People in Indian-administered Kashmir have reacted with fear and anger to a Supreme Court ruling upholding the government’s decision to revoke the partial autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority region.

For most residents, fears of demographic change triggered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s decision in 2019 are slowly becoming reality.

“There is now a clear threat to the people of Kashmir,” Irshad Ahmad, a university student from the region’s capital, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“For the last four years they have [the government] passed controversial laws, including laws granting residence permits to non-Kashmiris. Now Indians could acquire land in the disputed area,” said the 25-year-old student.

More crucially, Ahmad said, the government has “changed the entire legal architecture in Kashmir,” including scrapping progressive laws relating to the indigenous population and replacing them with policies aimed at disempowering local residents.

“At the same time, they have stuck with the draconian preventive detention laws, so Kashmiris clearly have the right to be cynical about whatever the Indian government wants to do here,” he said.

A Kashmiri man at a market in Srinagar on Monday as the top court verdict came down [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Another resident said he had never felt so hopeless.

“I have seen all the ups and downs in Kashmir, but the situation has never been like this,” he told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, adding that people had “accepted everything as their fate now.”

“We don’t even know what else will change in the future,” he said.

What happened in 2019?

In August 2019, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status, which allowed it to have its own constitution and inherited land and job protections under Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution.

The unexpected move dissolved the elected state legislature and split the disputed region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – to bring it under New Delhi’s direct control. It was the first time in India’s history that an entire state was downgraded to federal territory status.

The move followed an unprecedented, months-long crackdown by security forces in one of the world’s most militarized regions, where an armed insurgency against India has raged since the late 1980s.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claimed it after gaining independence from British rule in 1947. The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors have fought three of their four all-out wars over the territory.

Since its founding in the 1980s, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made abolishing the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir one of its key goals to consolidate its nationalist constituency. They viewed the region’s partial autonomy as an affront to their vision of a unified – and ethnically Hindu – state.

On August 5, 2019, less than three months after Modi returned to power with a larger majority in Parliament, his government passed a law in Parliament revoking the region’s special status, defending it as a step that would promote peace and would bring development.

But the government’s unilateral move, which many legal experts said was illegal, was challenged by the region’s pro-India political parties and other Kashmiri groups and individuals in the Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict on Monday.

The court upheld the BJP’s 2019 move. Its five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud termed Article 370 as an “interim provision” and declared its deletion constitutionally valid.

The top court said the government’s move was “a culmination of the integration process and as such a valid exercise of power.” It ordered the region’s statehood to be restored “as early as possible” and ordered parliamentary elections to be held by September 30.

Modi called the court’s verdict “a ray of hope.” He said on

“Existential threat”

Ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling, security authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir took extensive measures to prevent mass protests.

Police urged people to refrain from sharing “provocative content” on social media. Several pro-India politicians in the region said they were placed under house arrest, an allegation denied by regional authorities.

Unexpectedly, the Supreme Court verdict was marked by deep silence in the Valley, where an atmosphere of fear has prevailed since the 2019 move.

Many residents expressed little confidence in the Supreme Court’s willingness to challenge the government’s decision.

“For us Kashmiris, the special status was not just a legal question, but a question of our identity, our existence. His loss has created an existential threat for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially Kashmiri Muslims,” Muhammad Numan, a 45-year-old businessman from Baramulla, told Al Jazeera.

“There have been ongoing efforts to integrate the Muslim character of this place into a Hindu-majority state. With the court’s approval, such efforts would now gain momentum,” he said.

An Indian police officer stands guard next to a cut-out portrait of Modi in Srinagar [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

The region’s political parties, which had pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court, also condemned the verdict.

“This is not our defeat, but the defeat of the idea of ​​India,” said Mehbooba Mufti, former prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, as the region is officially called in India.

“Kashmir’s Colonized State”

Kashmiri journalist Anuradha Bhasin, who wrote the book “A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir after Article 370”, told Al Jazeera that Kashmiris had lost faith in India’s democracy after the 2019 decision.

“What Article 370 protected was permanent residents’ privileges in jobs, land and business investment. Young people now fear that jobs and college admissions will be shared with people from outside and they will no longer be able to compete,” she said.

Bhasin said people from outside Kashmir are already investing in companies in the region.

“As time goes on, there are fears and threats that the country’s demographic structure may change, and these threats are also more pronounced because the BJP in power has been talking for years about changing Kashmir’s demographic structure as a way to resolve the dispute. “

Mohamad Junaid, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, told Al Jazeera that the Indian government had failed to protect the interests of the people of Kashmir.

“Kashmiris have been violently silenced, but people know that if the Indian government did not suppress them under military control and repressive laws, they would respond in the same way as those whose sovereignty was denied or stolen,” he said.

“The few in Kashmir who hoped that the Supreme Court would protect their interests are probably feeling the weight of the reality of Kashmir’s colonized situation.”

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