Lawyer-turned-hotelier Utsav Sidhu had always dreamt of owning land in India’s very own “paradise on Earth”—somewhere, anywherein Kashmir. But Article 370 of the Indian Constitution stood in the way. It prohibited non-Kashmiris like Sidhu from buying property there.
Then one morning of August 2019, Sidhu woke up to news that Jammu & Kashmir was no longer a state, but a Union Territory that would fall under the central government’s command. Its semi-autonomous status was revoked, meaning Delhi-born Sidhu, looking to expand his hotel business, could buy land anywhere in Kashmir, a potential “tourism goldmine” had it not been for a very real threat of getting caught in often-public shootouts between militants and Indian security forces.
“I would have loved to take the business to Kashmir. We had nearly zeroed down on a gorgeous property overlooking Srinagar’s Dal Lake. But safety was proving to be a serious concern,” says Sidhu. During one of his recce trips to the newly-formed UT, he learned militants were targeting non-Kashmiris who were trying to purchase property in J&K, one of only two Muslim-dominated regions of India. Many of them were shot dead in what police call “targeted killings.”
“If the property owner doesn’t feel safe and secure at a location, our guests would certainly not feel safe,” says Sidhu, who owns The Dog on The Hill boutique resort near Manali’s Nagar township in Himachal Pradesh.
Three years after the government abrogated Article 370, only 34 out state Indians have so far managed to buy property in J&K, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. These plots and structures are located in the districts of Jammu, Reasi, Udhampur and Ganderbal, all of which boast strong Hindu populations.
“No one is buying,” says Danish Rajput, a Jammu High Court lawyer. “Some temporary residents living in J&K for over 15 years applied for domicile status and got killed by militants.”
The attacks scared away buyers who had lined up in the thousands to invest in real estate in the vastly unexplored Himalayan region, where violent anti-India protests against government highhandedness and killings of militants are common.
Some non-Kashmiri Indians working in J&K were also targeted by militants in recent weeks. Srinagar trader Mohammad Anwar feels the attack on out-of-state Indians in Kashmir is a “despicable over reaction.”
“Kashmiris are allowed to study, work or buy property anywhere in India. Why all this rage over out-of-state Indians purchasing property or doing business here?” he says, adding that “such new ventures would only help create more jobs in Kashmir.”
The UT’s Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh says the “targeted attacks on non-Kashmiri Indians” hint at “growing frustration” within the diminishing number of militant outfits in the region. “Militancy is down and the few active militants who are still operating will be wiped out soon.”
Claimed in its entirety by both India and rival Pakistan, Kashmir is “slowly limping back to normalcy” amid a decades-old separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 80,000 lives since 1989, Singh says before attempting to convince potential investors that “isolated incidents” of violence should not discourage them from pursuing their business plans.
Kashmiri academicians deny rebel claims that non-locals buying property in the region would pose a security challenge, and called on moneyed non-locals to invest in Kashmir, create new industries and factories that would “help provide jobs to Kashmir’s educated youth struggling to earn a livelihood.”
“For decades Kashmir has been a multicultural and multiethnic society. It’s been home to almost all faiths, including Hindus and Sikhs. I seriously doubt that the common Kashmiri feels threatened by people of other faiths or beliefs,” says a professor at the Baramulla College.
The highly sensitive region will take some time before ambiguities are cleared up, said the owner of one of J&K’s top property consultancy firms. “The fact that the region has been an area of contention for decades will keep any parties interested in investing there in a wait-and-watch mode.”