India’s bad bet in Kashmir
8 Aug 2019|

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has decided to strip Kashmir of its special status—which granted considerable autonomy to the disputed Muslim-majority territory—and split it into two union territories (a status below that of states) that India will govern more directly. Kashmir’s special status, granted under Article 370 of India’s constitution, was essential to facilitate its accession to newly independent India over seven decades ago. In transforming its relationship with the territory, which Pakistan also claims, the Indian government has jeopardised regional peace and stability.

The Modi government is well aware that the move will not be well received in Kashmir and Pakistan. In the days preceding the announcement, it deployed thousands more troops to the territory. After the announcement, it imposed a curfew on residents, evacuated tourists and pilgrims, placed prominent local politicians (who immediately denounced the move) under house arrest, and imposed media and telecoms blackouts.

But, as members of most Indian opposition parties recognise, the Modi government’s capacity to quell resistance in Kashmir, which has endured decades of violence, is limited. Ominously, Pakistan has already rejected the move ‘unequivocally’, calling it illegal, and pledged to ‘exercise all possible options’ to counter it. This raises the spectre of another military clash between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

There are three reasons why the dispute over Kashmir has proved so intractable—and why India’s unilateral attempt to force a shift in its own favour may not work.

The first reason relates to identity. Kashmir represents the unfinished business from the 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan. On the one hand, the existence of a Muslim-majority Indian province contradicts Pakistan’s raison d’être as the homeland for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. On the other, the loss of India’s only Muslim-majority province would undermine its core identity as a secular republic and leave its remaining 180 million Muslims vulnerable.

Kashmir lies at the nexus of these conflicting imperatives, because, unlike other former princely states, Kashmir acceded to, but did not merge with, the Union of India. In doing so, it secured autonomy on all matters except defence, foreign affairs and communications. Under Article 35A, added to the Indian constitution in 1954, Kashmiri citizens were afforded additional special rights and privileges, including with regard to property ownership and government jobs.

Second, Pakistan has the will and the means to create small-scale mischief essentially indefinitely—or at least for the foreseeable future—but knows that it would lose a full-scale war. India knows that it could defeat Pakistan on the battlefield, but not decisively enough to cripple its ability to resume its cross-border incursions. This military balance naturally leads to stalemate rather than decisive resolution.

Lastly, India is effectively trapped in a policy prison cell that is largely of its own making. To Indian voters, the government claims that there’s no dispute at all. Kashmir is an integral part of India, it insists, so no negotiations are needed.

To the world, Indian leaders point to Pakistan’s perfidy in supporting jihadist groups that launch terrorist attacks on India, and reject any effort to internationalise discussions of the issue. Just weeks before the recent announcement, when US President Donald Trump offered to mediate the dispute over Kashmir, Modi flatly refused, reiterating that any discussion of the subject would involve only India and Pakistan.

India refuses to engage with Pakistan until attacks are brought to a halt—a stance that has pushed the country into a corner. But it is Pakistan that closes the cell door, owing to the nature of its state, in which the military, rather than the civilian government, decides key policies, including on Kashmir. And the policy the military has chosen has been to exploit the Kashmir insurgency as part of its effort to ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’.

To some extent, however, India is losing the credibility it needs to push back, as the government, ruled by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, threatens to transform the country into a kind of Hindu Pakistan. The BJP government’s religious chauvinism, together with its handling of the Kashmir conflict, has severely damaged India’s reputation.

Still, the damage to Pakistan’s international standing has been more extreme, given the country’s consistent support for jihadists. As former secretary of state Hillary Clinton famously warned in 2011, Pakistan couldn’t keep snakes in its backyard and expect only its neighbours to be bitten.

The combination of surging Hindu nationalism in India, Kashmiri grievances against India’s government, Pakistan-backed jihadist groups waging hybrid warfare in Indian Kashmir, the new normal of India’s retaliatory military strikes on Pakistan, and growing nuclear stockpiles has turned Kashmir into a tinderbox. India’s decision to withdraw Kashmir’s special status threatens to be the spark that ignites it.

Instead of moving forward with this dangerous policy, India should agree with Pakistan to transform the de facto international border—which has barely shifted over 70 years of conflict—into an official, open one, across which Indians and Pakistanis could travel freely. This would facilitate people-to-people connections, increased market integration, and cooperation in a range of areas, from tourism to environmental management.

By boosting shared prosperity, such a step would enable both countries to invest more in social security, welfare and economic development. Closer integration across South Asia would likely follow.

India has one foot on the ladder to global prominence. But as long as its other foot is stuck in the quagmire of conflict with Pakistan, it won’t be able to climb very high.