360° Analysis

What Lies Behind India’s Bold Bet on Kashmir?

A mix of political opportunism and aggressive strategy have led India to concentrate power in New Delhi, winning over Ladakh and Jammu while upsetting Kashmir and Pakistan.
A frontier guard in Jammu and Kashmir on 6/12/2015 © OlegD / Shutterstock

A frontier guard in Jammu and Kashmir on 6/12/2015 © OlegD / Shutterstock

August 10, 2019 21:00 EDT

On August 5, the press around the world noted that India had ended special status for Jammu and Kashmir. The media in the Muslim world such as Dawn and Al Jazeera shone the light only on Kashmir. So did the BBC and The New York Times. This is understandable. Given that India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers, Deutsche Welle has rightly called the conflict over Kashmir the most dangerous in the world.

Yet it makes sense to take a deep breath and examine key facts to make sense of what is going on. Many journalists forget that there is no state in India named Kashmir. The state of Jammu and Kashmir includes three distinct regions: Buddhist Ladakh, Hindu Jammu and Muslim Kashmir. These comprise 62.3%, 22.7% and 15% of the area of the state. This means that Kashmir is merely 15% of the total area of the state. The tables are turned when it comes to demographics. Kashmir is most populous, comprising 53.9% of the state population with Jammu forming 43.7% and Ladakh a mere 2.3% share.

Scroll down to read more on this 360° series

The statistics above reveal an important point that the Indian, Pakistani and international media almost invariably miss. Kashmir is just one of the three regions of a highly diverse state. Conflating Ladakh and Jammu with Kashmir is sloppy, inexact and misleading. So, why do most journalists do it? Ignorance rather than ill will is the most probable answer.

The Roots of Conflict

Like many a political entity, the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir is a historical accident. During the dying days of the Mughal Empire, the revolting Sikhs established their own short-lived empire. They first conquered Jammu and then expanded to Kashmir. Starting in 1834, Zorawar Singh Kahluria, the Dogra general of the Sikhs, led audacious campaigns in high altitude to conquer Buddhist Ladakh and Shia Baltistan. In 1841, Kahluria ended up with a lance in his chest when he attempted to conquer western Tibet, but the Dogras now controlled a swathe of territory, which is currently shared between India, Pakistan and China.

In the 1840s, the Sikh Empire disintegrated. The Dogras led by Gulab Singh seized their chance. In 1846, the Sikhs and the British came to recognize Dogra sovereignty and they became one of the 584 princely states of British India. Singh and his progeny ruled over a Muslim-majority kingdom while paying obeisance to the British. Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler, was portly, extravagant and worthless. This former page boy to Lord Curzon was blackmailed by a Parisian prostitute for a princely sum of £300,000 in 1921, or $16 million in today’s terms. Needless to say, such debauchery did not enamor Singh to his subjects.

Embed from Getty Images

While most royal families joined newly independent India or Pakistan, Hari Singh had illusions and delusions of grandeur. He wanted to rule a Himalayan Switzerland. Pakistan saw Muslim-majority Kashmir as a natural part of its nation-building project and dispatched Pashtun tribesmen to wrest it. In a panic, the Dogra ruler signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, and Indian troops landed in Srinagar. Even as Indian troops were pushing back Pashtun tribesmen, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, took the matter to the United Nations on January 1, 1948.

Nearly four months later, the UN Security Council called for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. First, Pakistan was supposed to withdraw Pashtun tribesmen and its nationals. Second, India would then reduce its forces “progressively to the minimum strength required for the support of the civil power in the maintenance of law and order.” Then, there would be a plebiscite that would decide where the state would go. The resolution remains stillborn till this date because neither party has followed it.

Instead of troops decreasing in Kashmir as per the resolution, they have only increased over the years. The reason is simple: Neither Pakistan nor India trust each other. Besides, for each of them, the Kashmir Valley is an essential part of its nation-building project. For Pakistan, Muslim-majority Kashmir must be a part of its territory. For multicultural India, Kashmir as a part of its nation proves this is home to diverse communities who are all part of an exquisite mosaic. Kashmir is an existential issue that is tied to the very identity of both nations.

Since independence, India and Pakistan have clashed repeatedly over Kashmir. The first war began in October 1947 and ended in January 1949. It led to the de facto division of the region along the so-called Line of Control (LoC), the unofficial borderline that has lasted until today. The two countries fought two full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971. The second of the wars led to the creation of Bangladesh. They also clashed over Siachen and Kargil in 1985 and 1999 respectively. There have been numerous other occasions when tensions have run high.

Today, the former Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir is divided between India, Pakistan and China. Pakistan controls the northern special province of Gilgit-Baltistan and the sickle-shaped Azad Kashmir sub-region since 1949. It is well recorded that Pakistan with its tradition of military dictatorships has gradually changed the demography of both these regions. It has also ceded Shaksgam Valley to China in 1963 in an effort to seal an alliance with the Middle Kingdom in the aftermath of the 1962 Indo-China War.

Even before its resounding victory in 1962, China took control of Aksai Chin from India. Until the Chinese conquest in the 1950s, India had claimed Aksai Chin as a part of Ladakh. Culturally, Ladakh had deep relations with Tibet for centuries with both practicing the same form of Buddhism. China first invaded Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. In the dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, China remains an oft-forgotten but integral member of a messy ménage à trois. 

Ladakh, Jammu, Kashmir and India: It’s Complicated

India’s policy on the state of Jammu and Kashmir is a lot more complex than the Indian, Pakistani or foreign press make it out to be. In the early days, there were close relations between Sheikh Abdullah, the Kashmiri leader campaigning against Dogra autocratic rule, and Nehru. Once the last Dogra ruler acceded to India, Abdullah took over as the elected leader of the state. His relations with Nehru soured soon.

Part of the reason was a visit by Adlai Stevenson, who had just lost the presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower. This Democrat met Abdullah twice and Indians suspected him of instigating Kashmiri independence. A newspaper reported that the US would give Kashmir a loan of $15 million, at least 5,000 American families would stay in hotels or houseboats, Americans would buy Kashmiri crafts and help to electrify all villages within three years. Like Hari Singh before him, Abdullah was supposedly swayed by visions of being the big boss of the Switzerland of the Himalayas. As per rumors, he was planning to declare independence on August 21, 1953, the auspicious day of Eid. Instead, Abdullah was arrested on August 8 and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed took charge.

In 1949, Nehru directed the drafters of the Constitution of India to give the state of Jammu and Kashmir special autonomy. They drafted Article 370 to govern India’s relations with the state. Many declare that this provision is the basis of the state’s entry into India. In fact, this article was in Part XXI titled, “Temporary, Transitional and Special Provisions.” Louise Tillin maintains that “Article 370 was a temporary expediency designed to govern the state’s relations with India before the military conflict over its status could be resolved.”

Embed from Getty Images

Right from the outset, this article proved controversial. People in Jammu, Ladakh and the rest of the country bitterly opposed Article 370 while Kashmiris passionately supported it. The article allowed the state to have a separate constitution, a state flag and administrative autonomy. Only defense, foreign affairs and communications were to remain in New Delhi’s hands. A constituent assembly was elected in 1951 and dissolved in 1956 that drafted a separate constitution for Jammu and Kashmir, a privilege not allowed to any other Indian state.

Even as Nehru threw Abdullah into jail, his government imposed only part of the constitution in Jammu and Kashmir. In particular, Nehru’s government issued Article 35A into the constitution under a presidential order under Article 370. Article 35A gave the state government of Jammu and Kashmir the power to decide who can purchase land, vote, contest elections, get government employment, and avail educational or health care benefits. They decided to give these rights only to permanent residents of the state.

Kashmiris have feared that India would emulate Pakistan and change its demography. They were terrified of losing the demographic advantage in the state. So, they defined permanent residency very restrictively. Hindus and Sikhs who immigrated from modern-day Pakistan during or after the partition of 1947 were denied permanent residency and still do not have the right to vote in state elections. Women who married men from another state no longer qualified as permanent residents. Nor do their children.

Over the years, India whittled down provisions of Article 370, but Jammu and Kashmir’s politicians retained more power than their counterparts in other states. Yet the state remained restive. Over the decades, many hoist the Pakistani flag, sing its anthem and, in recent years, wear its cricket jersey. In 2007, a poll found that 87% Kashmiris wanted independence while 90% Jammuites wanted to stay in India.

There is an argument to be made that New Delhi has erred egregiously in dealing with Kashmiris. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson, reportedly rigged the elections a bit too blatantly in favor of Farooq Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah’s son. The losers of that election formed the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which has been campaigning for self-determination since. More importantly, most analysts blame Gandhi’s decision for the insurgency that broke out in 1989 and has lasted ever since.

For the last 30 years, India has thrown money and men to solve the problem. New Delhi gives Jammu and Kashmir 14,225 rupees ($200) per capita as a central grant, as compared to the national average of 3,681 rupees ($52). Most of this money has ended up in the pockets of corrupt dynasties of whom the Abdullahs are said to take pole position. Yet some of it certainly goes to Kashmiris who enjoy subsidized food, fuel and other benefits denied to other Indians. New Delhi hopes it can bribe them into being loyal Indians. At the same time, army, paramilitary and police swarm all over the tiny Kashmir Valley to keep insurgency in check.

The United Nations has concluded that both Indian and Pakistani forces have committed human rights violations on both sides of the border. Violations on the Indian side have been covered widely in The New York Times, Al Jazeera and other news organizations. What has not been covered is how the oppressed have turned oppressors. Furious at the loyalty of Jammuites and Ladakhis to India, Kashmiris have systematically denied them money, marginalized them politically and neglected their infrastructure. They have also engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the minority Kashmiri Pandits. In 2016, the BBC reported that between 3,000 to 5,000 Pandits were left in Kashmir Valley, “a far cry from the 300,000 who used to live there.”

The suffering of Buddhist Ladakhis has practically gone unchronicled. These simple mountain folk are kindred spirits to Tibetans. They have similar language, customs, cuisine, culture and way of life to the people of the Dalai Lama. Along with Sikkim, Ladakh is one of the two Buddhist enclaves left in the land of the Buddha. Terrified of what China has done to their brethren and what the Taliban did to Bamiyan, Ladakhis have yearned for protection from New Delhi for decades but have been treated like stepchildren. In India’s rambunctious democracy, they have been too few in number to swing national elections and hence have been largely ignored.

In one of India’s great parliamentary performances that has gone utterly unreported in the international press, Jamyang Namgyal, the 34-year-old MP representing Ladakh, welcomed the measure to repeal Article 370. His reasoning was simple: Kashmiris have discriminated against Ladakhis on all fronts. They force Ladakhis to learn Urdu. Their own language is not taught in schools. Urdu is a glorious language but is alien to Ladakhis and they find its Persian script daunting. When Ladakhis struggle in Urdu, Kashmiris mock them as unintelligent child-like people. When it comes to schools, hospitals, roads, drinking water or jobs, Ladakhis come last. Just as many Kashmiris want independence from India, most Ladakhis want freedom from Kashmir.

Why has India Scrapped Article 370?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected earlier this year. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised unambiguously that it would remove Article 370. It has done so for decades. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh — the first avatar of the BJP — died in a Kashmiri prison. Mukherjee had gone to Jammu and Kashmir to protest a law that prohibited Indian citizens from settling within the state and mandated that they carry visitor permits. Sheikh Abdullah arrested Mukherjee and, to this day, many suspect Nehru and Abdullah plotted his death. The fact that Nehru did not order an independent inquiry into Mukherjee’s death feeds this suspicion.

Embed from Getty Images

For the BJP, removing Article 370 has long been a matter of faith. In contrast, the Congress manifesto held that dialogue was the only way forward. The party declared that it would reduce the number of security forces in Kashmir Valley, eschew muscular militarism, look for an innovative federal solution and hold talks with the people of Jammu and Kashmir without any preconditions. Prima facie, the Congress party’s promises seem eminently reasonable, but it has long had a history of flip-flopping on Kashmir. It instituted Article 370 but then whittled it down. The Nehru dynasty flirted with the Abdullah clan but jilted them repeatedly. And many suspected Rahul Gandhi, the half-Italian fifth-generation scion of the Nehru clan, was sounding conciliatory to win seats in Kashmir and secure the Muslim vote.

Modi and Amit Shah, the current home minister, had no option but to deliver on one of their big promises. In January, the authors argued on Fair Observer that the Modi government’s economic policies were failing. Investment, consumption and employment were all plummeting. In such a scenario, Modi and Shah needed to deliver on an issue Indians care deeply about. Kashmir was the obvious choice.

External factors may have precipitated this decision. First, US President Donald Trump offered to mediate in the dispute over Kashmir when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington, DC. As per the Shimla Agreement signed in 1972, India returned 90,000 prisoners of war and Pakistan agreed that Kashmir was henceforth a bilateral decision. Since then, Pakistan has tried to internationalize the Kashmir issue while India treats it as an internal matter. Trump’s offer might have made India act speedily to snuff out the candle of any mediation offer.

Second, the US is in talks with the Taliban to pull out of Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, Pashtun tribesmen started showing up in Kashmir. Calling themselves mujahideen, they unleashed mayhem in the state. It was only the US-led intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks that kept the Pashtuns fighting at home instead of coming over to Kashmir. With the Americans gone, India has decided to tighten its grip on Kashmir.

Third, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, is a retired diplomat and an astute strategist. According to sources within the government, he estimated the iron was hot enough to strike. India’s timing could not be better. The US is busy with China and Iran as well as internal turmoil. China is targeting Uighurs in Xinjiang and crushing protests in Hong Kong. Pakistan has been begging both China and the International Monetary Fund for money. Besides, India has purchased S400 missiles from Russia for $5.43 billion, Rafael jets from France for $8.9 billion and signed contracts for military equipment from the US for $17 billion. As a result, no major power is likely to oppose Indian action on Kashmir.

What Happens Now?

Modi has finally slayed the ghost of Nehru. Many Indians have blamed Nehru for the Kashmir problem and defeat against China. Nehru inaugurated a policy that focused on taking the moral high ground, not Himalayan heights. He rushed to the UN even when India had an overwhelming military advantage. Modi has already engaged in cross-border airstrikes earlier this year. He has stiffened India’s spine and inaugurated a new era of muscular militarism.

For the first time, a state — the only one with a separate constitution — has been demoted to a union territory. Revoking Article 370 will allow Indians from other parts of the country to settle not only in Jammu and Kashmir but also in Ladakh. The demographic advantage of Kashmiri Muslims will decrease. In the short run, protests, disturbances and violence will increase. On August 9, Friday prayers were followed by an outpouring of emotion and mass demonstrations that led to Indian troops firing tear gas. Kashmiris are seething with rage with many promising to “pick up a gun.” India has moved 38,000 extra security forces in anticipation, locked up key leaders and blocked communications with the outside world. The stage is set for a rather tense Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival that follows the hajj pilgrimage.

While discontent simmers in Kashmir, jubilation reigns in Jammu and Ladakh. The union territory of Jammu will certainly see immigrants from the rest of India pour in. Home to the hugely popular pilgrimage site of Vaishno Devi, Jammu has long been a destination for millions of Indians. Now, those who settle there will have full voting rights in the new union territory. If Kashmir remains violent while Jammu’s economy sees an uptick, then Jammu and Kashmir could be bifurcated into two different entities.

Embed from Getty Images

Ladakh is the real winner of this reorganization. Ladakhis see the removal of Article 370 and the achievement of union territory status as liberation. Ladakh will emerge as the preeminent Buddhist enclave of India. Tibetan refugees from the rest of the country and Indians seeking cleaner air or cooler climes will make it their home. A greater number of tourists, both Indian and foreign, will visit this barren but beautiful region. The fact that Ladakh is no longer within the map of Jammu and Kashmir will take away the fear factor of visiting the area. The new union territory will soon get visitors of another kind. Soldiers and engineers will start work in Ladakh as New Delhi builds more military and economic infrastructure in this remote but strategic region.

Some analysts assert that the Indian judiciary might block the revocation of Article 370. That is almost impossible. The Modi government has relied on some rather clever legal advice to push this measure through. In the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament, 125 MPs voted to remove Article 370 while 61 wanted to retain it. In the Lok Sabha, the lower house, the majority was overwhelming with 370 voting for the Modi government’s motion with only 70 opposing it. The government had the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment in both houses even though this measure only required a simple, not special majority. In any democracy, judges keep their eyes on the electorate too and the Indian judiciary is not in a position to challenge parliamentary sovereignty or go against national fervor.

Like Kashmir, the Congress party has lost out too. Many of its leaders have broken ranks with Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor to support Modi. The chief whip of the Congress in the upper house of the parliament resigned in protest. Jyotiraditya Scindia, an influential political scion, has surprisingly supported Modi as have rustic socialists like Janardhan Dwivedi. This dynastic party is finally seeing dissension and will weaken further as a result.

Even as India has tightened the screws on Kashmir, Pakistan has turned apoplectic. It has rushed to the United Nations, expelled the Indian ambassador and broken off trade relations. Prime Minister Khan has called Indian action illegal and painted the specter of ethnic cleansing of fellow Muslims. Pakistani politicians have set out visions of fire and brimstone. They compare Kashmir to Palestine and many promise to fight to the bitter nuclear end. In this outpouring of competitive jingoism, emotions are running riot.

For decades now, Pakistan has been turning to Islamic extremism. It is home to many terrorist groups. Since the 1980s, it has followed a policy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. It involves asymmetric warfare through proxy terrorist or insurgent groups who attack Indian security forces, sensitive locations and civilian populations. There are charismatic clerics who regularly preach the gospel of jihad. Comments on Facebook and Twitter have been incendiary. People are shouting slogans on the street. Pakistan feels it has lost face and is itching to strike back.

Christophe Jaffrelot, a French political scientist, says there is no risk of a military operation at the moment. The authors disagree. Conflict is likely.

*[This article was modified at 19:30 GMT on May 21, 2020, to correct a mistake regarding Aksai Chin.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member