Fear Of Demographic Change And Politics

Fear Of Demographic Change And Politics

13 May 2010
Kashmir Times
Rekha Chowdhary

Srinagar: The fear of demographic change in Kashmir is quite deep-rooted and forms one of the most emotive issues in the local politics. Therefore, it is sure to evoke the mass response. There is a wide-spread apprehension that systematic efforts may be so made that the existing Muslim-majority character of the state may be changed. The apprehension inevitably makes the Kashmiris very sensitive about any such development which is seen to be even remotely linked with the demography. Fear of demographic change is often invoked by the political leaders and organisations and this issue often comes to occupy the most central place in the politics of Kashmir. The very recent instance when the issue of demographic change took the central space in Kashmir could be seen in 2008 when the Government Order transferring land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board for the purposes of constructing fabricated structures during the period of yatra became controversial. The reason as to why the Order could generate so strong response among the masses that the Government was forced to take it back - was the generally prevalent feeling that the Order was a first step towards allowing the outsiders to settle in J&K, particularly in Kashmir and thereby upset the demographic balance of the state. Earlier another major issue which had brought forth the question of demographic change in a big way was in 2003-2004 period when the High Court of J&K had given a verdict on a long-pending petition of few women married outside the state. The Court took a position that the right of women to hold the status of the Permanent Residents was not affected by their marriage outside the state. This decision generated a feeling in Kashmir that it would ultimately facilitate the outsiders to settle in the state and in the long run would affect the demography of the state. That explains the efforts since 2004 to pass a law to disqualify those women from holding the status of the Permanent Resident who marry outside the state. The effort however could not succeed either in 2004 or more recently when a Bill to this effect was introduced in the State Legislature. The issue of demography acquires prominence from time to time. A few years back, the presence of Bihari labours was raised in this context. Not only Syed Ali Shah Gilani but even Mehbooba Mufti were quite agitated over the presence of large number of Biharis working in Kashmir. It may be too abrasive an argument to say that the apprehensions around the demographic change are figments of imagination and that there is no basis of such an apprehension. The Hindu Rightist ideologues have often propagated this idea and hence the fear has its psychological basis. Also there is a history of demographic change since the violence and division of the state did bring about a change in the nature of demography in 1947. However, the fear of demographic change as it has been invoked in the more recent periods has certainly an element of magnification. Before arguing further, it may be pertinent to note that the theory of demographic change under a systematic plan and conspiracy is equally rooted in Jammu and Ladakh's politics. One often finds in the political discourse of Ladakh reference to the danger to the Buddhist identity due to the cross-religious marriages. The Buddhist political leadership often complaints that the Buddhist population may be in the long run wiped out due to the marriage of their girls with the Muslims. In early 90s, the conspiracy theory about demographic was very much in vogue in Jammu and there was a very strong feeling that a systematic effort was being made to upset the Hindu-majority character of Jammu. As people started constructing their second homes in Jammu (finding it a safe haven in comparison to the violence ridden areas of Kashmir or the militancy infested areas of Jammu region) and new colonies started coming up, the word was going around that that Jammu was being 'encircled' by Muslims. However, with the passage of time, the multicultural nature of the society was accepted and the conspiracy theory, though intact, has been pushed to the margins of the political discourse of Jammu. In the multi-religious state where there are multiple perspectives of majority and minority and where every group has the danger of being trapped in the 'persecution psyche', sensitivities around demography can be used to generate mass response. It is very easy to mobilise people around the 'danger to the identity' even on issues which may be remotely connected to the danger, when seen in an objective manner. Since the issue has acquired an emotive character, it results in so blinding the people that they may not be able to see the objective reality and may believe in any conspiracy theory. As a consequence, many a times, the issues may be raised in a manner which may lead to a very limited, retrograde and exclusive politics. One such example of retrograde politics can be given in the context of women's marriage outside the state and the demand to 'disqualify' them from the status of Permanent residents of the state. Such a demand does not stand the test of the principles of equality between the two sexes and the dignity of women. The question which is therefore logically asked - why is it so that only the marriage of women with the 'outsiders' is seen to be dangerous for demography. Why no issue is raised vis-ů-vis the marriage of men outside the state. The latest issue of applying the principle of reservation for the Scheduled Castes and the invocation of the fear of demographic change is similarly problematic. The retention of 8% reservation for the Scheduled castes while banning the inter-district recruitment is widely resented in Kashmir on the ground that there is no SC population in Kashmir. Kashmir Bar which called for a Bandh to protest, among other things, this reservation, has proclaimed that reservation is 'aimed at altering the demographic complexion of Kashmir.' The Central government is proclaimed to be systematically pursuing the policy of reservation with the explicit goal of changing the demography of Kashmir. The argument is bit too stretched and points to the exclusive nature that the politics is acquiring in Kashmir. Reason being that in this present case, the danger to the demographic change is not being seen from the 'outsiders' - the non-residents of the state but from the 'insiders' - that is, the residents of the state, who however happen to be non-Kashmiris and also non-Muslims. By virtue of their being so, they are seen as 'outsiders' for Kashmir. This is quite a restricted argument which does not take the plurality of the state into account but privileges the exclusive character of Kashmir. For all practical purposes, it sees Kashmir as an autonomous unit separated from the rest of the state. In the process, not only it denigrates the Scheduled Castes but also gives leverage to the Hindu fundamentalist group who can compliment the argument by making demands of similar natureř (demanding ban on non-Hindu recruitment in Hindu dominated areas). The plurality of the state is an asset. However, the asset would be lost and would become a problematic if there is a lack of mobility of people from one part of the state to another. If the people are strictly compartmentalised without any means of interaction with each other, it would be a dangerous situation. Any discourse which refuses to see the larger reality of the state but seeks to brand as 'outsiders' the citizens of the state, if coming from another religion or another region - is bound to generate divisive tendencies. It is important for the intellectuals and the political leaders of Kashmir not to be swayed by the argument of demographic change for opposing the 8% reservation for SCs. (Feedback is welcome at rekchowdhary @gmail.com)


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