Modi Crosses the Rubicon in Kashmir

By Sumit Ganguly

On August 5, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi announced the revocation of Article 370, a provision in the Indian constitution that governs the relationship of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir with India. Simultaneously, the home minister, Amit Shah, also announced in Parliament that the government planned to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood, creating instead two “union territories” (one in the Buddhist region of Ladakh and another in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir, which have Hindu and Muslim majorities, respectively). Both the lower and upper houses of the Indian Parliament passed legislation enacting these changes the following day.


If the government of Narendra Modi can follow through on its plan, Kashmir will cease to be an autonomous state within India. The abolition of Article 370 has long been a staple of the Hindu nationalist BJP’s political platform. In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP repeated its old ambition of getting rid of the article, but promised to “discuss this with all stakeholders.” That commitment to consultation vanished in its 2019 manifesto. With another clear-cut majority in Parliament, the party is emboldened to make good on its electoral promise.
Article 370 governed India’s relations with its only Muslim-majority state. The article had limited the application of India’s constitution in Jammu and Kashmir and also prevented non-Kashmiris from easily becoming permanent residents of the state. Its abrogation upends the status quo in the disputed territory and will lead to a major transformation of conditions on the ground.

A PRINCELY INHERITANCE

The articles that preserved Kashmir’s special status predate Indian independence and hark back to the time when Kashmir was a nominally independent princely state. In 1927, Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, passed an ordinance that prohibited non-Kashmiris from acquiring property in the state. This move was precipitated by an influx of people from the neighboring state of Punjab. Twenty years later, when the maharaja chose to join his princely realm to the newly created state of India, Jammu and Kashmir’s new constituent assembly chose to keep a variant of this provision.

The retention of this colonial-era provision was not surprising. The maharaja had acceded to India under duress when Pakistan-supported irregulars threatened to overrun his realm. Given that a Muslim-majority state was about to accede to a secular but Hindu-majority country, India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was prepared to grant Kashmir a special status under the Indian constitution. Article 370 limited the areas in which the Indian constitution would apply to Jammu and Kashmir and allowed the state a degree of autonomy no other Indian state possessed. Though designated as temporary, Article 370 became a permanent feature of the constitution and was last confirmed by presidential order in 1954.

Kashmir’s special status within India has changed since the 1950s. Subsequent governments in New Delhi, including those of Nehru, effectively whittled down the provisions of Article 370, applying various elements of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir. In 1964, for example, the central government extended Article 356 of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir, allowing New Delhi to dismiss a state government in the event of the breakdown of law and order. These legislative changes had the effect over the years of eroding the special status that had been accorded to Kashmir under the aegis of Article 370.

ALL CHANGE

The incremental changes of previous decades pale in comparison to the BJP government’s current overhaul. The BJP and other opponents of Article 370 have long insisted that the constitutional provisions prevent the greater integration of the state into the rest of India. Abolishing the article will lead to greater prosperity as non-Kashmiris will be able to buy property and invest in the state. There are some merits to these arguments. Kashmiris, regardless of their faith, are at liberty to travel to any part of India and acquire property. Shouldn’t other Indian citizens have the same rights in Kashmir? Unshackled, eager investors will turn to the state and substantially improve its economic well-being.

Few in any recent Indian government believe that Pakistan-administered Kashmir will ever be reclaimed.

However, a more disturbing possibility needs to be considered. Pakistan has long allowed non-Kashmiris to settle in areas of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the third of the original princely state that it seized during the 1947–48 war with India. Subsequently, it has changed the demography of that region, rendering its autonomy little more than a legal fiction.

Even though India formally claims that territory under Pakistani control, few in any recent Indian government believe that Pakistan-administered Kashmir will ever be reclaimed. In the view of the Modi government, it is best to meld the portion of Kashmir that remains under Indian control into the rest of India, demolishing Pakistan’s continued irredentist claim. Such a merger is possible only if India can alter the demography of the portion of Kashmir in its hands.

Dismantling Article 370, at least in principle, is the first step required in enacting this transformation. The population of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley is roughly seven million, making up a small fraction of India’s 1.3 billion people. What may ensue is a version of the ethnic transformation of Muslim-majority Xinjiang in western China, steadily yoked to the rest of the country by the migration of Han Chinese.

Not only has the central government eroded the autonomy of Kashmir but it has swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. The Modi government announced that it will bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir and strip its statehood status, granting New Delhi far greater powers. The new union territory of Ladakh will have no legislature; the new territory of Jammu and Kashmir will have a legislature but will likely be firmly under the thumb of the central government. New Delhi will be able to sweep aside potentially recalcitrant local politicians. Its grip on the territory will be implacable.
KINDLING ON THE FIRE

But it is far from clear that the BJP’s strategy will produce the desired results. Troubles lie ahead at national, regional, and possibly international levels. Nationally, the generation of Kashmiri Muslims who came of age following the 1989 insurgency and subsequent years of violence and repressions will not passively accept this new order. Instead, as they have repeatedly demonstrated in the last few years, they will resort at a minimum to large street protests and clashes with security forces. The government in New Delhi will respond with harsh measures including the use of mass arrests, tear gas, and pellet guns to disperse crowds and, in turn, further inflame dissident passions. A cycle of protest and its heavy-handed quashing will only further alienate Kashmiri Muslims from India.

Pakistan, which has never reconciled itself to India’s control of almost two-thirds of the original princely state, will not miss an opportunity to sow further discord within the aggrieved populace. The cause of Kashmir also has great domestic use for Pakistani politicians, who invoke the plight of Kashmiri Muslims to rally their own fractious population. For well over two decades, Pakistan has made every effort to stoke the dying embers of the insurgency. New Delhi’s recent measures only provide more kindling. Regional tensions will spike as the Modi government will respond with vigor to seal the border and undertake possible punitive actions against its meddlesome neighbor.
Troubles lie ahead at national, regional, and possibly international levels.

Finally, if large-scale violence erupts in Kashmir, Pakistan will bring the issue to the United Nations General Assembly as well as to other international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It will also seek to turn Muslim countries against India. These efforts may make no material difference, but they are bound to cause India some international embarrassment.

The BJP government in New Delhi has chosen to cross the Rubicon in Kashmir, enacting a long-held desire of its political base. It remains to be seen how it will deal with the consequences of this radical gambit.
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