Not three months after it won a second term in power—and only five since it rewrote the rules of engagement in South Asia in a balls-to-the-wall display of reckless one-upmanship—the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi is showing once again how willing it is to risk regional stability in its feverish pursuit of ideological ends.
The status of Kashmir has been disputed between India and Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947. Earlier this year, Modi ordered airstrikes against Pakistani targets after a suicide attack against a military convoy in the Kashmiri district of Pulwama killed 40 Indian soldiers. It was the largest such attack in decades and resulted in dogfights between the Pakistani and Indian air forces above the infamous Line of Control for the first time since 1971.
What Modi and his government have done now, however, is arguably more momentous, and equally as dangerous.
After building up India’s troop presence in the region for the better part of a week, while simultaneously ordering Hindu pilgrims and foreign tourists to “curtail their stay” in light of unspecified terror threats, on Monday it split the state of Jammu & Kashmir into two new "Union Territories"—substantially less powerful entities to be controlled directly by Delhi.
This was accomplished by a repeal of the Indian constitution’s Article 370, which has granted Kashmir some modicum of autonomy since 1949. Along with Article 35A, which was introduced in 1954 and forbade non-Kashmiris from permanently settling or buying land in the region, it has long been a thorn in the side of Hindu nationalists and their vision of a unified and religiously homogeneous country.
For Kashmiris, the majority of whom are Muslim, Article 370 represented a measure of insurance against, among other things, the communal hatred that Modi has stoked throughout his career in politics and which has become normalized (and expressed with ever-increasing violence) since he first came to power in 2014.
The theories that had swirled around the troop buildup—including one suggesting India was nervous about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the heightened terrorist threat it might create on the Line of Control—ultimately were cut down to size by Occam’s razor: this was, as it appeared, entirely about the Hindu nationalists’ desire to bring about “Akhand Bharat,” or Undivided India, which is to say an undivided India united by Hinduism.
Hindutva Twitter predictably exploded—jubilantly, yes, but with no less poison on its fangs than usual. “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari,” the bot army copy-and-pasted endlessly into the night, “India is one.”
Of course, not every Hindu nationalist is a bot. But when those who aren't, such as Pune-based author Shefali Vaidya, are tweeting the way she was last night, they might as well be. “Criticise the [government] on issues all we want,” she wrote, “but can we now say that we will not doubt [Modi’s] intentions and his commitment EVER?”
In the short term, the government's decision, which was announced by Modi’s home affairs minister and attack dog, Amit Shah, looks set to cause the restive valley to erupt in violence once again. Or at least looks set to cause it to erupt when Kashmiris actually find out what’s been going on.
At the same time as troops were being transferred to Kashmir from around the country, and as the region’s leaders were being placed under house arrest (and in a few cases actually behind bars), internet access was being restricted to the point of total blackout.
After 48 hours, it was still unclear how many Kashmiris actually knew what had been announced, so completely were they cut off from the world.
Long denied the plebiscite on their future they were promised by U.N. Security Council Resolution 47 in 1948, they have once again been denied their voice. Their silence, as the saying goes, is deafening.
The long-term prospects for the region are in some ways even more depressing. There have already been reports that, without 35A in place to prevent outside investment—in short, to prevent a land-grab—Modi’s government is planning to host a so-called “investors’ summit” in the region in two months’ time.
As euphemisms go, it’s a pretty transparent one. “Me and the Bois [sic] on our way to buy properties in Kashmir,” one Twitter wag commented late last night, tweeting a picture of Bollywood gangster-types marching like the reservoir dogs towards the camera, guns locked and loaded, suits seriously ill-fitting.
For all the lip service paid by Shah to the idea that this measure will save—and is indeed designed to save—Kashmiri lives, it seems immediately and abundantly obvious that integrating Kashmir into India and integrating Kashmiris themselves are, as far as some people concerned, mutually exclusive priorities.
Much like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a long-term nationalist struggle has been hijacked by religious zealots on both sides, and a lack of hope on the ground has transformed even the most peaceful members of the populace into front-line soldiers or voluntary human shields. As the activist Shehla Rashid told me last year, “People don’t surrender now. They’d rather now die than surrender. In that respect, Kashmir has become a society with a death wish.”
The similarities between Kashmir and Palestine are even more striking in the wake of the Indian government’s actions: Without Article 35A in place, we can reasonably expect an Israeli-style settlement program to take hold in Kashmir before too long, motivated by fanatical Hinduism in this case rather than the desire to reclaim the biblical lands of Samaria and Judea as in the case of the West Bank.
A significant difference between the two conflicts is the relative lack of media coverage that Kashmir commands even today (despite the best efforts of journalists like The New York Times’ Srinagar stringer Sameer Yasir and other local reporters).
If there is hope, it lies with Kashmir's small but dedicated community of civil society activists—a number of whom, such as Rashid, were not in Kashmir when the internet went down and who have been speaking at the top of their voices ever since. They have vowed to challenge the government’s announcement on constitutional grounds in India’s Supreme Court. But one has to admit that there isn't much hope to be had there.
Like Donald Trump in the United States, Modi has encouraged a tide of ethnic and religious hatred in India that has proven uncannily effective at washing away norms: supposedly sacred founding documents don’t matter much these days and unleashed, validated, bloodthirsty voters don’t seem very much to care.
The worst may still be ahead. What is beginning in Kashmir today may not necessarily end there. There are plenty of states that Modi’s government might wish to bring under tighter, more centralized control, plenty of constitutional provisions it might wish to do away with on a whim, and plenty of minorities—Dalits, Adivasis, the LGBTQ community, women—as easily scapegoated as Kashmiri Muslims.
As the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub put it in a tweet last night, as Kashmir’s silence began to grow louder than even the government’s most fervent supporters: “It will be Assam next and then West Bengal and then the constitution and finally the democracy you cherish. I see you celebrating and wonder whether I should laugh at your ignorance or worry about your complicity.”