encouraging Hindus to migrate to the state. This doesn't sit well with Kashmiris given their tumultuous relationship with India - there has been an armed revolt in the region against Indian rule since 1989.

India blames Pakistan for fuelling the unrest, a charge Islamabad denies.

Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety but only control parts of it. Since India's partition and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought two wars and a limited conflict over the territory.


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Image caption Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has warned that changing the law would further alienate Kashmiris

Why is it being debated now?

We the Citizens, a little-known non-governmental organisation, petitioned the Supreme Court in 2014 to abolish the law on the grounds that it was "unconstitutional". The state government headed by the regional Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has defended the law in court.

The federal government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has said in court that it wants a "larger debate".

Before it was elected to power in the summer of 2014, the BJP had spoken in favour of revoking the special status granted to Indian-administered Kashmir. But now it's ruling the state in a coalition with the regional PDP, which is unlikely to agree to a change in the law.

Also, constitutional expert AG Noorani says, the Indian parliament cannot "make laws" with respect to the people of Indian-administered Kashmir. Only the state government has the "absolute sovereign power" to do so.


What do those who defend the law say?

They say abolishing the law would dishonour the Indian government's promise to protect Kashmir's special status.

They also fear that it would open up the state for outsiders to settle, eventually changing its demographics.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted that removing the law would have "grave consequences" for Jammu and Ladakh.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has warned that it would destroy India's fragile relationship with the state.

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