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.
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.
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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