Shops and businesses were shut in several parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir on Saturday as separatists challenging Indian rule called for a general strike to denounce new laws that allow any Indians to buy land in the disputed region.
Government forces in riot gear patrolled streets in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar in anticipation of anti-India protests. Public transport also stayed off the roads.
Kashmir's main separatist grouping called the strike to protest new land laws that India enacted on Monday, allowing any of its nationals to buy or its military to directly acquire land in the region. Pro-India politicians in Kashmir have also criticized the laws and accused India of putting the region's land up for sale.
The new legislation ended or modified most laws that governed local land rights. It also abolished 1950s land reform laws that redistributed large patches of land to landless farmers.
The move has exacerbated concerns of Kashmiris and rights groups who see such measures as a settler-colonial project to change the Muslim-majority region's demography. They are likening the new arrangement to the West Bank or Tibet, with settlers living in guarded compounds among disenfranchised locals. They say the changes will reduce the region to a colony.
Until last year, Indians were not allowed to buy property in the region. But in August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government scrapped Kashmir's special status, annulled its separate constitution, split the region into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and removed inherited protections on land and jobs. The move triggered widespread anger and economic ruin amid a harsh security clampdown and communications blackout.
Since then, India has brought in a slew of changes through new laws. They are often drafted by bureaucrats without any democratic bearings and much to the resentment and anger of the region's people, many of whom want independence from India or unification with Pakistan.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but both countries claim the region in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.
The new laws, part of a series of hard-line Hindu nationalist policies by Modi, also authorize the Indian army to declare any area as "strategic" for operational, residential and training purposes against Kashmiri rebels.
The Indian government said the decision was made to encourage development and peace.
"I want to say this forcefully and with full responsibility that agricultural land has been kept reserved for farmers," Lt. Guv. Manoj Sinha, New Delhi's top administrator in Kashmir, said recently. "No outsider will come on those lands."
The government has also said it only wanted to invite outside industries into the designated "industrial areas."
The pro-freedom conglomerate said in a statement that India was undermining any possibility of peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
"Instead, a policy of permanent demographic change is aggressively being pushed to snatch our land, destroy our identity and turn us into a minority in our own land," the statement said, adding that "laws are being invented and amended by New Delhi and forcibly thrust upon the people."
India describes the Kashmiri militancy as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris call it a legitimate freedom struggle.
Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.