Kashmir endures another year of utter despair
5 Aug 2021|

Two years ago, on 5 August 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir as a state (the only Muslim-majority one in India) and redesignated it as two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh, which are governed directly from Delhi. He also scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had allowed J&K to make its own laws, and cancelled Article 35A, which gave its legislature the power to determine who was a permanent resident of the state.

The effective annexation of J&K was overwhelmingly rejected by Kashmiri Muslims. Pakistan virulently opposed it, arguing that because J&K was considered by the United Nations Security Council to be disputed territory, its annexation violated international law.

Modi claimed that this unilateral move would bring peace and development to J&K. Not surprisingly, this action by his Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has only brought more misery and more violence. And, sadly, the future doesn’t look promising.

Within a year, the impact on the economy of J&K was disastrous. Another year later, and notwithstanding the Modi government’s assertions that the political changes had brought socioeconomic development to the region, economic activity has come to a standstill. A double lockdown, political and Covid-driven, has hit the tourism industry very hard. Starved of international tourists, those running the famous house boats on Dal Lake in Srinagar are desperately struggling to survive.

Many of the political leaders arrested two years ago are still under house arrest or in jail. The BJP has made rampant use of a particularly harsh piece of legislation, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—which permits detention without charge for up to six months—to crack down on all forms of dissent. Torture and mistreatment of detainees, including teenagers, is common practice. Fewer than 1% of arrests under the act have resulted in a conviction in the past 10 years. Modi has used the law to silence civil-society organisations, in particular, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society—the only two groups documenting human rights abuses in J&K.

India’s harsh and uncompromising approach to J&K has come to the attention of the UN. In March 2021, five UN special rapporteurs wrote a letter to the Modi government expressing their concerns over arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in J&K. That letter and five previous communications by other UN rapporteurs since 5 August 2019 have been ignored.

In June 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, concerned by grave human rights violations in J&K, asked the Indian government to end the use of shotgun pellets against children. The dire situation in J&K has also come to the attention of the EU. A number of members of the European Parliament have written to the president and vice president of the European Commission expressing concern about the human rights violations in J&K.

Kashmiri political leaders­—most of whom have lost all credibility with Kashmiris—have demanded that J&K’s statehood be restored. Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai has said in the Indian parliament that statehood would be ‘granted at an appropriate time after normalcy is restored’. The Indian government’s response begs more questions about Kashmir’s future.

In the meantime, Delhi has extended until March 2022 the role of the Delimitation Commission established to redraw the electoral constituencies of J&K. Most Kashmiris fear that the commission’s real task is to redraw the electoral map to make it easier for the BJP to win the next election, whenever that will be.

But more worrisome to Kashmiris is that since the legislative changes in August 2019, well over three million domicile certificates have been granted to non-Kashmiris, most of them non-Muslims. Moreover, there’s a fear that Delhi will apply to Kashmir the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which requires Muslims to prove their citizenship. Many would not be able to do so because they have no official papers to confirm their legal status.

The Modi government has been keen to assist the return to Kashmir of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) who left because of the security situation in the 1990s. As former J&K finance minister Haseeb Drabu noted, Kashmiris are worried that through the use of legislative and administrative actions the Modi government is trying ‘to convert a demographic majority into a political minority’.

Despite the misery Kashmiris endure daily, the international community has no appetite to confront Modi on this. And he knows it.

There are critical strategic issues to deal with, notably the growing tension between the West and China and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in which India could play an important role. India’s geostrategic importance is further strengthened by its membership, along with the US, Japan and Australia, of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Given that context, Kashmir simply doesn’t make it onto the agenda.

On his recent visit to India, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not allow Kashmir and other human rights issues, such as the poor treatment of Muslims in India, to complicate the bilateral meeting. When asked to comment on the wobbliness of India’s democracy, Blinken stated: ‘We view Indian democracy as a force for good in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific …  We also recognize that every democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress.’ This would have been sweet music to his host, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar.

Sadly, once again, realpolitik takes precedence over human rights issues. There’s no expectation that anything will change soon for Kashmiris because there’s absolutely no international pressure on Modi to relent.