India’s cancellation of Kashmir’s special status will have consequences

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “India’s cancellation of Kashmir’s special status will have consequences” was written by Jason Burke, for The Guardian on Monday 5th August 2019 21.49 Asia/Kolkata

The significance of Kashmir to India is difficult to exaggerate. The decision by Narendra Modi’s recently re-elected government to remove the disputed Himalayan region’s special status under the constitution is no legal technicality, but a statement of intent and ideology.

As the predominantly Hindu India’s only Muslim majority state, adherents of the country’s secular tradition of politics have long seen Kashmir’s continuing inclusion within the vast democracy as evidence that all faiths can thrive together. This contrasts India’s immense religious diversity with neighbouring Pakistan’s strong Muslim identity.

But for Hindu nationalists such as Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the privileges granted by article 370 of the constitution to Kashmir were concessions that a strong India united under their saffron banner no longer needed to make.

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war three times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India 71 years ago, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join,  until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join, or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections, and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What is Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian Union, has been in place since May 14, 1954. Under Article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence.

An additional provision, Article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state, and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu-nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Monday 5 August 2019, the government issued a presidential order to abolish Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision was only intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerillas fought a war replete with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists. Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe

This has been no secret, but rather a longterm and explicit goal of the BJP. It was a campaign promise in recent elections, where Modi dealt the opposition Congress party, the historical standard bearers of the “secularist” vision of India, a further crushing defeat.

The provisions for Kashmir have their origin in the deal made when the former princedom opted to join India in the immediate aftermath of its independence from Britain in 1947.

Their sudden cancellation will have consequences that are difficult to predict. The issue of Kashmir is fiercely emotive in neighbouring Pakistan, which has fought three full-scale wars with India, two over the disputed province.

Islamabad issued a terse statement that it would “exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps” and that the region was internationally recognised as a disputed territory. Leading Pakistani politicians spoke of Kashmir as their country’s jugular vein.

Tensions are already high between the two nuclear armed states. In February a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitaries as they travelled into Kashmir for deployment there. A Pakistan-based Islamist extremist group claimed responsibility. Delhi blamed Islamabad for the attack – a charge Pakistan denied.

map of kashmir control

Pakistan has frequently sought to internationalise the dispute, angering India. Delhi regards events in the part of the region it administers as an internal matter and has reacted badly to statements by politicians ranging from Britain’s Robin Cook in 1997 to Donald Trump, who said last month during a meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, that India wanted him to mediate between the two regional rivals.

We should brace for extensive protests. Though the degree of autonomy enjoyed in practice by Kashmir has been much reduced over decades by repeated state level interventions, it was nonetheless of huge symbolic importance to the local population.

Recognised democratic leaders in Kashmir have been deliberately sidelined – placed under house arrest in some cases. Communication restrictions, curfews and other measures are unlikely to prevent some demonstrators filling the resultant vacuum. Security forces will crack down hard – there will be casualties, funerals, more protests and a continuing bloody cycle.

Kashmir has suffered from extensive violence over decades. In the late 1980s, an insurgency led to a brutal conflict which devastated the region and cost tens of thousands of lives. It was fuelled by separatist ideologies, political discontent at a rigged election, harsh repressive measures and some support from Pakistan’s military intelligence services.

After reaching a nadir about 20 years ago, the insurgency abated and, though it has intensified since around 2010, remains well below the appalling levels of killing, torture and abductions seen when at its worst.

The fear now must be that this will change. One key factor is the youth of Kashmir’s population. There is now an entire generation that cannot personally recall the horrors of the conflict in the 1990s but has been raised with its legends.

The bitter memories of that period dissuaded their elders from violence, making recruitment harder for the various armed extremist factions operating in “the Valley”, as the heart of the region is known. This is no more the case, and many young people will think that their time has come. The consequences may be tragic for the region, and India too.

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India's cancellation of Kashmir's special status will have consequences | NORTH INDIA KALEIDOSCOPE

Rajesh Ahuja

I am a veteran journalist based in Chandigarh India.I joined the profession in June 1982 and worked as a Staff Reporter with the National Herald at Delhi till June 1986. I joined The Hindu at Delhi in 1986 as a Staff Reporter and was promoted as Special Correspondent in 1993 and transferred to Chandigarh. I left The Hindu in September 2012 and launched my own newspaper ventures including this news portal and a weekly newspaper NORTH INDIA KALEIDOSCOPE (currently temporarily suspended).