India questions the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, suppresses the dissent by violating civil rights and forces the isolation of the region
During better a popular tourist destination but draconian new measures imposed by India’s government on the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir have led to protests at home and abroad. As the time of publication, this will make it harder to bring about peace and solve the status of this long disputed region which is also claimed by Pakistan.
The former princely state of Kashmir has been the subject of a bitter dispute between India and Pakistan since both nations gained their independence from Britain 72 years ago. Pakistan believes that, as a Muslim majority state, Kashmir belongs more logically with them, yet its Hindu prince acceded at independence to India, a constitutionally secular nation where Hindus make up the majority.
Since an initial war in 1947 Kashmir has been divided between the two claimants with roughly two thirds—including most of the strategic Kashmir Valley—under Indian control and one third ruled by Pakistan. Remote ice-bound sectors of little importance are controlled by China.
Armed Pakistani militant groups, “terrorists” in Indian terminology, have promised to “liberate” from Indian rule their Muslim brethren in the Kashmir Valley, where India army and paramilitaries enforce tight security. Indian forces respond to “terrorist” incursions across the border or ceasefire line. In February India’s air force bombed the alleged headquarters of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group deep inside Pakistan after it claimed responsibility for an attack in Indian Kashmir which killed 40 members of the security forces.
In early August Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government sent in several thousand extra troops as a preluded to declaring martial law in the Kashmir Valley. Tourists were hastily chased out of the scenic valley, senior politicians including three former chief ministers of the Jammu and Kashmir government were arrested and communications cut. Many young people, some in their mid-teens, were among hundreds detained without charge. Since then it has been hard for outsiders to know what is happening in the Valley.
Meanwhile the government in Delhi raced a bill through parliament cancelling Articles 35A and 370 of the Indian constitution, which had granted the state a high degree of autonomy in contrast to other states. Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was ended and the region downgraded to ‘union territory’ status—effectively under central government control. Ladakh, a wing of the former state where Buddhists are in the majority, was hived off as a separate union territory.
Mr Modi’s government argued that the constitutional changes and strict security measures are necessary in a region that has been “on the boil” for the last thirty years with frequent street protests and attacks on security forces. Yet most protests in recent years were against India’s often brutal law enforcement and demanding independence from India rather than union with Pakistan. The abrogation of constitutional autonomy provisions is expected to deepen alienation of the Kashmir people from Indian rule.
India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir were condemned at the recent United Nation’s General Assembly by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Kahn. India has always opposed efforts to “internationalise” the dispute and Prime Minister Modi turned down an offer by President Trump to mediate between the two claimants. Foreign minister Dominic Raab of Britain and former external affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini of the European Union are among those to have expressed concern at the Indian government’s actions. A committee of the US House of Representatives has scheduled a debate on human rights in South Asia as a direct consequence of India’s action in Kashmir.
Mr Modi says the enhanced security and constitutional changes are strictly an Indian affair. Nor has there been much political opposition in India to the downgrading of Kashmir’s status. Opposition politicians criticising the government over Kashmir risk their action being interpreted as disloyalty in the country’s long-running stand-off with Pakistan and may even sympathise with this attempt to check Kashmiri militancy. There has been vocal opposition from young Indians who say the human rights of Kashmiris are being violated and the country’s media is being prevented from reporting from the Valley. Comparisons have been made with the draconian rule when former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a nationwide ‘Emergency’ more than forty years ago saying Indian democracy was under threat. “Which democracy arrests children?” asked Iltija Mufti, daughter of one of the detained political leaders after being allowed to visit her mother, who was Kashmir’s chief minister until June 2018 at the head of a coalition with Mr Modi’s BJP. Ms Mufti, who is not usually engaged in politics, said Kashmir had been turned into “an open-air prison” by the BJP government.”
Privately politicians of India’s main opposition Congress Party, led by (Indira Gandhi’s grandson) Rahul Gandhi, believe the move to end Kashmir’s special autonomy has religious motivation. The BJP is backed by Hindu nationalists who make no secret of their ambition to make India a proudly Hindu nation. Jammu and Kashmir was the country’s only state with a Muslim majority and they see the move to end its special status—which did not allow outsiders to buy land or settle there—as part of a ‘Hindu-isation’ move. Now non-Muslims will be encouraged to settle there, they say, to invest in its agriculture and tourist potential and possibly develop other industries as well.
Mr Modi and his powerful home (interior) minister Amit Shah have denied any such intention, though Mr Shah predicted that with the removal of its autonomy provisions Kashmir will race ahead and become one of India’s most developed regions within ten years. Development is expected to include the first railway connecting the Kashmir Valley to the rest of India.
Muslims in other states, notably Assam in the north-east, are also coming under pressure to prove they are citizens rather than recent immigrants. In nearby West Bengal, where there have been claims of illegal infiltration, Mr Shah pointedly omitted to mention Muslims when he said “I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, that you will not be forced to leave India”.
Another sensitive issue facing Mr Modi’s government concerns land at Ayodhya in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where Hindu nationalists militants in 1992 demolished a Muslim mosque which they said was illegally built on the site of the alleged birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, triggering religious riots and heavy loss of life. A land dispute between religious groups is currently before the High Court in Delhi.
These disputes raise question about another provision of the constitution, which declares in its preamble that India is a “secular republic.” Any move by the BJP government to expel Muslims from India or allow the building of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya risk violating the nation’s secular founding principle. They would also make much harder the task of restoring faith in the central government by the people of Kashmir, now in their fourth month of repression (August 5 -), with business and agriculture suffering and food shortages reported.
It may not be facing much opposition in parliament, but India’s government is nonetheless finding out how hard it is to win peace and cooperation in the ever-volatile Kashmir Valley. This time it is neither the Pakistan government nor cross-border militants it is trying to defeat.
This article is also published in the November/December issue of eastwest.