The dry government document went viral on social media on June 26. “This is to certify Shri Navin K Choudhary, son of Shri Deokant Choudhary, resident of, at present, Gandhi Nagar, Jammu, is a domicile of the UT of J&K,” it read.

The certificate was issued by Rohit Sharma, tehsildar of Bahu in Jammu district. Choudhary is an Indian Administrative Service officer from Bihar, now serving as principal secretary in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. He is also the first non-local bureaucrat to be recognised as a domicile of Jammu and Kashmir.

This was granted under new domicile rules introduced by the Centre in March. These were implemented from May 18, when the procedure for applications was notified. According to officials of Jammu and Kashmir revenue department, more than 32,000 domicile certificates have been issued since then.

A few, like Choudhary, were people who had moved to Jammu and Kashmir for work and other reasons. Many belong to groups who may have lived in Jammu and Kashmir for decades or generations but were not recognised as permanent residents, which meant they did not have the right to own land or hold government jobs.

“The government has laid down a procedure and whosoever fulfills the criteria will get domicile,” said an official who did not wish to be named. “The number of applications is rising.”

According to officials, the majority of applications came from marginalised groups like West Pakistani refugees as well as the Valmiki and Gorkha communities. “More than 90% certificates issued are in the Jammu division,” he said. “But permanent residents of J&K are also applying for it because the government has made it [a domicile certificate] mandatory for jobs.” Under the new rules, a candidate will be required to produce a domicile certificate only after being selected for a government post.

Passengers wear protective masks at a railway station in Jammu. Credit: PTI

Domiciles of Jammu and Kashmir

The new domicile rules were made possible by the decisions of August 5, when the Centre struck down Article 35A, stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and split it into two Union Territories. Article 35A had given the government of the former state powers to define who the “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir were, and to reserve certain rights for them.

Under the previous law, those who were state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir in 1954 and their descendants were considered permanent residents. Those who had lived there for 10 years and owned land before 1954 also made it to this category.

The new rules replace “permanent residents” with “domiciles” – anyone who has lived in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years or studied there for seven years or written Class 10 or 12 board examinations in a school there. The children of such individuals would also be considered domiciles. So would the children of Central government officials, All India Service officers, various public sector employees and researchers who had spent more than 10 years in Jammu and Kashmir as part of institutions recognised by the Centre.

Tehsildars, or local revenue officers, have the power to issue domicile certificates. If they do not do so within 15 days of receiving an application, the applicant may appeal to the deputy commissioner. If the tehsildar’s reason for rejection fails to satisfy the deputy commissioner, and he still does not issue a domicile certificate to the applicant, Rs 50,000 will be forfeited from their salary.

In Jammu, there was a rush of applicants. “We organised a camp for two days and issued around 3,100 domicile certificates to the residents on spot,” said Dhruv Gupta, former tehsildar of Siot tehsil in Rajouri. “Most of these certificates were issued to those who were already state subjects and their kids.” According to Gupta, giving certificates to those who were not state subjects already took more time as it needed “more scrutiny”.

Online applications will also be accepted. On June 22, Aaliya Tariq of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district became the first recipient of a domicile certificate through the online process. She received the certificate in an online event presided over by Girish Chandra Murmu, lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir, and other top officials.

‘Finally, we are citizens’

After August 5, the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir feared they would be overwhelmed by a flood of people from outside the Union Territory, which would eventually lead to them losing land rights and being pushed out of government jobs. The fears were particularly acute among Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir, who feared reduced to a minority in what had been India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Other groups, however, were pleased by the new rules. Take the West Pakistani refugees, mainly Hindus, who have lived in Jammu since 1947, when they crossed over after Partition.

“Our demand has finally been met. We have finally become citizens of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Labha Ram Gandhi, who heads the West Pakistani Refugees’ Action Committee. Gandhi said many members of the community had already applied for domicile status, which would pave the way for government jobs previously barred to them.

According to estimates by community leaders, there are around 20,000 West Pakistani refugee families living in Jammu. While they could vote in the Lok Sabha elections and apply for jobs in the Central government, they were not eligible to vote in former state’s assembly elections or apply for state government jobs. Many ended up joining the army. In 2018, the Centre government had announced Rs 5.5 lakh in aid for each family, but it failed to address other concerns.

“For now, we can apply for jobs and vote in assembly elections, but they haven’t said anything about land rights yet,” said Gandhi. He estimated around 100 West Pakistan refugees have been granted domicile certificates till now.

‘Not only safai karamcharis’

For members of the Valmiki community in Jammu, the certificates open up possibilities of a better future. An estimated 1-1.5 lakh members of the community live in various parts of Jammu and Kashmir. They trace their roots to Amritsar and Gurdaspur in Punjab.

“In 1957-58, there was a long strike by local safai karamcharis [sweepers] of Jammu city and they were not relenting,” explained Jang Bahadur, president of the Valmiki Samaj. “At that time, a health officer called Dr RS Modi had relatives and acquaintances in Punjab. It was on his initiative that our ancestors were brought to Jammu and given government quarters and some land. Since then, we have been working as safai karamcharis in Jammu.”

Under Section 35 B of the old Jammu and Kashmir Civil Service Regulations, “sweepers” did not have to produce state subject certificates, but that only made them eligible for cleaning jobs.

“Earlier, a member from our community was eligible to only become a safai karamchari,” explained Bahadur, who has applied for a certificate himself. “Now, like others, we can apply for other jobs as well, depending on qualifications.” The community will also be able to buy property and vote in local assembly elections, not just in Lok Sabha elections.

According to him, only a few members of the community had got the domicile certificate. “Recently, there was a function by the Jammu Divisional Commissioner where they handed out instant certificates to some members of our community,” Bahadur said. “The rest of our community is working on preparing necessary documents like Aadhaar cards and ration cards in order to apply for domicile certificate. It might take some time but the process has started. We have prepared a list of formalities required for the domicile certificate and distributed domicile forms among the community.”

‘BJP united us all’

The 11,000 members of the Gorkha community also qualify for domicile status. Most live in Jammu city’s Gorkha Nagar.

“Gorkhas settled in Jammu and Kashmir during Dogra rule in the 19th century and worked as top generals and soldiers in the army,” said Karuna Chettri, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Gorkha Sabha. “However, since Independence, our community was marginalised continuously. With Article 370 in place, we weren’t treated as state subjects and therefore we couldn’t get jobs in state government or education.” Chettri hopes that domicile certificates would ensure “a bright future” for the community.

For most of these communities, whether it is the Gorkhas or the West Pakistani refugees, the repeal of laws like Article 35A and Article 370 has been a long-standing demand. Successive state governments steered away from recognising them as permanent residents due to popular fears that it would pave the way for “demographic change”.

The reluctance of regional parties like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party to address their concerns had pushed the community closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party over the last decade.

In 2019, for instance, Gorkhas are believed to have mostly voted for the BJP. “All other governments, under National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress ignored us and our issues,” said Chettri. “It was the BJP which joined small communities like ours to ensure that all of us are treated as equals.”

After August 5, Chettri and others in the Gorkha Sabha formally joined the BJP.