On March 31, the Centre introduced new domicile rules for Jammu and Kashmir much in the same way it revoked special status for the state and split it into two Union Territories eight months earlier. Both decisions were taken without consulting the people it concerned the most, amid a lockdown.

In August, the Centre poured thousands of troops into Kashmir, enforced a communication blackout and put residents under one of the most severe lockdowns ever seen in the Valley. In March, it is a different lockdown, imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic and voluntarily followed by thousands of people anxious about the spreading disease. But the introduction of the domicile rules at a time when people are forced to stay in seems fortuitous – despite voices of dissent against the new rules, there will be no public protests against them. Eight months after the Centre unilaterally divided and downgraded Jammu and Kashmir, it seems reluctant to restore regular democratic processes there.

When the Centre on August 5 revoked the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, it also repealed Article 35A. This provision, introduced in 1954, empowered the state government to define “permanent residents” and reserve certain rights for them. For decades, the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir were those who were state subjects in 1954, or those who had lived in and owned land in the state for 10 years in 1954, and their descendants. The right to own land, hold government jobs and get state scholarships were among the rights and privileges reserved for them.

These were considered necessary safeguards to preserve the identity and autonomy of a culturally and politically distinct region. One of the key anxieties around the August 5 decision, when these guarantees were suddenly whipped away, was the loss of land and jobs assured to local residents for so long. Residents of the Kashmir Valley, in particular, feared the decisions were a prelude to “demographic change”, as land and jobs would be parcelled out to others.

In order to assuage these fears, Central ministers and several senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders promised domicile laws to safeguard the rights of local residents. But the current set of domicile rules fail to live up to the promise. They provide an expansive definition of “domicile” – anyone who has lived in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years or studied there for seven years and written board examinations, as well as the children of various Central government officials and public sector employees. Only the lowest paying government jobs are reserved for domiciles.

The loss of reservations in government jobs is a blow to a region where unemployment is high and the government is arguably the largest employer. Even Jammu, where large sections of the population had cheered on the revocation of special status, greeted the new rules with dismay. In Kashmir, where the gutting of Article 370 was felt to be a death blow to the region’s political identity, the move is being seen as the first step to the feared “demographic change”.

These sweeping changes have been made, moreover, at a time when one former chief minister and several other political leaders are still in jail. Over the last few months, a few political players, who did not object to the loss of special status and were happy to toe Delhi’s line, were allowed to launch a new party. They were to represent the Centre’s promise of restoring political activity in Jammu and Kashmir. But even these leaders, who demanded domicile status as a panacea to the region’s grievances, were unhappy with the new rules and demanded that all stakeholders be consulted.

Sprung as a surprise when the country and the world are reeling from a pandemic, the rules show up the Centre’s token attempts to restore political activity as hollow gestures. Heightening the insecurities of the local population, the rules have laid to rest all doubts about the motivations behind the August 5 decisions. They were never meant to benefit the people of Jammu and Kashmir and guarantee them better rights, as the Centre had argued at the time. They were Delhi’s attempt to stamp out the political will and character of a long rebellious region.