Indian soldiers are seen near the site of a gunbattle between suspected militants and government security forces at Moachwah in Chadoora area of Budgam district on the outskirts of Srinagar on October 28, 2020. Photo: AFP

Jammu & Kashmir state political parties protested on Wednesday after India’s Modi government changed the land laws to allow the purchase of non-agricultural land by individuals and companies outside the territory, a move that some fear could dilute the Muslim-majority character of the region.

The easing of the land purchase restrictions on October 26 follows the removal of Jammu & Kashmir state’s special status on August 5, 2019. The state was bifurcated into the centrally-administered union territories of Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistan to the west, and Ladakh with China to the east. The special status under the constitution barred citizens from outside the state from acquiring land in Jammu & Kashmir.

While opening up land acquisition seems like a natural corollary to the removal of the region’s special status, most local political leaders didn’t expect it because they are taking legal action in an effort to reverse New Delhi’s controversial move. The Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are among the national parties that oppose the new land laws.

An alliance of the seven main state-level parties was formed to push for the restoration of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave special status to the region. It issued the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration to demand the repeal of the new land laws.

“The unconstitutional measure is clearly designed as an attempt to pre-empt the outcome of the challenge before the Supreme Court,” Gupkar Declaration alliance spokesman Sajjad Lone said in a statement. The alliance vowed “to fight the anti-Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh measure on all fronts.”

“Jammu & Kashmir has been completely put up for sale,’’ Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state, said in a TV interview. “Even the basic requirement of domicile has been done away with. The intention is obvious. They want to alter the character of Jammu & Kashmir.’’

Abdullah’s father and grandfather also served the state as chief ministers. Soon after the abolition of the region’s special status last year, he along with hundreds of other local leaders and political workers were detained for eight months or longer to ensure the state remained calm. Some were released days before the countrywide lockdown in March to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is simply the agenda of the BJP and the RSS. They don’t want a Muslim-majority state or territory within India,’’ said Abdullah. “This is the last nail in the coffin.’’

The RSS – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (national volunteers group) – is a Hindu nationalist group from which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) draws support and recruits cadres. The removal of the region’s special status and the controversial construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya have been among its prime objectives.

In 2011, when the last census was conducted, Jammu & Kashmir state’s 12.5 million population was comprised of 68.3% Muslims and 28.44% Hindus, making it the only Muslim-majority state. After being reduced to a union territory it is now comparable to the the Lakhsdweep islands, a Muslim-majority teritory in Arabian Sea. Four states are majority Christian, all in the northeast.

Advocates of more relaxed land laws call for legal uniformity across the country, saying it will lead to improvements in areas such as government efficiency and employment opportunities, as well as reduce the threat of terrorist infiltration from Pakistan. They also cite India’s multi-religious, ethnic and cultural character.

The revised laws open up non-agricultural land for purchase by any Indian citizen. Companies can acquire land for factories and offices. Reports also suggest that non-residents will be permitted to undertake contract farming. Initially, the state government will oversee the process.

The need to accelerate the development of the state was one of the arguments employed in the August 5, 2019 debate in parliament on the removal of the special status. Soon after the removal of the region’s special status, as many as 43 companies committed to invest 137 billion rupees ($2 billion) in sectors including information technology, hospitality, infrastructure, defense, and renewable energy.

However, political leaders including Abdullah say the land ownership restrictions never deterred companies from setting up factories in the state. India’s top hospitality chains, including Taj, Oberoi, ITC Hotels, Radisson, Sheraton, operate hotels across the state.

The state has 51 industrial estates housing companies involved in sectors including travel, tourism, mining and timber-related businesses. The state is also world famous for its silk, wool, wood handicrafts, carpets, saffron and apples.

As per the latest Reserve Bank of India report on state finances, Jammu & Kashmir had a per capital gross state domestic product of 109,769 rupees, which was higher than that of many large states. Its average life expectancy of 73.6 years was higher than the national average of 68.4 years. It was among the top four states in per capita spending on health care.

Coincidentally, October 26, the date the laws were changed, is also Accession Day, a holiday marking former King of Jammu & Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh’s signing of the Instrument of Accession in 1947 to make the region part of India.

In another symbolic coincidence, the ground-breaking ceremony for the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was held on August 5, 2020, exactly a year after Jammu & Kashmir’s special status was abolished.