This week marked the beginning of a new era for the troubled region of Kashmir, likely to be a more turbulent one than even before.
On Monday, Amit Shah, the Indian minister of home affairs, announced to Parliament that President Ram Nath Kovind had signed a decree revoking a 1954 presidential order that codified a special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, thus eliminating its remaining autonomy. Then, on Tuesday, the J&K Reorganisation Bill, introduced by Shah, passed both houses of Parliament. This measure will split the state into two regions—one called Jammu and Kashmir, and another called Ladakh—putting them directly under the control of Parliament (Jammu and Kashmir will still be allowed a local legislature, while Ladakh will not have one).
The legal measures followed a weekend of crackdowns by the Indian government in Muslim-majority Kashmir, already the world’s most militarized area. Without explanation, tourists were ordered to vacate, phone service was suspended, regional leaders were placed under house arrest, and general movement was restricted. It only became publicly apparent at the beginning of the week, following Shah’s announcement, what this new clampdown was in preparation for. While politicians of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu nationalists across the country burst into patriotic chants as Monday’s decree was announced, extra troops flooded into Kashmir amid a newly instated electronic blackout.
While such blatantly anti-democratic suppression isn’t new to Kashmiris, for it to happen as the region loses what little sovereignty it still had is unprecedented and newly troubling. A sign of things to come occurred at the end of last year, when Kashmir was placed under “President’s Rule,” focusing governance in New Delhi. But to understand the full significance of Kovind’s decree, it’s worth going back to the aftermath of India’s independence and revisiting the nature of India’s repression of Kashmir in the decades since.
While India was part of the British Empire, Jammu and Kashmir was one of the many princely states that made up the colonial territory, this one presided over by Maharajah Hari Singh. As India’s independence from Britain—and the ensuing partition—was being planned in 1947, Singh, a Hindu ruler of a Muslim-majority state, initially desired that the Jammu and Kashmir become an independent neutral region between India and the new nation of Pakistan. However, an uprising in the state’s western region, aided by Pakistani raiders and primarily targeting Singh, forced him to cede sovereignty to India in exchange for military aid. This led to India and Pakistan’s first major war—although the two countries had already been locked in bitter conflict since gaining their freedom. While Pakistani forces were successful in taking the western and northern areas of Kashmir, India was able to hold the majority of the princely state, including the areas of the Kashmir Valley, Jammu, and Ladakh. The Pakistani region of Kashmir was then recognized as “Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” while India’s territory retained the name Jammu and Kashmir.
The new borders were solidified in Article 370 of India’s Constitution. As a concession to Kashmiris who bristled under Indian rule, this article exempted Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of the Indian Constitution, established the state’s own Constitution, forbade outsiders from buying property in the region, exempted the state from laws passed by the Indian Parliament, and allowed the state to create its own laws except those regarding foreign policy, defense, and communications. Further special status was negotiated in the 1952 Delhi Agreement, codified into law by a 1954 presidential order—the same one Kovind voided this week.
But even as Jammu and Kashmir seemed to receive preferential treatment, the state’s citizens have suffered under this arrangement. India has interfered with the state’s politics from the very first day. The provisions of Article 370 were meant to be applied to Jammu and Kashmir by an established constituent assembly—and the constituent assembly was dissolved in 1957, leaving the institutional framework for the law uncertain. A referendum, originally called for by the United Nations, to determine its final status might have helped fix this, but the Indian government kept blocking one from happening.
The state also became the site of several clashes during India’s multiple wars with both Pakistan and China, as all these countries attempted to grab more Kashmiri land for themselves. Part of what spurred this desire for Kashmiri territory is the water: The Indus river system is split between India and Pakistan, and the water supply’s availability is incredibly important to both countries.
Even as Kashmir retained some level of autonomy, India’s consistent role in its politics led to the formation of several militant movements. Like many other Indian states, Jammu and Kashmir is not homogenous: Hindus make up the majority of Jammu’s population, while Muslims are the main residents of Kashmir, and Buddhists and Tibetans make up a large part of Ladakh. The anti-Muslim sentiments that have animated fundamentalist Hindus over the past decades have affected Kashmiris particularly deeply, and many of the dispossessed formed armed militias in retaliation. Some of those groups, like Hizbul Mujahideen, advocated for complete separation of the region as an Islamic state, while others, like Jaish-e-Mohammed, feel Kashmir would be more at home with Pakistan’s majority-Muslim population. During the 1980s and 1990s, multiple skirmishes occurred between Indian military groups and Kashmiri militants, both Hindus and Muslims were displaced, and torture and murder abounded, instigated both by Indian governmental forces and native guerilla groups.
Although the insurgency died down in the late ’90s, the occupation of the region continued unabated. Kashmiri citizens continued to protest, and Indian soldiers kept pushing back. India often shut down telecommunications within the region and plunged it into darkness much as it’s doing right now. Some militant groups carried out terrorist attacks in India, including the 2001 Parliament shooting and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Although India and Pakistan kept attempting to reconcile, stray moments of tension and firing across the heavily manned border, the Line of Control, often led them to scuttle diplomatic efforts.
The historic mistreatment of Kashmir is nonpartisan—much of the occupation of the region has been carried out under Congress Party prime ministers—but the especially authoritarian policy carried out by Modi’s administration is part and parcel of his Hindu nationalist ethos.
Prominent officials like MP Arun Jaitley are attempting to frame the region’s new designation as a step toward “National integration” that “will help the people of J&K the Most” and correct “a historical blunder.” But with this move, more than just reinforcing its control of Kashmir, the Indian government now seems to be working toward totally reshaping the state in its own self-glorious vision by taking away the self-determination of its citizens. As former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti claimed, “[Government officials] just want to occupy our land and want to make this Muslim-majority state like any other state and reduce us to a minority and disempower us totally.”
This year had already been a chaotic one for Kashmir. Earlier this year, a suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad set off a retaliatory strike from India, bringing the country to the verge of yet another war with Pakistan. During the Indian elections, the government flooded more troops into Kashmir to impose a lockdown. Just a couple weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed, in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, that Modi had personally requested him to mediate the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir—something the Indian government quickly denied, but nonetheless ended up sparking a brief diplomatic crisis.
For this new development to occur after such events shows the sheer disregard of the BJP government toward the Kashmiri people, but it should come as no surprise. Indeed, addressing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was an explicit part of the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto even though, in 2018, India’s Supreme Court declared that Article 370 of the Constitution had permanent status. Kovind’s decree took advantage of a portion of Article 370 that allows the law to be amended by a presidential order, provided that the constituent assembly of Jammu and Kashmir concurs—but due to the assembly’s longtime absence, such agreement isn’t legally possible. So this will likely lead to legal challenges, but with the judiciary increasingly in Modi’s pocket, it’s uncertain whether the Supreme Court of India will take a stand against this decision.
In the face of flagrant human rights abuses, the international response has mostly been to tread lightly, although Pakistan has erupted in angry protests. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman called on “all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced support for Pakistan, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan mentioned the possibility of taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council and perhaps even the International Criminal Court. On Wednesday, Pakistan announced it would “ ‘downgrade’ diplomatic relations and suspend bilateral trade with India” in response, according to Al-Jazeera.
Yet no matter what happens in the fallout, it is the Kashmiris who, as always, will continue to suffer most.