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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:20pm

If Kashmir is taken by force, India’s neighbour may draw unwelcome lessons

By Rana Mitter

On Monday, the Kashmiri politician Mehbooba Mufti tweeted the following hasty message: “Today the people of Jammu & Kashmir who reposed their faith in institutions of India like parliament & Supreme Court feel defeated & betrayed. By dismembering the state & fraudulently taking away what is rightfully & legally ours, they have further complicated the Kashmir dispute.” 

Mufti is no extremist or eccentric. A former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, she served in an alliance with the Hindu nationalist BJP from 2016 until last year. So there is a particular bite to her indictment of her former allies. Earlier on the day that she tweeted, Narendra Modi’s BJP government had launched a constitutional coup almost unprecedented in India’s history. 

It announced that the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, was to be divided and its autonomy effectively abolished. In 1947, as part of Kashmir’s accession to India rather than Pakistan, Article 370 was added to the Indian constitution to allow a high degree of autonomy to the state in everything except for foreign affairs. The BJP did advocate ending this status as part of its election manifesto that won it a landslide in May. But nobody expected them to act without any prior consultation. Over the past week, the whole region has been heavily militarised. In the aftermath of the announcement, prominent politicians including Mufti and former chief minister Omar Abdullah were placed under house arrest. Mufti has not tweeted for over 24 hours.

The map of India is not immutable, any more than its constitution. In the past half century, several new states have been carved out of existing entities. But Kashmir is different, defined by sensitivities and the need for balance because it is so different from the rest of India, just as Northern Ireland is both part of the UK and distinct within it. 

There is long historical precedent for sudden divisions imposed from above going wrong. In 1905, the British viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced that the province of Bengal was to be partitioned, only to meet a huge backlash from nationalist activists over the following years, leading to the reversal of the partition by the next viceroy in 1911. The BJP government in New Delhi is likely to maintain armed force to control a partitioned Kashmir, but precedent suggests that such an occupation is unlikely to be calm. Furthermore, in a democratic society, holding down a prominent, populous minority area by violence is unlikely to create a good impression at home or abroad.

The sudden action also shows the Modi government’s cavalier attitude toward India’s constitution. Again, there is a precedent here. In 1975, Indira Gandhi’s Congress government declared a state of emergency by decree of the president. Within hours, political opponents were arrested, the press was muzzled, and democratic and legal safeguards were suspended. The takeover of Kashmir looks very similar at first glance; a use of a constitutional power without prior consultation with parliament, the arrest of Kashmir’s major political leaders, and a shutdown of the internet and telecoms so that no reporting or public announcements can be made. 

Figures such as former finance minister Arun Jaitley have tweeted that the purpose of the change will bring Kashmir “more jobs and more revenue”. Yet it’s an odd sort of economic reform that requires a constitutional coup and a military lockdown. There are now fears that one aim of the coup is to end the special provisions that prevent non-Kashmiris buying properties in the region. A free-for-all on property would likely mean a swift change in the demographics of the state, ending its majority Muslim status.

This matters beyond issues of property ownership. One of the founding narratives of independent India in 1947 was that it was not a Hindu counterpart to Pakistan; rather, it would be a secular state for Hindus, Muslims and others alike, and having at least one state that was “majority minority” was an important symbol of that aspiration. In retrospect, it is surprising and admirable that the country was able to maintain that secularism for so long, as the forces underlying the BJP’s idea of “Hindutva” have been present in society since long before independence. Modi has made no secret of his determination to make India a place where Hinduism has a dominant status and has expressed his scorn for secularism. 

Just as worrying as the threat to secularism is the government’s turn to strong-arm tactics. India has always prided itself on the use of constitutional law rather than military might to achieve its political ends.  There is hypocrisy in this stance, to be sure; India’s security forces have been responsible for countless deaths over the decades. Yet India is unusual among postcolonial countries in avoiding arbitrary arrests and military coups as standard political tactics. The takeover of Kashmir, clothed in constitutional garb, is a gauntlet waved in the face of the compromises and coalitions that are the hallmarks of democratic politics in a huge and fractious society.

At least one of India’s neighbours is watching and may be drawing unwelcome conclusions. In the same week as the Kashmir crisis, there is turmoil a few thousand miles to the east in Hong Kong. So far, the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing has been relatively restrained in its actions against the protestors there, threatening them with dire consequences but (so far) refusing to send in troops. Actions like those of the Indian government in Kashmir this week will give leaders in Beijing pause for thought; if a democracy gets away with using force and censorship to impose its will, why should an authoritarian state be held to a higher standard?  New Delhi’s cavalier treatment of democratic norms at home may have even more serious consequences in a wider world where liberalism is now under the severest threat since the end of the Cold War.

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