India’s actions in Kashmir (part 2): What happens next?
23 Aug 2019|

‘A new era has begun in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Article 370 was a hurdle for development of Kashmir … Article 370 and Article 35A gave only separatism, nepotism and corruption to the people of Jammu and Kashmir … I assure the people of J&K that things will return to normalcy.’ — Narendra Modi, 8 August 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to the nation explaining his government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 was addressed not only to the people of Kashmir, but to the international community at large. In one stroke, Modi has attempted to redefine the geostrategic dynamics of South Asia. But it has opened a Pandora’s box, as I discussed in part 1 of this series.

Though the Indian government was able to get the constitutional change through the parliament thanks to its overwhelming majority, the legality of the move has been challenged in the supreme court. If New Delhi can overcome this hurdle, the newly created union territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir will be integrated with the Indian union and administered under Indian laws (while the latter will have a separate legislature under the Indian federation, Ladakh won’t).

It’s worth noting that the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, although a momentous decision, means little in practical terms, as the essence of Article 370 had long been eroded. The state had had virtually no autonomy and had existed in the limbo of a constitutional aberration, allowing a vitriolic political environment to flourish for decades.

If upheld, the Indian government’s decision will mean that Kashmiris will be able to enjoy the same rights and benefits guaranteed to other citizens, including the extension of welfare measures and reservation for weaker sections of society in educational institutions and government jobs. It will also end the discriminatory practice of barring Kashmiri women (and children) from exercising their property rights in Kashmir if they marry non-Kashmiris. Article 35A will become redundant, which will enable Indians from other states to settle and buy property in the two union territories.

Meanwhile, the lockdown and communications blackout imposed by the Indian government continue, though there have been reports of partial restoration of mobile and landline services in some areas. The mood on the ground is sombre, with reports of sporadic protests and at least two deaths in clashes with police. There’s a great degree of local discontentment with Indian armed forces and policies within Kashmir, especially among Kashmiri Sunni Muslims—some of it fanned by Pakistan, some of it born out of genuine grievances.

India hopes that opening Kashmir to outside investment will pave the way for employment opportunities and development that benefit Kashmiris and reduce the grounds and incentives to radicalise. The abrogation of Article 370 won’t be a panacea for crossborder or home-grown terrorism, but it’s likely to enable India to better mobilise its troops in the region and achieve greater control over the law and order situation.

Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus), Sikhs and Buddhists have overwhelmingly welcomed the decision, particularly the Pandits, most of whom were driven out of their lands in the early 1990s by the rise in Pakistan-enabled militancy. Also, the separation and conversion of Ladakh into a union territory had been a long-held demand of the residents of Ladakh. As analysts have noted, the partition of Kashmir and Ladakh gives New Delhi the opportunity to treat its disputes with Pakistan and China separately (Aksai Chin was originally part of Ladakh), giving it greater flexibility.

The Indian government says it plans to hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir as soon as practicable; Modi has pledged that local leadership with a commitment to effective governance is the endgame. The proposal envisions greater political representation for the region’s minority communities, particularly the Hindus, through a delimitation of constituencies to reflect demographic changes in the past two decades.

Pakistan has now approached the International Court of Justice to protest against human rights violations and ‘genocide’ committed by India in Kashmir, although the action is being seen as aimed more at pacifying Prime Minister Imran Khan’s domestic constituency. Any ICJ rulings in the matter would be advisory in nature given its jurisdictional restrictions. Nonetheless, Pakistan hopes that this move will help keep the Kashmir issue alive and draw attention to India’s alleged atrocities in Kashmir.

Islamabad has downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended bilateral trade with India, recalled its high commissioner, and threatened retaliation in all forms. However, its hands are tied because of its delicate situation vis-à-vis the Financial Action Task Force ruling in October 2018.

India’s move has also generated a wide backlash from China (egged on by Pakistan), which led the call for a formal joint statement criticising India’s actions at a UN Security Council closed-door discussion last week. While the UK sided with China, the US and France supported India; Russia’s position remained surprisingly ambiguous. In the end, the Security Council decided that this was a bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan that they needed to sort out themselves.

India has claimed that the decision is an entirely domestic one—and it is in the narrow sense that the changes it has effected now apply only to the territories that India has administered since 1947. The decision, as India sees it, has no bearing on Pakistani-administered or Chinese-administered Kashmir and so the international situation with Pakistan and China remains the same. India’s home affairs minister, Amit Shah, reiterated nonetheless that India maintains its longstanding claim over the entirety of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including territories disputed with Pakistan and China.

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh declared this week that any negotiations between India and Pakistan will take place only with regard to the territories Pakistan currently administers. Some observers, though, are still hoping that, in the long run, India’s revocation of Article 370 could become the basis for a peace agreement between India and Pakistan, with the current de facto line of control between Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir being transformed into an international border de jure.

The only way Islamabad could galvanise international opinion is by hoping for bloody protests on the streets of Kashmir and incidents of brutal suppression by the Indian armed forces. There’s a real fear of a terrorist strike in India backed by the Pakistani military and intelligence. It’s hard to predict how India would respond to any provocations, but Modi has shown that he has the appetite to escalate beyond India’s traditional norms of strategic patience. Whether Pakistan will dare to establish new thresholds is key.