A state no longer…
Narendra Modi scraps the rules,
in a bid to remake a troubled territory…
AT ONE FELL swoop, India’s central government has ended the special status enjoyed by Jammu & Kashmir and abolished it as a state. For 70 years it had granted the bitterly disputed Muslim-majority region a modicum of autonomy within India. Late at night on August 4th phone lines, television and internet access were cut and leaders of its political parties put under house arrest. The next morning India’s home minister carried a package of legislation into the upper house of parliament. It proposed a radical reorganisation of the territory. It took the house just 90 minutes to strip it of statehood and divide it into two parts to be ruled from Delhi. Kashmiris had been warned, as had the rest of India. It still caused shock.
THE HINDU-NATIONALIST Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, had long argued that Jammu & Kashmir’s special status was an error, dating from soon after India’s independence. Mr Modi’s re-election in May, with an overwhelming majority in parliament, gave him the confidence to correct it—knowing that doing so would anger Pakistan (which also claims the territory) and enrage many Kashmiris. Pakistan duly expelled India’s high commissioner and suspended trade. A curfew imposed on the region on August 5th has kept Kashmiris quiet, for now, as has the presence of thousands of additional Indian troops who have been pouring in since late July, ostensibly to prevent terrorism.
THE FORMER state of Jammu & Kashmir is composed of three main parts: Hindu-majority Jammu, in the foothills; the arid highlands of Ladakh, which has a large Buddhist population; and a sprawling basin with Srinagar at its centre that is home to ethnic Kashmiris, most of whom are Muslims (see map). In 1947, when British rule of the subcontinent ended, the Hindu maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir hesitated to join either of the new countries, Pakistan and India. Those countries soon went to war over the area. A stalemate ended with India occupying two-thirds of the state, and Pakistan controlling the rest. India and Pakistan have kept on fighting over the region. The most recent eruption of large-scale hostilities was in 1999.
MR MODI has gutted an article of India’s constitution, which was introduced in the 1950s to secure the state’s acquiescence to Indian control. This had decreed that the central government would be responsible only for Jammu & Kashmir’s defence, foreign affairs and communications. Long before Mr Modi came to power, however, Indian governments began whittling away at the state’s autonomy. However it did retain an important privilege: the right to bar non-residents from buying land. That, too, has gone.
IN THEORY, changing this part of India’s constitution requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which theBJP does not quite have. So the party devised an easier way: their man in the president’s chair simply issued an order annulling Kashmir’s special status. That should have required assent from Jammu & Kashmir, too. But since June 2018, when theBJP withdrew from a coalition there, the state had been under direct rule from Delhi. So the rest of India assented on Kashmir’s behalf. Thatallowed parliament to abolish the state, and split it into two new “union territories”under the centre’s direct rule: one called Jammu & Kashmir and the other, Ladakh.THE EASE with which the state was dissolved will spook some of India’s other regional governments. A challenge has already been filed with the Supreme Court. But there is considerable popular support for Mr Modi’s sleight of hand. Even some parties that are normally fiercely opposed to theBJP have backed him.
MR MODI’S ministers have justified the move partly on security grounds. Since 1989 insurgents, some of them backed by Pakistan, and campaigns against them have killed at least 45,000 people in Jammu & Kashmir. The Hindu minority in the valley around Srinagar has been driven out. By the time Mr Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, the conflict had become less intense. Since then it has steadily escalated. Mr Modi believed that the state’s autonomous status was fuelling anti-India violence. Scrapping it, however, is hardly likely to prove an effective cure.
KASHMIR’S MORE moderate politicians feel most badly betrayed. On the campaign trail earlier this year, Mr Modi had sworn that he would not “allow Muftis and Abdullahs to divide India”. He was referring to the state’s two most famous political families. Generations of Indian bureaucrats had parleyed with them to try winning over Kashmiris, greasing the wheels with subsidies. The Muftis and Abdullahs often frustrated their handlers in Delhi, but they are not separatists—unlike many more popular leaders. “Our darkest apprehensions have unfortunately come true,”said Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state who was among those placed under house arrest on August 4th.
ACTIONS THAT anger Kashmiris can sometimes benefit Mr Modi politically. He has been widely praised in India for his military operations in the region. In September 2016 a day of “surgical strikes”against nearby Pakistani positions achieved little strategically but helped him in elections. It resulted in a patriotic Bollywood movie which was topping the box office when campaigning began for this year’s polls.
BUT THE long-term consequences of Mr Modi’s action may well be ones he regrets. The animosity he has doubtless intensified among Kashmiris will make the area even more fertile territory for recruitment to Pakistan-backed insurgency. By allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land, he has in effect given a green light to Hindus wanting to move into the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley. That risks stoking ethnic tensions in the area. The country has a long history of bloody confrontation between adherents of the two religions. The just-abolished state has suffered much of it. Its residents are bracing for more.■
(THE ECONOMIST, AUGUST 10th, 2019)