August 15, 2019
India must treat Kashmiris like its own citizens the way it claims and not alienate them any longer.
On August 5, the world’s largest secular democracy decided to unilaterally dissolve the autonomy of its only Muslim-majority state and replace it with direct rule by the federal government. Eight days since, the goings-on in what was once Jammu and Kashmir, home to 12.5 million, remain opaque. The region is under curfew, with all communication and media cut and security forces on the streets enforcing a tight clampdown. Even as international media cover Indian-administered Kashmir to shed more light on the situation, India insists that news reports are exaggerated, and has asked the international community to not meddle in what it calls an ‘internal matter’. Not only is the move by the nationalist Narendra Modi government illegal, according to its own federal constitution, it is also ironic, given its manoeuvres in Nepal. In 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had imposed an economic blockade on Nepal because India was unhappy with Nepal’s new constitution, saying that it had failed to address the demands of marginalised communities, especially the Madhesis.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir had always enjoyed a special status within India, as part of the bargain for joining the country. While India’s federalism is asymmetric, according more power to the federal government, the northern state was allowed to keep much of its autonomy. Jammu and Kashmir had its own constitution; its state legislature was much more powerful than other Indian state assemblies; and it could even choose the applicability of federal laws, besides those in key areas such as security. The key provision, which the Indian government seems keen to do away with, was a restriction that allowed only Kashmiris to purchase and own property within the state. Government officials stress that revoking such restrictions will be necessary to bring in more investment, arguing that this will spur development, which will in turn help bring peace and national unity.
But the move reeks of an attempt by the Hindu nationalist BJP government to redraw the demography of Kashmir to align it with the party’s idea of an ‘Akhand Bharat’.Since August 5, Kashmiris have been reeling under food shortages and a media blackout. As the New York Times reported, peaceful protestors have been fired upon and patients are suffering due to a lack of service in hospitals. Yet, the Indian government has been circulating images of open markets and crowded streets to show that life in Kashmir remains ‘normal’. The Indian government is clearly attempting to manipulate the narrative to garner support for its controversial move. But the ruse won’t work. The world is watching and the world knows better.
India’s unilateral abrogation of Article 370 also does not bode well for greater regional stability and security. Kashmir was already a volatile region, where a heavyhanded Indian security apparatus has met Muslim extremism aided from across the heavily-fortified Line of Control. Sabre rattling has already begun, with Pakistan vowing to ‘counter the illegal steps’. Should the conflict escalate further, Kashmiris will suffer most, and so will the entire region.
India needs to open up communication channels and ease restrictions in Kashmir before it alienates its people further. But perhaps, Nepal, as chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, should also come out clearly and vociferously in favour of deescalation.