15 August 2019

Kashmir: the battleground that will shape the fate of India

By Ramesh Thakur

On 5 August, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fulfilled a founding ambition and repeated election promise: they ended Kashmir’s unique status in India’s federal structure by scrapping Article 370 of the Constitution.

This Article guaranteed Kashmir’s political autonomy, restricted New Delhi’s jurisdiction to foreign affairs, defence and communications, and exempted Kashmir from India’s constitution and laws. Article 35A had further protected state government jobs and property ownership for Kashmiris.

With its removal, on 31 October the state will be split into two Union Territories (UT) – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – with only limited autonomy. In an address to the nation PM Narendra Modi justified the decision in the language of development, modernisation, investment, livelihoods and gender empowerment.

This is not about Kashmir but the BJP’s vision of India. Jawaharlal Nehru – the first Prime Minister of India – based his idea of India on the key principles of democracy, federalism, secularism and cultural pluralism. Kashmir’s unique constitutional status reflected these along with the specific, post-partition circumstances of accession. All have been anathema to – and contested by – the BJP whose DNA says ‘one nation, one people, one constitution’. Its three-pronged agenda has been to abolish triple talaq, whereby Muslims can divorce their wives simply by uttering the decree three times; to integrate Kashmir fully into India; and to adopt a Uniform Civil Code for all religions. The first was enacted on 30 July. Article 370, described as ‘temporary’ and ‘provisional’ in the constitution, is gone. The push for a uniform civil code will gather momentum.

Many Indians support Kashmir’s autonomy in principle, to protect its unique Muslim-majority identity. However, instead of a constitutional formula for integration with India, Article 370 has proven to be the legal enabler of separateness. Kashmir’s incorporation is hugely popular with plenty of Indians who are unconcerned with how it was done, causing internal rifts in opposition parties, including Congress.

Kashmir’s reorganisation has broken the logjam surrounding its political status. Successive Congress governments had substantially diluted the content of Article 370 through incessant interference in Kashmiri affairs. According to Indian Muslim scholar Mohammed Ayoob, the ‘special status’ was ‘used as a stick to beat Muslims from the rest of the country, who … owe nothing to Kashmiri Muslims, who have in fact become an albatross around their neck’.

A substantial minority of Indians have no principled objection to the policy they feel rectifies a historical blunder.  But they are deeply troubled by how it was implemented: not through any formal legislative process, but by a presidential ordinance using stealth and deception rather than partnership and dialogue. This repeats the authoritarian and capricious style of decision-making of Modi’s disastrous demonetisation diktat in 2016, and looks set to be tested in the Supreme Court soon.

Opposition leaders were not briefed. Kashmiris were not consulted. Their leaders were put under house arrest. The precedent has been set that a state can be reduced overnight into a Delhi-controlled UT. As the disquieting implications of this permeate the consciousness of a heavily regionalised political system (essential to accommodate the unparalleled linguistic and social diversity of India) unease will morph into anger and pushback.

Rather unexpectedly, the most powerful defence of the decision came from the MP for Ladakh, the country’s biggest parliamentary constituency by area (45,000 km2), and part of the larger Kashmir region (which is itself comprised of three distinct regions: Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh). In an eloquent and finger-wagging 20-minute speech in Parliament (in Hindi), the BJP’s Jamyang Tsering Namgyal recalled the decades-old resistance by the Buddhist-majority Ladakhis to being subsumed into Muslim-majority Kashmir, and their demands for direct administration from Delhi instead.

Namgyal recounted numerous examples of how Kashmiris had appropriated federal funds for themselves but neglected Jammu and Ladakh with respect to jobs, education and development. Having driven out 300,000-500,000 Hindu Pandits (Brahmins) from Jammu in a modern-day example of ethnic cleansing and engaged in efforts to destroy Ladakh’s Buddhist identity, Kashmiris were in no position to wax lyrical on secularism and equality. The two ruling families (Abdullahs and Muftis) treat Kashmir as their patrimony, Namgyal concluded. He has a bright future in Indian politics and will be worth watching.

As India celebrates Independence Day today, Kashmir – already under prolonged military occupation – is in military lockdown. The insurgency, restiveness and self-perpetuating cycle of violence will intensify. Violence had abated under PM Manmohan Singh’s dual-track approach of military containment and political engagement. Modi’s Kashmir policy has shifted the balance to emphasise military solutions over political approaches, treating Kashmir as a law-and-order problem with curfews, comb-and-search operations and the use of lethal force, on the one hand; and as a counter-terrorism policy directed against local militants and their Pakistan-based backers on the other. The result is a substantial spike during Modi’s time in the numbers of terrorist attacks and infiltrations across the Line of Control; of protests; and of security forces, insurgents and civilians killed.

For 70 years, Pakistan has acted and India reacted on Kashmir. Now – verging on bankruptcy, home to many internationally proscribed terrorist groups, short on allies and with a well-earned reputation for hunting with the US and NATO hounds on the sunny side of the street while running with the jihadist hares in the dark shadows – Pakistan is scrambling to respond to Modi’s audacious initiative.

Presenting integration as a fait accompli undercuts Pakistan’s efforts to place Kashmir on the agenda of bilateral discussions or to internationalise it. Kashmir is now a purely internal matter for India. Direct control over Ladakh as will enable India to exploit its strategic location between Pakistan and China-controlled areas to the west and east. With no realistic option to challenge India’s decision, Pakistan will fan the rising Kashmiri discontent.

Kashmiris comprise under 7% of India’s Muslims. The Congress Party sought national strength and social cohesion by celebrating cultural diversity, convincing Muslims they are full stakeholders in a secular India. The BJP promotes a vision of aggressive Hinduism as the unifying force for the nation and could change Kashmir’s demographic balance. If Kashmir’s drift into anarchy is reversed, normalcy restored and prosperity results, Muslims elsewhere will be less vulnerable. However, attacks on Muslims and assaults on their beliefs and practices over the last five years have produced a palpable sense of fear and insecurity as India flirts with the danger of becoming a Hindu Pakistan. If 180 million Muslims, dispersed across the vast country, were to be alienated, no government could contain the resulting fire and fury. India would be consumed by the ensuing conflagration.

How to impress upon nationalistically inflamed consciousness the vast disparity between goals pursued, means used and the price to be paid?

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Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.