Hindu devotees cross the Tawi River before performing rituals at sunset during Chhath Puja festival in Jammu, India, Oct 30, 2022. (CHANNI ANAND / AP)
JAMMU / SRINAGAR, India - For the first time in her life, Asha, a street cleaner in the Indian city of Jammu, will be allowed to vote in upcoming local elections. And she's in no doubt who will get her ballot.
Asha plans to reward Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for scrapping policies in place for decades that denied her and a million more people in the region of Jammu and Kashmir many of the same rights as other Indians.
We have faced the humiliation silently, but Modi-ji has changed our lives forever," she said, leaning on her broom. "It's not just me and my children, future generations from our community in Jammu and Kashmir will vote for the BJP."
The Hindu nationalist party is counting on Asha's vote as it pushes to take control of India's part of the Himalayan region that is hotly contested by neighboring Pakistan and has been governed almost exclusively by Muslim chief ministers.
The BJP hopes the addition of up to a million mostly Hindu voters to the electoral roll, new electoral boundaries, seven more seats in the regional assembly and the reservation of nine for groups likely to back the BJP will give it a fighting chance of becoming the biggest party in the 90-seat legislature.
Reuters has interviewed three dozen federal and state officials, six groups representing disenfranchised residents, and analyzed the latest data to lay out for the first time the scale of the BJP's push in Kashmir - and why it may succeed.
A BJP majority would be a seismic shift and even talk of a strong showing underlines how Modi has trampled on old taboos to push his agenda in every corner of the country of 1.4 billion people.
The 72-year-old, who is set to run for a third term in 2024, has combined promises of prosperity and social mobility with a robust Hindu-first agenda to dominate Indian politics.
A BJP victory in the disputed region could consolidate India's claim over the territory on the global stage.
"We have taken a pledge to cross 50-plus seats to form the next government with a thumping majority," the BJP's president for Jammu and Kashmir, Ravinder Raina, told Reuters. "The next chief minister will be from our party."
For many of Jammu and Kashmir's Muslims, the BJP's policies upending decades of autonomy and privilege represent a dangerous new phase in what they see as a nationwide push to champion the rights of the Hindu majority over minority groups.
Pakistan has claimed Kashmir since the partition of India in 1947 and the countries have fought two wars over the region. Pakistan accuses India of trying to marginalize Muslims there with its policies.
"India is following a strategy to perpetuate its illegal occupation by disenfranchisement of Kashmiris by altering the demographic structure of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir from a Muslim majority to a Hindu-dominated territory," Pakistan's government said in a statement to Reuters.
The shift in the political landscape came in 2019 when the BJP-led parliament in New Delhi revoked this status, which had denied rights to many Hindu communities not considered indigenous to the region
Jammu and Kashmir is divided in two. Jammu has about 5.3 million inhabitants, 62 percent of whom are Hindu while Kashmir Valley has 6.7 million, 97 percent of them Muslim, according to a 2011 census. Estimates from survey officials and senior bureaucrats suggest the population stood at 15.5 million in 2021.
From 1954, the Indian region enjoyed special status under India's constitution.
The shift in the political landscape came in 2019 when the BJP-led parliament in New Delhi revoked this status, which had denied rights to many Hindu communities not considered indigenous to the region.
Since 2020, the BJP has required everyone in Jammu and Kashmir to apply for domicile certificates that allow them to vote in local elections, buy agricultural land and permanent homes, as well as apply for state universities and jobs.
According to the regional government and associations representing six previously disenfranchised groups, just over a million people have the right to vote in local elections for the first time - and 96 percent are from castes within the Hindu hierarchy.
Out of those people, 698,800 had received domicile certificates as of December, official records seen by Reuters show. Government data showed a further 7,346 retired bureaucrats and army officers had signed up.
Reuters spoke to 36 people who now enjoy full citizenship. All said they would vote for the BJP in assembly elections.
Asha, a Hindu who has gone by a single name since her divorce, said only good had come of the changes.
On the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, her family had been stuck in menial work since they were invited from Punjab in 1957 to fill in for striking sanitation workers. Now, her two children are studying to become teachers.
"No one will ever understand how it feels when an educated child is told they should sweep the streets," she said.
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Until the region's special status was revoked, secular left-of-center parties with Muslim leaders had controlled the local assembly and whoever governed India from New Delhi tended not to dabble in the region's political autonomy.
The assembly, which controls the state budget, spending, employment, education and economic activity, was dissolved and a lieutenant governor appointed to run the region until local elections can be held - which could be as early as this spring.
In anticipation of protests after the move, the authorities imposed a curfew, cut the internet, tightened security and put hundreds of Muslims and other opposition leaders under house arrest for months. They have since been released.
An Islamist militant uprising and public protests against Indian rule has killed thousands of people, mostly in the 1990s when the violence peaked.
Since the special status was revoked, scores more civilians, security personnel and militants have been killed.
Many Muslims have yet to sign up for domicile certificates, wary of the BJP's ultimate aims, although some say they may have to if their refusal leads to problems.
Previously unreported official records show just over 5.3 million certificates had been issued as of September.
The government has not said what will happen to those who don't join the scheme, though they can still vote in local elections using permanent residency cards.
"All these laws like domicile and delimitation (boundary changes) have served only one purpose: that's to change the Muslim majority character of the state," said Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir once allied with the BJP. She was detained without charge in 2019 and released the following year.
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The BJP's Raina said Modi's policies had ended the injustice suffered by tens of thousands who had been living in the region for decades and, in the case of some families, centuries.
A 46-year-old native of Jammu, he said the process was aimed at leveling the playing field rather than securing votes, although that could be a by-product.
"The BJP is not working to dilute the power of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, but it is our duty to empower every citizen of India. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, they just happen to be Hindus."
The BJP has sought to push home its advantage.
Nine of the 90 seats - six in Kashmir and three in Jammu - are now reserved for marginalized communities for the first time, and they are likely to back the BJP
Nine of the 90 seats - six in Kashmir and three in Jammu - are now reserved for marginalized communities for the first time, and they are likely to back the BJP.
The party also launched a door-to-door campaign in 2020 involving hundreds of officials to identify those who would benefit from domicile certificates - and potentially vote for the BJP.
Mohammed Iqbal was one of the officials. The "tehsildar", or executive magistrate and tax collector for the Pulwama region near Srinagar, held educational gatherings in the hilly terrain and organized visits to ensure people signed up.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic the work did not stop. Isolation tents were set up so people could apply for certificates while lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules were in place. Now the process has moved largely online.
"We are under direct instruction from the government to finish the issuance of domicile certificates at a fast pace," Iqbal said.
By early December, about 70 percent of the 600,000 people in Iqbal's region had received certificates, though only a minority would be gaining new rights, he said.
The BJP has also strengthened its hand thanks to the redrawing of boundaries by a government panel and a new way of allocating assembly seats.
Under the new structure, Hindu-dominated Jammu will get six more seats, taking its representation to 43, while Muslim-dominated Kashmir would increase by one to 47 seats.
Marginalized groups such as Asha's "sweepers" and the West Pakistan Refugees group of Hindus who settled in Jammu and Kashmir after partition, are among those who will gain full citizenship for the first time.
The refugee community alone numbers more than 650,000.
"We now stand eligible to cast our votes and finally enjoy all the fundamental rights. We thank the Modi government for making this a reality," said Labharam Gandhi, president of the association representing West Pakistan refugees.
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