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Kashmir’s new status could bring demographic change, drawing comparisons to the West Bank

An Indian paramilitary soldier patrols near a temporary barricade of barbed wire in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Aug. 8. (Farooq Khan/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

While India’s sudden decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy has inflamed tensions with neighboring Pakistan, critics say the move could also drastically alter the demographic composition of the disputed territory itself — and some have warned it could come to resemble Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

By stripping Kashmir of its special status, India’s government has done away with a law that allowed Kashmir to limit land ownership and permanent residency to natives of the country’s only Muslim majority state. Analysts say the change could bring about a profound transformation of Kashmir’s population that would exacerbate unrest there.

India revoked Kashmir’s special status. Here’s what you need to know about the contested province.

With Monday’s decision to downgrade Kashmir from a state with a degree of autonomy to a “union territory,” India has opened the door for Indians from anywhere in the country to settle in Kashmir.

Mihir Sharma, an Indian columnist for Bloomberg, wrote that such a metamorphosis could mirror Jewish settlement in the West Bank or Beijing’s efforts to encourage Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang, a northwestern region home to Muslim ethnic groups.

“Whether Kashmir will end up looking like those restive, semiautonomous provinces, or more like the West Bank — with armed settlers living in highly protected colonies amid a larger, disenfranchised population subject to arbitrary justice — is not clear at the moment. Those are, however, the most likely options,” he wrote.

Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, put it more bluntly in a tweet Wednesday: “Kashmir is now Westbank,” she wrote.

The changes India announced Monday overturned Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave what was previously the state of Jammu and Kashmir the ability to make many of its own laws. They also effectively struck down Article 35a, which granted Kashmir’s legislature jurisdiction over residency and land ownership.

Under Article 35a, outsiders could not permanently settle, buy land or hold government jobs in Kashmir. The provision also blocked female residents of Kashmir who married outsiders — and the children of such unions — from owning property in Kashmir. The article had faced legal challenges on grounds that it was exclusionary and sexist.

The Indian government has described its rollback of Kashmir’s autonomy as an effort to promote development and quell a separatist insurgency in the region, where Pakistan and India have long vied for control. Separatist groups with ties to Pakistan have fought the Indian government in the Kashmir Valley for decades.

“Recent decisions by the Government and Parliament of India are driven by a commitment to extend to Jammu and Kashmir opportunities for development that were earlier denied by a temporary provision in the Constitution,” a Ministry of External Affairs news release said. “Its impact would also result in the removal of gender and socio-economic discrimination. It is also expected to result in an upswing of economic activity and improvement in the livelihood prospects of all people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

In a speech Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the move to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy “a historic decision” and asked those who oppose it to “treat the national interest as paramount."

But critics have decried it as an attempt by India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to dilute the concentration of Muslims there and further its project to enshrine the Hindu identity of the nation.

“For all the talk about promoting investment and economic development in Kashmir, the real goal is to change the demography of the state,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University at Bloomington who specializes in South Asia.

Demographic change — particularly, bringing Hindus to the Kashmir Valley — would allow Modi’s party to consolidate political control over the area, Ganguly said.

The move is “designed to break the stranglehold of the politicians in the Valley” and establish India’s firm territorial grip, he added.

Modi’s radical move on Kashmir takes India into uncharted territory

But it’s not yet clear that a mass migration of Hindus to the region will materialize.

Ganguly said it could remain a dream of the BJP rather than a reality.

“Why would you move hearth and home from a distant part of India to a part of India where you don’t understand the language, where you will be met with hostility by the local population?” he said.

Still, the ethnic and religious undertones of India’s actions this week have breathed new life into analogies to the West Bank, the Palestinian region Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Israeli government has built settlements there that the U.N. Security Council has condemned as illegal. Israel encourages Jewish Israelis to move to the West Bank, and settlement expansion has boomed under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obvious differences between Kashmir and the West Bank abound: Kashmir is not “occupied territory” but, rather “disputed territory,” Ganguly said, rejecting the comparison. Jammu and Kashmir has been part of India since 1947.

Moreover, residents of Kashmir hold Indian citizenship, unlike Palestinians living in the West Bank, who aren’t Israeli citizens.

While Ganguly said he does not find the occupation comparison valid, the situation in the West Bank offers some lessons for India, particularly if Kashmiris receive Hindu settlers that may arrive with violence.

“There is going to be hostility on the part of the local population, who will resent the coming in of settlers from different parts of India,” he said. “While Modi may be a great admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies, the significant difference is that the Indian state does not have the same kind of security forces that Israel can deploy.”

Still, some analysts say, the means by which Kashmir found its legal status upended this week have rendered the analogy fitting.

“It’s an important comparison. It’s not one to be shrugged off,” said Rochona Majumdar, an associate professor at the University of Chicago.

“This is about the future of self-determination of the world that we live in,” she added. “The Kashmir problem, in some ways, it just became a global issue.”

The Indian government announced the changes without consulting Kashmir’s legislature and detained prominent Kashmiri political leaders.

“The fact of the matter is the Kashmiri people themselves had no say in the matter. We’re talking about millions of residents who had no say in the matter,” Majumdar said.

Critics say the move spells trouble for India’s democracy, which was born of an independence struggle against British colonizers and founded upon the principle of self-determination.

“Whatever else, this country still aspires to be a liberal democracy respected worldwide, and it won’t be if it creates a Xinjiang or a West Bank in Kashmir, rendering people second-class citizens or putting them in camps,” Sharma, the Bloomberg columnist, wrote.

India has already flooded Kashmir with tens of thousands of additional troops this week in anticipation of a backlash, but analysts say that maintaining this security presence is neither sustainable nor desirable.

“It’s one thing to really resolve conflict and another thing to anesthetize a conflict zone and move people in there by force,” Majumdar said.