foreign interests

What You Need to Know About India’s Power Grab in Kashmir

Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Last Monday, India’s government announced that it was revoking the semi-autonomous special status accorded to the disputed northern region of Kashmir for the past seven decades and putting it under direct control of the national government in New Delhi. Accompanied by a heavy security presence, curfew, and telecommunications blackout in Kashmir, the move has ratcheted up tensions with both Pakistan and China and threatens to ignite fresh conflict in one of the most militarized areas on Earth — even as the Indian government insists that it will have the opposite effect. Here’s a look at how we got here, and what may happen next in this volatile situation.

The History of the Conflict

Kashmir has been a flashpoint in India-Pakistan relations ever since the partition of the British Raj into separate Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority countries in 1947. At that time, the hundreds of Indian princely states under British suzerainty were offered the choice of becoming part of either India or Pakistan, or independence. India’s founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru persuaded Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir to join India in exchange for protection from an incursion by Pakistani tribesmen, with promises of extensive autonomy within the Indian federal system and an eventual plebiscite in which the Kashmiris would get to vote on whether to remain part of India, accede to Pakistan, or become independent.

Pakistan rejected the accession of Kashmir to India and the two countries fought the first of three wars (so far) over the territory, dividing the region along a ceasefire line that became one of the world’s most heavily guarded and hotly contested borders. A separatist rebellion has simmered in Kashmir for nearly 30 years, which India accuses Pakistan of supporting. The territory has led to two additional wars between India and Pakistan, in 1965 and 1999, as well as sporadic skirmishes and standoffs.

The promised plebiscite was never held, but the rest of Nehru’s bargain endured. Article 370 of the Indian constitution, drafted in 1949, gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir a unique level of autonomy from the federal government, allowing it to have its own constitution and laws, and even its own flag. Article 35A, adopted five years later, allows the state’s legislature to independently define “permanent residents” of the state and restrict special privileges, such as the right to buy land, to those residents.

Revoking Kashmir’s Special Status May Not Be Legal

If it survives review by the Indian Supreme Court, the decision announced by Interior Minister Amit Shah last Monday will do away with both Article 370 and Article 35A. It downgrades the semi-autonomous state into two “union territories” (cutting off the sparsely populated Himalayan region of Ladakh as its own territory), which do not have the same rights as states but are governed more directly by New Delhi. Kashmir had already seen its autonomy eroded over the decades, especially in the years since Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.

The constitutional justification for last week’s decision is dubious: The only party entitled to revoke Article 370 is the constituent assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, which disbanded in 1957. The Supreme Court later ruled that in dissolving itself, the assembly had rendered the “temporary” special status of Kashmir permanent. Modi’s government claims that this power now resides with the legislative assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, and since that body has not been seated since last year, New Delhi is now claiming the right to make decisions on its behalf. The court ruled last year that the government could not unilaterally abrogate Article 370, however, so Modi’s gambit may not survive judicial review.

Modi’s Political Motivation

Legality aside, the domestic politics are good for Modi and the BJP, who rode into power in 2014 — and to reelection this May — on a platform of Hindu majoritarianism, anti-Muslim incitement, and a less accommodating foreign policy toward Pakistan. The BJP has long held that the autonomous status granted by Article 370 was temporary and that Kashmir should be fully incorporated into India in order to quash the separatist movement and close the door on any Pakistani claims. Doing so, the party argues, will also pave the way for greater investment and economic growth in the underdeveloped region.

Fully integrating Kashmir is an extremely popular policy position in India writ large, even if Kashmiris themselves don’t like it. The BJP and its supporters are particularly hostile to the idea that India’s only Muslim-majority state should get special treatment. Modi, a combative, conservative nationalist and Hindu chauvinist, would love to get into a fight with his liberal critics over this decision, which he claims will “free Jammu and Kashmir of terrorism and separatism.”

The Situation Has Already Grown More Dangerous

Despite Modi’s claims, the region doesn’t look especially free at the moment. Prior to last week’s bombshell announcement, India increased its military presence in Kashmir and instructed tourists and journalists to get out. Telephone and internet services were cut off, local leaders arrested, and a curfew imposed in the main city of Srinagar. The restrictions remain in place, cutting Kashmiris off from the world and making it difficult for much news to flow in or out. The curfew was eased Friday and Saturday but reimposed on Sunday for fear of gatherings for the Eid al-Adha holiday turning into protest rallies.

The removal of Kashmir’s special status may also have much more sinister purposes than Modi lets on. Article 35A’s restriction on land purchases was meant to ensure that India could not embark on a settler-colonial project there, outnumbering the native Muslims with Hindu transplants from other parts of the country in order to drown out calls for autonomy or independence. This provision’s revocation opens the door to just such a project, like what China has done in Tibet and Xinjiang, or Israel in the West Bank. Indian social media this past week was rife with posts about Indian men excited that they would finally get the chance to marry Kashmiri women.

The other danger in India’s move is that, far from ending separatist violence, it may unleash a new wave of it, while mainstreaming separatism within Kashmiri politics (much as how in the U.K., Brexit has breathed new life into the Scottish independence movement). Modi may reap short-term domestic political gain from this, but at the cost of more civil conflict down the line, as well as major rifts with its neighbors and unwelcome attention from the rest of the world.

Pakistan’s Reaction

Needless to say, Pakistan is apoplectic. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reacted to the decision by attacking Modi’s “racist ideology” and raised concerns about ethnic cleansing. Islamabad proceeded to downgrade diplomatic ties with New Delhi, suspend bilateral trade, cut rail and bus lines to India, and even ban the screening of Indian films in response. Pakistan is not planning a military response, but tensions along the border are running at a fever pitch and Khan mulled darkly on Tuesday that revenge attacks by Kashmiris on Indian soldiers and police, which Modi would likely blame on Pakistan, could spiral into a full-on war between the two nuclear weapons states. With its economy in shambles, Pakistan really can’t afford a war with India right now; it might leverage non-state militant proxies to harass India on its behalf, but this practice, which Islamabad denies, has become a diplomatic liability.

The International Response

Since its own options are limited, Pakistan is looking to internationalize the conflict and rally the global community against India. Its foreign ministry says it will appeal to the U.N. Security Council for a resolution on Kashmir and already has China’s support. China, incidentally, has its own reasons for being angry about India’s move; Beijing contests the borders of the remote Ladakh region, which India plans to carve off as its own administrative territory. Russia, however, appears to see India’s decision as constitutional and valid.

The U.S. position, meanwhile, is hazy: the State Department says it supports direct dialogue between India and Pakistan, but Modi reportedly told the U.S. about its plans as early as February. At a meeting with Khan last month, President Donald Trump claimed that Modi had asked him to mediate talks over Kashmir, which the Indian government quickly denied, as this would have violated past agreements with Pakistan to only negotiate over Kashmir bilaterally. Whether or not Modi actually made the request, Trump’s gaffe may have influenced the timing of last week’s announcement. Now that the deed is done and the consequences are beginning to unfold, Trump may get his chance to play mediator after all.

What Happens Next

Sadly, there is little reason to believe that things will end well for the people of Kashmir: Pakistan has no leverage and little diplomatic standing to force India to renege on its decision. Even a Supreme Court ruling against him won’t deter Modi from working to fulfill his campaign promises and please his nationalist base. In any case, Kashmir is just one among many majoritarian/authoritarian ambitions for Modi’s government, such as stripping citizenship from as many as 4 million Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam.

The reverberations of last week’s announcement will be long-lasting and far-reaching, creating new opportunities for conflict in an already volatile region. Jihadists will rally to the cause of Kashmir with or without Pakistan’s instigation, which Modi could use as an excuse to escalate hostilities with Pakistan and further persecute Muslims in India. The chances of a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir problem, already remote, may be extinguished for good. The worst-case scenario probably won’t come to pass, but that’s cold comfort when the worst-case scenario is nuclear war.

India’s Power Grab in Kashmir: What You Need to Know