Kashmir is a Tinderbox – India is Playing with Fire

The situation in Kashmir needs to be addressed, few could argue against that. Three decades of grinding conflict have scarred the disputed state, claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan. Friction in the mountainous region has brought the nuclear-armed neighbours to blows dozens of times, while a festering insurgency has killed at least 70,000. But India’s strident action in recent days is far from the remedial enterprise so desperately needed, critics say. In a staggering development, Narendra Modi’s government has unilaterally stripped Kashmir of its long-held autonomy, folding the fraught region into India proper. 

When the internet went down in early August, locals cared little – web access is often severed in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Indian-administered state’s official name. But when phone lines followed, thousands of extra troops flooded the streets and a major Hindu pilgrimage was cancelled, panic broke out. Thousands queued at petrol stations and cash machines; others packed their bags. Something serious was afoot. 

Then came the formal declaration. “Under Article 370 there is a provision that the President may by public notification declare that this article shall cease to be operative,” India’s interior minister told parliament, inviting the house to vote on the motion. It passed by 300 ballots. Article 370, the piece of legislature that enshrined J&K’s unique constitution, separate flag and freedom to make laws, had been revoked.

The state will now be split into two smaller territories – one combining Jammu, with its Hindu majority, and Kashmir, which is mostly Muslim; and Ladakh, a Buddhist-majority area with historic ties to Tibet. Both will be governed by New Delhi-appointed officials. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is the realisation of an election promise. His pledge to integrate Kashmir and put it on the same footing as the rest of India helped return him to power with a massive mandate earlier this year.

Celebrated across India’s political spectrum, the move was most vigorously welcomed by Hindu nationalists, to whom Modi is widely accused of pandering. His government had taken a “historic step toward establishing the Hindu Rashtra,” proclaimed Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a nationalist organisation, referring to dreams of a one-religion nation. 

Few on the streets of Muslim-majority Kashmir share in this jubilation, unsurprisingly. Amid reports of gunfire in the region’s biggest city, Srinagar, protests have been widespread. “Down with India” were the chants of incensed citizens, who waved black flags and burned tires near the Pakistan border. To those with knowledge of Article 370’s provisions, their outrage is justified. The law had allowed J&K authorities to closely control property ownership, limiting the flow of settlers from India proper. Experts now warn a cynical Mr Modi could flood the region with ethnic Hindus, irrevocably altering the state’s demographic character.

“Whether Kashmir will end up looking like [a] restive, semi-autonomous province, or more like the West Bank – with armed settlers living in highly protected colonies amid a larger, disenfranchised population subject to arbitrary justice – is not clear at the moment,” says Mihir Sharma of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank. “Those are, however, the most likely options”.

New Delhi’s power play has caused concern on the international stage, also. Pakistan regard Modi’s supposed emancipation of the Kashmiri people as crude sabre-rattling, and has vowed to “go to any extent” to defend the Muslim populace. These were the words of army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, a man who commands both huge political influence and a bristling arsenal of cutting edge weaponry. On the diplomatic front, India’s Islamic neighbour has expelled officials and suspended trade – and has promised further action that’ll likely exacerbate the deepening crisis.   

China has grievances, too. Beijing’s foreign ministry slammed “India’s inclusion of the Chinese territory” into its administrative jurisdiction, calling the move “unacceptable”. Their worries focus on the Ladakh area particularly, which is claimed by both nations. Conflict almost erupted in 2017 when hand-to-hand clashes between Indian and Chinese personnel occurred on the border. The two managed to de-escalate the crisis, but their rhetoric has been fiery ever since. 

The manner in which Mr Modi carried out his manoeuvre has caused further consternation. The communications blackout is repressive, critics say, and his decision to deluge the region’s street with soldiers reeks of authoritarianism. But it’s the summary imprisonment of J&K’s erstwhile leaders that has provoked the greatest outcry. Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, two former chief ministers of the region, were placed under house arrest hours prior to New Delhi’s announcement – a move decried by humanitarian groups.

“Kashmiris have endured decades of violence and human rights violations, and are yet to be assured of justice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure accountability for past abuses and address grievances instead of silencing opposition voices”.

Mr Modi is soaring on the jet-stream of domestic fervour, however, and he’s unlikely to change course. Decisive action on Kashmir proved a hit at the ballot box – that alone could spur further action. But with India’s economy faltering – growth is at a five-year low and recession looms – an incendiary regional crackdown offers him perfect political cover also. Diverting the attention of the masses should never justify such flagrant democratic abuses, critics argue, especially when the cost could be war. Those with a vested interest in regional stability need to push for de-escalation and unite behind a clear message: Kashmir is a tinderbox. India, you’re playing with fire.