India has taken a decision on Jammu and Kashmir, putting the hotspot region back in the news. The recently re-elected Modi government scrapped the temporary special provisions for the Indian state and reorganized it as a Delhi-administered territory. The move is a fundamental paradigm shift in India’s Kashmir policy.
This historic decision completes the integration of India after more than 70 years since claiming independence from British rule. The ripple effect is also felt in Pakistan and China, who control parts of the disputed region. Pakistan has already downgraded ties with India and sounded a warning over a military response.
Some Western commentators whose only connection to Kashmir is through their cashmere sweaters jumped on the issue despite their ignorance of the legal, constitutional or political history of the matter in hand. Some even went ahead to absurdly compare Kashmir with Palestine. This Western-centered narrative deserves to be examined in order to locate the real issues at stake.
Perish in Paradise
For starters, the much-used term of Kashmir is a misnomer. The Himalayan region is essentially made of four sections: Hindu-majority Jammu; the Muslim-dominated and strategically crucial Kashmir Valley; Buddhist-dominated Ladakh; and northern Gilgit-Baltistan bordering Afghanistan. Once known as the “terrestrial paradise of the Indies,” the region covers an area almost the size of the United Kingdom.
In a nutshell, the region passed through series of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rule until the creation of the “princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” in 1846 from the territories previously under Sikh Empire. After India’s partition in 1947, the princely state eventually acceded to India after being attacked by Pakistan. The ruler of Jammu and Kashmir signed the same “instrument of accession” that India had agreed with the 562 other princely states, paving the way for its protection.
The UN-mandated ceasefire in 1949 divided the control of the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Right after, Pakistan bifurcated the part of the region under its control into Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Following the India-China War of 1962, China occupied the eastern part of Jammu and Kashmir and became the third party in the dispute. In 1963, China and Pakistan signed a “boundary agreement” that saw the transfer of Shaksgam Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan to the Chinese.
In 1965, Pakistan launched “Operation Gibraltar” in Jammu and Kashmir by infiltrating its troops into the region, attempting to create a narrative of “indigenous uprising.” This operation was discovered and led to a brief but bloody war. Following the 1971 conflict that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh — which was previously known as East Pakistan — the Indians and Pakistanis signed the Shimla Agreement in 1972. The agreement recognized the ceasefire Line of Control (LoC), the return of more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, and the settling of “differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations.”
By 1999, India was again defending itself after Pakistan occupied peaks in the north of Jammu and Kashmir. The Kargil conflict brought South Asia on the brink of a nuclear war. It also ended the US role in the region. India took upon a more vigilant approach and further boosted its military presence in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet Pakistan continued to wage further aggression by regularly targeting Indian military positions.
In February 2019, a major terrorist attack in Pulwama led to the death of 40 Indian security personnel. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, launched a pre-emptive air strike directed at the biggest training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, warning that more strikes would follow in the event of a future terrorist attack. Since then, the political temperature has remained extremely high between the two South Asian neighbors.
Three Waves of Genocide
The political situation between India and Pakistan is not enough to understand the source of violence that has burned Jammu and Kashmir for more than half a century. The religious demographics is a case in point.
In all, the Kashmir Valley has faced three waves of genocide, leading to the complete annihilation of Hindu and Sikh populations in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and reduced non-Muslims to around 3% of the total population in the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley. The first wave of genocide took place under Sikander Butshikan, a Muslim who ruled Kashmir from 1389 to 1413. During his reign, the entire region was Islamized in just a matter of years. Some of the greatest Hindu temples, including the once glorious Sun Temple Martand, were reduced to ruins.
The second wave of an organized Hindu genocide in Kashmir took place at the time of India’s partition. The Mirpur and Rajouri area massacre of 1947 alone accounted for the death of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs. “Freedom at Midnight,” a book published in 1975 by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, paints a grim account of those atrocities. Today, there is no Hindu population left in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
As Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, Pakistan shifted to unconventional warfare by using the porous LoC to infiltrate well-trained terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir. They triggered attacks against the Hindu Kashmiri population, resulting in mass killings. Many Hindu intellectuals and politicians were murdered. There was growing local support among Kashmiri Muslims to expel their Hindu counterparts. About a quarter-million Hindus from Kashmir were compelled out of their ancestral homes and exiled overnight. Anyone who was not a Muslim Kashmiri had no place in the Kashmir Valley.
70 Years of Nehruvian Folly
After independence in 1947, India was led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. A Kashmiri Hindu and staunch secularist, Nehru expected the integration of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley as a natural eventuality. Nehru saw democratic India as far better placed than Islamic Pakistan to guarantee the rights of the multi-religious Jammu and Kashmir. Nehru’s strategy was to buy more time. He played an instrumental role in granting special rights to Jammu and Kashmir. On his behest, the temporary Article 370 was introduced in the Indian Constitution, becoming the vehicle of the region’s special rights.
Further, Article 35-A was inserted in 1954 to define “permanent residents” who have special rights. This gave semi-autonomy to the state and prohibited Indian citizens from other regions from to settling, working or voting in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It also curtailed the property rights of Kashmiri women marrying outside the state. This blocked Jammu and Kashmir’s social assimilation into India as an excuse to prevent “Indianization” of the region. Consequently, the Islamization of Kashmir peaked by the end of the 20th century.
While the rest of India was embracing a boom of multiplexes, bars, theaters and sports leagues, these were declared un-Islamic and banned from the Kashmir Valley. In 2016, there were reports that terrorists started roaming freely and threatening to set alight women seen riding scooters. The terror threats ensured a low turnout in state elections, allowing corrupt family-based parties to clinch power. This cabal worked as middlemen between Pakistan-backed Islamists and New Delhi while engaging in gross abuse of state resources for corruption and private gains.
Over a period of time, Article 370 was no more a mere “special status” but conferred a disputed status on Jammu and Kashmir. Despite New Delhi’s long-standing narrative that the region is an integral part of India, Article 370 created a hybrid identity for residents of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Thousands of migrants workers from neighboring states faced discrimination in education and employment because they were ineligible for a permanent status certificate. The special rights and privileges for Jammu and Kashmir sanctified class and gender discrimination, compromising basic human rights. After the latest decision of the Indian government over Jammu and Kashmir, these workers will finally get access to their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the constitution.
The murmurs over an impending Kashmir decision gained ground after a thumping electoral victory for Modi in May this year. But it was the gruesome terrorist attack in February that prepared the ground for the prime minister’s policy shift. The abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A has been a core demand of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since its formation, but Modi surprised even his supporters. While some expected an end to special rights, the reorganization of Kashmir into a “union territory” (governed directly by the Delhi-based government) was unexpected.
India’s decision to place the control of Jammu and Kashmir directly in its hands is a sucker punch for neighboring Pakistan and its proxy war in the region. Pakistan has a notorious track record of committing genocide in its Balochistan province and present-day Bangladesh. Even today, Pakistan continues with the persecution of its non-Muslim population. This leaves even fewer options for Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has so far been denied a face-to-face meeting with Modi. The decision also confirms the emergence of an aggressive Indian foreign policy that is not wary of taking risks.
But the bigger question remains: What does it mean for India’s religious pluralism and democratic ethos. Jammu and Ladakh have welcomed the decision by the central government. But most Kashmiri Muslims resist the idea of finding themselves within the fold of India’s secular traditions. Many (albeit wrongly) link Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India with Article 370. The constitutionally-guaranteed temporary special rights were deemed permanent while the irreversible Kashmiri accession to India was seen as conditional and interim.
The ideological battle between secularist Kashmiris and those holding the Islamic State group’s flags shall determine the future of Jammu and Kashmir. A rising number of young Indians have come to realize that religious plurality of India is purely a Hindu construction. The country is still recovering from the scars of the Muslim-orchestrated partition of 1947. While Indians wish to see Jammu and Kashmir like any other part of the union, Kashmiri Muslims might not so easily accept losing privileges like their own constitution and flag.
Over 70 years of autonomy granted by Article 370 has alienated Kashmiri Muslims from their Indian identity and pushed Jammu and Kashmir to economic isolation. So far, India, which is home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world, has avoided looking at the Jammu and Kashmir issue through a demographic lens. There has never been a single case of successful secession in well-established democracies.
India’s unique model of “unity in diversity” is not going to be an exception to that rule. It is a country where a range of regional, linguistic, cultural and religious identities have existed and thrived. The scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status should be a stepping stone to add the Kashmiri tulip to India’s colorful flower basket. But this will have to be a long-term vision, where India’s patience shall matter more than any expression of passion.
Prime Minister’s Modi hard stance on Kashmir gives India an edge on the ground. India is going through a tremendous political shift since the rise of Modi in 2014. There has been a near collapse of opposition Congress party that mostly held power since independence. Even if Kashmiris hesitate to trust Modi, they must put their faith in him. At this stage, the neoliberal Modi is Jammu and Kashmir’s best bet for a future of peace, progress and development.
In his address to the nation, Modi promised a “new age” in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The region has every potential to become a model for economic growth. It can emerge as a hub of education, tourism and agro-based industries and lead the growth story of the world’s fastest-growing major economy.
Jammu and Kashmir’s redefined status is an opportunity to use the tool of economic expansion for curtailing secessionism and bloodshed. But can it guarantee a sustainable peace project? Will Kashmiri Hindus forced out of their homes in Pakistani-administered Kashmir ever return back without facing any threat of violence? The Kashmir issue might evolve into a difficult test for India’s secular democracy. The resilience of Indian democracy has surprised experts in the past, and it may continue to do so in the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.