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‘A Coup Against the Constitution and the Kashmiris’ is how Delhi-based human rights organization, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned Indian PM Modi’s shock Kashmir intervention, in a statement released on Wed, Aug 7, 2019.
Modi’s controversial decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy has escalated tensions with Pakistan, placed thousands of Kashmiri residents under lockdown and infuriated human rights groups, and yet, this move has received support in India, and not just with the ruling, nationalist BJP which has long campaigned to scrap Kashmir’s ‘special privileges.’ Surprisingly, some opposition members have welcomed Modi’s move to absorb Kashmir into India and even reaction from the international community has been relatively muted.
So, will this power grab have explosive consequences for the subcontinent, or become an incendiary first step at attempting stability in a region where terrorism and violence have claimed more than 50,000 lives in over 30 years?
The truth is muddier and more complex than it appears.
What happened to Article 370?
Article 370 is a constitutional provision drafted in 1947 to grant special autonomous status to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) after Indian independence. From 1950 onwards, a series of presidential orders (referred to as sub-section A), allowed its residents to live under a separate set of laws related to citizenship, property ownership and fundamental rights, while the Indian Government was responsible for defense, foreign affairs and communications.
J&K has been under President’s rule since December 2018. With no state legislature in place, this allowed the President of India, as Head of the State Government of J&K, to exercise powers of the State Legislature and recommend abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. The PUCL, as well as some legal scholars of Indian Constitutional Law, are questioning the legality of this move.
This maneuver was as swift as it was stealthy, according to the PUCL, with the Indian government orchestrating its crackdown in a little less than four days. Over the weekend of August 4-5, J&K political leaders were detained, tourists evacuated, communications and telecom services shut down, and a curfew imposed on residents, while 35,000 troops were airlifted in to maintain law and order. Then, on 5 August 2019, both houses of parliament passed legislation repealing Article 370, removing J&K ‘s statehood and splitting it into the union territories of Muslim-majority J&K and Buddhist-majority Ladakh.
The World Reacts – Sort of…
Historically, Kashmir has been a disputed region with both India and Pakistan claiming ownership and fighting wars over it, while China controls a territory to the east. Despite an unofficial border established by the Line of Control in 1972, and a ceasefire agreement in 2003, border clashes are frequent, and cross-border firing has killed civilians on both sides. In February 2019, tensions escalated when both countries exchanged airstrikes for the first time since 1971.
Reaction from Pakistan has been predictably hostile with PM Imran Khan tweeting about Modi’s tactics in Kashmir ‘Attempt is to change demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing. Question is: Will the world watch & appease as they did Hitler at Munich?”. Yet, Pakistan has refrained from direct military action, vowing solidarity with the people of Kashmir and showing support by downgrading diplomatic ties and suspending bi-lateral trade with India; instead, Pakistan has decided to petition the United Nations for a resolution.
Other countries have expressed concerns but are watching from the sidelines. Russia labeled it an internal issue, and the US asked Pakistan to exercise restraint and encouraged ‘an urgent need for dialogue’. Britain foreign secretary Dominic Raab called for calm, while China suggested that the UN Security Council resolve the Kashmir issue properly and peacefully. Human Rights Watch urged India to free political leaders and restore communications; even Saudi Arabia recommended a peaceful settlement.
In India, the J&K decision provoked outrage from political opponents in the government, but found unexpected support from others, including the Aam Aadmi party, the AIDMK and the YSR Congress who called the decision, ‘courageous’.
What this means for ordinary folks
While Kashmir today is a Muslim majority state, it was also home to the Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who were native to Kashmir valley long before the Muslim influence entered. Twenty-six years ago, on January 19, 1990, fearing death threats from a massive Islamist uprising, more than a hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge outside Kashmir. The abrogation of Article 370 opens a door for the return of displaced Kashmiri Pandits, even as it clears a pathway for non-residents from other states to now own property and establish businesses in the new union territory of J&K.
And what does it mean for the Muslim families in the valley? Monday, August 12, marks a week since the crackdown. The communications blackout is still in place affecting those trying to contact people outside the valley and journalists trying to cover developments. Despite a BBC broadcast about the use of tear gas at some rallies, and Reuters reporting protests in Srinagar’s Soura area, J&K police are asserting that the Kashmir Valley is returning to normalcy as restrictions are being lifted. Ahead is the festival of Eid-al-Adha, one of the two most important festivals of the Islamic calendar when thousands of worshippers are expected to throng major mosques in Srinagar. Will the authorities ease restrictions on large gatherings? Already, a security alert has been issued for a possible terrorist attack in the valley in the lead up to August 15, India’s Independence Day.
In a strange twist of timing, just as the people of Kashmir lose their right to self-determination, the rest of India will be celebrating the day that Great Britain transferred legislative sovereignty to the Indian Constituent Assembly.
Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents.