India’s Sudden Kashmir Move Could Backfire Badly
New Delhi’s crackdown could send the region spinning into instability.
India has made a series of drastic, and in some cases unprecedented, moves in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, which is administered by New Delhi but claimed by Pakistan.
On Aug. 2, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir issued an extraordinary order. Citing terrorist threats, it ordered tourists and pilgrims to evacuate, and it shuttered schools. This came several days after New Delhi deployed thousands of new troops to the region. Then, on Aug. 4, officials in Kashmir cut off internet access and placed several prominent leaders under house arrest.
That was wildly disproportionate to any given threat of attack, especially in a region that’s faced terrorism before. Clearly, something bigger was at play. New Delhi was taking steps to head off potential unrest in a region with sizable levels of support for independence. Polls have found that as many as two thirds of the residents of the Kashmir valley want regional independence, though surveys find that support for independence tends to be weaker in Jammu. The last time the government took such dramatic measures was in 2016, when Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a charismatic young militant revered by Kashmiris as a freedom fighter, and implemented a regionwide crackdown.
Sure enough, on Aug. 5, India announced that it plans to revoke Article 370, a constitutional clause dating back to 1949 that gives Jammu and Kashmir its special autonomous status. The scale of this move cannot be overstated. Abrogating Article 370 represents a major tipping point for an already fraught dispute—and it could easily backfire on India.
The Kashmir dispute goes back more than 70 years, to when India and Pakistan became free from British rule. After Partition in 1947, the leader of Kashmir could not decide whether to have his Muslim-majority region join India or Pakistan. After fighters entered Kashmir from Pakistan, Kashmir agreed to an accession treaty with New Delhi in return for India’s intervention to push back the Pakistani fighters. In 1948, the United Nations called for a plebiscite to occur after the region was demilitarized, in order to determine the future status of Kashmir. That never happened, however, and ever since then Kashmir’s status has remained unresolved. The region has also triggered multiple wars between India and Pakistan.
Article 370, however, enables Kashmir to craft and implement policies independently, with the exception of key spheres such as foreign affairs and defense. It also prevents outsiders from acquiring land in Kashmir. Article 35A, a separate constitutional clause also likely to be scrapped, strengthens Kashmir’s autonomous status by providing special rights and privileges to its permanent residents.
It’s easy to understand New Delhi’s decision to remove Kashmir’s autonomous status. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)has frequently telegraphed its intention to ax Article 370, which is explicitly described by the constitution as a purely “temporary provision.” The BJP has long viewed the region as an integral part of the nation and rejects the idea that Pakistan has any claim to the territory. By dispensing with the region’s autonomous status, it can formally consummate that integration and deliver a definitive blow to the region’s separatist impulses. It can also better take advantage of investment and broader development opportunities for Kashmir. For these reasons, many Indians will celebrate the decision as a bold but necessary move.
Two recent developments probably pushed the government to act now. The first was U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute. The second is a rapidly progressing Afghanistan peace process, facilitated to an extent by Islamabad, which could lead to an eventual political settlement that gives the Taliban a prominent role in government. Each of these developments strengthens Pakistan’s hand. Making a dramatic move on Kashmir enables New Delhi to push back against Islamabad. It also sends a strong message to Washington about New Delhi’s utter lack of interest in external mediation.
Domestic politics are also at play. A big-bang, early term move from the newly reelected BJP is sure to attract strong support from its rank and file, and such backing can blunt potential disillusionment and unhappiness down the road if the government struggles to ease India’s growing jobs crisis. Indeed, it may not be a coincidence that the party, during its previous term, stepped up its Hindu nationalist policies—another surefire way to attract support from its base—after it struggled to carry out an oft-promised economic reform agenda.
But the repeal of Article 370 is fraught with risk. India is unilaterally altering the territorial status of a highly disputed territory that is, per square mile, the most militarized place in the world. Something has to give, and New Delhi understands this—which is why it implemented a draconian lockdown before the announcement.
For many Kashmiris, Article 370 had more symbolic than practical meaning, given that the long-standing and repressive presence of Indian security forces had undercut the notion of autonomy. Many Kashmiris face daily restrictions on their freedom of expression and movement, along with the constant risk of rough treatment from security personnel. Still, for many Kashmiri Muslims, the dominant group in Jammu and Kashmir and the victims of what they regard as an Indian occupation, the revocation of Article 370 is a nightmare scenario, because it brings them closer to an Indian state that they despise. Most of them want to be free of Indian rule.
Instead, they will be formally living under it—and confronted with the repression left in place, which could well be amplified in reaction to the unrest that will eventually follow. There is also the risk of further social turmoil once those outside Kashmir, following the repeal of Article 370, are allowed to acquire land. For many Kashmiri Muslims, the fear is that this influx of Indians will eventually change the demographics of the Muslim-majority region and exacerbate communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
Furthermore, Kashmiris—and Pakistan, for that matter—have long argued, citing previous U.N. resolutions, that the status of Kashmir should be decided through a plebiscite. To be sure, they often fail to acknowledge that the U.N. has stipulated that a plebiscite should only take place after Kashmir has been demilitarized—though no one can agree on just what that means. But in at least one way, India’s unilateral move goes against its own prior arguments. Indians have long rejected external mediation on Kashmir—along with the option of a plebiscite—by citing the Simla Agreement, a 1972 accord between India and Pakistan that stipulates that the two countries settle their differences (including those on Kashmir) through bilateral negotiations—that is, not unilaterally.
Finally, the optics of India’s move are troubling. New Delhi allowed no debate on a major decision with far-reaching ramifications, with those most affected by the decision—Kashmiris—kept in the dark and cut off entirely. India may be the world’s biggest democracy, but the way Article 370 is being repealed is inherently autocratic—dictated from a distant center with no input from the people most affected.
For now, a major question is how key players will respond. So long as New Delhi maintains its security lockdown in Kashmir, unrest is unlikely. But if that grip is loosened, violence could ensue—suggesting that the lockdown could remain in place for an extended period. Then there is Pakistan. Islamabad’s immediate priority will be to step up its long-standing campaign to get the Kashmir issue on the global agenda and to get the world to condemn India’s policies. Up to now, Pakistan has largely failed to sell its case to the world. Pakistan’s image problems have left India winning the PR war. Indeed, many protesters who might rally for Tibet or Palestine don’t go out of their way to mobilize for Kashmir.
But as India’s move spurs press coverage worldwide, Islamabad has its greatest opportunity in years to internationalize the dispute. This isn’t to suggest that the world is about to gravitate to Pakistan’s side—far from it. But Islamabad can at least expect some supportive statements from Pakistan-friendly countries—Malaysia and Turkey have already expressed their backing for Pakistan following India’s move—and from entities such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
A more immediate risk for New Delhi is that Pakistan will retaliate by resorting to its tried-and-true tactic of sending militant proxies into Kashmir to target Indian security forces. In recent years, much of the unrest in the region has been perpetrated by local Kashmiris radicalized by local conditions, with less direct involvement from Pakistan than in earlier years. But India’s repeal of Article 370 gives Islamabad fresh incentive to deploy its prized asymmetric assets.
While India may regard the repeal of Article 370 as an internal matter that will remove many headaches and should be of limited concern to its neighbors, the reality is quite different. The Kashmir problem has not been solved, as some Indians have suggested. On the contrary, it’s just gotten a lot more complicated—and potentially a lot more destabilizing.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman