India’s risky Kashmir power grab, explained

India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has made a controversial move to usurp power from the nation’s only Muslim-majority state, potentially igniting unrest in one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoints.

On Monday, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah announced in Parliament that the government would scrap Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Since 1949, that portion of the constitution has given near-autonomous authority to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), India’s side of the Pakistan-disputed Kashmir region, to conduct its own affairs. Basically, the state could mostly govern itself, except in some areas like foreign policy and defense, and have its own constitution and even its own flag.

But now, the government says, J&K will turn from a state to a union territory, meaning India’s central government in New Delhi will gain much more control over the area’s affairs. New Delhi is also considering splitting parts of J&K into two federal territories: the new state of Jammu and Kashmir, which will get its own legislature; and Ladakh, a remote and mountainous area that won’t get a legislature.

All that is highly controversial, as the government aims to strip power from a territory that for decades has enjoyed mostly ruling itself and feels little bond to New Delhi, experts say.

That’s mainly why Shah’s announcement was met with loud jeers from opposition politicians as well as J&K’s leaders in Parliament. Some think the government’s move may be challenged and end up with the nation’s Supreme Court for a final decision.

More broadly, though, India unilaterally pushed to change Kashmir’s status without Pakistan’s buy-in. The worry now is that widespread unrest will spike in the region. Indian forces already heavily patrol Kashmir, but it has sent thousands of extra troops there in anticipation of violence, as well as closed schools, evacuated tourists, cut off internet connectivity, and put some of the area’s political leaders under house arrest. In effect, the area is on lockdown.

Which means one of the most fraught disputes in the world could become even more contentious very soon.

Revoking Article 370 continues Modi’s Hindu nationalist project

Kashmir, a majority-Muslim region in both India and Pakistan’s north, has been partitioned between the two countries since 1947. It’s become a major hot spot ever since, sparking two deadly wars as both sides dispute how much control they should have over it.

So the last thing one would want to do is make a hair-trigger situation even worse, right? But that’s exactly what India’s government has just done.

India’s government is controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindu nationalists believe their faith and culture should be integral to the country’s policies and foreseeable future. About 80 percent of Indians follow the polytheistic religion, though of course not all have joined the political movement. The remaining 20 percent are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and many others.

Modi, as the head of the party, is India’s prime minister. He has long been a Hindu nationalist and spent much of his first five-year term in power pushing policies favorable to that cause.

Many have also faulted him for doing little to stop increasing violence against non-Hindus, especially Muslims, in India since he took control of the government.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people — 36 of them Muslims — were killed in 12 Indian states, according to Human Rights Watch. In the same period, about 280 people sustained injuries in more than 100 such incidents in 20 states. One Muslim man, Shaukat Ali, described to the BBC this May that an attack on him by a Hindu mob felt like “an attack on my entire faith,” adding, “I have no reason to live now.”

Despite Modi’s unwillingness to address the uptick in violence, his party won India’s national election this May in a landslide, giving him a greater mandate to pursue his agenda over a second five-year term.

This latest decision in Kashmir is clearly part of that agenda. One of the party’s longstanding goals was to change J&K’s status, but it was always a highly controversial move that would naturally lead to immense blowback. But now that Modi has firm support, it seems he finally decided to go ahead and bring the Muslim-majority region under New Delhi’s control.

“Non-Hindus, and in particular the Muslim minority, stand to lose out from this,” Michael Kugelman, an India expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, told me. “The repeal of Article 370 is a big manifestation of Hindu nationalism, as it represents an effort to bring India’s only Muslim-majority region into the union of India so that the nation’s Hindu majority can invest, acquire land there, and so on.”

It’s no wonder, then, that former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti — who was placed under house arrest this week — tweeted that the BJP’s action “marks the darkest day in Indian democracy.”

And experts say Modi’s government is likely to keep making risky moves like this because of the prime minister’s newfound strong support. “It gives little reason to hold back on carrying out the policies — including those rife with risk — that it had previously not carried out,” says Kugelman.

That’s why he and others worry about what may come next, especially as it relates to India’s decades-long standoff with Pakistan.

“Anyone laying a hand on our jugular vein and honor will meet a frightful end”

“India and Pakistan have gone to war four times since 1947, when Britain partitioned what had been a single colony into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan,” Tom Hundley wrote for Vox last year. “They have been in a state of constant hostility ever since, and for the past two decades, they have been locked in a frightening nuclear arms race on land.”

The main source of conflict at the moment is Kashmir, which of late has proven a hotter spot than usual.

In March, a militant group based in Pakistan carried out a suicide bomb attack that killed dozens of Indian troops in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Days later, India launched an airstrike on Pakistani territory, reportedly targeting the militant group’s training facility — the first time India has sent warplanes into Pakistani territory since the 1970s.

While that situation has calmed down somewhat, tensions always simmer because both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. The worry is that any escalation might push the two nations over the edge and start a conventional war that could grow into a full-on nuclear one. The chances of that happening are still very low, but reactions from some Pakistani leaders don’t inspire much confidence.

“We will go to every extent to defend the human rights and legal rights of Kashmiris,” Shahbaz Sharif, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz political party, said during a Monday press conference, according to a New York Times translation. “Kashmir is the jugular vein of Pakistan, and anyone laying a hand on our jugular vein and honor will meet a frightful end.”

It doesn’t help that experts expect locals on both sides of the de facto India-Pakistan partition in Kashmir — known as the Line of Control — to protest the decision. Sameer Lalwani, a Pakistan expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, told me that “real or symbolic encroachments on J&K’s autonomy have triggered public backlash and violent protests, such as in 2008 and 2010, and across the Kashmir Valley in 2016.”

And since 2012, he continued, stone-pelting of security forces, terrorist recruitment, and even public sympathy for terrorists has risen in the area.

Alyssa Ayres, an India expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told me there’s a “possibility of more terrorists coming in from Pakistan to ‘fight.’” Already some activists have started demonstrating outside the Indian Embassy in Pakistan.

The question, then, is if cooler heads can prevail. The problem is it doesn’t look like they will.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on Sunday that President Donald Trump offered to mediate the ongoing crisis, an idea that India has repeatedly and flatly rejected. That’s already a problem: If the main proposed solution is to have Trump solve a longstanding, incredibly complicated and nuanced issue, chances are it’s not going to work out.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Monday that “we are closely following the events in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” adding that the US notes India considers this “an internal matter” and that it has concerns about reports of detentions. “We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control,” she continued.

Even if tensions calm down in the days ahead, Modi still has little incentive to back off and curb his party’s ambitions. If anything, he will likely make many more controversial choices over the next five-year period, many of which may also impact Pakistan.

That means it’s only more likely that the problems in Kashmir — and the broader India-Pakistan relationship — will continue to worsen.

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