Revised electoral rolls announced in August 2022 will include non-locals, members of the security and armed forces deployed in the region, and members of India’s Hindu Kashmiri Pandit diaspora. These groups can register as voters in their respective constituencies even if they are not physically present in Jammu and Kashmir. The electoral roll revision follows the creation of new seats in the local legislature by a special redelineation commission that was constituted as part of New Delhi’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status in 2019.
Several local political parties have criticised the electoral changes, with one party leader calling the new electoral designs ‘the last nail in the coffin of electoral democracy in Jammu and Kashmir’. Considering the population of Jammu and Kashmir is approximately 12.3 million, many are fearful that an additional 2.5 million voters will influence the electoral results in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.
The BJP is seeking to tilt the electoral balance in its favour with the electoral rule changes. The BJP will, in particular, be relying on the votes of the armed forces who are disproportionately present in Kashmir relative to the local population. Efforts to change the makeup of the local electorate may also be driven by the urge to pander to the government’s right-wing nationalist voter base elsewhere in India.
Before the Modi government’s 2019 reforms, Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed semi-autonomous status within the Indian federation and had its own flag, parliament and chief minister. The now-abolished Article 370 of the Indian Constitution prohibited outsiders to settle in, buy land and secure local government jobs. Even though these privileges were eroded in various ways over the years, Article 370 gave people in the region a critical legal standing within the Indian Constitution. The unilateral revocation of the article in August 2019 was a shock as the Indian government had only consulted the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, who is an appointee of the president of India, and not the Kashmiri population about the issue.
The Indian government said that militancy in Jammu and Kashmir had always been a national security issue and Article 370 was abolished to ‘liberate’ the region from the scourge of separatism. Officials also claimed that the region’s special status was hindering its economic development, prosperity and peace. Contrary to the government’s claims, Jammu and Kashmir was performing better economically than other Indian states when it came to education, human development, health and housing. But the central government’s ambitious plans to increase development, create more jobs and entice foreign investment in the region has had limited success.
Significant changes in the political and legal arenas have taken place since New Delhi removed the region’s special status in 2019. These include allowing non-Kashmiris to relocate, purchase land and apply for government jobs in Jammu and Kashmir. The region is now subject to the same voting, property and labour laws as the rest of India.
The latest decision on electoral rules reflects the attitude of the ruling government on issues of pluralism, statehood and federalism. The removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was implemented to return a ‘suspended’ territory to the Indian federation. The region is in fact now much less autonomous than other Indian states within the Indian federation after being bifurcated into two union territories. Proponents of the Modi government’s move argue that the region has always been an integral part of India and that Article 370 was an impediment to national integration.
Many Kashmiris are convinced that the Indian government is seeking to reorganise the landscape of Jammu and Kashmir by changing its demography. Some call this ‘settler colonialism’ that may disempower Kashmiris in the long-term. There is also criticism that the BJP is intentionally delaying assembly elections and does not intend to restore full statehood of the region.
There are further fears that economic resources are being usurped and exploited. The awarding of several government contracts to non-Kashmiri businesses has created concern that outsiders with deep pockets will monopolise the market and throw locals out of business.
As for security, although there is an overall drop in terrorism-related activities, cross-border infiltrations and ceasefire violations along the Line of Control with Pakistan, militancy in the Kashmir Valley has become more localised and indigenised. More local youth are being inducted into the ranks of militant groups, largely due to growing sentiments of alienation, marginalisation and anger.
While official statistics on violence are not always reliable and can lead to inaccurate conclusions, these new developments indicate that many young people who were once hopeful now see legitimacy in the voices and actions of separatists.
Targeted attacks against minorities, non-locals and security personnel have also increased. The electoral roll revisions are likely to increase animosity and attacks against non-locals and Kashmiri Pandits. The Resistance Front, a new militant group formed in 2019, said in a social media post that it will increase targeted attacks in response to the electoral roll revision, calling it ‘demographic terrorism’.
The increased deployment of troops, usurpation of economic resources and gerrymandering will not win the hearts and minds of locals, and instead will likely only worsen sentiments of marginalisation, resentment and distrust.
Roshni Kapur is an independent researcher based in Singapore.