While the police marvelled at the low number of active militants, locals fretted over decisions that incentivise the entry of outsiders and the Pandit community found itself at odds with the BJP.
Since 2019, when Article 370 of the constitution was read down, pushing the reset button on the political, economic and social life of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), our annual year-end recollections of big events in the union territory (UT) have looked like films packed with reckless action, intrigue, suspicion, malice, dissimulation and treachery. That was the case in 2019, 2020 and 2021 and 2022 was no different.
In 2022, J&K saw the fulfilment of the controversial delimitation exercise that attracted allegations of foul play. Six new assembly seats went to Jammu, even though its population is less than that of Kashmir. Kashmir, on the other hand, was awarded only one new seat.
But that was just the beginning of the controversy. The manner in which existing seats were split into two or more units and amalgamated into entirely new constituencies also invited suspicion. That was because the seats that were wiped off the map were those that usually granted victory to parties like the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
I recently had a conversation with a former lawmaker from Hom Shali Bug constituency in south Kashmir. He had won this seat in 2014. The Delimitation Commission has broken Hom Shali Bug into four parts and a new constituency called Anantnag West will have an entirely new demographic in its electorate. “A whole decade’s worth of carefully nurturing a political relationship between the representative and the public is gone,” this man said. “I will have to start all over again.”
Parties based in Kashmir have complained for years that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has successfully tweaked key legal precepts in the UT in ways that enable it to conveniently skew any electoral outcome in its favour.
This year, the government has been quite forthright about its motivations behind reading down Article 370. Earlier, it ceased to observe the state holiday on the occasion of Sheikh Abdullah’s birth anniversary. This year it removed Abdullah’s image from the J&K Police Medal awards.
To make matters worse, the government passed directions to commemorate and observe holidays on the birthday of J&K’s last Maharaja, Hari Singh. Memories of Dogra rule inspire bitter feelings amongst Kashmiri Muslims because of the feudal and exploitative nature of their regime.
In 2022, the Kashmiri Pandit situation took another turn after militants shot dead Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit employee posted at the revenue office in the central Kashmir district of Budgam. Two other Pandits, Sunil Kumar Bhat, and Puran Krishen Bhat, were also killed by militants last year.
The killing of Rahul Bhat led to spontaneous protests against the government that have refused to die down even seven months later. Since the BJP had made the Pandit issue a key plank of its political messaging in the UT, this left the saffron party in an awkward situation.
The Lt Governor argued that Muslims have suffered just as much militant violence as Pandits have. This is a line of reasoning that the BJP always combated when it was in the opposition in J&K.
However, in a gesture meant to display its honourable intentions towards the Pandit community, the UT government will follow orders from the Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh High Court and reopen the Nadimarg massacre case in which 24 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in Pulwama district in March 2003.
Unfortunately, it seems that some crucial information pertaining to the likely outcome of the decision on the case has not been placed in the public domain. Of the 11 people who figured as the accused in the case, only four were militants. Three of these four were gunned down 19 years ago. In 2021, Zia Mustafa, the one surviving militant accused in the case, was escorted out of his prison allegedly to help the security forces locate the spot where other militants were hiding. Zia had apparently known their whereabouts.
He was taken close to the alleged hideout of the militants whereupon the infiltrators are said to have fired their weapons, killing Zia.
The remaining seven accused in the Nadimarg massacre case are all policemen charged with dereliction of duty. The punishment for this offence is a maximum of three months’ imprisonment.
It is no wonder that Pandit groups in Kashmir do not believe that reopening this case is a sincere effort to give them justice.
The other significant event that took place in J&K in 2022 pertains to press freedom. In January, the J&K Police arrested Sajad Gul, a student of Convergent Journalism at the Central University, Kashmir. Gul, a native of Shahgund village in north Kashmir, was accused of “instigating people against the government.”
In the same month, the government moved to forestall the proposed elections at the Kashmir Press Club and refused to re-register the body on the basis of a report from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police that cited “illegalities” in its functioning. Later, on the grounds of a “terror threat” to journalists, the government returned the custody of the building, located at the affluent Polo View area of Srinagar, to J&K’s Estate Department, shutting the Kashmir Press Club forever.
In a case filled with curious twists, journalist Fahad Shah, editor of the newspaper Kashmir Walla, was arrested in February for “glorifying terrorist activities”.
Shah was first booked for reporting an interview of the family of a Pulwama militant who had been killed. He received bail 22 days later, but was immediately booked again, based on a First Information Report filed in 2021. When he was granted bail again after a little more than a week, Shah was rearrested. This time the police invoked a 2020 case against him that had been filed in Srinagar. About a fortnight later, when the bail arguments pertaining to the Srinagar case were concluded, Shah was preemptively booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a tough preventive detention law.
In May, Shah’s custody was transferred to the State Investigative Agency (SIA) in a case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA) related to a “highly provocative and seditious” article that his magazine had published 11 years earlier. Thus Shah’s prolonged incarceration was due to a series of hectic legal improvisations.
Similarly, the J&K Police filed a case under the PSA against journalist Aasif Sultan who has been in police custody since 2018 in a terror-related offence. In April, a special National Investigation Act court ordered Sultan’s release, subject to him furnishing a bail bond of Rs 2 lakhs. “There is neither any direct evidence nor any substantial evidence on the record which would have connected the accused with the alleged crime,” the bail order read. However, Sultan was booked under the PSA and remains incarcerated.
Assault on academia
Later, the management of the Kashmir Law College, Srinagar, dismissed Dr Sheikh Showkat, a veteran scholar of law, from the post of principal for being a “hardline ideologue of separatist parties”.
In the same month, the SIA raided the house of PhD scholar Abdul Aala Fazili for the same 11-year-old “seditious article” that Fahad Shah had published.
In May, Altaf Hussain Pandit, a chemistry professor at Kashmir University, was terminated from his job for “promoting secessionism”.
One arena in which the government has meddled in the most alarming of ways is land ownership and land redistribution.
Two years ago, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre notified the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order, which removed the need for buyers of non-agricultural land in J&K to have a permanent resident certificate. This meant that all citizens of India became eligible to buy property in the UT.
In a 2021 notification, the government sanctioned the “transfer of agricultural land for public purposes such as education, charitable purpose and healthcare”. Another communication empowered district collectors to “alienate agricultural land to a non-agriculturist for extending the primary activity on a larger commercial scale”.
In 2022, the government finally allowed the armed forces to go about earmarking ‘strategic’ areas. In January, the army declared 129 acres of land in Gulmarg and 44 acres in Sonmarg as ‘strategic areas’.
In the same month, the administration designated sarpanches (village council chiefs) as the competent authorities to issue permission for the construction of residential houses in the rural areas of J&K.
In another controversial move, a formal order issued by the government sanctioned a 50% remission in stamp duty for first-time buyers (emphasis mine) of real estate in the housing sector of the UT.
Experts believe that these steps intended to speed up the purchase of properties and ease the construction of residential spaces are meant for outsiders moving into the Kashmir valley with the intention of settling there permanently.
In April, the UT administration made amendments in the J&K School Education Rules, 2010, to outline new guidelines pertaining to the use of land and building structures by private schools in the UT.
These amendments made it mandatory for schools to produce a range of no-objection certificates, failing which they were liable to be derecognised and have their management taken over, with no provision for the regularisation of teachers. Some deputy magistrates in Kashmir even issued orders to identify private schools built on state-owned land.
However, the managements of the private schools united to challenge the amendments in the high court, which ordered the preservation of the status quo.
Section 7 (6) of the new rules effectively bars previous occupants of the leased land from participating in land auctions if they defaulted on revenue payments or are being investigated under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). “Is it difficult to contrive a PMLA case against anyone in today’s time?” one hotelier despondently asked me.
According to this hotelier, almost every local lessee in J&K is a defaulter because successive governments over the years, including the NC- and PDP-led administrations, refused to accept payment from them for reasons unknown to the lessees. The hoteliers now fear that these properties will go to non-local bidders after auction.
Measures to contain militancy
Similarly, various government agencies this year confiscated or attached properties affiliated with members of the Jamaat-e-Islami group, which was banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2019 for promoting secessionism, and Hurriyat leaders including Shabir Shah, Aasiya Andrabi and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The government claims that such seizures will choke the financing of terrorism in the region and end the vestigial remains of separatism in the UT.
The J&K government also de-recognised all the Falaah-i-Aam Trust (FAT) schools in the UT and issued orders to seal these “banned institutions”. FAT has been linked with the Jamaat-e-Islami group. According to media reports, the decision affects 1,900 students who the government will accommodate in public schools.
New security measures were introduced in 2022, including directives for all establishments in Srinagar city to install CCTV cameras of specified parameters.
In the same month, the CID unit of the J&K Police launched a portal asking people to report instances and information about criminal, unlawful (emphasis mine) or suspicious activities in their neighborhoods.
The recent decision by the administration to create a database of families in J&K and assign them unique alpha-numeric codes allegedly to streamline Central welfare schemes has also stirred up a political storm.
In 2022, new recruitment in militant organisations stood at 109, down from the 155 registered last year. Of these 109, 86 were killed, leaving only 23. Police describe this number as unprecedented. In at least the last decade, never has the number of active militants in Kashmir been so low.
Other highlights of the year include the revival of cinema halls in Kashmir and a life imprisonment sentence for separatist leader Yasin Malik.
Shakir Mir is a journalist based in Srinagar.