India’s actions in Kashmir (part 1): How did we get here?
16 Aug 2019|

India announced the abrogation of certain provisions of Article 370 from its constitution last week, ending the special status enjoyed by Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. India also decided to split the erstwhile state into two union territories: Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir (although it’s set to be a temporary measure for Jammu and Kashmir, which will become a state once the situation is deemed to be ‘stable’). New Delhi’s heavy-handedness in orchestrating this move has damaged India’s democratic credentials and credibility.

Why did the Indian government embark on this path, and why now?

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India in 1947 after Pakistani guerrilla fighters moved in and occupied a part of the kingdom. Indian forces thwarted the advance but were unable to drive Pakistani forces out completely. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru then opted to take the matter to the United Nations. The UN resolved to hold a plebiscite to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan or become independent, but it was conditional on Pakistani forces withdrawing from the region, and never took place.

Jammu and Kashmir sent its representatives to India’s constituent assembly and the Indian constitution came into effect in 1950. Article 370 was enacted through a presidential order in the same year, granting autonomy to the state on all matters except foreign policy, defence, finance and communications. It was amended in 1954 to extend Indian citizenship to all residents of Jammu and Kashmir.

Although the state had acceded to India, New Delhi had entered into a ‘solemn pact’, granting it special status until its state constituent assembly could decide upon the extent to which it wanted to merge with India. The state constituent assembly dissolved in 1957 without deciding on abrogation or amendment and thus the matter remained unresolved.

In the 70 years since the subcontinent’s partition, Pakistan has consolidated control over the territories it administers in Kashmir and has waged a low-level proxy war against India through non-state and sometimes state actors. Convinced that Pakistan would never withdraw from the territories it controls in Kashmir, India has long felt that the question of a plebiscite was moot.

The last meaningful dialogue on Kashmir between New Delhi and Islamabad took place in Agra in 2001. During those talks, a four-point plan was devised to bring greater autonomy to Kashmiris on both sides. Negotiations ultimately fell through, with the two sides naturally blaming each other for creating roadblocks, but Pakistan’s perceived intransigence at Agra left an indelible imprint on Indian thinking.

To be sure, the revocation of Article 370 had been a longstanding aspiration of India’s Hindu nationalists and was a campaign promise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 and 2019 elections. The government refrained from making good on this promise during Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister, and Modi tried reaching out to Pakistan in his early days in the top job. But, citing repeated betrayals by Pakistan and the contested nature of Islamabad’s civilian and military ties, India ceased all dialogue with Pakistan..

In 2016, the rising number of local militants professing allegiance to Islamic State, and the protests following the death of local home-grown terrorist Burhan Wani at the hands of Indian security forces, which reverberated across India, opened New Delhi’s eyes to the fact that militancy in Kashmir had become a domestic problem. The local political leadership backed both by New Delhi and Islamabad had failed to act as a safety valve to contain Sunni sub-nationalism. The year 2016 thus marked an inflection point for Indian policy on Kashmir.

There was also a recognition that Article 370 had allowed a vicious political environment to develop inside Kashmir that boiled down to a corrupt power-sharing arrangement between New Delhi and a few local political parties with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Kashmir was suspended in the crosshairs of the conflict between India and Pakistan as local parties, including the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, flirted with both countries. The breakdown of the BJP’s electoral alliance with the PDP in 2018, and the PDP’s and the National Conference’s increasingly soft stances on separatists, dealt another blow to the Indian government’s ability to work with them.

The immediate trigger for the move, though, was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the US in July and President Donald Trump’s remark about India seeking mediation on Kashmir. There’s a real fear in New Delhi that the expected ascendancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the US withdraws will lead Pakistan to further the jihadi cause in Kashmir, as it did in the 1990s when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan enabled Islamabad to redirect the mujahideen to fight in Kashmir.

To offset the risk of Kashmir’s falling victim to Trump’s transactionalism and, more importantly, to take advantage of Pakistan’s dire economic situation (especially in light of the upcoming Financial Action Task Force ruling in October, which could see it blacklisted and levied with heavy financial penalties for its financing of terrorist entities), the Modi government probably felt now was the right time to take this decision.

Finally, there’s an undeniable domestic impulse behind the Modi government’s decision. The Pulwama attack in February and the subsequent Balakot airstrikes gave Modi a boost with the electorate and helped to sideline his poor economic record during the election campaign.

Having returned to power with a massive mandate in May, the BJP feels it now must fulfil the promises it’s been making for a long time—the banning of ‘triple talaq’  or instant divorce (an Islamic practice now banned in several countries) and Article 370 are two examples. Some observers contend that the next item on the BJP’s agenda may be the imposition a uniform civil code and then, most problematically, a push to build the controversial temple at Ayodhya, which has sparked massive and bloody riots in the past.

Modi’s critics argue that the BJP’s revocation of Article 370 is part of the Hindu nationalist project of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra, or a nation for Hindus. That’s seen as undermining India’s secular character, calling into question the very basis of its creation as a free, multi-religious and diverse country in 1947, and narrowing the margin of difference with theocratic Pakistan.

Unless the Modi government reaches out to Kashmiris, restores their dignity and statehood, and ensures their wellbeing and religious freedom, it will continue to face bitter resistance and criticism, both domestically and internationally.